CNN commentator, Fareed Zakaria, in a recent column , described the political polarization in the USA in terms of the interactional crisis between the parties. He points out that policy differences have been even greater in the past, but currently the conflict is characterized by historically high mutual demonization He focuses on the idea that the parties involved see themselves a certain way and they don’t like being misunderstood by each other. They also have trouble tolerating what they perceive as inhumane behavior by their fellow human beings on the other side. Although he doesn’t use this terminology, he is describing “destabilized sense of self and other”, which transformative theory considers a natural part of the destructive conflict cycle.
Appropriately, Zakaria doesn’t focus on the need to do some problem-solving or on the need to somehow balance the power. He focuses, as transformative theory does, on the possibility of improving the interaction between the sides; “Instead of trying to silence, excommunicate and punish, let’s look at the other side and try to listen, engage and, when we must, disagree.” That is, let’s focus on doing our best to understand the other side, and at the same time let’s remain true to ourselves. Zakaria’s suggestion is consistent with transformative theory’s focus on the interaction as opposed to the desired outcomes. While this perspective does not provide simple answers about how to improve things, it at least helps us focus on the most central part of the conflict, the moral dilemma it presents for us: How do we move toward acting with the greatest strength in pursuing what we desire and believe is right while also acting with the greatest understanding and even empathy for those who disagree with us?
Reporting and commentary about the political conflict in the USA tend to describe the situation in terms of either interests or power theory. Interests theory and power theory are valid ways to look at conflict, but they miss the most important aspect of it. Interests theory focuses on the outcomes that each party is seeking. For example, oil companies want to maximize profits, while environmental groups want to decrease carbon emissions. From the needs and interests perspective, the pertinent question might be something like “is there a way to decrease carbon emissions while also allowing oil companies to continue to prosper?” Power theory would assume that all parties are merely trying to increase their power (which might also allow them to pursue their interests more effectively). When analyzing a certain action that any party makes, the assumption is that they must be making that move because they believe it will increase their power. Reporting and analysis about elected officials tends to assume that their actions are intended to maximize their political power. Both interests theory and power theory assume that people are motivated primarily by their own self-interest.
While there is truth in these perspectives, a far more helpful way to look at conflict may be transformative theory. Transformative theory assumes that people in destructive conflict tend to act in ways that are both harmful to themselves and to each other, even though they’d prefer neither of those things. Another way transformative theory describes the destructive conflict cycle is that parties experience a destabilized sense of self and a destabilized sense of other: “I’m normally a competent person, but I’m stumped as to handle this situation. I’m worthy of respect, but the other side is acting as if I’m not. What’s going on with me?” And “I assumed this other person was a normal person with a conscience – so I can’t understand how they can be behaving this way. What’s going on with them?” In the destructive cycle, we are both disappointed with ourselves and unaccepting of the other side. Mutual demonization arises. The hopeful path consists of getting clearer about what matters most to us and paying closer attention to the humanity of the other side.
posted by Dan Simon