Addressing the Skeptics And Moving Forward
Newsletter 68 -- January 10, 2023
New Newsletter Format With this newsletter, we are switching, on a trial basis, to a new newsletter format (one that more closely parallels other Substack newsletters). Instead of having a few long newsletters with lots of sections, we decided to have more, shorter newsletters focused on particular sections and, sometimes, particular articles within each section. This newsletter contains the last segment of our second discussion framing article on thinking of democracy as a conflict-handling system, and also discusses where we plan to go from here. Subsequent newsletters will focus on the latest contributions to the Hyper-Polarization Discussion and links to articles from our Colleague Activities and Beyond Intractability in Context sections. Let us know what you think of the new format.
From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors
Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess
In our last newsletter we introduced the idea of Massively Parallel Peacebuilding (MPP) as a way to respond to all of the things that need doing that we presented earlier in the "Things that Need Doing Matrix." We realized at the time that the matrix was was pretty daunting. But we believed then (and still do) that MPP is a sensible and do-able way of addressing the immense complexity of the problems we face. We ended our paper with a section entitled "Addressing the Concerns of the Skeptics" — expecting that there would be plenty of them! We are posting that essay below.
But first, let us say that as we talked about what should come next — for this newsletter and for our future contributions to the blog/discussion — we decided that it was time to switch gears from looking at the nature and depth of our problems, to looking at the many solutions that are already underway. Over the last six months, since the discussion has started, we have learned a tremendous amount from those of you who have participated. And we have gotten connected with and introduced to many people and organizations that we didn't know about before who are doing wonderful things — all contributing in different ways to addressing a wide array of related problems: not just hyper- or toxic polarization, but backsliding democracy, inequity and inequality, injustice, decision making stalemate, ineffective governance, etc. There are a whole array of interlinked problems, and we want to broaden our focus to deal with all of them.
The exciting thing, to us, is that there is so much activity already happening to address these challenges! People don't call it MPP, and they certainly haven't read our essay and started to do something because of it. But many, many people seem to agree that working in parallel with many others doing many different things is he best way to address the scale and complexity of the problem.
So for everyone who is despairing about the direction we are going, we don't deny there are big challenges ahead. But what may not be nearly as evident as it should be, and we're hoping to use this platform to help change that, is that there are also millions of people and organizations working in many different locations and many different sectors of activity trying to address these problems.
What they need is help! We need many more people and more organizations to stop complaining about everything that's bad, stop blaming someone else and relying on someone else to "fix it," and start working ourselves to make it better! In the next of our new, more frequent newsletters, we will be highlighting a wonderfully inspiring talk recently given by Anne Leslie, a security expert at IBM and a member of Project Seshat — a project that we are also participating in (along with about 50 other people) looking at the way negotiations are being attacked in the context of "gray zone" or "hybrid" campaigns associated with increasing geopolitical tensions. Anne's talk, ostensibly on that topic, was actually much broader than that, looking at how one should go about dealing with any challenging, complex, and dangerous situation. She ended by saying :"the starting point is a belief that we can be better. But we have to believe and want to be better." and then she quoted Noam Chomsky saying "Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, it’s unlikely you will step up and take responsibility for making it so. If you assume that there’s no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things. There's a chance you may contribute to making a better world. The choice is yours."
We are going to start highlighting people and organizations who are trying to change things for the better. Now, as promised, our last section from our second discussion "framing essay."
While we have gotten many positive comments about massively parallel peacebuilding and related ideas, some people found them too complex and overwhelming and very few found it compelling enough to drop what they were doing and start doing something different. We have several responses to these concerns.
First, most people don't have to stop doing what they are doing and do something different — they just need to stop doing things in ways that make things worse. We are not asking anyone to stop their current job and become a mediator. But we are asking mediators to think about ways they can engage on higher levels or teach their clients about listening and other conflict management skills instead of solving their problems for them each and every time. And we are asking others to look at the way they engage with other people, read the news, interpret current events, and interact on social media. We hope many more organizations will add trainings on conflict skills so many more people come to understand how to solve problems using power-with strategies, instead of relying on power-over approaches, which are so dominant now. And we hope, once more people come to understand the benefits of this approach to problem solving, they will start voting for politicians who act this way, instead of voting for bad-faith actors who actually want to destroy our democracy rather than save it.
Second, yes, this is a huge undertaking, but it has precedents. Consider the global response to climate change. In many ways the effort to address the hyper-polarization problem is analogous to the early stages of the climate change movement when a small group of people were starting the process of persuading society that the threat posed by climate change was serious enough to require shifting to a new and not yet fully invented energy system. Due to the success of this effort, everyone now knows what the problem is (even if they don't believe it, they know about it). And huge numbers of people around the world are trying to address it. The response isn't yet enough; we need to do more. But think how much worse it might be if no one had done anything!
And, it seems likely that the political polarization problem is actually more tractable than climate change. The changes people would need to make to fix political polarization would likely be significantly easier than the changes we are asking people to make to combat climate change (like giving up cars and planes and fossil fuels.) Reducing polarization is easier!
And there other precedents for such large-scale actions. There actually are many. Some, unfortunately, are the mobilizations to wage war, but others were to bring about major social changes: the U.S. civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the women's movement, the marriage equality movement in the United States, are all examples of such massive mobilizations. Even if you don't agree with the goals of one or more of those movements, it can't be doubted that they did engage millions of people and accomplished significant change. So again, citing Boulding's First Law: if it exists, it must be possible. Massive social change IS possible if people decide they want to work at it!
We talk about other precedents in the video/lecture, Why MPP Isn't Such a Crazy Idea, which we put together when we were just starting to develop the massively parallel peacebuilding concept. It explains more about why we believe that massively parallel problem-solving is the way that societies have historically dealt with large-scale challenges (and did amazing things like build the open-source software that runs so much of the Internet).
In the context of Adam Smith's invisible hand, it is also worth noting that this analysis highlights a great many opportunities for the next generation of conflict scholars, educators, and practitioners who could build their careers, advance the frontier of the field, and make a critical contribution toward building a brighter future for all of us. While these insights and techniques are, we think, a "necessary" part of the solution, they are a long way from "sufficient." The goal of the original CRQ article and the follow-on article on thinking of democracy as a conflict handling system was is to highlight aspects of the problem that have, thus far, been mostly beyond the reach of the current generation of conflict resolution and peacebuilding practitioners . We sought to suggest ways in which we might be able to form partnerships that will enable us to better engage the remaining problems.
And, we are learning from the response to these two articles and the ensuing discussion that a lot of this is already underway! Our new goal is to highlight what's being done, and recruit as many more people as we can to contribute to it!
About the MBI Newsletters
Once a week, or so, we the BI Directors share some thoughts, along with new posts from the Hyper-polarization Blog and and useful links from other sources. We used to put this all together in one newsletter which went out once or twice a week, but we are now experimenting with breaking the Newsletter up into several separate sections. Each Newsletter will be posted on BI, and sent out by email through Substack to subscribers. You can sign up to receive your copy here and find the latest newsletter here on our Newsletter page. Past newsletters can be found in the Newsletter Archive.
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