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On Oppression, Justice, Advocacy, Neutrality, and Peacebuilding -- Part 2
Newsletter 54 -- September 25, 2022
In This Newsletter
A short introduction by the Burgesses followed by Jackie Font-Guzmán and Bernie Mayer’s response to Guy and Heidi’s CRQ article and reflections on how it differ’s from Jackie and Bernie’s book The Neutrality Trap. Plus a listing of 11 useful, but “non-mainstream” conflict news sources.
From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors — Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess
Where We Are
This newsletter presents the second of a three-part exchange between Heidi and Guy Burgess and Jackie Font-Guzmán and Bernie Mayer which explores the tension between the ideas presented in the Burgess/Kaufman CRQ Feature article on hyper-polarization and the arguments Jackie and Bernie make in their recent book The Neutrality Trap. The previous Newsletter #53 included the entirety of the first two parts of this exchange, but gmail length limits do not permit us to include the entirety of the last two essays, as they were longer than the first two by quite a bit. To read the entirety of this essay, look for the link to the full post at the bottom of the section we include here. You can also see the full exchange, along with related submissions from other people on our Oppression, Justice, Advocacy, Neutrality, and Peacebuilding "Topic Page"
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The False Flag of Hyper-Polarization A Response to Guy and Heidi Burgess’ Critique of The Neutrality Trap
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” Desmond Tutu
Exploring Our Differences
Thanks for your pointed and thoughtful response to our book. We appreciate you posing some very significant questions, especially those raising concerns about hyper-polarization in our society and the response that this calls for from conflict interveners and peacebuilders.
Perhaps perversely, what we most appreciate is that your approach to these questions is so different and in many ways opposite to ours. This certainly helps to engender a discussion that we feel is critical for the long-term relevance of the conflict intervention field.
As you have made clear, we have some profound differences on this. Perhaps, most significantly, we believe that you are mistaking a symptom—hyper-polarization—for the essential problem. As a result, you propose an approach that in our view will not work and– no doubt unintentionally – is profoundly supportive of a status quo and power structure that we see as the cause of the hyper-polarization you describe.
A second major concern is your suggestion that all sides of the political spectrum are equally to blame for hyper-polarization. We see this as a case of false equivalence and an example of what we have called the neutrality trap. This leads you to suggest that the road through the mess we are in is for conflict professionals to maintain a “neutral” stance in order to facilitate a better understanding between conservatives and progressives, whom you argue share equal responsibility for hyper-polarization and the problems that flow from this. We believe this fails to recognize the damage being done to our social and political culture by continued social inequalities and their protection by existing structures and institutions that impose and maintain hierarchies of power.
We face an incredibly dangerous set of challenges which we must be able to name if we are going to deal with them effectively. Conflict professionals have an important role to play in this, but not by buying into the argument that all sides are equally to blame or by finding euphemisms for authoritarianism, colonialism, racism or the other structural roots of the current crisis.
Your approach is not a new one. The response of many conflict practitioners to almost every major social crisis is to call for facilitated dialogue and mediation across our differences and to highlight the role that we can play in breaking through seemingly intractable conflicts. To be clear (especially in view of your significant misinterpretation of our beliefs about this), we very much value dialogue and connecting with those with whom we disagree. We believe that this is a necessary part of social change and that we must do this in the spirit of seeking understanding and, where possible, common ground. Each of us has participated in and conducted many dialogues of this nature and at many of the different levels you call for.
But dialogue alone has not changed the polarization you describe. Despite many efforts (by some very able and experienced mediators and facilitators) to bring people together across the political and cultural spectrum, polarization has become worse, far worse. We well remember M.I.T Professor Larry Susskind’s passionate plea to remain neutral in the face of Trump’s election in 2017 (which you have republished) and his promise that we would not regret resisting the temptation to speak out in a partisan manner. Unfortunately, this has not led to the results intended. To be sure, achieving a significant breakthrough in the intense polarization we are all concerned with is probably beyond the capacity of our field, no matter what we do.
We are, however, in a position to support or interfere with the development of progressive social movements. We are therefore very concerned that your argument does not consider just how easy it is for an incipient social movement to be sidetracked into problem solving efforts that do not take a long-term view, or deal with systemic problems, and are instead primarily oriented towards system maintenance rather than system change. Activists are often caught between advocating in an effective and sometimes disruptive way for change or participating in a time-consuming and morale sapping dialogue process that does not deal with the underlying systemic problems that affect peoples’ lives.
We are not saying, as you suggest, that we should only enter into a discussion with those who agree with us already. We are committed to reaching out to those we disagree with where and when we can. But we also believe that to genuinely connect across our differences requires that we be transparent about our beliefs and values. Otherwise, the connections we create will neither authentic nor enduring.
