In praise of conflict

Sometimes, conflict is inevitable

Today’s post is from  Brad Allenby, Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics and Professor of Law at Arizona State University

Absent the occasional nihilist, anarchist, or arms dealer, it is hard to find anyone sane who wishes conflict well.  The human costs of war, from Afghanistan to the Congo to the Balkans, are all too real; the backdrop of a century of global conflict all too recent.

At an individual level, few people seek increased torment and conflict in their personal lives.  Activists and experts in domains from sustainability to Marxism to various religions seek the balm of peace: surely as a species we can finally craft the simple principles that eliminate conflict and lead us forward to the Golden Age that is our due?

Striving for peace, the absence of conflict, is not a bad thing, and most folks that do it are also realistic about the need to keep one’s guard up in a dangerous world (as Trotsky is reputed to have growled, “you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”).  But there is perhaps a more important nuance, as pointed out by those eminent social critics, The Jefferson Airplane: “Soon you’ll attain the stability you strive for, in the only way it is granted, in a place among the fossils of our time.”  Less poetically, the obvious costs of violence and war tend to blind most people to the importance of conflict to innovation and creativity.  Elizabethan London, the Athens of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Renaissance Florence, the chaotic Spring and Autumn Period of Confucius in China, the India of Gandhi – none of these highly creative periods were stable and peaceful.

But there is constructive conflict – the conflict inherent in trading cities as different cultures meet, for example – and there is destructive conflict.  What we have now in many places is the latter, either as physical conflict – war – or, more widely, as destructive conflict over foundational values.  Ethics, morality, and values are usually at play in various political environments, of course, and the dialog among them can be an important source of cultural evolution.  But a different dynamic begins to dominate when conflict over moral absolutes gains ascendancy over the usual political arguments.  Constructive conflict can be resolved through traditional rational discussion and dialog, political solutions which spread benefits among constituencies, and the like; destructive conflict is phrased in terms of moral absolutism, of good and evil.  The latter is accordingly far less amendable to rational discourse and compromise.  I can talk to you about different ways to raise taxes; I can’t talk to you about taxes when to you they represent primordial evil.  I can talk to you about ways to manage climate change; I can’t talk to you when anyone who doesn’t accept your perspective on the phenomenon is the equivalent of a Nazi.  The tactic of terrorism is ineffective, indeed fails dismally, in an environment of constructive conflict; it is a signature activity of destructive conflict.

The apparent shift towards destructive conflict may be partially illusory, but there are some reasons to suspect it may not be.  We are, after all, in a period of unprecedented technological change across essentially the entire technological frontier, as a result of accelerating evolution in nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and communication technology, robotics, applied cognitive science, and similar technology systems.  Technological change at this scale causes accelerating social change; the flexible thought necessary for success in high technology environments undercuts traditional social norms and practices.  And, of course, how do individuals react to a complex and unpredictable world if they are left behind, baffled and unable to cope, as technological and social change continues to accelerate and a global technocratic elite increasingly captures economic and political power?  They retreat to belief systems: they’re simple and provide psychological refuge, and, equally important, because they rely on faith rather than reason, they are resilient against scientific and policy discourses that are complex and demand unpleasant change.  Destructive conflict is thus a predictable outgrowth of modernity.  Conditions favor not the creative interplay of pluralistic democracy creating adaptability and flexibility in the face of an uncertain future, but retreat to simplicities that are both enormously powerful and yet profoundly dysfunctional when deployed against irreducible complexity.  Creationists are not arguing the factual basis of evolution; rather, they are rejecting a fundamental tenant of modern science and Enlightenment rationality, and they are doing so for very real and important reasons.

So at a social and cultural level, we should not wish for peace (although, in the interests of generating the pluralism that must underlie social wisdom, we should support institutions and individuals that do so).  Conflict cannot be avoided and, in the age of the complex and anthropogenic Earth, that would be a dysfunctional goal in any event: we need if anything to accelerate the social and cultural innovation that constructive conflict generates.  Rather, our challenge is to learn to incent and protect constructive conflict, while at the same time reducing destructive conflict before it overwhelms us.  So perhaps somewhere in the Department of Defense we need the Institute for Creative Conflict, a necessary oxymoron for the challenges of our complex modern world.

Useful links

OECD work on conflict and fragility

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