A talk with conflict resolution specialist Guy Burgess, who, along with his wife Heidi Burgess, run the project www.beyondintractability.org. Guy and Heidi wrote a paper in 2022 titled “Applying conflict resolution insights to the hyper‐polarized, society‐wide conflicts threatening liberal democracies.“
A transcript of this talk is below. I talk with Guy about: how conflict resolution principles might be applied to U.S. polarization problems; the importance of addressing liberal-side contributions to polarization; the common objections people can have to seeing polarization as a problem that both sides must tackle; how some in the conflict resolution space may be hindered from helping by their own liberal bias and polarization; the Burgesses’ ideas for what society must do to reduce polarization to more healthy levels, and more.
Resources related to or mentioned in the talk:
- The Burgess’s website BeyondIntractability.org
- The Burgess’s books Justice Without Violence and the Encyclopedia of Conflict Resolution
- The Burgess’s 2022 paper “Applying conflict resolution insights to the hyper‐polarized, society‐wide conflicts threatening liberal democracies.“
- The forum on the Burgess’s site where they post criticisms and discussions about this topic
- A piece written in criticism of the Burgess’s paper, titled The False Flag of Hyper-Polarization A Response to Guy and Heidi Burgess’ Critique of The Neutrality Trap
- Previous episodes of this podcast related to political polarization
- A piece by Zach Elwood about the importance of criticizing our own political group
- The book Beyond Contempt, by Erica Etelson, which discusses liberal-side contributions to our divides and what liberals can do better
- The book The Tyranny of Virtue, by Robert Boyers, about unreasonable liberal-side behaviors and language in universities and elsewhere in American culture
- John McWhorter’s book Woke Racism, which makes the case for why some common liberal-side framings about race and racism are unreasonable and divisive
- The 1996 book Breaking The News, by James Fallows, which examined how “horse race” coverage of politics and elections divides us and hurts democracy
Note that this transcript will contain errors.
Zach Elwood: Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast about better understanding other people and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at behavior-podcast.com.
As you probably know if you’ve listened to this podcast before, I often focus on polarization- and depolarization-related topics. In this episode, I talk to conflict resolution specialist Guy Burgess about the problem of American polarization, with a focus on liberal-side contributions to the problem.
And to be clear up front: if you’re politically liberal, thinking about how liberals are contributing to our divides does not mean you have to believe that both political groups contribute equally to the problem of polarization. In other words, you can continue thinking that one side is much worse than the other side while also working on understanding what drives our divides and thinking about ways we can reduce those divides.
And the reason I sometimes focus on liberal-side contributions is because I think it’s something that liberals don’t like to talk about, and many liberals have a blind spot about what those contributions even are. And if we’re going to solve our very serious problems, we need many more people to be willing to take open, honest looks at our polarization problems and be willing to do the hard work of trying to solve those problems. And I’d also say that it’s especially important for liberals to think about these things because we can only influence our own group; we can only influence people who are similar to us; our righteous judgments of the other side and desires that they improve themselves have no real influence on them. Research shows change of a group must come from within, so we need more people, both conservatives and liberals, thinking about these things and thinking about how they can make their own political groups less toxic.
I learned about Guy Burgess because a friend of mine who works in mediation and conflict resolution, Eleanor Bravo, sent me a paper that Guy and his wife Heidi had written titled Applying conflict resolution insights to the hyper‐polarized, society‐wide conflicts threatening liberal democracies.
And one of the things that stood out to me in that paper was that Guy and Heidi briefly discussed liberal-side contributions. I’ll quote one of the more pertinent lines from the paper: they wrote that the objective of the left seems to be to quote “cancel and drive from the public square anyone who has ever expressed the slightest doubt about the merits of any aspect of the progressive agenda.” end quote.
