Tribalism and Intractable Conflicts [Ripley et al]

Like many, I’ve been closely watching what seems to be like a growing divide in US culture, which has been growing at an accelerated pace since the 2016 Presidential Election.

I’ve been meaning to write a post about it, because it’s a topic that permeates the membrane-like boundaries between organizations and “the rest of society”, and I believe that organizations, and specifically the dialogue that takes place inside organizations, can be a big force for good tackling these loaded topics.

The first insight in unpacking this topic was using the term “tribalism” to emphasize with and describe the behavior that all parties seem to exhibit. Simply put, it refers to engaging in the dialogue with a deeply entrenched “us vs. them” mentality. Listening to the other side’s arguments and experiences, looking for flaws in their logic and reasons for why your point of view is right. And letting your confirmation bias run wild, rather than evaluate new information based on fact and logic.

The first two essays that I read on this topic in late 2017, “The Dying Art of Disagreement” by Bret Stephens, and “Can our Democracy Survive Tribalism?” by Andrew Sullivan, painted a beautiful, balanced and depressing picture of the core role that tribalism plays in the current state of affairs.

I first considered writing this post after reading these but stopped short because while they paint a very nuanced picture of the current situation, they haven’t done much in terms of clarifying what the path forward should look like.

More recently, I read “Tribal World” by Amy Chua which provides a more historical perspective on major international affairs and US political events through the lens of tribalism. Chua argues that:

In seeking to explain global politics, U.S. analysts and policymakers usually focus on the role of ideology and economics and tend to see nation-states as the most important units of organization. In doing so, they underestimate the role that group identification plays in shaping human behavior. They also overlook the fact that, in many places, the identities that matter most — the ones people will lay down their lives for — are not national but ethnic, regional, religious, sectarian, or clan-based. A recurring failure to grasp this truth has contributed to some of the worst debacles of U.S. foreign policy in the past 50 years: most obviously in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in Vietnam.

While I hoped that she’d continue this arc and offer some advice on how to better integrate the acknowledgment that tribalism exists into future policy-making, her parting thoughts focused instead ways to reduce tribalism through increasing economic stability and upward mobility. Hopeful, but not very actionable. The biggest insight for me was starting to view tribalism not as something to be eliminated but as something to be acknowledged and design for when considering interventions. The reason-based, see-the-other-side interventions fail to do that. And understanding that is actually progress 🙂

Luckily, my next discovery was a seminal piece called “Complicating the Narratives” by Amanda Ripley. Of all the pieces referenced here, this is the one I’d encourage you most to read. Ripley looks at the role that media and journalism have played in amplifying the tribal dynamics but she also boldly goes where no one had gone before: ascribing some key counter-intuitive guidelines for how journalists (and others) can help improve the dialogue going forward.

Ripley’s piece draws from many sources, but most heavily from the work of Peter Coleman (which is now on my reading queue…). Coleman’s research focused on “Intractable Conflicts” which he defines as:

[conflicts that] are intense, deadlocked, and resistant to de-escalation or resolution. They tend to persist over time, with alternating periods of greater and lesser intensity. Intractable conflicts come to focus on needs or values that are of fundamental importance to the parties. The conflict pervades all aspects of the parties’ lives, and they see no way to end it short of utterly destroying the other side. Each party’s dominant motive is to harm the other. Such conflicts resist common resolution techniques, such as negotiation, mediation, or diplomacy.

As someone who grew up in Israel until my late 20s, that definition deeply resonated. Not just for the obvious example of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also for some of the less globally known conflicts within Israeli society such as the one around the relationship between state and religion.

Building on the work of Coleman and others, the gist of Ripley’s counter-intuitive advice is the following:

The lesson for journalists (or anyone) working amidst intractable conflict: complicate the narrative. First, complexity leads to a fuller, more accurate story. Secondly, it boosts the odds that your work will matter — particularly if it is about a polarizing issue. When people encounter complexity, they become more curious and less closed off to new information. They listen, in other words.

Ripley breaks down this advice into 6 distinct strategies, which she covers in detail in the piece:

  1. Amplify contradictions
  2. Widen the lens
  3. Ask questions that get to people’s motivations
  4. Listen more, and better
  5. Expose people to the other tribe
  6. Counter confirmation bias (carefully)

I am confident that it’s one of the pieces that I’ll find myself reading over and over again, discovering new insights every time I do so.

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Tribalism and Intractable Conflicts [Ripley et al]

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