He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself. – Thomas Paine
Today seems the kind of day to talk about conflict and how it works – from between siblings at home to the highest institutions of government taking in social media on the way.
I’m not a big social media user but what I see on my feeds patterns of activity – some promotional, some attention getting and quite a lot that’s criticism. The promotional stuff I don’t have much of a problem with. People should talk about what they do and what they’re interested in because that’s how we learn about their point of view and the contribution they might make. The attention getting stuff is sometimes entertaining but mostly uninteresting. And then there is the criticism – an approach that is really quite counterproductive.
You probably know about the four signals that tell you that a marriage is breaking down – the four horsemen of relationship Armageddon. These are criticism, contempt, stonewalling and defensiveness. If you see those happening in a relationship you know things are going to end poorly. And I see a lot of that online – open contempt and criticism. Of course, when you’re trying to appear strong and appeal to your fan base then these are the tools you use to attack your enemy – which works great when you seem invincible. But when you’re wounded then everyone piles in, eager to get rid of you as soon as they can.
What can you actually do if you want to look at conflict resolution? I wanted to point to a paper but can’t find it right away but the essential idea is simple and you can set it out using a logic table. If you have two parties then the outcomes that can happen are: win-win; win-lose; lose-win and lose-lose. We talk about win-win being the ideal outcome but in many cases a win-lose or lose-win is the only outcome. You don’t get an equitable solution in a boxing match and you don’t get to share being the top person.
In addition to the list above though, you have a few other options. You can avoid the issue, flatter people and change the subject or just not turn up when it’s being debated. There are many ways to play the game and when you do that the point is just to stay in the game rather than a win or lose being declared. The one who wins is the one that doesn’t lose.
What’s my point here?
I suppose it’s that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to believe that there is an ideal solution and there is always a win-win. That’s naive. A win-win is more likely to be a special case when you aren’t playing a zero-sum game, one where one person’s loss is the other’s gain and vice versa. At the same time we play win-lose games when the situation isn’t a zero-sum one at all – when we’re supposed to be on the same side.
For example, what should you think when a community of practice tears into other ideas? Is it important that you contradict everyone that has the wrong idea (as far as you’re concerned) on social media? Well, for some people it might give them a sense of satisfaction but in the end I suppose what matters is the peer review process. I’ve just realized, as I’ve written this, that peer review exists all over the place. It’s not just for scientific papers and Google. The ideas that float up and persist over time are the ones that are probably worth holding on to. In most economies what you should probably be is some kind of conservative democrat – someone who believes in individual freedoms while helping society as a whole be better. You don’t have to rail against “wrong” ideas – you just have to talk about the right ones. And if they are right and people agree with you you’ll outlast the ones that are wrong.
I suppose what it all comes down to is that engaging in conflict is easy. It’s easy to fight. It’s easy to pick a battle with your sibling, your parents, your co-workers. What’s hard is having self-control, restraint, the ability to compromise. And when we’re stressed or overwhelmed we do what’s easy. But it’s doing the hard stuff that makes a society work or a community hang together.
What we have to believe is that we need to try and resolve conflict through dialogue and debate in our communities. And we have to hope that bad ideas may hold sway for a while but that the rot in them will eventually hollow out the bad ideas and leave a space where new, better ones can take root again.
That leads to the question of how do you contribute good ideas, what sort of responsibility do you have to help out? Let’s look at that in the next post.
p.s. After a few weeks of angstiness I have restarted the Community book project and I’ll try and work through that over the next month or so.