They also mention conservative-side contributions in the paper, but the thing that is noteworthy about this is that it’s rare to see conflict resolution and peacekeeping organizations and experts be willing to even discuss liberal-side contributions. And the reason for this probably isn’t that surprising: many of the people who work in those fields are politically liberal and thus may have their own blind spots and biases, and even apart from that they can face peer pressure from their colleagues to not talk about such things in their papers and public discussions.
And if you’re new to my podcast and haven’t heard me cover these topics in past episodes, and are wondering ‘Wait, what’s he talking about; how are liberals contributing to our divides?’, I think you should listen to this talk, and also listen to some of my past episodes on this topic. You might also like a book I started reading recently called Beyond Contempt, by Erica Etelson. Etelson is a dedicated progressive, and her book focuses on the ways in which liberals speak in dismissive and insulting ways about conservatives and how that riles up conservative anger and contributes to the very things liberals are upset about. If you’re curious to learn more about the topic of liberal-side contributions to our divides, I’ll include some relevant resources in the blog post for this episode, which you can find at behavior-podcast.com.
If you’re someone who scoffs at the idea that liberals need to do more to work towards healing our divides, I’d ask you to question your certainty around that. Is your scoffing at that idea much different than the conservatives who would scoff at that idea, who would insist that the problem is entirely the fault of the left, and that their side doesn’t have to do anything to fix the problem? Are you willing to examine the reasons why many experts in conflict resolution, including some politically liberal people, think it’s important to discuss liberal-side contributions to our divides? Are you willing to examine why it is that some people, including some liberals, have written articles and books about the ways in which liberals contribute?
Are you willing to examine why it is that Guy and Heidi Burgess can express frustration with some of their colleagues in the conflict resolution space for, to paraphrase here, often acting more like liberal activists than conflict resolution professionals?
If you’re someone who scoffs at the idea of depolarization, I hope you take some time to think about these ideas and learn more about these ideas, because it’s a very important topic, perhaps the most important topic of all. And it may be that more of us need to recognize the importance of this topic and attempt to rise above our emotional and reactive stances on these things if we’re going to avoid worst-case scenarios.
So a little bit about Guy Burgess: he’s a conflict resolution specialist who, along with his wife, Heidi Burgess, operate the project Beyond Intractability, which you can find at beyondintractability.org. Guy and Heidi have a long and respected career of working on conflict resolution, and are well known in the conflict resolution space. It’s impossible for me to boil down their work in a quick way, but I’ll give a few of the highlights:
- They founded the Conflict Information Consortium in 1988 at the University of Colorado.
- They created a knowledge base they called Beyond Intractability, which was focused on tools for resolving very entrenched, so-called intractable, conflicts.
- They wrote the book Justice Without Violence, and the book Encyclopedia of Conflict Resolution.
And just a note: these are very hard topics to talk about. Whenever I do these polarization-related interviews, I always wish I’d said some things differently, or feel I missed a vital point, or feel that my suboptimal wording will likely cause some people to misunderstand me. Aside from my own mistakes, the polarized nature of our society means that some people will be filtering any of these discussions through a very pessimistic lens, looking for any small misstep or thing they disagree with as an indicator that the whole concept of depolarization is faulty and oblivious. These are extremely hard conversations to have; and I think the hardness of them, the risk of offending our friends and family and colleagues, the risk of being perceived as foolish and naive, is a major reason people avoid these conversations, on both sides. We become more scared of offending our side, more scared of helping the other side, or even of just being perceived by others as being not sufficiently pure or moral. But I think more of us need to see the value in having these conversations, and see that accomplishing very important things, like healing divides that pose existential threats to a country or society, requires a lot more people to make themselves uncomfortable. It requires more bravery, more patience, more long-term thinking, and more cutting of slack to the people around us.
If there’s something in this talk that offends you, or a major point you think that is being missed in these discussions, maybe you’d take the time to write to me about your thoughts. You can do that at my site behavior-podcast.com using the contact form. I’ll actually be spending the entire next month working on my depolarization book so I would appreciate any thoughts you’d care to share.
Zach: Okay, here’s the talk with Guy Burgess.
