Is conflict simply an inescapable fact of existence, or are there alternatives?
Is all this fighting necessary? The wars, religious conflicts, lawsuits, marital squabbling, arguments at work, the struggle for control of organizations, and all the rest of it — is it really necessary? Is conflict programmed into an inherently dog-eat-dog world, an inescapable reality from the wilds of nature to the summit of human life?
Some think so. Alfred Lord, Tennyson wrote of “nature, red in tooth and claw.” The Old Testament speaks of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Ancient codes of law all seem to be about regulating conflict, or reciprocating it in the name of justice. The back-and-forth of a capitalist market is regularly compared to models of conflict in nature with the notion of ‘survival of the fittest’ taking over. In fact, society at large is often viewed through this social-Darwinist lens. Sports is all about regulated conflict. And what is history but an endless “game of thrones”?
Is there really no other way?
Talking to each other
As we go through life, there are many bumps and little conflicts. Two aim at the same parking spot, one gets there first, the other is angry. Road rage ensues. Two wanted to teach the same class, one gets denied and a friendship is strained.
We can choose to see these things as accidental and trivial, and ignore them. Or we can deal politely with them. Or we can choose to take them as insults to our dignity and fight with the hope of coming out on top.
But it is a choice: Do we let these things flow over and around us, or do we cling to them and let them define our world?
Getting offended, scoring points
Someone says something clumsy or ignorant. Do we ignore them, correct them, or go ballistic? We seem to be in a time of increased sensitivity to the possibility of offending others. And with so many things, a useful and necessary appreciation for how certain words can seriously wound people gets turned into a way to score points.
We have an issue to settle with someone, be they family, friend or coworker. Listen carefully to the conversation. Are the parties motivated by solving the problem, or is each speech aimed to prove the speaker right and put the other at some disadvantage? We are faced with a choice between winning the argument, or actually solving the problem.
Someone annoys us, but for whatever reason we cannot or choose not to reply. Later someone comes along and does some minor thing that also annoys us and they get the anger we wanted to send to the first person — as well as the bitter fruits of our hours’ worth of brooding on the original insult. But that is, again, a choice we make.
Turning to our economic life, we see similar issues playing out.
Is capitalism nothing but fighting?
Companies compete for our business, compete with each other and, indeed, attempt to out-compete each other. The bankruptcy of a company and the recycling of its workers and equipment into a new company is considered part of “creative destruction.” It’s normal and nothing to be distressed about — unless it’s your dreams and years of work being recycled.
If you win, competition looks like a great thing.
But celebration of the conflict ignores the many ways cooperation is built into the system, too. All manner of rules and standards require companies to fight fair. Any successful company requires other companies and societal institutions to supply material, educate workers and transport commodities. And for all that the desire to win motivating entrepreneurs, it seems many of the successful ones are also motivated by a creative desire to produce products and services that improve lives. In that context, earning a profit is not a process of taking from others, but a way of receiving material thanks from those who you helped to live better.
Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and others who shaped new industries certainly got rich doing so, but their motivation was not simply money. Nor was their motivation simply to win over others, even though they were very competitive people. This is in contrast to the financiers and empire builders who seem to play the game only to win.
How could we shift the balance in capitalism to more reward the visionary and reduce the role of the empire builder? This has been a persistent challenge.
History other than war
The history of the world can seem nothing more than a history of conflict.
Go back far enough in history and it seems that every single country and even a few cities (Venice, for example) had empires. It also seems that they all want their land back, and they all want to return to the point of their maximum power. From Serb irredentism driving Europe into World War I, to the “much too promised land” (as in Aaron Miller’s book title) of the Middle East’s seemingly endless conflict, everyone nurses a grievance.
It would interesting to imagine a history of the world that did not mention war at all but focused on ideas, art, science, culture and human achievement. The American historian Daniel Boorstin attempted something like this both with American history and the world at large. It is stunning to discover just how much can be said of human life when nothing is said of war or even of politics.
Back to the personal
What would make us want to choose something different than conflict? As humans, we seem unable to see others as ourselves. As drivers, we roll our eyes at the pedestrians taking risks, but when we’re walking we resent those who refuse to give us space. We need quiet from others, but others need to respect our right to make as much noise as we want.
This is, of course, especially true of Americans.
At the foreign policy level, we do the same thing. We have a right to protect ourselves but woe to anyone who wants to protect themselves against us. We insist on our benign motives regardless of what we actually do. Our killing of civilians is a regrettable accident; their killing of civilians is inexcusable, sign of fundamentally malicious intention.
The choices we make
We say we have no choice but to respond in the ways we’ve always responded — to fight as we’ve always fought. Yet one thing that unites our truly admired leaders, from Lincoln to Gandhi to Mandela, is that they took choices others thought didn’t exist, and thereby cultivated a different reality. The Middle East is stuck in part because its core conflict is ruled by people who claim they have no choices. Until there is a Mandela for the Palestinians or a Gorbachev for the Israelis who can, as a leader, choose something else than eternal conflict, there is little hope for a way out.
This week, another actor who played a key part in the 1950s children’s TV show “Captain Kangroo”, Cosmo Allegretti, passed away at 86. Though not as slick as Sesame Street, this show offered gently educated viewers that choosing to view life with a little good will and sympathy goes a long way to defusing conflict.
Today it would be considered dull or naïve. And we are the losers thereby.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.