Conflict Resolution


A Road To Cooperation, Not Confrontation

I originally wanted to write only about the division and discord around political philosophies in our country. Indeed, they have always existed, but in at least the last twenty years, perhaps going back as far as the Reagan years, the vitriol has grown significantly. I think most Americans are tired and frustrated with all the nastiness and division in our society. A difference of opinion is one thing, but the anger and threats of violence and actual acts of violence are beyond the pale.

As I wondered if there might be an approach to mending some of this division, I realized that what I was thinking about could apply to many, if not most, problems. So, I will address this topic regarding political divisions recognizing that this approach might serve us with other societal issues.

I think we can all understand that societies or any group of people exist on a bell curve, with most of us in the central part of the curve, and the extreme views, be they conservative or liberal, at either end, as this graphic suggests.

I'm not breaking any new ground that I know of here. Some of this goes back to my problem-solving days at Boeing. To solve any problem with the hope of a permanent resolution, you need to address the root cause of the problem and not simply try to fix the symptoms. This example came from one of our Boeing classes; if your car doesn't start, you might assume the battery is dead. You buy a new battery for a couple of hundred clams, and it won't start. You investigate further and find out that the fan belt that drives the alternator that charges the battery is cracked and slipping; the dead battery was merely a symptom of the real problem. The defective belt is the root cause of the problem; it isn't driving the alternator that keeps the battery charged. That's a simplistic example pointing out the notion of finding the root cause of a problem.

Medicine typically works the same way. You tell your doctor you have leg pain. The doctor does an exam and asks questions about the pain, where it's at, what activities activate the pain, etc. The doctor is asking about symptoms to get to the root cause of the pain. They might treat the symptoms with meds to relieve the pain, but the root cause must be treated for a complete cure.

Now, let's talk about the political divide in our country. I'll rely on my old friend, the bell curve above, to divide our citizenry into three categories; the extreme on both the right and left (that's two categories), and the rest of the people in the center who may lean either right or left but are moderate in their ideologies and reject violence as a means to an end. It seems to me that the extreme views on both the right and left are where most of the problems lie.

On the far right, we have groups like QAnon, the Oathkeepers, and the Proud Boys; I'm sure there are others, but I won't try to name them all. On the left, we have groups like ALF (Animal Liberation Front), ELF (Earth Liberation Front), Janes Revenge, ANTIFA, and others.

A quick note about Antifa: Trump labeled them a terrorist organization in 2020. Antifa, short for the word "anti-fascist," is a loose group of radical activists that has emerged over the past several years to confront white supremacists, right-wing extremists, and others it deems as fascist. Antifa often dresses in all black and wears blackface masks (so-called black bloc tactics). While their opposition to fascism is valid and supported by most Americans, they deserve to be included in the list of radical groups if they use violence to achieve their end.

Why are these groups so far to the right or left? What do they believe or think they've discovered that has pushed them to extremes in philosophy and behavior? It would seem that until we understand that, we have little or no chance of addressing their concerns or of having a meaningful dialog in any way. Were their extreme views taught to them at the knee of their adult influencers, in their church, or by reading materials provided to them with the intent of radicalizing them?

This basic approach to problem-solving applies no matter what you're dealing with. Homelessness; what drove people to be homeless? Drugs; what drives people to sink into addiction? Crime; what drives people toward a life of crime? Unless we understand the root cause of any ideology or behavior, we cannot find a way out for people. Any of these issues, including migrating to extreme positions in politics and governing, were not inborn. No ten or twelve-year-old out there today dreams of someday being homeless, addicted, a criminal, or an extremist with violent tendencies; these positions result from something that happened in their early lives.

Knowing what happened to cause extreme beliefs or behavior guides us to the tools to work on two fronts, rehabilitation for those already in trouble and the knowledge of the root cause to try to prevent the next generation from falling into the same crevasse of pain. Now we can begin a plan of healing.

We have to provide people with an exit strategy. We must allow them to leave their condition and do it with respect and integrity if they are homeless. The addict, the criminal, the alcoholic, and the political extremist must have an exit option and strategy. They must have an alternative to their position or condition they can move toward with dignity. There is no doubt in my mind that many of those who staked out a far-right political position with all the best intentions for our nation found themselves backing candidates and organizations that made them cringe. But, once committed, they saw no way to change their course that wouldn't expose them to criticism from their friends, neighbors, and perhaps a wider community. No one wants to become the butt of jokes or a pariah in their community.

Part of the solution toward mending the fences in our society has to include giving people an alternative path and one that doesn't label them negatively. Before offering that alternate path, we must discuss how they got to where they are. We need to find ways to have a dialogue with extremists. We need to find ways to reach out to them without prejudice and invite them to discuss society, democracy, what they see as the problems and why they think the problems exist. These have to be open and honest, and respectful discussions. These have to be two-way conversations; the extremist has the right to ask the rest of us why we believe what we do.

We must find multiple ways to reach out and invite people from all political spectrums to discuss our democracy. We need individuals, social groups, businesses, and governments to engage in lessening the divide that has evolved over decades of angry and often disrespectful political discourse. These may take the form of PSAs in the media, town hall meetings, and signage around our communities promoting democratic cooperation. Political leaders in both parties must step up and help lead us to a new understanding of our country and a democratic form of government.

This won't happen overnight; it may take a couple of generations to see significant success. But we didn't get where we are today overnight, either. Back in the day, I'm talking about the early 1970s; the Occupational Safety and Health Act, OSHA, was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon on December 29, 1970. Before that, various states and localities had a mishmash of safety regulations in the workplace. Some partially effective and some non-existent. Worker safety and recourse if injured on the job was a crap shoot.

Much of industry was unhappy about having the government dictate safety. Like so many things in society, worker safety and protections were a travesty for nearly 100 years. Private enterprises procrastinated and dragged their feet until the pressure on the government to take action produced OSHA. After a period of grumbling, our nation came together the way we have during wartime, and across this country, a push was started toward worker safety. Signs went up all around companies; billboards and even paper coffee cups from vending machines had safety slogans printed on them. The war against worker injuries was on. It took some time, perhaps ten years, before it became embedded in everyday work-life, but it did, and today worker safety is paramount across the board.

This is the kind of push we need to mend our political fences. We don't need a government mandate, like OSHA, but they must be involved as much as the grassroots voter. Our elected leaders must be at the forefront of this movement, and we must reject those that foster hate and violence with their rhetoric.

We must lessen the divide that has turned our political processes into angry and sometimes violent events. Will we ever be perfect? Almost certainly not. There will always be outliers who refuse to be part of the team, and if they break the laws, they must be held accountable. But first, we must allow and provide the opportunity for everyone to join our extraordinary democratic processes and then deal with those who refuse to play by the rules.