Hi Guy, thanks for coming on the show.
Guy Burgess: Thank you. I’m looking forward to this.
Zach: Let’s start out with a little bit about your background. What are the most relevant parts of your career that you think puts you in a good place to have ideas about how to reduce American polarization if you could give a summary of, I know it’s a long career but maybe summarize the high points.
Guy Burgess: First of all, I should say that pretty much everything that I’ve done going way back to graduate school days which were in the ’70s, a long, long time ago, I’ve done with my wife and partner Heidi Burgess and we’ve been working as a team for a very long time. And some folks think that’s our most persuasive conflict resolution credential. The other thing, we both have PhDs in sociology but we’ve never worked in a disciplinary department. Our careers have been spent entirely in interdisciplinary settings and we’ve worked really at the intersection of research, teaching and practice. We’ve engaged in a variety of conflict resolution efforts of one sort or another as practitioners. Done spent a lot of years teaching and probably most of our time doing research and trying to compile and bring together what the conflict and conflict related fields collectively know about how to deal with our most difficult problems.
So the biggest thing that happened in our career and this goes back to the late ’80s, we received a major grant from the Hewlett Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation supported us for over 20 years. And they were at the time establishing a series of university based conflict resolution research centers. And we were the only one between Northwestern and Stanford in each of these centers and they eventually got to be 10 or 15 of them, specialized in different things. And what we chose to specialize on was intractable conflict. And this goes back to the late ’80s. And that was a time when an organization called the Society for Professionals in Dispute Resolution, which was the precursor to the Association for Conflict Resolution that exists today, put out a manual on how to deal with public policy dispute resolution. And this was a time during the first great energy crisis in the ’70s and early ’80s where the problem was not climate change.
The problem was political restrictions in the global energy supply. And there were proposals to build giant energy facilities all over the country and they were extremely controversial. And there were lots of conflicts about that and we were involved in those. But at any rate, what Spider did was they put out a manual and it had, the first half of it was how to identify really intractable conflicts that as a mediator you should stay away from because you don’t stand a prayer of being able to get through these without some sort of terrible blow up. And we thought that it would be good to have an organization that’s specialized in trying to understand and deal with these intractable conflicts. And the other thing that we specialized in, again, under the support of the Hewlett Foundation was using these new technologies of computers and telecommunications and all.
This was a time that actually was before the IBM PC when we first started exchanging information about how to deal with conflict electronically. It was on five and a quarter inch floppy discs. And we’ve tried to improve that over the years as the technologies improve. And the other thing that’s exceptional about our career is that since we never really worked in a practitioner organization or a tenure track faculty position, that we’ve been generalists. And we are a society of specialists and everybody knows a lot about a narrow field in dispute resolution. It’s a particular kind of mediation perhaps. And there are very few people who have a chance to spend their career looking at what lots of different people in different fields are doing and trying to fit it all together. So what we did under a support from the Hewlett Foundation is we build a series of knowledge bases that are increasingly sophisticated and they’re full of lots and lots of information and we’ve never been able to quite find the perfect way of organizing it all.
And we’ve never had anywhere near as much money as a task like this really needs. But we’ve still been able to pull together an awful lot of insights from lots and lots of very different people. And when we first started this, we thought that there would be lots of different views on how to deal with conflict. And while that’s certainly true, what we really found is that there are lots of people working on different aspects of conflict from different perspectives. And if you start putting them together, it gives you a very different view of the overall situation. So one of the essays that we have is builds on the old metaphor of the blind men and the elephant where you have all of these blind men approaching the elephant and one encounters the leg and decides it’s like a tree and one encounters the soft, fussy tail and thinks it’s nice and somebody else runs into the tusk and so on and so forth.
