Monday, June 25, 2012

Conflict, culture, and our natural ostrich nature

Most days most of us would like to avoid most conflict. Yes, there are drama queens (and I mean this in a gender-inclusive sense), but they are rare, even though they can be disruptive enough to attract everyone's attention. But most of us are conflict avoidant most of the time. Is there a happier ground between the two dysfunctions?

One interesting piece of how this works out is that we can only avoid the conflict insofar as our circumstances allow. Our circumstances, of course, include the culture into which we were born and in which we usually remain. How does culture affect the idea of conflict avoidance?

Some cultures adapt to overwhelming outside forces by developing a pattern of retreat in order to survive, while others, often the aggressors, develop a pattern of virtually leaping into conflict. Obviously, individuals vary widely in their responses, but cultures produce tendencies.

The more universal trend is for those of us who are woven tightly into another's life to seek resolution to a conflict with that person, whether it's immediately or eventually. Anthropologist Douglas P. Fry notes that tendency from culture to culture, "The period of avoidance tends to be shorter among interdependent persons than among independent ones" (2005, p. 24).

So, do we valorize stubborn refusal to engage in conflict or do we honor methods of conflict engagement that seek solutions? The ideas surrounding forgiveness and reconciliation vary greatly from culture to culture, and this is connected to independence and interdependence. In a large anonymous culture it is far easier to stop communicating or otherwise interacting with another person or organization than it is in a culture that is smaller with stronger connections between and among individuals. Fry reports, for example, that even the victims and perpetrators of theft often restart working interpersonal relationships after just a day or some other short period in a highly interdependent culture. 

This is directly relevant to our increasingly uncivil and malfunctioning political system in the US, one that features the illusion of independence at every turn, and thus encourages the cessation of relationships that are too tricky, too time-consuming, too numerous to maintain. Engage in conflict attack and then move on, ignoring the other party from that moment forward. How many relationships in our lives are getting the silent treatment? Usually too many to upkeep, and so it persists.

Conflict takes time and energy and we all only have those resources in limited amounts. However, if we use that as our default logic to avoid conflict in our overpopulated culture, we risk a pattern of disposable relationships and only further atomize our lives and culture, something that can erode all our work toward peace and nonviolence. It's a bit like the information overload; we see many of our citizens who give up and choose ignorance. My advice to myself is to compromise; read at least one or two news stories daily and don't get submerged by it all. Similarly, if a conflict arises, perhaps there is time and energy for proper processing. If we can at least make those attempts within reason, our culture will show increasing signs of civility and a greater degree of functionality. Right now we see the opposite trends and only we, together, can reverse this slide.

Fry, D. P. (2005). The human potential for peace: An anthropological challenge to assumptions about war and violence. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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