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Conflict and Its Meaning


Marginal Notes


The Montreal Review, December 2010




Morton Deutsch's book "The Resolution of Conflict: Constructive and Destructive Processes" ( Yale University Press, 1973) is helpful for the beginning of this short analysis.

Deutsch says that if we want to understand a given conflict, the first thing, we must do is to know:

•  The characteristics of the parties in it (their values and motivations, aspirations and objectives).

•  The prior relationship to one another (their attitudes, beliefs, and expectations about one another).

•  The nature of the issue giving rise to the conflict

•  The social environment within which the conflict occurs

•  The interested audiences to the conflict (their relationships to the parties)

•  The strategy and tactics employed by the parties in the conflict

•  The consequences to each of the participants and to other interested parties (the gains and the losses relating to the immediate issue in conflict, long-term effects, etc.)

Many conflicts, Deutsch says, are strongly influenced by underplaying processes as "the self-fulfilling prophesy", biased perception and judgement. They arise because one of the party or both of them have prejudices and wrong expectations for the behaviour of the other. Many international conflicts started as defensive actions against expected hostility. The First World War started in result of the mistrusts of the European powers to each other and the idea that the one who strikes first has strategic advantage. Another feature of confrontation is that the parties view their own actions as more legitimate and well-intended than the actions of their opponents.


Deutsch makes an important observation: conflict cannot be always avoided, and conflict is not always something bad. The most important thing is how the conflict will be resolved - with constructive or destructive consequences. Conflict has many positive functions, says Deutsch, following the ideas of two authors, Simmel and Coser. "It prevents stagnation, it stimulates interest and curiosity, it is the medium through which problems can be aired and solutions arrived at, it is the root of personal and social change." Conflict-free existence is a psychological utopia. "Conflict can neither be eliminated nor even suppressed for long." And the reason for the existence of the conflict is when incompatible activities occur.

Deutsch offers a typology of conflicts:

•  Veridical conflict: it is a true conflict that both parties have different interest that can be resolved only with the "loss" of one of the parties. These conflicts are difficult to resolve.

•  Contingent conflict: when an alternative offers a compromising result. In this conflict, the parties must be less rigid and narrow in their thinking and demands.

•  Displaced conflict: when parties are arguing about wrong things unable to understand where the real problem is.

The other types of conflict, according to Deutsch's classification, are "latent", "false", conflict over control and resources, preferences, values and beliefs.

Deutsch's most important observation is the following: the conflicts are generally divided in two types: destructive and constructive. The point is not how to eliminate or prevent the conflict but rather how to make it productive, is his conclusion.


"Darvin's "struggle for existence" is an abstract metaphor, not an explicit statement about bloody battle", Stephen Jay Gould said in an article entitled "Kropotkin was no crackpot", included in Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History (New York: Norton, 1992). "Reproductive success, the criterion of natural selection, works in many modes: Victory in battle may be one pathway, but cooperation, symbiosis, and mutual aid may also secure success in other times and contexts." The idea that "struggle for existence" is just an abstract metaphor is a good basis for a new interpretation of the evolutionary process and survival of the species.

Gould says that perhaps cooperation and mutual aid are the more common results of the struggle for existence. "Perhaps communion rather than combat leads to a greater reproductive success in most circumstances." Indeed, this is a great idea. We know from history, for example, that the more disciplined minorities, the social groups that have higher ability and tradition of mutual aid, are more resilient than the majorities. Often small nations are stronger than the bigger ones, and this power is due to their ability to cooperate against the outer environment. A big society cannot be bound in the way as the small societies and nations are. With the growth of society, the intimacy and cultural bonds between people are decreasing. There is one nation that existed without land and that was subject of persecutions and terror - the Jews. This nation survived and actually has been flourishing to this day not because of its ability to oppose violently to the aggression of its persecutors, but because of its practices of mutual help, its discipline of belief and group self-consciousness. The century old resilience of Jews as a nation without land was due to their ability to cooperate, instead of a militant spirit. Only when the Jews succeeded to return to their land and create a state, the militant spirit has become equal to the spirit of cooperation. However, it is a rule that the cooperation is more likely to be prevalent when a hostile environment endangers the group. The fact that Israel is compounded by hostile Arab nations, promises that the internal cooperation of Jews will continue to be enforced. The same seems valid for the Palestinians, who would be much more cooperative and united as a national group if they continue to live in a state of foreign repression.

Gould abandons those thinkers who understand Darwinian evolutionary ideas as theories about conflict and struggle for survival. He turns to the Russian anarchist Petr Kropotkin, who wrote in Mutual Aid (1902), that the act of aggression of organism against organism of the same species for the limited resources of environment leads to competition, and the act of aggression of organism against the environment leads to cooperation. Indeed, this observation is as simple as great. Kropotkin, Gould notes, did not deny the competitive form of struggle, but he argued that the Darwinists had underemphasized the cooperative style.