But what we’re giggling with is a giant monster in terms of intractable conflict that really is threatening pretty much everything that we care about. And it’s so big and in many ways we all have our own versions of blindfolds on that. We can only understand parts of it. And it’s hard to get an image of what the whole big thing is and how to deal with it. So what we’ve been focused on with our knowledge based systems and the of theory of how to try to organize this is how do we combine what we collectively know into a strategy for dealing with a problem that’s as big and complex as intractable conflict and what we’re calling in our latest effort, the hyper polarization problem.
Zach: I first learned about your work through a paper recently. It was called Applying Conflict Resolution Insights to the Hyper Polarized Society-wide Conflicts, threatening Liberal Democracies. Maybe you could talk a little bit about the goals with that. What were you trying to communicate and what were the most important points, would you say?
Guy Burgess: Well, what we did with that paper and we don’t write many academic papers and academic papers tend to be very full of jargon written for narrow audiences. And there are a lot of problems with them. And the fact they tend to be insanely expensive and only people at universities with access to libraries can really access them. But the conflict resolution quarterly was starting something different and they were going to start publishing a different kind of article. They called them feature articles and the idea was to raise questions that the field of conflict resolution and more broadly peace building ought to be talking about, thinking about. And they invited us to write such an article and we’d been a bit frustrated, I think you could say, on how little the conflict resolution community was doing to help society address these hyper polarized conflicts that are tearing us apart.
And so we decided to write an article that was a bit of a challenge to the field to do more that also outlined a strategy, again, for trying to bring together our different areas of expertise into a comprehensive effort. So that’s what we wrote. And I’ll talk a little bit more about the key points of that article. But we also set up on our website, which is beyondintractability.org and online discussion. So we now have a lengthy series of articles that have been written in response to our article and responses to those articles. And we’re continuing to encourage people to contribute their ideas to this discussion. We have a sub stack newsletter that comes out with summaries on the latest things that we receive to the discussion every week or so. And that’s been really very exciting and we’re getting a lot of people to start grappling with this problem.
We tried something similar a couple years ago. We tried to push something we called the Constructive Conflict Initiative. And there what we argued was that the conflict problem is as serious and difficult a threat to humanity as something like climate change or infectious diseases as we’ve recently discovered. And in that, I tell the story of how as a young PhD just out of graduate school, I had a chance to work at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. And this was 10, 15 years before Wikipedia thinks the climate change movement started. And at that time, there were a few scientists who were studying climate, and these are guys who were accustomed to writing very scientific papers and going to very scientific conferences and talking to people in pretty much the same field. And they knew lots about atmospheric physics and chemistry and all of that.
And they just discovered that we are in the process of dramatically altering the global climate system, and that they needed to tell the world that fundamental changes in every element of society need to be made or we’re facing what over the next century or so could be a real catastrophe. This was when they were just starting to say, “Okay, how do we take this understanding of climate problems and turn it into a global political movement?” And in the next 25 years or so, they developed it to the point where they won a Nobel Peace Prize for it. And that was 15 years ago or something. And we’re still a long way from having addressed the problem but I think that there are a similarly small number of people who understand and they’re working in relatively isolated fields looking at human interactions in one’s way or another. How really far we are from being able to build the kind of global collaborative system that we need to deal with the problems that we face and that we need to start thinking about how to change all this. And we over time are going to have to mobilize something comparable in scope to the climate change response. Five years ago, we had real trouble persuading people that that was the case. And with this latest effort, that’s a lot more people are understanding this and are willing to start engaging the problem which is very encouraging really.
Zach: Yeah. What stood out to me reading your paper and your other work was just how similar it was to my thoughts in terms of seeing polarization, extreme polarization as the most significant threat we’re facing in the sense that if we can’t solve this problem, we can’t solve the other problems. And aside from even the conflict it represents, it’s just a distraction from solving other very serious problems. And also the fact that you talk about liberal contributions and how people on the liberal side need to do more which I think is something I talk about a good amount in this podcast and it’s been disappointing to me to see how that seems to be something liberals even educated academic people and conflict resolution people seem to really avoid talking about the contributions there or what liberals can do.