You promote the idea of “thinking outside the box” but your prescriptions seem limited by a rather constrained box. To us they suggest a rigid duality that offers us the choice of either acting as neutrals and promoting constructive interaction or sharing our views and thereby making genuine interchange impossible. We don’t think this is the real choice we face. We believe that we need to be authentic and transparent about our own values and still find ways to connect across our differences. Whereas you believe this is impossible, we believe it is essential.
In response to some specific concerns that you raised:
1. Is our commitment to connecting sincere?
You mischaracterize our beliefs about this and in so doing question our sincerity about reaching out to those we are in conflict with when you said “While you do talk a lot about listening to "the other side" and learning how they think, that seems to be primarily for strategic reasons. Our impression is that you do not think that, by listening to the other side, you could be persuaded that progressives were wrong, and the conservatives were right on some key issues.”
We have clearly stated that reaching out across our differences and promoting dialogue is critical to social change and discuss this extensively throughout our book. We are confused as to why you see this as manipulative and insincere. The very title of our book makes clear our commitment to this. Reaching out across our differences is based on a desire to help all of us understand each other better, humanize one another and if possible identify ways forward. A substantial part of our professional lives has been focused on organizing and conducting just such dialogues, numerous examples of which we provide in our book. Furthermore, we go into some detail about how to evaluate the potential for dialogue and approaches to conducting them. But we don’t believe genuine efforts at connection are solely about listening to others with an open mind. They are also about sharing our beliefs and experiences in a powerful way, but one that makes it possible for others to hear us, as we work to hear them. Often, listening is the easiest part—sharing our own deeply held beliefs in a constructive way can be much harder. That is why story telling is so important.
2. Can we be persuaded that we are wrong?
It is a rhetorical canard to ask whether we can be persuaded that we are wrong. This is a misleading question similar to one that social activists face when they are urged to participate in a poorly constructed dialogue that they fear will paper over differences without going to their systems roots. In our book we say that constructive engagement requires that we be:
Open to engaging with alternative worldviews…. We do not have to accept other ideologies, but we need to be able to identify conflicts that arise out of a clash of worldviews and search for a way to discuss our differences on this basic level…. [we need to be] committed to relationship building…. it is also essential to build relationships across our differences. This does not mean we have to become friends with racists, for example but if we are trying to understand their motivations and life experiences and share our stories with them, we have to create a relational space to do so.” (pp. 83-84)
So are we open to changing our mind? We are open about some things, not about others, and on some issues only partially. For example, we are not about to look for compromises to accommodate racist or misogynist policies or beliefs, nor to refrain from sharing our views about these, but we are open to deepening our understanding and correcting our perceptions. This is not about being manipulative or rigid, but about being authentic. And it is what we expect of those whom we disagree with as well.
Special Edition I: Non-Mainstream Conflict News Sources
One of the nice features of our new Substack newsletter is that it encourages all newsletter publishers to recommend other "Substacks" that they find valuable. This has prompted us to devote the next two Colleague Activity and Beyond Intractability in Context sections of our newsletter to highlighting Substack newsletters (and other non-mainstream sources of news and commentary) that we have found especially useful in illuminating the complexity of the intractable conflict and hyper-polarization problems. In highlighting these sources, we should be clear that, like any news source, only some of the articles published are related to our interests and that we often disagree with the arguments being made. Still, taken together, these sources provide an important window into the complex issues we face — a window that is often missing from mainstream sources that seem increasingly tied to the orthodoxies of the left and the right. As Beyond Intractability's exploration of the hyper-polarization problem progresses, we will highlight articles from these sources that we find especially useful.
Types of Constructive Conflict Projects
The Fulcrum — From The Bridge Alliance, "a platform where insiders and outsiders to politics are informed, meet, talk, and act to repair our democracy and make it live and work in our everyday lives."
Big Picture Thinking Examples
The Dot Connecters — A blog from Chip Hauss, one of the early forces behind BI and someone who taught us much about the importance of leaving one's "comfort zone" and listening to people from different perspectives.
Reliable Problem Assessments
Slow Boring — From Matthew Yglesias, a newsletter that specializes on going beyond feel-good policy slogans and really engaging (but in an understandable way) complex issues.
Race / Anti-Racism
Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism — FAIR offers a broad critique of mainstream diversity, equity, and inclusion programs along with a promising and less provocative strategy for achieving the same goals.
Countering Disinformation Efforts
Common Sense — From Bari Weiss, who first alerted us to many instances in which (like right-leaning media) left-leaning media was being distorted by audience resistance to stories that challenge prevailing orthodoxies.
Persuasion — From Yascha Mounk, a community-building effort and first-rate blog focused on approaching today's controversies in the spirit of persuasive argument rather than us-vs-them politics.
Developing a Unifying Common Vision
NetworkWeaver — For a time when hyper-polarization is driving us ever further apart, a project and a blog focused on strengthening the networks that bring us together.
Reliable Problem Assessments
The Honest Broker by Roger Pielke Jr. — A newsletter focused on science, public policy and, especially, climate change that, in being critical of much of mainstream coverage, argues for more effective climate change policies.
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