Diversity and Conflict
Despite, or perhaps because of the often tangible rage seething beneath the surface and the danger it implies, USians have been becoming more and more conflict avoidant. This makes sense in a national climate where disagreement quickly results in violence, verbal (stereotyping and name-calling), psychological (threats and manipulation), or physical (“road rage” and war). The inclination, when confronted, is to smile and change the subject. Instead of debates and arguments promoting mutual appreciation, the result is, more often than not, fear and active dislike, stereotyping and name-calling, resentments and grudges. It is not very safe to argue in USA. There is little or no context for it. Not surprisingly we are culturally addicted to rules, laws, lawyers, and courts to solve our problems, and, when our fear leads us to think conflict inevitable, to preemptive strikes.
We don’t like conflict. We try to avoid it instead of learning how to engage in it appropriately and productively, and the end result of our incompetence is horrendous enough to fully reinforce our avoidance.
This is a problem.
It’s particularly a problem for those of us who value cultural diversity and recognition of human equality. The easiest recipe for avoiding conflict is to allow one person or homogeneous group to define the “right side” of any disagreement. Obviously, that’s not an option for us. The greater the diversity of a group, the more opportunities there will be for conflicts of perception and values. And that’s a good thing.
The previous U.S. administration was hardly the first government to show just how wrong someone can end up being when they only listen to the people who agree with them. Surrounding the pampered and culturally isolated with sycophants has always been a recipe for bad policy. It’s frequently been a recipe for revolt.
No, even ignoring their own inherent worth, we need people who disagree with us simply because they disagree with us. They see the things we do not, including the ways that people can come to different, honest decisions using all the same facts we use. We must have disagreement. So why is it so damned hard to manage?
There is the anger, of course, as Dr. Simons mentions. It’s a reasonable anger, for the most part, based on real wrongs. Very few of us have not been the victim of power used inappropriately. It’s a useful anger to the extent it motivates us to seek change. I’m not just talking about anger for the injustices we have individually faced, either. Empathy can build very large coalitions.
Anger is not useful, however, when it tears apart the coalitions that support diversity. It is not useful to listen to someone say they are angry over a behavior they see in a particular community and respond as though they had attacked the community instead of the behavior. It is not useful to assume that, because some of your anger is directed at ways in which you’ve been wronged, any time you’re angry, you have been wronged.
These are particularly hard lessons to learn when the topic of discussion is identity politics. We are the subjects of our discussions, which makes everything so terribly personal. But how do we move forward if we can’t get past the personal? And the personal, in this case, also includes our closely cherished notions of acceptable means of disagreement.
We need to understand the diversity in conflict styles to make conflict productive. Some years ago, Thomas Kochman observed that cultural styles differed between many US blacks (as long as you are shouting, you are not hitting) and many US whites (as soon as you shout you are likely to hit). This is a good example of how not understanding diversity in conflict styles creates more misperceptions and further conflict.
Complicating the negotiation of diverse viewpoints is the fact that there are plenty of people who don’t want all voices heard. These include people who are so insecure that anyone else’s success makes them feel they’ve failed, people who are incapable of questioning the beliefs with which they were raised, people who want their own voice to dominate and people who just enjoy fomenting trouble. (Be careful diagnosing these last two, though, as they’re almost indistinguishable from well-meaning people with poor social skills or different cultural assumptions.)
Ironically, I think that sometimes our reliance on goodwill hurts us as well. We assume that because we have some common goals and values, this should reduce the friction between us. It should make things easy. It doesn’t. Instead, as any marriage counselor will tell you, these only increase the pressure for parties to agree. Finding disagreement where we expect to find accord can feel very much like betrayal.
Luckily, plenty of work has been done on finding ways to resolve conflict. We don’t have to reinvent anything. Nations have been doing this for years, with varying degrees of success. Marital counseling provides models we can build upon, and companies have adapted many of the same strategies as they’ve discovered that top-down business models aren’t nearly as effective as those that rely on all of an organization’s resources.
We can figure this stuff out if we decide it’s worth the effort. After all, most of it boils down to making sure we understand one another: listen actively and ask questions whenever we’re unsure what’s being said, focus on behavior instead of motivation or character traits that can’t be observed directly, give ourselves time to think instead of simply reacting from emotion, be aware of what is under the control of the parties involved and what isn’t and be clear about our own feelings, wants and needs. Not that this is easy in practice, but it isn’t difficult to understand the theory.
We live in a time when technology, changing demographics and political and financial upheaval are opening opportunities for change on a scale and at a pace we’ve never seen before. It hurts me to think that we might not take advantage of those opportunities over disagreements that are–not petty and not easily set aside, but manageable and negotiable.
In the spirit of preventing that, I leave you with this:
Preamble: “Step one: Remove hand from flame.”
Article I: When you’ve found someone who is honestly willing to take an unwanted burden off your shoulders, especially an unwanted burden that frequently immerses you in unnecessary drama, don’t procrastinate. Let them have it.
Article II: When someone demonstrates they can be trusted to take information said in confidence and use it to generate drama, do not trust them with your confidences.
Article III: Do not allow others who are not only incessantly negative but whose misery is almost entirely their own fault, and who insist on poisoning their own lives with unnecessary anger, to harsh your mellow.
Article IV: The best way to avoid a cross-fire in a battle that is not yours is to absent yourself from the battlefield.
Article V: Recognise the line between supporting and enabling. Embrace the former without restraint; eschew the latter without apology.
Article VI: Public humiliation never reduces drama, and is never as effective as it seems like it should be.
Article VII: People you admire won’t always do things you admire. People you find agreeable won’t always do things with which you agree. That’s OK.
Article VIII: Sometimes it’s neither malice nor incompetence. The smartest, most well-intentioned people make mistakes, have accidents, and sometimes just don’t think things through.
Article IX: Sometimes, it’s not about you.
This entry was posted on Friday, May 29th, 2009 at 6:30 am and is filed under Politics, Stephanie Zvan. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.