And I think it makes sense in the sense that it’s understandable that polarization is so hard to get around so that these are often liberal people who are either themselves pretty polarized, pretty biased or else they feel pressured to avoid talking about those things. And sometimes I’ve even had conversations with people I’ve interviewed where they’ll be more willing to talk about those things off the record and not really want to talk about it on the record. So I’m curious, do you see, when it comes to trying to find these multiply or very massively parallel efforts to try to reduce polarization, do you see the obstacle there as just getting people to even recognize polarization as a problem worth reducing?
Guy Burgess: That’s certainly a issue and there’s a sense in which, well no, I’m back up a little bit. Well, one of the most lively parts of this discussion that we’ve been having really reveals the deep tension between the peace building worldview or a conflict resolution worldview and a progressive worldview of social justice. And at the extreme we had been having an exchange with one of our colleagues who was really torn. And on the one hand he hears the argument that we are at the beginning stages or maybe not even the beginning stages, maybe the mid stages, the transition from a democracy to some sort of terrible authoritarian rule. And that if we talk in conciliatory terms and try to understand the other side and empathize and try to really diffuse the conflict, what we’re really doing is playing into the hands of the authoritarian wannabes who are going to make the same transition that we saw in Nazi Germany and take over the society.
And then we’re going to be in really big trouble. And the argument here is that the threat is so severe that we need to mobilize all of the resources available in the society. And that includes the conflict resolution and peace building field to the task of fighting systemic oppression and these authoritarian trends in our society. And at the other hand, you have those and a lot of this comes from people who have been instrumental in trying to help war torn societies, reconcile their differences and recover. And they see that even in society’s plagued by terrible authoritarian strong man rule, there’s also an underlying conflict. And there are fundamental, reasonable, substantive important differences between various elements of the society that play into the conflict and make authoritarianism possible. And this is what you might call the divide and conquer syndrome. And this goes way back thousands of years in human history where people have tried to deliberately divide societies as a way of gaining control.
And so at one end or one side, you have that. And then the other side, and what we’ve been trying to talk up is the notion that we need to reframe conflict from the conflicts we face. Right now we think of them in us versus then terms and we tune in to the news every morning and we anxiously look to see whether our side, whether it’s progressive or conservative, won some points yesterday in the news or whether they lost. And everything is reduced to what at least one fellow called political hobbyism where it’s a spectator sport and you keep rooting for the home team and it gets all sort of silly like that. And we certainly have seen that, in fact, in many ways the recent election is kind of the end of the season of one season of this us versus them political contest and we’re just embarking on the next one. And a lot of the news coverage is sometimes it’s called horse race coverage, who’s ahead, who’s behind?
Zach: A small note here, people have been writing books for decades about how the so-called horse race coverage of politics has undermined democracy and increased our divides. On the liberal side, outlets like Fox News get a lot of the attention for increasing divides but it’s possible to have a view that a lot of mainstream media increases our divides. An early book I read on this topic was from 1997, it was titled Breaking the News, how the Media Undermined American Democracy. That book and other books and papers from around that time talked about how covering politics and elections like sports as a game of wins and losses of victories and humiliations, instead of focusing on the ideas and the issues made people perceive politics to be like sports. If you have many media outlets treating politics basically like a sports game, it’s not surprising that it will trigger people’s us versus them emotions. The same emotions that can make people so angry and emotional about sports. This is just to say, when one starts to dig into the large monster that is polarization, one can find plenty of factors and plenty of blame to spread around our society. Okay, back to the talk.
