Thursday, July 26, 2012

Going, going, Negative!

Avoid negatives.
--Johan Galtung (2004, p. 10)
Conflict work includes de-escalation and preparing conditions for constructive management of the conflict. Conflict workers, says Johan Galtung, are advised to avoid negatives. Is this good advice? Is it possible?
For those who advocate, going negative is easy and tempting. I hate the violence that guns commit, for example, and I confess I also have come to hate guns and the thought processes that make them so desirable to so many Americans. Going negative when I write about guns and those who fight for more of them or who fight against gun control is something I succumb to, especially in the aftermath of something as egregious as the Aurora, Colorado shootings. 

But I know better. I am like the smoker who reads the label, believes in the research, and still lights up. As I type words that label gun lovers I know I'm being counterproductive and yet I do it. My anger overwhelms the finesse that I know will actually help. My rage at gun violence prompts my inner combative nature and my disgust with Americans who own guns in general and at those who defend guns in particular, and who argue against gun restrictions even more. I think of the young people whose lives were ended and, at age 61, I feel deep remorse and revulsion that all those years of life were robbed from innocent people. I go negative.

And then I get the pushback, the responses from those who feel attacked by me, and I either escalate or I begin to do actual conflict work that I know is effective, that I know how to do. I try to recover from my failure to heed Galtung and all the other outstanding conflict mentors. Sometimes I make the catch and sometimes I drop the entire ballgame.

Politics is an ambiguous, dangerous animal, often more negative than anything east of an actual gunfight--and, as we know from von Clausewitz, that gunfight is considered politics by other means. In a 2010 metastudy, Carraro and Castelli synthesize the findings of three research reports into a basic assessment of the tendencies of readers or viewers to respond to negative political messages in two ways. One, they perceive the source--the candidate making the negative message--as less and less of a warm human being. Two, they elevate their opinion of the candidate engaging in the attack as more competent. 

Yikes. So, what does this mean? That the tribe of Affable Americans will never see one of their own elected president? Or that we may elect someone who refuses to go negative but that we regard her as a friendly moron?

Balance is probably key. Yes, avoid negatives, as Galtung warns, but also bear in mind the first piece of principled negotiation, which is to separate the person from the problem. Or, in spiritual terms, hate the sin but love the sinner. Going negative about outcomes and behaviors--but not the people--is probably a good way to establish that there is a conflict and that you are competent to articulate your thoughts about it, but that you are respectful of every party to the conflict. You set the stage for actual progress. 

I know this research and I believe in it, but I still want to light up on those white male Republicans who love guns more than they love the children who are killed by the thousands every year in this nation with those tools of death, guns. So much for my warmth. Sigh. Maybe with a few more lifetimes I can learn to love the perps and show some warmth. In the meanwhile, I won't run for office.

Carraro, L., & Castelli, L. (2010). The Implicit and Explicit Effects of Negative Political Campaigns: Is the Source Really Blamed?. Political Psychology, 31(4), 617-645. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9221.2010.00771.x

Galtung, J. (2004). Transcend and transform: An introduction to conflict work. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

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