Tatters of Gingham and Scraps of Calico

Thinking about conflict lately sent me back to Speed Leas, who wrote about Church conflict. Leas describes five levels of conflict through objectives and use of language. As I held his work up to the current public discourse, it gave me the shivers. Here is a very brief description of Leas’ work:

Level One: Problems to Solve. The objective is to work out a solution to the problem. The focus remains on an amicable resolution to the conflict. Those operating at this level do not perceive the conflict as person-oriented, but as a problem which needs to be solved, confident that good solutions are discoverable. Language is straight-forward and present-centered. There are no hidden agendas.

Level Two: Disagreements. There is an increased guardedness and a felt need for self-protection. Statements move from specifics to generalizations. Compromise is the perceived solution for dealing with differences.

Level Three: Contests. Conflict becomes a contest with a zero-sum, winners and losers. Winning is all that matters; losers must be debased. Perceptions become distorted. “Although it occurs infrequently, healthy resolution of conflict at this level is still possible.”

Level Four: Fight/Flight. The objective becomes to hurt the opponent, or to get rid of them. Being right and punishing those who are wrong. Language is general, terms like ‘truth, freedom, justice’ become the center of the arguments, abandoning the specific issues that began the disagreement.

Level Five: Intractable Solutions. Conflict run amok. The objective is to destroy the opponent at any cost.

Leas says, “The first two levels are easy to work with; the third is tough; the fourth and fifth levels are very difficult and impossible.”

All of this is currently taking place within the framework of what feels like a world-wide rise in hostility, nationalism, anger, and racism. It feels as if we are operating entirely in levels three, four, and five. We have completely abandoned the idea of working together to find a solution for our common problems. Despicable labels like ‘fascism’ and ‘socialism’ are hurled; anyone who is not in one hundred percent agreement with us is referred to with insults and accusations of the vilest crimes. There seems to be a complete lack of respect and civility for anyone else. It feels as if the heat of this hostility has been growing rapidly over the past few years.

If Leas is right, and level three through five conflicts are essentially impossible to find resolution, then how do we push “reset” and back down the conflict level to a place where we can work together again? In my opinion, Leas isn’t much help in this department. He describes a situation without hope, then throws up his arms and walks away. Haugk, whose work in this area is informative, also has little if anything to say about how to restore civility and lower the conflict levels. His very short section is titled, “The (Mostly) False Hope for Change.” Haugk’s next chapter after that bit of sunshine is on the question of whether one should leave or not.

Leaving may work for the individual, but it doesn’t solve the underlying problems, nor does it really lower the conflict level, and it is only a viable option for a very small number of people. Before the 2016 election, some people threatened to leave the country and go live somewhere else if their candidate was not elected. Maybe one of the people I knew actually followed through on that. That strategy may work for a very few, but it is not a national solution.

I remember one other person who threatened to leave the country over the results of a Presidential election (in the 1970’s) and did. He moved to Australia. In a few years, he came back. There is an adage about the grass seeming to be greener on the other side of the fence that might apply here.

Since leaving isn’t a real option for most of us, and total destruction of those who disagree with our position is too frightening to contemplate, we are left with the task of figuring out how to reduce the conflict back down to levels one or two.

Eitan Hersh had a podcast appearance on Hidden Brain talking about a technique called “Deep Canvassing,” which claims to change the attitudes of people one time in ten. A ten percent success rate sounds pretty dismal, but it is better than no success at all. Deep Canvassing is basically an intense two-way conversation, expressing honest and real feelings, describing personal experiences which have led the canvasser to a particular point of view. The process involves honest, respectful connection and conversation, seeking to understand more than to coerce change.

What was that thing Jesus said? “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” -Matthew 5:43-47

Love those who have declared themselves to be my enemy? Treat with civility one who bombards me with insults, dismissals, and derogatory words? Open myself to hear the needs behind the voices that offer me only accusing, moralistic, judgmental generalizations? Respect the one who shows me only dis-respect? Oh, Jesus, you do set such a high bar. And yet, you do expect your followers to obey your teachings, even when the words are difficult to hear and go against our animal instincts.

Mutual respect; refusal to use or accept insults, put-downs, or derogatory comments, staying on subject, avoiding generalizations, genuinely listening to the perspectives and needs of “the other side.” Engaging in what Jan Lynn refers to as the tyranny of the minority. As difficult as these actions are, do they hold a realistic chance of reconciliation?

Can that work? Can it be as simple as insistently staying in that Level One and Two framework, insisting that conversation remain civil and focused on solving the problem at hand without insults or hostility or the need to win, or destroy the one who sees the issue differently? Is that enough to change the destructive tone of our recent civil discourse?

We do have some significant issues in this country: the national budget and national debt, education, healthcare, the range of incomes, racism, our contribution to global climate change. All of these are very important, and they are not in any particular order of importance. Plus, I am sure I have left out some important ones.

We have significant problems to solve, and they demand we work together to reach the best solutions. Because that is what communities do, we come together to solve our common problems. We are not a gaggle of people who happen to live near one another. We are, like it or not, a community, and we will thrive or fail based on our willingness to work together. We can find solutions to problems and we can resolve disagreements with civility and mutual respect, but only if we are able to lower the heat of our conflicts back into those zones where problem solving is possible.

One of the poems my mother read to me when I was a child was about the gingham dog and the calico cat whose epic battle utterly destroys them both, leaving no trace of either one.

If we fail to address this underlying hostility, we will destroy ourselves; there will be nothing left but pain and suffering and the scraps and tatters of a once-great nation. What a shame that will be. Centuries from now, historians will write about how this powerful, resource-rich nation destroyed itself from within, and America will become a by-word for failure and shame.

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