Guy Burgess: But what we’ve been trying to talk up is that we reframe the conflict, so it’s not us versus them but that there are, we focus instead on a series of complex and destructive conflict dynamics that make it difficult for large and diverse societies to live together in peace and mutually supportive ways. And that we need to systematically understand those dynamics and find ways of correcting them. Now if you can reframe things that way, what you do is you take people from being opposed to one another to cooperating on the same task of trying to control these destructive conflict dynamics. And so that’s, I think, a way to look at things. And then as you do this, then you raise the question and it’s hard for both liberals and conservatives to see this sometimes is that these dynamics bend your mind in a sense that you wind up doing things and believing things that you wouldn’t ordinarily do and believe because of these pressures. And so we can go into a little more detail on what these things are but you mentioned a massively parallel peace building or problem solving idea. And basically what it focuses on is trying to get a lot of different organizations doing different things to go after different dynamics in a way that collectively can attack a large portion of them enough to alter the trends in society.
Zach: Yeah. And to give a couple examples here, I mean some of the things that you’ll hear liberal people say in pushing that against depolarization framings or goals, you might hear the quote from Desmond Tutu that goes, if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality. That’s one thing you sometimes hear. Another one in a similar vein is we are tolerant of anything except intolerance. And I think maybe you could talk a little bit about more about what those arguments are missing. For example, the one thing that stands out is that sometimes that relies over a huge amount of complexity. For example, you can find some of the left activist framings of things very arguable and subjective that where even people on their own side will disagree with them about the harms being done or how exactly to find the problems.
I think that one of the things we see and it’s just a natural thing of polarization, I think, where both sides have these righteous and very certain framings of things that they don’t like to hear people disagree with. I think there’s that on the left where even though we can find a lot of complexity and nuance on any specific subject, you often hear these big statements of how there cannot be any negotiation or any negotiation is itself a harm. And I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about maybe that discussion that’s come up.
Guy Burgess: Yeah, well that’s absolutely critical and it’s a very difficult one to work through. A couple of the things that we’ve been talking about that address this, one paper that we just posted to this discussion is something I call the QED syndrome. And when I was in high school, I learned in geometry class that I’m supposed to write QED at the bottom of any proof. And when I prove something like, “Hey, that’s a real fact.” Now I can rely on this going forward. And it seems to me that this same principle applies to a lot of society’s big conflicts that from one line of reasoning, you will work through something and come to a conclusion and say, “Aha, this is absolutely it.” The example that I use in the articles about climate change, there’s some folks that look at a particular line of evidence and come to the conclusion that climate is an emergency.
And if we don’t drop absolutely everything and subordinate pretty much every other human concern at redoing the energy system, we’re going to be facing a new retrievable catastrophe. Once you decide that you believe that, then a whole series of decisions flow from that. And then you start thinking that anybody who disagrees with that is part of the problem and they have to be opposed. And you think of it in us versus them terms. Likewise, you will have groups that with a different line of evidence conclude that it’s all just a scam designed to sell solar collectors and electric vehicles. You’ll find other folks that argue and this is a stronger argument. I think that the situation is serious but not as serious as it’s sometimes made out to be. And that we do have more time to respond and we do have time to think things through carefully and make sure that what we’re doing will in fact work and to preserve the economic viability of the society which are ultimately going to need in order to be able to adapt to inevitable climate changes.
So there are a whole series of different arguments and I can have a longer list there. The same sort of thing applies to social justice issues. You can come up with a line of reasoning that convinces you that racism is behind everything and it explains all that there is in society. And then there are a whole series of other arguments. But once you get to this QED point where you’ve decided that you really have got it all figured out, then you quit thinking about other competing arguments. You decide that they’re disinformation. And the truth is the world that we live in is so complex that there are a lot of these and there are different lines of reasoning that take you to somewhat different conclusions. And the only way that we’re ever really going to solve the problems is by really engaging these debates and trying to look at the strengths and weaknesses of them and trying to combine what people learn from different perspectives. So part of the argument is that going back to the destructive dynamics, a lot of the dynamics that the Democrats claim afflict the left also afflict the right, also afflict the left. And so you need to look at those as well. Going a little too far in too many directions here. Why don’t we stop there and let you pose? And these are huge questions.
