Three Approaches to Conflict


Below is an excerpt from my new book: In Search of Braver Angels: Getting Along Together in Troubled Times. The full version is available on Amazon.

Social conflict is when groups struggle against each other over social goals or arrangements. I’m engaged in social conflict when my group attempts to resist, oppose, or coerce the will of others. Social conflict is a core feature of modern societies and appears to be a universal or near-universal feature of human groups.

Social conflict can take many forms. Some forms (such as sullen silence) are tacit, while other forms (from verbal debate to organized warfare) are open and explicit.

Conflict is related to competition, but the two are not the same. Competition becomes conflict only when the attention of the competitors is diverted from the objects of competition to each other. Social conflict, then, is when my group seeks to achieve its goals at least in part by preventing other groups from achieving theirs.

Many great thinkers have tried to identify the fundamental sources of social conflict. Saint Augustine, the early Christian writer, traced social conflict to libido dominandi, or the lust to dominate others. The 17th-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes traced it to man’s innate desire to “do as he pleases.” Hobbes’ fellow philosopher John Locke traced it to humankind’s limited capacity for generosity. The great 19th-century student of American democracy Alexis de Tocqueville pointed to the diminished influence in society of what he called “self-interest rightly understood,” by which he meant the understanding that, in general, what’s good for others is also good for me and mine. Marxists and other writers have emphasized the role of competition for scarce or valuable economic resources. According to many writers, an important engine of social conflict in modern societies is clashing moral values, or strong disagreements over what is good and how we should treat one another.

Is social conflict a blessing or a curse? On the one hand, we could stipulate a moral continuum, with cooperation (the best) on one end of the continuum and conflict (the worst) on the other. In this way of thinking, conflict is clearly something we should be against—the more of it we have, the worse off we become.

Another and likely fuller understanding is that social conflict is not only a universal occurrence in human societies, but is also frequently a healthy and at times necessary occurrence. After all, in many cases social progress is impossible without social conflict. Probably the most important question about social conflict, then, is not whether it exists (it does), or whether we can eliminate it (we can’t), or even whether we should try to eliminate it (we shouldn’t). The real question is how we should approach it.

Our national motto, E pluribus unum, means “from many, one.” It tells us that people from many and often conflicting backgrounds and views can live on this continent in conditions of unprecedented freedom while also thriving together as one people. It tells us neither to deny nor to inflame our differences, but instead to seek to reconcile them at higher levels in order to form what our Constitution calls “a more perfect Union.”

Implicit in our national motto—implicit in the founders’ vision—is a theory of conflict. It seems that there are three basic approaches to conflict, which we can also think of as three stages, from simplest and worst to hardest and best.

1. Submit

In the first approach or stage, we submit to conflict. Conflict is in charge. Some people in this stage ignore conflict, failing to acknowledge that it exists. Others internalize conflict and thus make conflict their cause, becoming both its relentless advocate as well as its captive. Either way, polarization is perpetuated, as conflict dominates society rather than the other way around.

2. Manage

A second approach is when we seek to clarify and manage conflict. By trying to assume good faith in our adversaries and trying to correct partial understandings and false stereotypes, we aim in this stage to achieve actual rather than inflated or imagined disagreement. This better and more difficult approach to dealing with conflict requires both civility in our treatment of one another and a willingness to acknowledge areas of common ground. At least as importantly, insofar as we want conflict not only clarified but also managed for the good of society, this approach also requires the capacity for negotiation, compromise, and mutual accommodation.

3. Transform

A third approach is when we seek to transform conflict. In this approach, we do not avoid or deny conflict. Nor do we become its pliant servant and enabler. Nor do we stop and declare victory once we have understood conflict accurately by using the tools of reason and empathy and managed it pragmatically by using the tools of compromise. In this hardest and yet arguably most fruitful way of dealing with conflict, we try to go beyond polarization and beyond compromise, toward a creative new framing—a higher synthesis—that includes what is valid and helpful on both sides, leading us, together, to a new place in the discussion. This approach depends significantly on epistemological humility, recognizing relationship-building as a valid shaper of identity and viewpoint, and a belief in the equal dignity of every person.
-David Blankenhorn

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