OP-ED: When conflict gets impersonally personal

By Tom H. Hastings

In the field of conflict resolution we define a consensual conflict as one that is conducted about some division of the pie (conflict of interests) and is amenable to problem-solving and a possible win-win outcome, according to Louis Kriesberg’s Constructive conflicts: From escalation to resolution

A dissensual conflict (over values, worldviews, the perceived nature of the parties) tends to regard the other party as the basic problem and so problem-solving becomes "how do we annihilate them?" Dissensual conflicts get dehumanizing in a hurry, are often along religious, party, ethnic, national or ideological lines, and are poorly handled in courts of law and other adversarial fields of contest. The most dissensual and destructive of all transmogrify into murder at the personal level and genocide at the social level.

Unlearning the dysfunctional conflict management methods that feed dissensual conflict is necessary to the transformation of them into consensual conflict, which can be then transformed into constructive conflict. Often it starts with that basic principle from our classic primer, 
Getting to Yes, by Roger Fisher and Bill Ury, which is, Separate the People from the Problem.

This is tough for many of us, especially those steeped from an early age in dissensual and adversarial conflict. I struggle not to regard people like Mitch McConnell, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, Rupert "The Buck Stops Here and Then Moves Back Down" Murdoch, and Sarah Palin as the problem. I tend to mentally construct objectifying imagery of them as cardboard characters representing greed and churlishness. This is amusing to me but unhelpful in my thinking about how to move forward, especially if my thinking about these leaders is not carefully bounded so that I don't transfer my estimation of their negative traits unto their followers, since our civil society discourse is affected by these mental processes.

It seems to me, indeed, that we have almost reached the incivility of public discourse and the level of dissensual domestic conflict that we saw in the US in the 1850s that led to the Civil War. While many finger the John Brown attack on Harpers Ferry as the spark, I'd also suggest the direct and devastating physical attack on an abolitionist politician, 
Charles Sumner, in 1856, right on the floor of the Senate, by a Southern politician outraged at Sumner's attack on slavery and all who support it in a speech just days before.

 His attacker, a Southern politician, was not even arrested, even though Sumner was beaten without warning by a heavy cane almost to death. We may be closer to that point than we believe. An interesting side note is that Sumner from Alice and Staughton Lynd’s Nonviolence in America: A documentary history, is the first source I've read who referred to our system as a "war system" that tends to produce war due to corruption, profiteering and what we now call the conflict industry.

The American people were ill served 155 years ago by their politicians, who could have negotiated an end to slavery using nonviolent sanctions and inducements instead of war. We should never assume that the politicians will use wise methods in the end, that they are only posing and will strike some sensible deal. Posturing and polarity ultimately produce war or the functional equivalent. The very incivility and bipolar dissensual nature of the conflict are the true enemies of creativity and intelligent problem solving. The field of conflict resolution could save our process, but right now what we see instead are the strutting positions of crowing roosters (oops, there I go, objectifying our poor political leaders who are, after all, created by us as much as we are affected by them). This is no time for a game of chicken or we will all end up in the Frying Pan of Dissensual Conflict.

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Tom H. Hastings (pcwtom@gmail.com) teaches Conflict Resolution at Portland State University. This commentary was distributed by

PeaceVoice, a program of the Oregon Peace Institute

Editor's note: The Sumner incident is discussed in David McCullough's "The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris" reviewed by David M. Kinchen. Link: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/6176