Kropotkin, says Gould, is convinced that the cooperative style, leading to mutual aid, not only predominated in general, but also characterized the most advanced creatures in any group - ants among insects, mammals among vertebrates. Mutual aid therefore becomes a more important principle than competition and slaughter.

Kropotkin writes:

"If we... ask Nature: "who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another? We at once see that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest. They have more chances to survive, and they attain, in their respective classes, the highest development of intelligence and bodily organization."


The environment is of central importance when we speak about conflict, its resolution and future cooperation. Harsh environment might cause competition and conflict over resources, but it might also produce cooperation. Unfortunately, cooperation is not always the preferred choice of the humans, despite the optimistic and in my opinion right conclusion of Kropotkin. Why? This is a difficult question. Deutsch could help us suggesting that factors as cultural differences, wrong perceptions, weak problem-solving abilities, and prejudices, can make us hostile to each other. The impossibility of communication might eventually lead people and societies to fight.

Once we begin war, or conflict, we experience losses, and our relationships with the opponents become bitterer. Conflict will end one day, and how can the parties be reconciled? Eric Stover and Harvey Weinstein attempt to give an answer to this difficult question in their book "My Neighbour, my Enemy: Justice and Community in the Aftermath of Mass Atrocity" (Cambridge, 2004). Their suggestions are not very original, they say that post-war environment must facilitate the process of reconciliation; and this is an obvious observation. They are right when they argue that special attention must be paid to the economic and social-well being of post-war communities.

If we agree that most of the conflicts arise as result of scarcity or lack of resources, and the aggression is often due to frustration created by combination of external factors as poverty, lack of success and work, repression, etc., there is nothing more obvious that economic and social-well being are in the core for the achievement of peaceful coexistence. The problem is how economic and social well being can be achieved, especially in devastated by conflict societies. The only way I see is the maturity of the parties, who after the conflict might realize that cooperation is better than war, and the awareness of this fact is stronger than hatred and bitterness, and consequently the process of reconciliation and recovery possible. The Marshall Plan, the foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community after the Second World War, an organization that later developed into political and economic European Union, are examples of successful reconciliation and recovery process. After the war, the West European states created, internally and internationally, an environment of security, justice, free movement of people, access to information and education, building of a diverse and flexible economy. Stover and Weinstein mention all these components of reconciliation process.


Are there peaceful societies? Again, the environment is in the center, and again, the small and closed societies are more disposed of developing a true or absolute culture of peacefulness than the bigger ones. Big societies cannot avoid appearance of conflict interests and divisions within them, but they can make them productive. Bruce Bonta offers some insight into the peaceful societies in his article "Conflict Resolution among Peaceful Societies: The Culture of Peacefulness" (Journal of Peace Research, no.4, 1996). He observed a 24 peaceful people, all of them small-scale societies. He writes that these small groups, living in remote places, have different understanding of violence and punishment from the prevalent in the world views. These societies prized the harmony in community and the persons who violated the social order are actually left unpunished or only ostracized. "The important point in the US courtroom is winning," Bonta writes. "The major issue for the Semai (a society with peaceful culture) is resolving conflict, removing the emotions from the parties to the dispute, and reaffirming correct and peaceful behaviour." Bonta concludes that Semai are most concerned with resolving conflict peacefully, while Americans are primarily focused on fulfilling justice.

Bonta says that he wants to show that conflict resolution in peaceful societies is founded on overreaching world-views that conflicts are the exception, not the norm, and they are neither reasonable nor desirable. "Conflicts, to these peoples, must be avoided as much as possible, resolved as quickly as possible, and harmony restored as soon as possible in order for people to live peacefully with one another and with outsiders."

Some of the strategies of the peaceful societies for avoiding the conflict are the following:

•  Self-restrain and emotion management: They try to suppress and express emotions when conflict situation arises.

•  Negotiation: preferred if self-restraining does not work.

•  Separation: when negotiation does not give results

Bonta observes that cooperation breeds cooperation, competition breeds competition. This "breeding" is actually the foundation for formation of peaceful or violent culture. One of the main characteristics of culture is that it changes slowly while its power over present and future is critical. The culture is crucial also for understanding the sources of conflict. "People in most peaceful societies do not view conflict as normal and productive, as Westerners often do."


