The problem of political and social polarization has reached a boiling point in the United States and in many other countries around the world.
As conflict escalates, anger, vitriol and blame limit our ability to engage in the sort of collaborative problem solving we need to transform the biggest problems that face us today: from a global pandemic, to racial and economic injustice.
As groups and individuals go about trying to solve the problems we face, much of our attention is rightly focused on the direct conflicts we face and the structures (both political and social) that fuel them. As a long-time conflict mediator, I worry that our focus on the surface level conflicts and the structures that undergird them may cause us to miss, at times, the deepest level in which conflict is both born and sustained.
Conflict philosopher Johan Galtung called this “cultural violence.” Cultural violence, essentially, is the hostility that comes from viewing groups of people as objects, rather than actual human beings with complex lives and feelings.
Philosopher Martin Buber posed that we humans associate with each other in either an “I-Thou” or an “I-It” way. An I-Thou relationship is symmetrical, with our own and another’s needs, wants, fears and hopes counting the same. An I-It relationship perceives another’s needs as less real and less important than our own. This means that we connect with each other either in constructive or destructive ways.
In working through our conflicts, how can we successfully transform a struggle with an It — who we perceive as disrespectful, unreasonable or defensive? By seeing people from an I-It standpoint, we resort to fear and self-centeredness in a way that stifles collaboration. It invites a hyper focus on ourselves, and ignores the realities and needs of others.
How can we see a person we’re in conflict with as Thou? It calls for practicing “dangerous love.” To transform conflict, we need to transform our perspective both of conflict and the people we are in conflict with. We need to put down our physical and emotional weapons, and turn toward the people with whom we’re in conflict.
It’s not easy to choose love over fear in the face of conflict. Conflict inspires an intense need for self-preservation. Dangerous love calls for us-preservation. In conflict, those two needs feel like they’re in conflict with each other. But they aren’t. Dangerous love allows us to see the humanity of others so that their needs and desires matter as much as our own — regardless of how they see us.
Dangerous love is remarkably effective in transforming our conflicts because it creates space for us to truly see the people with whom we’re struggling so that we can find real solutions to the problems we face. When dangerous love takes hold, our views — of ourselves, others and the conflict itself — transform. We no longer see enemies or others. We see us.
No matter how intense or intractable the conflict, we have the capacity to transform it into something more constructive that shifts us from our blind, weak, self-absorbed narratives, to outcomes that show strength, accountability and openness to the needs and concerns of others.
To cultivate dangerous love, we must embrace three critical principles:
1. Seeing people as people. This means switching from an inward to an outward mindset toward others and striving to see their needs, wants and desires as equally valid as our own. Others are no longer obstacles to overcome, but people with whom we can empathize and feel compassion toward — even when they don’t see us that way.
2. Turning first. This involves an inside-outside transformation. To solve difficult conflicts takes looking inward and asking ourselves, “In what ways may I not be seeing these people correctly? What assumptions have I brought to this conflict?” This is the opposite of the blaming and dehumanizing that often plague conflicts.
3. Inviting collaborative problem-solving. When faced with conflict with another person, commit to finding solutions that meet the needs of both parties. It doesn’t mean avoiding or giving in to the conflict, but engaging with the other person with respect for both that person’s needs and our own.
Dangerous love explains why we struggle with conflict, how we disconnect from the people we’re in conflict with at the very time we need to be most connected to them, and the predictable patters of justification and escalation that ensure. Most importantly, it gives us a path to practice a more collaborative style of conflict that leads to transformative results in relationships, at work, and in the world.
The world may not get better. But we can be. And our being better might be the thing that actually changes the world.
**Originally published at The New Rationalist