Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ecology of struggle: Permanent change

We frequently hear and may even use phrases such as "settle once and for all," or "permanent agreement," "fix this for good." These may be meant to be metaphorical or tongue-in-cheek hyperbolic, but that seems unclear to many and the package of assumptions affixed to any such thinking should be unpacked and dealt with or nonviolent civil society may gain a bit of awkward power and quickly lose it, inviting unwanted results. In short, the fabulous gain of obtaining an agreement with another party in a conflict is a bit like buying an apple tree with the goal of espaliering it against your sunny south-facing brick wall. Just as training your apple tree to grow flat against the wall takes up to five years of close time-consuming pruning, monitoring, bending, tying, and blossom-picking, so too will your conflict require high maintenance post-agreement or it may grow inevitably back into destructive conflict.

The only permanent reality is change. Even a well made machine eventually rusts--"stainless" steel is not stain-proof. Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis and ecosystem management rely on shifting forces to maintain the appearance of homeostasis, or ecological stability predicated upon self-regulation. Diversity and systemic adjustments are the only constant requirement for best security and stability. If civil society finally discovers and uses its latent power, it will be best served to self-analyze and learn to keep that power in reserve. This is the difference internally between a healthy democracy and one that is more like two corn snakes in an otherwise empty terrarium, eying each other not as mates but as meals. Indeed, this is what we see increasingly in the US democracy, looking like a beta version of something that missed its chance to evolve.

An agreement may help prevent a conflict from deteriorating into a protracted destructive conflict. It can help to settle one contested issue among many or to manage how the conflict is waged. The conflict may escalate moderately and be settled and then escalate constructively again and be settled again repeatedly. The struggle remains within bounds the adversaries regarded as legitimate or as acceptable, oscillating in moderate intensity (Kriesberg, 2007, p. 294).

This constructive conflict that accepts and even requires periodic escalation is the difference between the assertion of a healthy relationship and the passive-aggressive dysfunction we see so often when we believe that we've solved something "once and for all." We are correct with the "once" but incorrect with either "for all time" or "for all parties." This is simply how our infinitely complex human systems operate and they require devotion to process or the process becomes explosive and toxic.

There are always conflict management systems in place or there are accumulating grievances. This axiomatic for a relationship of any kind. We all develop small grievances as we engage in any relationship and there are two places we can put them. One is on our stack of grievances that are openly heading for management. These are going on the agenda and will be handled in a civil and transparent fashion. The others are going into the trash can that never gets emptied, where they attract emotional rats and pathogens, festering and spreading out into other areas, affecting other relationships, and giving a false sense of security, much like recruiting an armed force of the poorest young men and women, training them to kill, and equipping them with a deadly arsenal, as though that will manage conflict. What we see instead is this loots our economy, prevents our growth as a mature society that can engage meaningfully with others, poisons our environment and sets up a dynamic of intimidation and resentment, invasion and resistance, between our society and others.

Agreements are great beginnings. A well constructed agreement is one that provides for adaptive management and one that agrees to devote resources to managing the conflicts that are natural sequelae to any agreement between conflicting parties. A good agreement assumes that constructive escalation is a desirable phase of any nonviolent conflict management systemic design, a safety feature that ensures creativity forever, once and for all, permanently (ha). This is an ecology of peace, a system of dialectical structural nonviolence.

Kriesberg, L. (2007). Constructive conflicts: From escalation to resolution. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield.


Brynn said...

Nicely written. I like the idea of conflict needing maintenance over time. While some do not need maintenance, most of them do in one way or another, as our relationships are built on our experiences with others and so our expectations of an individual may stem from how we once handled a conflict with that individual. So even if you are no longer fighting with that person, you may hold negative emotions about that person when it comes to engaging with them on tough issues, and visa versa. Through Kriesberg and others I have learned that many agreements could need to be made before arriving at the ultimate agreement or settlement. We don't consciously go through the process of making many agreements, but everyone does it in every disagreement that they at least attempt to work out non-violently.

Creepy snake photo. I love snakes and have one, so snake eating snake disturbs me.

Tom H. Hastings said...

Yes, sorry for the snake photo. I actually looked for one of shrews, which I also like a lot, and found cannibalizing snakes instead. After I wrote this, I questioned my own use of the word beta after using the snake metaphor, since snakes are our evolutionary elders and we are in no position to judge them. Good notes, and I agree that we cannot find time to process every conflict forever, just the ones that we prioritize. We need time to create fresh conflict with others!