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The foundation for conflict resolution

“Human beings draw close to one another by their common nature, but habits and customs keep them apart.”


Every so often, a client will bring up fears or anger surrounding politics.  Jonathan Haidt’s writing elucidates the strong human tendency to be tribal, especially in his book, The Righteous Mind, which I found really helpful in making peace with the fact that political division exists.  He argues that our success in evolution due to hyper-social cooperation came at the cost of mistrust of other tribes.

I sometimes think of the TV series “Lost” in which the viewers were introduced for two seasons to the crash survivors, building trust and affinity for the characters. We viewers were conditioned to root for our people.  Then, whisperings of “the others” on the island started to emerge.  I could feel the tension in my body as I was immersed in the “good” side’s possible danger.  Who were the “others?”  Were they trustworthy?  By default, I felt suspicious.  The series creators knew what they were doing.  They were activating very primal circuits in their viewers’ brains that continuously assess who is “our people” and who is not, based on ancient survival instincts.  These instincts were probably adaptive in our evolutionary history, as it was very possible that unknown outsiders posed a threat to our own people, and by extension, to us.

But today we live in a much less tribal world.  Nations are divided into group sizes usually in the millions.  And most nations have relatively harmonious relationships with most other nations, especially compared to times in the past.

And yet our brains haven’t caught up.  Haidt points at sports team affiliation as an example of a (benign) way that we get “groupish” and fire up our tribal brain circuitry.  It’s “our” team against the “other” team.  And the emotions run high, and some people get super crazy about it.  Usually it’s all in good fun, and probably a very good thing we have sports for a non-destructive outlet for these instincts.

But when it comes to political tribalism, there is a higher cost associated.  We know that it isn’t a game, and that the millions of players on each side are competing for different outcomes that will have real world effects.  The two sides want different things, to be sure.  But through various means, we get the idea that “the others” want such different things that our own personal lives are under threat.  We get fearful, which turns on our tribal switch.  Each side, feeling threatened, hardens their position a bit more… and a bit more … in a counterproductive attempt to create safety, in a steady march toward polarization.

What we’re not shown by most attention-driven media sources (big and small), is that we are all a lot more similar in our views that most people realize.  In reality, the data show that most Americans are not extremists.  In a 2018 study that’s been dubbed the “hidden tribes” study, 56% of us were near the middle, and less than 15% were on the farthest extremes.  And while 2018 seems like a long time ago in some ways, I suspect that things haven’t changed as much as the clickbait and sensationalist media pieces portray.

I’m not trying to minimize the real problem of tribalism.  To the contrary, I’m sharing an opinion that, when you talk to people who classify themselves as a member of one of the only two majority “teams” in politics, most of them are just trying to live a good life.  They want the same things, including freedom, safety, equality, fairness, love, significance, growth, and purpose.  There is variation in our “moral tastebuds” (Haidt’s research outlined in the aforementioned book), which essentially means that we value the same morals but in different proportions, based on our genetics (a big factor according to research) and life experience.  But day-in and day-out, most of us are just trying to make it for ourselves and our families and, if possible, “others” that we come across.

Our basic needs are the “common nature” that is referred to in the above quote.  It’s only that we have some different ideas of how to meet them.  And when communication breaks down, we lose sight of the common needs and a switch flips in our brains, and we go into fight-or-flight mode.  We stop learning and listening, and become entranced with the feeling of righteousness – our side has the truth and the other side is just getting in the way.  Those are the “habits and customs” that drive us apart.  We’ve lost our beginner’s mind and create a world in our minds that is more dangerous than is the reality.  And this, paradoxically, amplifies the amount of danger that is actually present.  We think that the tribal, fight/flight mode will keep us safe, perhaps because it did in evolutionary history, but in today’s world it keeps us afraid and cut off from the beauty of our own individual lives.

I think it’s normal to have political and moral values.  But I try to hold mine with some agnosticism, and be open to new information and meaning.  Mostly though, I try to engage with people at a human level, remembering that we are all, at the end of the day, trying to get our “common nature” needs met, and that I probably don’t differ as much as I think with “others” once we get away from superficial labels and get into issue-by-issue specifics.  I don’t consider myself an expert in most or any issues, and I have a sense that any issue that’s had contention around it for decades is highly complex, otherwise we would have resolved it by now.  If I’m going to visit the habits and customs arena with others, I like to hang out in the middle of the political spectrum, because I feel that that is where the nuance and subtlety lies.

But I prefer even more to spend time with the “common nature” that we have, to build trust first.  Doing so breaks down the barriers that separate us from them.  We can see that we all have basically the same needs, and that creates empathy.  That trust and empathy becomes a foundation for needed discussions and difficult conversations about how we should go about meeting our needs in ways that are mutually beneficial and sustainable.

None of us are going to solve tribal tensions on our own at the level of nations and states.  But we might be able to solve them at the level of the family and local communities.  Beginning from our common nature is a good place to start, before we focus on the habits and customs that we disagree on.

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