Newsletter #34

Newsletter # 34 — August 27, 2020

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Conflicts over COVID-19, systemic racism, the U.S. election, and many other issues are driving political escalation and polarization to new and dangerous heights.  What can be done about it?



An Examination of Escalation

We have been thinking and writing about escalation a lot over the last several weeks, so that is the theme of this newsletter--and one or two future newsletters, as we have a lot of material to share. This newsletter will focus on escalation as it is being manifested this Summer of 2020, primarily in the United States (but to some extent elsewhere as well).  The first five posts, all written by Guy Burgess, go together in one unit. They focus on destructive escalation, and show how very dangerous it is, and how far up the "escalator" we, in the United States, currently are.  The last escalation post we are sharing this week was written by Heidi Burgess.  It looks both at destructive and constructive escalation, again in the context of this summer's events.

In an upcoming newsletter, we will examine the dynamics of escalation, polarization, and de-escalation more broadly, drawing from articles from the newly-updated Conflict Fundamentals Seminar.  As we continue to explore the topic, we will also include articles about what's to be done to get us out of the dangerous mess we are in.

This week's posts illustrate that escalation can be either constructive or destructive, but most often, we argue, it is destructive and the United States is now in a particularly volatile and dangerous stage.   Guy has repeatedly argued that escalation is "the most destructive force on the planet" because it takes relatively simple, solvable problems, and through a series of increasingly hostile exchanges, makes the problems not only unsolvable, but even causing violence--sometimes even genocide and war. This is the direction Guy sees the U.S. heading now, as he explains in this series of five short posts:

  • What Happens When We Have an Election That Both Sides Absolutely Positively Can't Afford to Lose? - Here Guy argues that polarization and escalation have gotten extreme over the first three years of the Trump presidency, but social taboos against violent political confrontations have largely held. ... because people still see the Fall 2020 election as the place where the dispute between the President, his supporters, and his many opponents will be definitively and nonviolently resolved. Unfortunately, given widespread concerns about our ability to hold a free and fair election, there are good reasons to fear that the taboos against violent political confrontation might not last beyond (or even to) the election.  
  • The Base Mobilization Trap - Here Guy explains that the key to winning elections in today's climate is not by winning support from undecided voters, of which there are very few, or the other side but, rather, turning out the vote on your own side.  Sadly, this means that the key to winning elections now, in the United States, is making apathetic voters on your side so terrified of the prospect that the other side might win that they actually vote.  Guy goes onto explain the many other dynamics that are contributing to this fear and further escalation and polarization.
  • U.S. Hyper Polarization--Over the Edge? - This article looks at the interplay of the alarming rise in gun sales over the last few years and particularly this summer, the lack of gun control, diminished confidence in the police, and frequency of demonstrations--some violent--which have been occurring this summer after the death of George Floyd. "Now think about what might happen if we experience a genuinely major act of violence, say an Oklahoma City-style bombing, a Kent State-style shooting of protesters by ill-trained National Guard units called in to help restore order, or the kind of political assassination (or attempted assassination) that we saw in the 1960s, 70s, and 1980's with John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, George Wallace, and Ronald Reagan.  He goes on to say :"We are likely to pass through this initial chain of events quite quickly. After that, escalation is likely to be become an explosive positive-feedback system which [will be very hard to control] .
  • Where Does the Nightmare of Continuing Hyper-Polarization End?  Our current hyper-polarization is likely to end very badly, Guy argues,in this fourth article: There is always a reason to hope that today's hyper-polarized acrimony will correctly be interpreted as evidence that we have allowed things to go too far and that cooler heads ought to prevail. Unfortunately, we don't tend to respond to threats in such conciliatory ways. Rather, we tend to want to strike back.  This can cause a "rapidly-escalating feedback loop in which actions that are seen as provocative lead to counter-provocation in a rapidly intensifying spiral that can harden animosities and hatreds across entire societies with astonishing speed... leading to a large-scale violent confrontation" from which it will be extremely difficult to recover. 
  • Hyper-Polarization, the Pandemic, and the Need for a "Lifeboat Ethic."  Guy's last post in his series offers a glimmer of hope about how we can avoid the catastrophes described in the first four essays.  Here, he says, the key is to "recognize just how much trouble we are in. Here, I think it helps if we think of ourselves as being adrift in a terrible storm in one giant lifeboat. If we can't figure out how to effectively work together to navigate the storm, then pretty much all is lost. The option of throwing some folks overboard is morally abhorrent and likely to result in catastrophic fights over who is going to throw whom overboard. What we really need to do is figure out how to get us all through these turbulent times. ... As we try to do this, we are going to quickly discover that everyone has a role to play.  This is a very big and complex lifeboat and the truth is that we need each other's skills, talents and, labor to operate it successfully.  The rest of this finally not-so-depressing post describes what this "lifeboat ethic" might look like and how it could be applied to save us from the catastrophic alternative. 