As I have mentioned, quoting Deutsch, Western societies consider conflict as normal and even useful when it is productive (instead of destructive). Schumpeter's theory of "creative destruction" of capitalism is desirable in America and in the West in general. Conflict according to the Western world-view is the energy behind the progress and the Western law systems, that are embodiment of the prevalent culture, are based on the idea for achieving justice, not of resolving the conflicts (Bonta's opinion).

Stephen J. Coughlan challenges the opinion that the Western law system is "adversarial" in the literal sense of the word. In an article, "The 'adversary system': rhetoric or reality?", he argues that competition between enemies in the Canadian (and American) law practice is rather uncommon. He says that it is inaccurate to call the system "adversarial", because in reality it is not based on competitive, un-cooperative behaviour. Actually, the system is called "adversarial" to show that it is different from the "inquisitorial" method for finding truth that is practice in other law systems. "In the inquisitorial method, the judge takes responsibility for investigating and finding the truth: in the adversary system, the judge is a passive decision-maker who decides the case on the evidence presented" by the parties.

Coughlan actually points out the success achieved in the Western societies to preserve the idea of conflict, while making the conflict rational and effective. The conflict here is transformed into a positive thing, thus "adversarial" means not non-cooperative or aggressive, but "embracing" all possible interests, views, and hopes, that compete to each other. This is a rationalisation and "democratization" of conflict. "The practice of law is frequently characterized by partisan rather than adversarial behaviour. A lawyer (both in and out of court) ought always to be acting on behalf of her client - and acting zealously - but this will not always require actively acting against the interests of the other party." Here the accent is on finding the truth and its best exposure, not on finding ways how to defeat the opponent's case. Both parties practically work independently trying to show and defend what is true for them. Cheating and using of procedural tactics (exploiting the loopholes in the system) is a betrayal of the system principles. This means that truth is of primary importance for the Western law system, and from here for the Western cultural view. After the truth comes the justice, which is the system's end goal.

These observations lead us to an important question that Owen M. Fiss raised in "Against Settlement" (Yale Law Journal, 1984). The end goal of Western law system is justice; it is not only finding the truth or achieving peace. Here is the formula: the productive conflict is fundamental principle of Western world-view, in it finding the truth is of primary importance, because this leads us (individuals or societies) to the right choice, the right judgement, action, and real justice.

But where is the place of peace in the Western law system? Peace in the Western worldview, speaking in general terms, is in the achievement of "productive" conflict, where there are no victims, or at least the victims are justly punished. Truth and punishment achieve justice, which as I have said, lead to right choices, actions, and progress - social, technological, political, economic. An example: In American media (or public debate), one would find fierce debates among partisans arguing over political and economic issues and ideas. In the mainstream Eastern European media the debates are revolving around exposing corruption and supposed wrongdoing and demonization and elimination of the opponent, ideas and real issues are of secondary importance, this is a full-blown "adversarial" system and that's why East European political life is much more spectacular than the Western. In China, where the ideas of harmony and order are central, public debate is hugely constrained. Political and economic conflict is behind the scenes - behind the decors of harmony and unanimity. In America, we see culture that rests on and exploits the conflict, but the main goal there is the success of the idea, not the physical, total political or economic destruction of the opponent. In Eastern Europe, we have culture that also rests on conflict, but the opponent is regarded as a mortal enemy and the end justifies the means, the manipulation and lies are not only acceptable, but also advisable for the survival. The opponent must be eliminated along with his ideas. In China, we see culture that idealizes peace, no matter that it is achieved through suppression of differences. Which of these societies is best fitted, a Darwinian would ask? As Darius' young guardian said: "Women are strongest: but above all things Truth beareth away the victory." (Apocrypha: 1 Esdras Chapter 3) The fitted society is the one that does not afraid of truth and makes everything possible to find it.

"What happens when parties achieve settlement while leaving justice undone?" Fiss asks. "The settlement of a school suit might secure peace, but not racial equality." Keeping peace is favourable and important part for evolutional reconciliation, peace is a precondition for cooling down emotions that can grow into open conflict. But peace in any cost, peace that sacrifices truth and justice, is not something that moves society ahead, on the contrary, this peace postpones a future conflict, or injustice, or creates conditions for more severe confrontation in future. Peace without justice: this was the post-first world war world. After the war, the truth was neglected and the conflict prolonged through wrong diplomacy.

In conclusion, I would like to say that conflict is an indispensable and useful part of life, but as long as it is not based on aggression and irrationality. Conflict as a competition of different views, interests and perspectives allows building of knowledge, finding the truth, understanding the reality. Science, political and social progress are based on conflict. The creative fusion between ideas and perspectives happens in the heat of rational conflict. The Marxist (actually Socratic) observation that truth is born of argument is true. The truth brings justice, and justice brings civilization.

-- T.S.Tsonchev


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