What if we stopped believing that peace and conflict are mutually exclusive?
Shakespeare understood that we are, all of us, hypocrites – a series of contradictions. My newsfeed confirms that no amount of evidence can stand up against our ability to rationalize. We form most of our beliefs by working backwards – by first holding a belief and then fitting the facts to suit whatever our conviction might be.
Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance revolves around the idea that humans will seek to eliminate dissonance in their lives. This dissonance would be defined as any set of conflicting beliefs. He hypothesized that this dissonance creates distress that people will seek to reduce. While I believe this to be true, I would argue that we do not typically seek to reduce the contradictions in our beliefs by carefully and openly evaluating them to determine what holds the most truth and value for us.
Instead, in a modern world driven by polarizations, we more often reduce intellectual contradictions through acrobatic rationalization – by redefining our realities and shaving off the edges of the puzzle pieces to make them fit together. Known by many names, including “confirmation bias” and “selective perception,” this well-documented process of rationalization has been the subject of decades of study in psychology.
And these days, it’s an epidemic.
A Rationalized World
Take, as an example, the American demonization of Mexican immigrants. Defying all logic, they are stereotyped and dehumanized as both ‘lazy’ (a burden on the American social welfare system) and ‘stealing jobs from Americans’ simultaneously. Even if one is willing to entertain such ridiculous generalizations, one should logically conclude those two traits are mutually exclusive. Clearly both are false, but it doesn’t matter. When it’s ‘us’ vs. ‘them,’ the truth doesn’t matter at all. That’s the point. Logic doesn’t matter. As the saying goes, the first casualty of war is truth – and the same can be said not just in war, but in any construction of the ‘other’.
So let’s push this idea further. It isn’t just indicative of our disastrous ability to rationalize, but also of the way that rationalization effects how we relate to each other on every level. By always needing to frame disagreements and conflict through an us vs. them lens, there is no space for critical thought. Through that familiar frame, the goal in conflict is never to listen or learn – but only to win. And if the goal is only ever to win, then empathy, or worse – changing your mind – becomes the definition of defeat.
Defined this way, conflict was never about reason, never about dialogue, or our right to communicate our ideas – it was about power, about winning (and, of course, about the other guy losing). Because within the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ frame, it is winning that makes you right. So then what need is there to listen or address the concerns of the ‘losers’? There is none, because the battle has been won. Only the “winner” in this could possibly believe that this system isn’t completely discordant to peace. And so here we are.
The Wrong Questions
Our ideas about what conflict is (and what winning means) are woven into everything we do. Through this ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ frame, conflict is bad and inherently threatening. It is something to be ‘won’ as opposed to understood or addressed. But creativity and art are both the product of conflict, as is progress. Resolution exists on the other side of conflict, and our insistence on this destructively oversimplified frame clouds our basic understanding of what conflict really is. And if our understanding of conflict is wrong, what hope is there for resolution?
Many of our attempts at defining peace incorporate an absence of conflict. But what if peace isn’t an absence of conflict? What if peace looks more like meaningful conflict? What if we need to understand conflict before we can understand what this elusive peace would look like? What if all this theorizing is useless when we run from or react violently to any actual conflict presented to us?
Stepping Back to Move Forward
Our current notions of peace are not peace at all – much in the same way that Orwell defined each ministry in 1984 by giving it a name opposite to it’s function. In many ways – from terrorism to COIN (counter-insurgency) – it seems our own governments have followed Orwell’s example. The things we do in the name of ‘peace’, much like ‘democracy’ and ‘liberation’, look remarkably unlike the ideals these words are suggestive of. Whose peace? Whose liberation? Our ability to rationalize appears limitless.
If we are ever going to overcome the hypocrisy built in to the narratives that surround us (and the narratives we tell ourselves), we need to realize that we have everything to learn from each other – that what we see as an ‘other’ is really just a ‘different us.’ We need to look at what conflict consists of, not simply what it’s outcomes are. We need to acknowledge that peace is neither silent nor passive. It’s active and authentic – just as anger and fear and discord are also authentic and part of the same system. Maybe somewhere in this radical reflection we’ll realize that peace and conflict are not separate things at all.
What if we actually did seek to reduce the contradictions in our beliefs by carefully and openly evaluating them to determine what holds the most truth and value for all of us? It would teach us that peace IS conflict – conflict entered into with coherency and empathy. They are part of the same broken process – and separating them from each other is actually what broke that process in the first place.