Thursday, September 22, 2011

Must Conflict Be a Negative Process? Sometimes, it’s all for the better.

edited 022019
Happiness is a byproduct of function, purpose, and conflict; those who seek happiness for itself seek victory without war. -- William S. Burroughs
Reflective people are often dismayed that the leaders of opposing factions profess the desire for peace, even as they wage war. Union and school board leaders express severe misgivings about closing down the schools as they wrangle themselves, inevitably, it seems, into a strike. To the uninformed eye, this looks like blatant hypocrisy. It is not.

Public expressions of desire are not merely a method of disseminating information. "I sincerely wish to put an end to this conflict" is not meant to inform the public about some leader's state of mind. Rather, it is a move in a negotiation process that may well result in peace. But there is a hidden proviso.

What "I sincerely wish to put an end to this conflict" has to be understood as saying is "I sincerely wish to put an end to this conflict provided that the costs of ending it do not outweigh the benefits of prolonging it." (And all parties generally want to avoid examining who it is that benefits, or who it is that pays the costs for either alternative.)

Wars could be avoided if one side would agree to accept the aggression of the other. School strikes could be avoided if teachers would accept lowered salaries, staff cut-backs, increased class sizes and arbitrary administrative decisions. But wise negotiators understand that every unresisted encroachment on the prerogatives of a group invites additional ones. Conflict cannot long be avoided by capitulation expediently rebaptized as “cooperation.”

To examine this issue further, see The Functions of Conflict in the Context of Schooling