High Conflict

“High conflict is what happens when conflict clarifies into a good versus evil kind of feud, the kind with an us and a them.”

Amanda Ripley is a NYT best selling author and investigative reporter for Atlantic, Politico, and Washington Post, among others. Her High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out (Simon & Schuster, 2021) is a well-researched, impressive work with extensive case studies, and is definitely a timely, worthwhile read. All quotations in this post are from that book. While this may seem an unusual choice to be included in A Mystic Journey blog, Ripley talks of moral choice, lasting change, non violence and transcending differences, which are all spiritual concerns.

“In healthy conflict, there is movement. Questions get asked. Curiosity exists. There can be yelling, too. But healthy conflict leads somewhere. It feels more interesting to get to the other side than to stay in it. In high conflict, the conflict is the destination. There’s nowhere else to go.”

The importance of belonging and being part of a group plays a significant role in high conflict.

  •  “It takes shockingly little for groups to become tribes, for favoritism to emerge. It doesn’t require competition, ritual, pep rallies, or financial incentives; it only requires a belief that you are in one group and others are in another.”
  • “We want to feel like we belong in our group, like we are understood. One way to instantly build that connection is at the expense of the other group…Those guys are the worst.”
  • “Humans have certain fundamental emotional needs, including the need for a sense of belonging, for self-esteem, for control, and for a meaningful existence. These needs are nearly as important to our survival as food and water. Social rejection threatens these needs.”  

Unfortunately, aggression is one response to social rejection, as we have seen in too many recent shootings and other acts of violence, both in the US and worldwide.

“Aggression usually guarantees more social rejection. But it does succeed in one way: it gives us a renewed sense of control over our environment, thus restoring one of our most fundamental needs, if only temporarily. Likewise, if we demonize people who have excluded us, we can help restore our damaged self-esteem: we are good and they are evil. Demonization can give us a sense of purpose, as well. We are fighting evil. What could be more meaningful?”

“Us vs Them is rarely about what it seems to be about…Original facts and forces fade into the background and us vs them takes over.”

“Extremists have outsized influence because they always show up, when everyone else stays home. They are the ones on Twitter, day and night, when everyone else is out living their lives.”

Many people choose not to be part of any conflict, especially any high conflict. The author describes them as “the exhausted majority” who are so stressed they tune it all out. She suggests that we need to counteract the extremists and engage the “exhausted majority” in a new, better course of action:

“The challenge of our time is to mobilize great masses of people to make change without dehumanizing one another. Not just because it’s morally right but because it works. Lasting change, the kind that seeps into people’s hearts, has only ever come about through a combination of pressure and good conflict. Both matter. That’s why, over the course of history, nonviolent movements have been more than twice as likely to succeed as violent ones.”

In order to transition to “good conflict” and non-violence, look at the political unrest in the United States, where Americans seem “blinded by conflict:”

“Democrats think Republicans are richer, older, crueler, and more unreasonable than they are in real life. Republicans, meanwhile, think Democrats are more godless, gay and radical than they actually are. The most politically engaged people are the most mistaken about the other group.”

“And the more education that Democrats, in particular, acquire, the more ignorant they seem to be about Republicans. Democrats with a postgraduate degree are three times as inaccurate in their perceptions of Republicans as Democrats who dropped out of high school.”

I find these last two paragraphs surprising and upsetting. Rather than getting defensive as I read them, I try to see if even I might be “blinded by conflict.” I am afraid that I am, along with some of my friends.

We assume we know why we hold the positions that we do, but what if we are also led by misguided information, as in the misperceptions of both Democrats and Republicans? Ripley poses a significant question for us to answer:

“We think we are acting on our own volition—making judgments based on hard facts and deeply held values. But are we?”

“Any modern movement that cultivates us-versus-them thinking tends to destroy itself from the inside, with or without violence. High conflict is intolerant of difference. A culture that sorts the world into good and evil is by definition small and confining. It prevents people from working together in large numbers to grapple with hard problems.”

One way to prevent high conflict is to recognize those around you: 

“Who delight in each new plot twist of a feud. Who are quick to validate every lament and to articulate wrongs no one else has even thought of? We all know people like this, and it’s important to keep them at a safe distance.”

“Good conflict is vital. Life would be much worse without it.”

“Good conflict is not the same thing as forgiveness. It has nothing to do with surrender. It can be stressful and heated but our dignity remains intact.”

I repeat the quotation from the beginning of this post to remind us that we often see ourselves as right and others who think differently as not only wrong, but potentially evil. Perhaps it is time to question this belief.

“High conflict is what happens when conflict clarifies into a good versus evil kind of feud, the kind with an us and a them.”

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