Other people, however, argue that escalation is necessary to get the attention of people who don't realize an injustice is occurring or a situation is a problem.  This is the underlying motivation of most social movements.  They try to escalate a conflict, for instance over systemic racism, or over the lack of response to climate change, or gay marriage, or women's rights...or any other cause, until those that are ignoring the situation take notice of it and do something--ideally something consistent with what the activists want. Our colleague and master mediator and self-described "conflict engagement specialist" Bernie Mayer held a seminar earlier this summer where he advocated for such constructive escalation in response to the George Floyd murder. Heidi Burgess reflected on Bernie's webinar in the last post we are highlighting this week:

  • Heidi Burgess:  (When) Should We Escalate? I wrote this post in response to a webinar held by Jay Rothman at which leading mediator Bernie Mayer, was the speaker. [1]  Bernie observed that over the many years he has been practicing in the field of conflict resolution, most of his peers have focused on finding the elements of a conflict that could be resolved and focusing on them, leaving the "harder" (we would say more "intractable") elements on the table.  This, he argued, tends to lead to much more shallow and less "important" resolutions and also tends to reinforce the status quo.  This has happened repeatedly, he suggested, in conflicts over police-community relations, where simple solutions were found that brought immediate "peace," but left the underlying, deeper issues of systemic racism unaddressed.  Deep change, he argued, requires "disruption."  "Ideally," he said, it will be what he calls "strategic disruption." 

    But, Bernie continued, it "often has to start with what is a more chaotic and frightening disruption.  Or to put it differently, to engage conflict at the most important level, we often have to start by escalating. Now, hopefully we can do this without making long-term progress more difficult, but that really is a very fine line.

    This led me to ask two questions:

    The first was whether the protests which were happening over George Floyd's death were a useful disruption, or harmful. Were they, indeed, escalating the conflict constructively, so that this time, it would actually be dealt with? Or were they further hardening the opposition and emboldening white supremacists?

    My second question was what should conflict professionals, politicians, business leaders, the media and the general public do now in response?

    I'll let you read the post to discover my answers to those questions, and I'd be eager to hear yours!  If you want to contribute your thoughts on this blog, or on any of the other posts in this newsletter, please contact us though Beyond Intractability!  (If your comments are well written, we are likely to ask you if you would be willing to share them on the Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog!   We hope you will!)

[1]  "Staying with Conflict" in Leaning in to Conflict: Creative Conflict Engagement for Learning and Cooperation


Other Recent Posts include:

From the Conflict Fundamentals Seminar: 

  • Conflict Styles - A summary of the five most common conflict styles and a discussion of when to use each. 8/25/2020 

From the Colleague Activities Blog:

From the Beyond Intractability in Context Blog

All CC-MOOS Posts


About the MBI Newsletters

Every few weeks, we will compile BI/MBI/CCI news, along with selected the new posts from our various seminars and blogs into a Newsletter that will be posted here and sent out by email to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy on our Newsletter Sign Up Page and find the latest newsletter here on our Newsletter page. Past newsletters can be found in the Newsletter Archive. 

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