When we are outraged, we don’t make a lot of sense
I went to a fairly “diverse” university during a civil war: we had black students, white students, and others!
Life as an “other” was interesting. People who were partisan assumed that you were “for” them, or “against” them, on whatever criteria they thought relevant. It was nothing to do with you exactly ~ you just happened to fit in to some fantasy narrative they had in their heads.
As an “other”, you also spoke to people on both sides and you got to hear what they thought of “the other side”.
Conflicts are deadly. Don’t get me wrong, but if people knew how funny they sounded, maybe they would stop to hear themselves.
I don’t hate you because you are different ~ I make you different so that I can hate you
This is how it went.
Black students said white students were ‘thick’ and white students said white students were ‘thick’
The evidence, on both sides, was that ‘they’ had to work so hard!
I studied psychology and sociology, and even if I didn’t, I would have known that we are ignorant about people we never speak to and that we over-simplify their stories. We also describe common human failings as evil, rather than common human failings.
What was amusing is that both sides perceived working hard as an insult! That was what we all had in common.
Yaz stupid if you have to work hard!
Being lazy wasn’t an insult, but stupid was.
We make people different when we hate them but we are not all the same
Not all cultures believe that being lazy at college is cool. I taught in NZ for a number of years and we had many students from China. Almost without exception, they would arrive talking about ‘working hard’. Invariably, by third year, they would be saying, “These Kiwis might have something going here. They don’t do half as much work as I do and they get by”.
So what we value is not universal by any means. Our insults are not universal by any means. Indeed, when our families haven’t spoken for generations, it is a bit of a miracle that we think the same way.
When people don’t ‘like’ us, we make them different
People locked in conflict often do have heaps in common. Most of all, they want attention from the other side.
- They want to be heard.
- They want the ‘other side’ to acknowledge them.
Conflict is about status and belonging. We should never forget that.
The conflict spiral is a contorted, complicated process.
It goes like this.
- I do something (following my imaginary but highly valued story in my head).
- In that story, I am somebody.
- My actions set up a relationship with you (good, bad or indifferent).
- My actions may give you pride of place (or take away your status).
- If I have taken away your status, you have a choice of reactions.
- If I am very powerful relative to you and I have many resources that I could share with you, you might choose to go along with my abrogation of your status.
- If I have power but I lack anything that you really want and can only get from me, you are more likely to react.
- You might react angrily. In which case of course, my status is threatened and a new process begins. If I have more power than you and very little social sense, I will probably hurt you.
- You might have great social skills and make a joke which would allow me to apologise quickly, should I be so inclined.
- The culture that we share might have other solutions. There might be ways that I can “pay you back” that are understood and accepted. Irony is one such leveller.
- The culture might have solutions that allow me to pay you back in ways that you don’t know about ~ you spit in my tea, for example.
- Or you might choose to seek redress in other ways. The most likely way is that I lose status in your eyes. You stop believing that the status that comes with my power is legitimate.
In the short term, I might never notice nor care. I have the power, right? Why should I care?
But I no longer have your respect. In time, you will slowly start to make me the mirror of all you worry about in yourself. If you think that working too hard is a sign that you are no intellectually-equipped to be at university, that will be what is wrong with me too. Not because it is true, but because I don’t talk to you any way. As I don’t talk to you anyway, you might as well be the place where I “dump” all that worries me about the world! You make me different (in a way that is intelligible to you) to explain why I don’t like you!
And as our relationship descends in to one based only on power, I will be able to live out my fantasy narrative without worrying about how it affects you.
We are on a one-way hiding to nowhere!
So how could we have resolved the conflicts at my university?
We were in the middle of a war and on the whole, the university did a pretty good job of keeping things moving.
- We were open and we were studying. Under the circumstances, that was pretty good going.
- We did have a class of “others”. Some of us were crossing the divide and learning a little. Painfully, sometimes. But stripping away generations of animosity has got to be more painful than removing a sticking plaster, right?
- We did have tutors who held up mirrors to our interaction. Social science lecturers often drew a map of where we sat and showed in other ways how we thought and behaved.
We needed more though. The trouble is that in a civil war, the attitudes of young people reflect the attitudes of their elders and who was going to do ‘more’?
What we learn from communities who’ve lived through intense conflict
The message for those of us not living in communities torn apart by strife is this.
Don’t go there! Don’t move along that path!
When you are ‘dissed’ by someone . . .
. . .you will be angry, disappointed, powerless and dejected. You will want to retaliate. You should remember that your ultimate weapon is contempt. By diminishing your status, they have lost status too. The have last status enormously, actually, because the only way to regain that status is with your good will which is not available right now.
Maybe when they insulted you, they meant to be aggressive. It is possible. Maybe they have got carried away with their fantasy world. We may be want to head that off gently! Or, maybe their lack of sensitivity to us was caused because we were insensitive in some way to them. Maybe, we did something to inadvertently kick off the spiral of contempt and conflict?
The first possibility to avoiding ridiculous conflict
When we are over our initial irritation (which we feel like it or not), our first possibility is to attempt to restore their status. Just gently. Invite and apologize.
When you have power (and you may have more than you think) . . .
. . . you will probably be thinking something like “I am right”. You will be justifying your actions to yourself. That is a good sign that you are riding roughshod over someone. Watch yourself! Remember it is easy to do because it is easy to do. When you have power, it is oh, so easy. You more than anyone must bring to a halt this one way hiding to no where. When you leave people with no alternative but to think “He, or she, has behaved badly. I have to pretend to offer respect but that is all it will be.” Then the spiral begins, so slowly that you may not notice at first.
When you notice the spiral, stop. Don’t worry where it began. Don’t worry who began. Just stop and say to yourself. My loyalty to this person is worth more than anything else. I can absorb a little irritation. I can absorb a relationship where I don’t throw my weight around quite so much. Let me acknowledge that they want my respect as I want theirs.
Let me just stop and show my respect. Apologize and invite, as Ben Zander says.
Apologize and invite, no matter who is right and who is wrong. Anything to avoid getting into deep conflicts where we make each other the bad guy to cover up our hurt.