High Conflict

From The Wall Street Journal:

Amanda Ripley, a journalist whose first book, “The Unthinkable,” was about how people survive disasters, has covered “all manner of human misery.” Her latest book, “High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out,” is prompted by misery of the American political kind. After the 2016 election, Ms. Ripley reflects, journalists who cared about telling the truth in all its complexity were preaching to a “shrinking choir of partisans.” Those who still read the news searched it for weapons to use against enemies. It “felt like curiosity was dead.”

Curiosity is a casualty of “high conflict,” a term that Ms. Ripley uses to describe our bitter politics and much else. We need conflict because human beings, limited in experience, biased but needing to act, are natural partisans. We find ourselves in conflict with other partisans. But under the best circumstances, that conflict, even when “stressful and heated,” keeps us “open to the reality that none of us has all the answers.” In “healthy conflict,” we defend what we hold dear but understand what others do, and, even when we don’t revise our views, find a way to work with them. In contrast, high conflict imagines an “us,” whose ideas must prevail, and a “them,” whose books must burn. It appears to clarify matters by narrowing vision.

. . . .

Our culture and values, Ms. Ripley argues, can also draw us into high conflict. We all experience humiliation, but a member of Curtis’s gang learned to perceive small slights as humiliations that required a forceful response. What humiliates and how one responds to humiliation, she argues, are “socially informed,” sometimes by “conflict entrepreneurs,” bad actors who “exploit high conflict for their own ends.”

. . . .

Ms. Ripley has more to offer than Baha’i wisdom when she turns to how people escape from high conflict. The most important insight of this part of the book is that you can’t beat high conflict with scolding it, however high-mindedly. Curtis Toler takes a step back from the Stones because he is a parent as well as a gang leader. He maintains his distance because he is offered another way to matter, working with those most likely to perpetrate or become victims of violence. Mark Lynas, the environmental activist, permits himself to see his mistakes only when he meets scientists whose “dedication to empirical evidence over ideology” he comes to admire. He sees a way to matter, and continue to pursue the aims he cares about.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG notes that all experienced authors know conflict is a highly-useful (perhaps almost necessary) element in successful fiction.

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