There is something to be said about the frivolity of our current mode of conflict resolution, just as there is something to be said about developing new strategies to approach divisive issues.
By Ryan Janssen
Published May 06, 2014
Any relationship has its ups and downs. Couples fight and families bicker - it's a fact of life. In most arguments, there are different versions of the story.
Says one, "I hate it when you're gone for so long and I don't know where you are!" Says the other, "I'm gone for so long because you just keep nagging me when I'm at home!"
Or in the family: "Our child is increasingly defiant and won't listen to our authority!" The child replies, "The rules you set are too restrictive! I've showed you I'm responsible, and I think I deserve some independence!"
As is often the case, we approach arguments with a cause-and-effect mentality. A causes B. I did this because you did that. It is quite difficult, especially when we are involved in the argument, to step out and appreciate the circularity of the conflict. A causes B causes C causes A again. One side is not entirely at fault, and the other side is not entirely blameless.
If we understand that conflicts in a relationship are not linear, but instead are circular, then we understand that people on both sides of the conflict maintain the very conflict they are engaged in.
This principle is applicable at levels beyond the family system.
There are many arguments going on in the city of Hamilton. Indeed, perhaps my writing this piece was motivated by the anxiety I feel every time I read stories in The Hamilton Spectator, CBC Hamilton, and Raise the Hammer - anxiety procured by the disparaging rhetoric of both sides of many of these arguments.
Consider the comments on a harmless piece by CBC Hamilton about the bike share program rolling out in July.
Says one reader, "Wow, more crazed totally ignorant of the rules of the road bikers on our streets and sidewalks this summer. I'm not impressed by this waste of taxpayers money."
And another user replies, "SoBi Hamilton is planning Orientations [sic] that will teach bikers safe cycling practices. I'm amazed you have the audacity to call cyclists crazed while you seem all too eager to attack something you obviously have no knowledge of."
Be it cycling, light rail transit, development of historic buildings, one-way vs. two-way streets, social services in the core, car culture, or one of a million other current issues, we have plenty to disagree about.
I am equally complicit in the bickering. As a regular cyclist and public transit user who does not own a car, my blood pressure rises when I meet people who align themselves against alternative forms of transit. I think to myself, "How can you be so blind! Why can't you see that I'm right?!" and I am sure that they share the same sentiment against me.
Just like the fighting couple and the arguing family, one side is not entirely at fault and the other side is not entirely blameless. Mediating family conflict is not done by asserting ones right-ness over the other's wrong-ness. The couple that solves arguments by proving the blame of their partner is the couple, frankly, with the nearest expiry date. It takes both sides recognizing their complicity in the conflict to take a step towards reconciliation.
Am I naively suggesting that the solution to all of our local political disagreements is to transcend the argument, recognize our own shortcomings, and just stop fighting? If only it were that easy.
However, there is something to be said about the frivolity of our current mode of conflict resolution, just as there is something to be said about developing new strategies to approach divisive issues.
Consider the recent realization by some in the environmental movement that highlighting the severity of the issue or the negative outcomes of a specific behaviour (i.e. "Dire UN report warns climate change a threat to human security") is not more productive than emphasizing the gains of positive action and the benefits accrued by environmentally-friendly behaviours (Jenson, 2006; Morton et al., 2011).
This suggests there is a more effective means toward positive social change than finger-pointing, accusing, and fear-mongering.
Furthermore, consider social psychological research that shows the incredible power of collaboration in producing meaningful change. To the extent that we feel that we are working with (rather than against) each other, we almost invariably see higher motivational investment, resilience to impediment, and better performance outcomes (Bandura, 2000).
This is undoubtedly applicable to political discourse as well: "Policy outcomes do not depend merely on the relative success of opposing forces. They often turn on whether those forces can agree to support policies designed to produce mutual gains: for example, whether liberals and conservatives agree on what means to reduce budget deficits... and whether proindustry and environmentalist factions combine to promote efficient regulation" (Quirk, 1989).
We are now facing municipal and provincial elections that have direct implications for a number of the issues that currently divide Ontarians and Hamiltonians. The fate of funding for transit or a mid-peninsula highway in the Hamilton area is perhaps most prominent, but various other urban-suburban issues and common Hamilton fault lines will resurface: amalgamation, ward boundaries, infrastructure, levels of public services, and so on.
Officials have already begun putting themselves on various sides of these debates, reinforcing the enmity of our disagreements and perpetuating the cycle of linear causality.
'If only I can convince car users of their egregious sins,' says one camp.
'If only they could see that the billion dollars are a waste on LRT,' says another.
'They gamble with our tax dollars,' say some.
'They don't try anything new,' say others.
Insofar as we stuck convincing each other of the wrong-ness of alternative perspectives, we will remain a fractured community. We will become stagnant and entropic; and even if we still progress, we will do so to the chorus of resentment from those who were 'defeated.'
Here's where I stand: I want a politician, not who stands on my side of whatever line we have drawn in the sand, but who is able to resolve some of the current arguments in our local and provincial "family" by ending the cycle of finger-pointing, polarizing, and infantile bickering.
I want a populace that finds points of connection over common values and mutual commitment to positive change. I want both sides of whatever argument you can think of to recognize their own complicity in the conflict and start to lay the groundwork for an amicable resolution.
Bandura, A. (2000). Exercise of human agency through collective efficacy. Current directions in psychological science, 9(3), 75-78.
Jenson, J. D. (2006). "The advantages of compliance or the disadvantages of noncompliance? A meta-analytic review of the relative persuasive effectiveness of gain-framed and loss-framed messages." The Communication Yearbook, 30, 1-43.
Morton, T. A., Rabinovich, A., Marshall, D., & Bretschneider, P. (2011). The future that may (or may not) come: How framing changes responses to uncertainty in climate change communications. Global Environmental Change, 21(1), 103-109.
Quirk, P. J. (1989). The cooperative resolution of policy conflict. The American political science review, 905-921.
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