The Intractable Conflict Challenge
We have long argued that society’s chronic inability to constructively handle intractable conflict is a threat to human welfare that is at least as serious as that posed by climate change, inequality, infectious disease, or any of today’s other big problems.In fact, it is our inability to constructively deal with intractable conflict that is making it impossible for us to effectively meet these other challenges.
The Immediate Crisis
In the US and many other countries, the intractable conflict problem has now reached an acute stage, where much that people care deeply about is in immediate and serious jeopardy. While people from different perspectives focus on different aspects of the threat, it is clear that, unless we change course, we are headed for one or more dystopian futures–authoritarian fascism, failed states, widespread persecution of vulnerable populations, extreme concentration of wealth, economic collapse, environmental catastrophe, and/or war.
While these threats are widely recognized, the central role that destructive conflict dynamics play in making these problems so intractable is not. If we don’t start making serious efforts to address the intractable conflict problem, both the conflicts and the things people are fighting about are only going to get worse.
Right now many countries have winner-takes-all systems in which contending factions increasingly dehumanize the “other,” often to the point where the winners no longer view the losers’ concerns as worthy of consideration. Winners promise big changes (often focused on reversing the actions of their opponents). Losers commit themselves to all-out resistance and redoubled efforts to win next time around. In this “us vs. them” way of looking at the world, the bonds of mutual interdependence upon which everyone depends rapidly vanish.
Unfortunately, despite their considerable accomplishments, “business-as-usual” conflict resolution and peacebuilding efforts are not yet up to the challenge of deep-rooted conflicts like this. Compromise is increasingly viewed as little more than a naïve gateway to capitulation or betrayal. Listening to, empathizing with or trying to understand “the other” is similarly viewed as inappropriate and ill-advised. The honest search for mutually beneficial solutions to complex problems is replaced by campaigns designed to achieve selfish objectives by promoting fear, hate, and misinformation.
While the situation is not hopeless, it is clear that we are all in a lot of trouble. If we are going to successfully defend our vital interests, and the larger societies on which we depend, we are going to have to do more than fight harder. We are going to have to fight smarter. This means two things.
- First, we need to help people understand the dangers of destructive conflict dynamics, and show them that there are alternative approaches to defending their interests which work better than name-calling, threatening, lying, and forcing–approaches that are being taken now that are just making our divides even deeper. Put another way, we need to increase the utilization of existing conflict-resolution knowledge.
- Second, we need to work to develop more robust approaches to conflict transformation that can work effectively at the complexity and scale of current society-wide conflicts. While the standard conflict-resolution strategies are helpful to some extent, they aren’t nearly enough. New approaches are needed that will be effective at scale, credible (people have to believe they will work if they are to try them), and possible (they can’t be too hard or expensive to do).
Developing, promulgating, and implementing such new approaches will require all of the creative potential we can muster and will take the efforts of many people–not just a few conflict resolution experts.
It’s not enough to better apply existing conflict knowledge – we need new ideas for meeting today’s tough challenges.
The MOOS project is a modest, but we hope significant, effort to pursue both these goals–to get people using available strategies more often and more effectively, and to start a large scale conversation about better ways to address these conflicts.
The MOOS combines the reach of a massive open online course (MOOC) with a seminar’s introspection and ability to grapple with frontier-of-the-field issues. We hope that it will enable large numbers of conflict-resolution practitioners, students, scholars, activists, reporters, and interested citizens to participate in a sustained exploration of the many facets of the intractable conflict problem. To do this, we have crafted a program structured around two principal seminars, plus a number of shorter “brown bag” seminars and blogs.
The Conflict Frontiers Seminar is designed for those who want to take a look at four big questions at the frontier of the conflict field:
The MOOS Seminars give everyone the opportunity to participate in an in-depth exploration of the frontiers of the conflict field.
- What are the conflict strategies that really work on intractable conflicts at the societal level, and how we can increase the utilization of those approaches?
- What strategies that are being used don’t work, why, and how might they be improved or supplemented?
- How might we deepen our understanding of conflict dynamics to the point where we can devise workable solutions to currently unsolved problems?
- How might we build support, within the larger society, for dramatically expanded efforts to address destructive conflict dynamics?
Among the many topics to be addressed are strategies for:
- Scaling-up “table-oriented” processes to deal with the scale and complexity of society-wide conflict,
- Promoting more constructive conflict communication in a propaganda-filled mass-communication environment,
- Better dealing with the complex, emotional, and often nonrational way in which people think about conflict and make decisions, and
- Better incorporating trustworthy and trusted fact-based analysis into complex societal decision-making processes.
The MOOS also includes a Conflict Fundamentals Seminar that provides succinct and easy-to-understand summaries of the big ideas from the peacebuilding, conflict resolution, and related fields. This quick review of “prerequisite” knowledge provides a foundation for the Frontiers Seminar. We hope by making this material available in bite-sized pieces on the MOOS, we can do our part to tackle the knowledge utilization challenge described above.
In addition to the seminars, we have several blogs. The newest is the Things YOU Can Do To Help Blog which highlights things everyone–not just powerful people, not just important or rich people–but everyone of us –can do to help limit the dynamics that lead to destructive and intractable conflicts. Each post contains one idea, explains very briefly what it is, how to do it, and why we suggest it. It then has links to more information about each idea–sometimes one BI essay or MBI video; oftentimes several essays and/or videos with more details.
The Beyond Intractability In Context Blog (formerly called the “Additional Resources Blog”) supports the seminars with links to outside materials (news articles, editorials, reports, journal articles, infographics, and videos) that supplement, reinforce, and, sometimes, challenge the main ideas being presented in the core MOOS seminars.
We also have a Colleague Activities Blog that publicizes similar work being done by our colleagues, and over time, we expect to add several, smaller “Brown-Bag Seminars” which will be subsets of the primary seminars focused on narrower topics. (For example, we are planning brown bags on the political divide in the United States, strategies for dealing with the scale and complexity of society-wide conflict, and the conflict between “fighters” and “compromisers.”)
MOOS seminars and blogs are built around a series of short “posts” which can be accessed on the project website or through Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. These jargon-free and easy-to-understand materials can generally be read or listened to in about 10 minutes. By being short enough to integrate into everyone’s daily news and social networking time, the MOOS is designed to work around time constraints that often prevent busy people from participating in online courses, workgroups, or sustained dialogues. Since the seminars are ungraded and not-for-credit, users only need to watch or read those posts that interest them. Plans call for one post each weekday for the Frontiers and Fundamentals Seminars, with roughly two Additional Resources posted each day as well.
Most of the Frontiers Seminar posts are short videos, presented with transcripts and associated documentation. Fundamentals Seminar posts are drawn from the Beyond Intractability Knowledge Base essays, often updated with new introductions and/or conclusions that show how these ideas apply to today’s serious conflict.
In addition to reading/viewing the posts, we are inviting Frontiers Seminar participants to join us in an online discussion of the complex and difficult issues that we will raise. In order to defend this part of the MOOS from the destructive trolls that now plague the Internet, we require all discussants to register and follow a set of common-sense ground rules. Rather than having a disjointed and unmoderated set of discussions on the social network, our goal is to consolidate the serious substantive discussion on the MOOS site.
Given the urgency of the global conflict situation, we have gone ahead and developed this initial version of the MOOS without taking the time to secure major funding for the project. This means that we are running on an extremely tight budget. Continued operation and development of the MOOS program past fall 2017 semester will require additional funds. So, please contribute what you can.