The Nature of Conflict

Is our default state harmony or conflict? A post-Eden view might suggest conflict. We seek harmony but in a flawed way through our flawed selves. We desire closeness in relationships but are inclined to lapse into dysfunction. Until what? What is the contingency that will unravel this Gordian mess?
Consider the ideal state of a market economy: all rational economic actors motivated by their own self-interest magically contributing to an outcome that, in the aggregate (if not for everyone) is beneficial to the whole economy. Out of self-interest comes harmony – benign conflict. The wisdom is in the multiplicity of individuals struggling to optimize their own outcomes. No higher purpose; no overarching social good. Such big picture goals are doomed to fail because not all outcomes are knowable. Strategic goals are like supertankers: slow to navigate obstacles. Strategy architects become invested in target outcomes and are therefore biased against course corrections that undermine the original blueprints.
Alternatively, we need a strategy. Societies and economies are long-term projects. Absent vision and well-thought policies, outcomes are too haphazard and will ignore stewardship of natural assets such as biodiversity and the ability of the planet to absorb carbon dioxide. How does the tragedy of the commons unfold in circumstances where all pursue exploitation of available but exhaustible resources? Rising above immediate self-interest to take an enlightened view of an interconnected economic reality requires an effort of imagination.
Corporations are inherently selfish stewards of their shareholders’ interests – in theory. Notwithstanding their legal personality, corporations comprise self-interested employees whose incentives are diverse. Arguably, as the pyramid broadens, the incentives are less aligned with shareholder interests and more with the maximization of take-home pay and minimizing the effort required to ensure continuity and longevity. C-Suite incentives are typically designed to be different: compensation is higher and expectations of strategic thinking are greater. Moral deficiencies are in sharper focus and can undermine not only shareholder interests but the interests of all stakeholders, destroying the goodwill and trust on which corporate employment is built.
Corporations are larger scale, institutional, individual rational economic actors that have greater leverage in shaping economic outcomes. Politicians are supposed to ensure a level playing field and supervise fair play. Their behaviour does not always reflect this ideal…
Back to conflict. In Congress, State Legislatures, Local Government (Zoning Boards), churches, country clubs, conflict abounds. The nature and extent of this conflict does not correlate to the purpose of the body. It is a function only of the presence of people, the individual agents of conflict. Some find it energizing; most find it stressful, lose sleep, seek to avoid.
The field of psychology holds these truths to be inalienable: people must feel understood, appreciated, be given the benefit of the doubts, be treated as an equal, be treated respectfully and have the freedom to decide. These truths might be described as conflict mitigants. Why are they not more widely used as such? Ignorance perhaps, together with the illusion that imposing one’s will on another is some kind of personal victory. Arguments to justify this behaviour are plenty. Typically, a core belief is cited to justify the end. This might be political philosophy; it might be a core religious or moral belief. If abortion is bad, then stopping abortion is good and all who hold an opposite point of view are also advocating something bad. And so it goes.
In a book called “Living” by Kerry Egan, the author advocates a world view more tolerant of the grey zone, as opposed to a world view that is either black or white. Rarely are difficult and complex issues of human action and interaction black and white. Grey is itself a kind of harmony, a blending of black and white, a denial of either extreme as the defining picture.
The vision of the Garden of Eden was black and white: you may eat of all the trees in the garden except this one. Simple, clear, unattainable. Perhaps mankind was simply not designed for black and white. Black and white is always conflict. The mission is to listen, to blend, to embrace the grey. Respecting the dignity of every human being is challenging. It involves embracing the nuances of individuals and their tendency to go awry. It involves recognizing that the weakness one finds in oneself is likely the weakness that exists in others and giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Our default state is neither conflict not harmony. We are wired for both.

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