What is Good vs. Bad Conflict? - BCB #1
“Get comfortable with being uncomfortable”
In this, our first issue, we 1) introduce ourselves and are happy to meet you, 2) say something about the challenge of talking about conflict without escalating it, 3) bring you the news, as always, and 4) go in depth on what makes conflict good or bad.
This is a newsletter all about the U.S. domestic political conflict. As we said in our editor’s note, “Our purpose isn’t to end the conflict… Instead, we ask: what would it mean for this conflict to be better? What does fighting constructively look like?”
We insist on optimism, but we also insist on being well informed. That’s what this newsletter is about. We report a very specific beat: not what happens in the conflict, but what the most constructive reactions are.
We’ll also curate essential writing and research on a variety of topics. This week we ask: what makes conflict better or worse?
First, a Note on Language
It’s impossible to report on the conflict that permeates all our lives without, eventually, writing something or linking to something that angers some of our readers. Even the words used to describe the conflict have become a source of radioactive disagreement.
In order to avoid weird arguments about what “conservative” and “liberal” really mean or who is actually a “Democrat” or a “Republican,” we settled on simply Red and Blue, descriptors that date back to the electoral map of the 2000 Bush vs. Gore recount. This is almost stupidly reductive, but it also points at a central truth. Everyone understands there are two bitterly opposed poles, even if the meanings of those poles are contested and the coalitions that form them are ever-shifting.
Similarly, it’s going to be hard to avoid words that make some people shut down and stop reading – even the word “conversation,” which some interpret as “you’re going to sit and get yelled at” while others hear “appeasement of the enemy.” Even worse, some topics will generate criticism for us no matter what we say about them. This reflects what’s known as the “hostile media effect,” where both sides of a bitter divide will find something to complain about in media coverage, no matter how carefully it’s reported.
There’s nothing for it but to press on, which is why each issue includes a disclaimer right at the top. Better conflict requires better ways of talking about conflict, and that means we are going to have to invent language and ideas. We’ll need your help to do that, and we fully expect that it will be an uncomfortable ride.
News News News
This week we’re tracking the most interesting responses to mass shootings, the Disinformation Governance Board, demographic anxiety, and more.
Who’s Fighting When We Fight Disinformation?
This article frames the rolled-out and rolled-right-back-up-again Disinformation Governance Board as an attempt to redefine political problems as technical issues. While the major narrative is that Blue loved this plan while Red attacks killed the idea, it might surprise all sides to learn that Blue civil liberties organizations also came out against the board – including the ACLU and others. We love it when people don’t fall neatly into categories.
The Mirror Image Destruction Fantasy
We’re not exactly fans of the theory that an elite conspiracy is underway to replace white people. On the other hand, there is a history of Blue analysts getting excited that shifting demographics may eliminate Red from the political contest, which is not the same thing but certainly a provocation. (And also questionable, as the racial voting gap has been closing since 2012). Each issue we’re going to choose one link as our Most Conflicted Selection, and this piece is the first. It was a tough call for us to include it and some folks are going to hate it, but it documents some interesting history.
Columbia University Proposes the Formation of an “Office of Conflict Resolution”
There’s a proposal from the Provost’s office that seeks a different way of handling incidents of bullying, harassment, and discrimination. A working group has suggested the formation of an Office of Conflict Resolution; this approach focuses on consultation, asking questions, and seeking resolutions in addition to investigation and discipline.
A Hippocratic Oath for Police Forces?
Police2Peace is an organization dedicated to reorienting relationships between law enforcement and the communities in which they are placed. The Peace Officer Promise asks officers to swear that “while doing our best to control crime, we will do everything in our power to do no harm to the communities we serve and protect,” and then backs this up with research, community engagement, and self-review to increase open communication.
Gun Policy is Hard, Actually
In the wake of the horrific mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, this piece examines the complexities of the gun control debate within a Blue frame. Tensions are rife between activists seeking tough sentencing for gun charges and those who worry about the inevitable disproportionate impact on communities of color. Although it’s simplistic in places (the research connecting guns to crime is more complicated than this makes out) the approach here adds several layers to the usual gun control debate.
In Depth: What Makes Conflict Good or Bad?
For our first foray into conflict research, we tackle the core question of this newsletter: what is better conflict?
“Conflicts: Productive and Destructive” - Morton Deutsch
This is the oldest link in this issue, from 1969, but it’s perhaps the clearest description we know of the dynamics of “good” versus “bad” conflict. Deutsch points out that conflict can happen even when there is no basic incompatibility: “if my wife and I are in conflict about how to treat our son’s mosquito bites it is not because we have mutually exclusive goals.” This means that it may be possible to cooperate to resolve conflict. And yet the parties often escalate the conflict instead, through entirely predictable patterns:
The harmful and dangerous elements drive out those which would keep the conflict within bounds. Paralleling the expansion of the scope of conflict there is an increasing reliance upon a strategy of power and upon the tactics of threat, coercion, and deception. Correspondingly, there is a shift away from a strategy of persuasion and from the tactics of conciliation, minimizing differences, and enhancing mutual understanding and good-will. And within each of the conflicting parties, there is increasing pressure for uniformity of opinion and a tendency for leadership and control to be taken away from those elements that are more conciliatory and invested in those who are militantly organized for waging conflict through combat.
Complicating the Narratives - Amanda Ripley
This is an honest piece from a journalist that challenges the temptation to force political positions into simplistic boxes. Ripley mentions her own experiences in several examples, and offers a close-up view of the emotional journey we take when participating in polarized discussions. She offers a ton of actionable advice on how to navigate personal disagreements – even in a parenting context. In short, it’s almost always the case that contentious issues are more complex than they appear. Looking for “many stories” is not only more true to life, it defuses many of the emotional reactions around conflict.
A must-read for anyone involved in media or communications — or just being online, really.
Conflict Transformation - John Paul Lederach
Lederach has spent decades working with communities experiencing violent conflict around the world, and has pioneered a new way of thinking: conflict transformation. This is an orientation we’re very partial to here at the Bulletin, built on two ideas: “conflict is normal in human relationships, and conflict is a motor of change.”
Conflict transformation has become one of the dominant approaches to international peace-building work, replacing the earlier frame of “conflict resolution.” Lederach describes how this happened:
I have been using the phrase "conflict transformation" since the late 1980s. I remember that timeframe because it came on the heels of intensive experience in Central America. When I arrived there my teaching vocabulary was filled with the terminology of conflict resolution and management. But I soon found that many of my Latin colleagues had questions, concerns, even suspicions about what such concepts meant.
Their worry was that quick solutions to deep social-political problems would not change things in any significant way. "Conflicts happen for a reason," they would say. "Is this resolution idea just another way to cover up the changes that are really needed?"
Conflict transformation goes beyond the immediate problem to look at the wider context of conflict, and searches for ways to address underlying unmet needs. This is why we at the Bulletin say we are not trying to end the conflict, but to make it “better” in some way.
Quote of the Week
…the goal is not to wash away the conflict; it’s to help people wade in and out of the muck (and back in again) with their humanity intact. Americans will continue to disagree, always; but with well-timed nudges, we can help people regain their peripheral vision at the same time.
-Amanda Ripley, Complicating the Narratives
Thanks for reading!
Mary-Beth Ellis - reporter
Jonathan Stray - editor