What’s conflict?

Students in the Master of Fine Arts course at Slade, University College London, have put together a collection of their work. They chose the theme of conflict and all the pieces reflect on it in one way or another. The collection ranges from internal conflict to open war, from the personal to the political and back again. They asked me to write a foreword and as a result I had (the opportunity) to think about some things from the bottom up. Here is what I wrote:

The fundamental issue in relations between people is how to manage conflict. That’s true for relations between individuals, between states, and at every level in between.

Whether people can manage their disputes productively and caringly will decide whether or their relationship – whether as friends, partners, colleagues, whatever – will continue.

And what distinguishes countries and societies that are moving forward and improving the conditions and autonomy of ordinary people from those countries and societies that are marking time or regressing is their capacity for handling conflict. This basically comes down to the state of their social and governmental institutions for handling conflict. Countries such as, say, Sweden or the Netherlands are very different in many ways from, for example, Colombia or Burundi. But the differences that define their prospects of peace and prosperity can, without too much simplification, be mostly described in terms of their institutions for handling conflict.

Conflict is not always bad. In a relationship, sometimes you just have to clear the air; better to get the issue out into the open in the form of a conflict than let it fester quietly away.

And for countries, conflict is often necessary. There is no social and political progress without it: no votes for women without a struggle, few human rights without standing up and demanding them, we would still be stuck in feudalism or slavery with unimaginably worse social inequalities than persist today. We will not get a better society without conflict.

But the question is whether and how we can manage it so that it is productive rather than destructive, leads to progress. Worldwide, 1.5 billion people – around one fifth of the world’s population – live under the threat of large scale political and/or criminal violence. And much of the conflict that generates that violence is stuck in stagnant, malignant, repetitive cycles.

Though conflict can be good, even when it is not violent it can mean getting  bogged down, with the engine revolving and roaring madly but not producing anything except the pain of excess noise. And of course it can produce violence.

It might be said that one way of handling conflict is through negotiation and the search for agreement on a new synthesis between initially incompatible positions. And another way of handling it is with violence.

But when violence starts, it all too often gets out of control. And the idea of managing conflcist by using something that is largely unmanageable just won’t work. That is true for just about ay level of violence. Between people, it is hard to sustain a good relationship after physical force has been used, whatever the provocation and however uncharacteristic it was of the person who did it. And at a completely different level, using armed force in Libya to protect civilians from the brutality of Qaddafi’s dictatorship is an understandable impulse – but the use of violence even for good purposes has already done harm and risks doing a great deal more. As an instrument of policy, violence is hard to use with control and, therefore, with very much certainty about the outcome.

Which makes it all the more unfortunate that so many political leaders of different political stripes are attracted so often to trying to do good through violence.

Conflict is not a homogenous entity. It is one name for many different things. Political, personal, industrial and corporate conflicts – they are all very different, they have very different kinds of causes and they unfold in different ways. Even so, there are some generalisations you can make.

Number one: conflict is very rarely about what it’s about. Heated arguments are rarely settled by figuring out who has the best argument – because that’s not what they’re about. And most wars have other causes than the noble ones the protagonists try to claim for themselves.

Because of that, addressing conflict often feels like peeling away the layers of an onion. Think of virtually any dispute within a family. And then think about the Israel-Palestine conflict. If it is ever going to be resolved, they are going to have to go several layers down to find a reasonable settlement. If current leaders on either side and the international political figures who are trying to broker agreement do not seem the kind of people who instinctively look several layers down – that might say something about the prospects of achieving a sustainable peace.

One of the difficulties with trying to resolve conflicts is that they change. The conflict isn’t about what it’s about but after a while, what it’s about changes at both the level where it’s articulated and at the deeper levels. Violent conflict reproduces itself. Such hateful things get done that mutual hatred becomes the main hindrance to achieving a peace agreement.

All this makes peace an unstable, chancy process. Peace may be pretty much universally desired but that doesn’t make it easy to achieve. As many peace agreements get broken as not. Ceasefire agreements are often not much more than a chance to reload.

An American wit, Ambrose Bierce, defined peace as a period of cheating that falls between two periods of fighting.

But peace could also be called the period when people increasingly learn how to pursue their conflicts without damage – whether to individuals, to communities or whole societies – so they manage to build a better future. It’s not as witty but in every other way it’s better – more accurate, more honest and more generous. And because it is ambitious, also more realistic.

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