Can Healthy Conflict Exist in an Unhealthy Society?

Polarization has become a way of life in the US, undermining the essential requirement of democracy: constructive dialogue. It has bred a culture that rewards individuals who cultivate the destructive art of high conflict.

Washington, DC – January 6, 2021: Protesters seen all over Capitol building where pro-Trump supporters riot and breached the Capitol © lev radin / shutterstock.com

December 14, 2022 00:44 EDT

Everyone believes in democracy, right? I mean, everyone in the West or in various other civilized places. Didn’t Winston Churchill make that clear when he noted that “Democracy is the worst system, except all the others?” Actually, he didn’t invent that idea. He only repeated it. What he did say about democracy was slightly less flattering and somewhat elitist: “The best argument against Democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

Churchill’s cynical remark illustrates how unstable the idea of democracy can be. People who live in democracies quite legitimately want to believe in its virtues. We are taught to believe that democracy has in some sense been chosen by the gods of history, who have been at work in recent centuries installing a process we like to call “progress.”

The process began 400 years ago with the acceptance of the nation state as the unique template for political systems legitimately claiming to exercise authority over the territories within their recognized borders. Because the populations of modern states are far more diverse and mobile than in the past, the idea of democratic legitimacy became inevitable.

Some states not only make no pretension of believing in democracy but resolutely refuse to practice it or pay lip service to it. Politicians in the West brand them autocracies. Some of these non-democracies are run by a hereditary clan, in the mode of a traditional monarchy. Others may be governed by a ruling party, such as China or Vietnam. Then again, most Western democracies are also governed by a ruling party, the difference being that the identity of that party sometimes varies.

Democracy in Danger


This historical reminder is meant to clarify what has become the most significant challenge to democracy in today’s political culture. It is neither the threat of democracy being hijacked by a democratically elected autocrat; even less, the fear of military domination by autocratic rivals. Democracy has its own much more inherent problems, the most significant of which is the growing inability of populations within our democracies to achieve a stable consensus on matters that affect the very fabric of society. In the US, the prime example of this is the phenomenon of “culture wars.”

Democracy implies dialogue and compromise. Dialogue means open-ended discussion and collaborative exploration of the means to achieving commonly agreed ends. Compromise need not mean defeat or submission for any of the concerned parties. Dialogue permits the articulation and juxtaposition of interests: in musical terms, the integration of dissonance into the dynamics of social harmony. As the Elizabethan poet-musician Thomas Dowland wrote: “These dull notes we sing discords need for helps to grace them.” For serious musicians, dissonance is a necessary feature permitting melodic and harmonic resolution.

Today public dialogue, including the acceptance and embrace of dissonance, has degenerated into pure acrimony. It has become polarized along lines far more arbitrary and cruel than the politics of the worst autocracy.

Amanda Ripley is the author of the book of High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped — and How We Get Out. In an article for The Washington Post, she focuses on this very phenomenon. “Many of our disagreements are manufactured,” Ripley explains. “We are being played by conflict entrepreneurs — people and companies who exploit conflict for their own dysfunctional ends, and it is getting harder and harder to avoid their phantom traps and have the right debate.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Conflict entrepreneurs:

In an evolved capitalist society, anyone who takes the culture of competition seriously, turning business or even personal relations into something that fluctuates between the logic of team sports and total war.

Contextual note

Ripley sums up a recent report on the trend towards polarization in these terms: “American parents, politicians and educators are having the wrong fights with the wrong people about the wrong things.” That sounds dire. Even parents have become conflict entrepreneurs.

In her book, Ripley examines multiple cases of conflict and highlights the difference between what she calls “high conflict” and “healthy conflict.” The latter contains something like Dowland’s discords. It stimulates dialogue and points in the direction of collaboration aimed at problem-solving. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Ripley defines high conflict as “the kind that takes on a life of its own, and eventually, leaves almost everyone worse off.”

Has Democracy Become a Threadbare Reality?


Now why, you might ask, would anyone want to do something that leaves everyone worse off? Ripley lays the blame on a category of personality she calls conflict entrepreneurs and defines as “people who inflame conflict for their own ends. Sometimes they do this for profit, but more often for attention or power.” They are guilty of “dividing the world cleanly (usually, too cleanly) into good versus evil.” They stoke “us-versus-them thinking.” They are binary thinkers.

In her article in The Washington Post, she proposes a remedy. “The immediate solution to this warped reality is for all of us to reject zero-sum thinking. Any journalist, politician or activist who neatly splices the world into good and evil represents a threat to our pluralistic way of life… A democracy cannot survive in the modern age alongside that kind of false fear.”

Historical note

Ripley’s work as a consultant focuses on curing or eliminating the contamination caused by conflict entrepreneurs in organizations and smaller social units, including families. This is typically a case-by-case approach to what she nevertheless recognizes as a more general social problem. “Nearly all Americans,” she pertinently notes, “including the less politically engaged and more moderate among us, are seeing a distorted reality, and are worrying more than they ought to about a threat that is not really a threat.”

The “distorted reality” she highlights points to a wider historical reality that merits a macro analysis capable of going beyond her micro focus on individual conflict entrepreneurs. The “distorted reality” she mentions is the systemic hyperreality our civilization has fabricated to put the majority to sleep in our evolved consumer society. In other words, the essential problem lies not in the personalities of these toxic individuals, but in the values of a society that consciously or unconsciously encourages this type of behavior.

Her vocabulary is revealing. An entrepreneur is someone who, to achieve particular economic goals, competes against the rest of the world, ideally to secure monopolistic control. The image our culture has created of the entrepreneur is unambiguously positive, reflecting one of our core values. Entrepreneurship is a virtuous activity, even when we acknowledge that the motivation behind it is compatible with the impulses of greed and aggression.

America’s True Hyperreal Heroes


In an interview with journalist Robert Scheer, Gabriel Maté, author of the book, The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture,” adresses the question from a broader point of view. He provides some complementary insight that may help to explain the growing numbers of conflict entrepreneurs Ripley hopes to cure one by one.

“Globalized neoliberal culture,” Maté explains, “has been exported to the rest of the world and is creating a worldwide crisis and as a result, health is suffering internationally. It’s systemic and it’s globalized.” Maté gives a specific historic context to the degradation that began some 40 years ago and accelerated during the 1990s and infected both parties in the US. “Clinton, for all his liberal rhetoric and his progressive and somewhat attractive image,” Maté explains “really was swept along by the same neoliberal wind that began under Reagan and Thatcher.”

Citing the documented link between experiencing racism and the pathology of asthma among American blacks, Maté claims that it would be wrong to separate “individual pathology in an isolated organ” and a broader phenomenon of “social malaise.” Quoting a 19th century German physician possibly inspired by military theorist, Carl Von Clausewitz, he affirms, “politics is only the continuation of medicine on a larger scale.”

For democracy to thrive or even survive, it will require more than Ripley’s micro approach. In his interview, Maté is asked whether the system can reform itself. He responds that it’s theoretically possible but “at a certain point, in its decline, almost every system comes to a kind of sclerotic relationship to itself.” He adds this thought: “I think in a system where people are so committed to power and profit, I don’t know that they still have the capacity to reform the system in order to save itself.”

Perhaps we need to create a generation of entrepreneurs who understand that there are other goals than “power and profit.”

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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