Zach: Oh, yeah. It’s so hard to talk about. And that’s part of the problem with these things is just such a monster as you say. Getting back to you, talking about the motivated reasoning, this filtering of everything through these specific narratives that we’ve built up. The more emotional and angry and fearful we are, the more motivated reasoning we have that’s motivated by these emotions we have as opposed to stepping back and being like, “Well, is the righteous narrative I’ve crafted the actual truth? Can I see how well meaning and rational people might be able to have a different perspective on these things even people on my own side?” And I think it gets back to that reframing you talked about where as opposed to viewing things like an us versus them framing, you can continue working towards the things you want to work towards while trying to speak in depolarizing and persuasive ways.
And I would argue that that’s actually a much more effective way to achieve the things you want to achieve on both sides. Both sides have a better chance of I think persuading and reaching their goals as opposed to creating this us versus them war where really nobody wins really and you have the possibility for societal and democracy destruction and such. Wasn’t really a question there but let me continue on. Let’s see. One of the things you talk about in your paper are the bad faith actors, the people who deliberately inflame tensions for their own profit or ego, other things. And one thing that strikes me in that area is the more polarized the society becomes, the harder it can become to distinguish the bad faith actors from the true believers.
And polarization itself leads us to perceive the other side with more paranoia and distrust leads us to viewing some of the true believers on the other side as being disingenuous and liars because we literally just can’t understand how people can believe those things. And so I think that points to maybe being cautious in general even while we work towards depolarizing, being cautious about assuming some people are bad faith. And I’m curious if you have any thoughts on the hardships of distinguishing bad faith actors from true believers who may still be deliberately polarizing but are actual true believers.
Guy Burgess: Yeah. I think the bad faith actor sections, I think one of the major contributions that really came out of that paper that we tend to think of things and hyper polarize. That is two polls. There’s the left and the right Republicans and Democrats in this country and something comparable in other countries. But I think it makes a lot of sense to think in terms of three sets of actors. There’s grassroots citizens on the left and the right and there are a variety of kinds of bad faith actors who are folks who have figured out how to profit from our conflicts and they amplify them but they don’t really care about one side or the other. It’s the conflict that’s in their best interest. Now, some of these folks are divide and conquer authoritarian wannabes. There’s a great book on The Dictator’s Handbook that basically is the time tested strategy for seizing dictatorial control of a society. And a lot of it implies this kind of deliberate inflaming of conflict. But there’s also in our society, and this I think is a big part of the problem, the structure of the media tends to reward those who provide more inflammatory content. One of the features of the internet is that as we’ve moved essentially all political reporting and opinion pieces onto the internet, there is very detailed tracking not only of who reads things but how long they spend reading it, who they share to others, how much they are engaged by it.
And you have news outlets that have figured out that the only way in which they can remain financially viable is by building and retaining a large audience. And you do that by giving your audience what it wants to hear and what people like to hear is they, well, and this goes back to some of the psychological vulnerabilities, the destructive conflict dynamics that we need to figure out ways to control. But one of these is worst case bias and this is a deeply embedded psychological bias. There are studies that show that the fear part of the brain is literally wired ahead of the hope part of the brain. And things that are scary or threatening will get our attention way ahead of things that are hopeful and promising. So one of the ways in which media outlets get our attention is by sending us scary stories.
But scary stories are most attractive when they are a coupled with an account of how this was a narrow, a scary encounter but we’re going to win. And you feel self-righteous and you feel like if you keep staying in the course, you’re going get through this all right. So you get that kind of material spread on both the left and the right. This is in editorial papers and you can look over time at how there have even been studies that have looked at how the content of headlines over time has gotten more and more inflammatory. How major news sources on the left and the right increasingly focus on a relatively narrow audience and tell them what they want to hear. Those audiences stick with a cluster of similar news stories. They come to regard any other view as disinformation or worse.
The algorithms that drive social media are basically take this and amplify it tremendously. The thing about broadcast news or newspapers is that you have to write one thing that goes to thousands or millions of people and it has to seem sort of reasonable to millions of people. The thing about social media is that you can tailor your propaganda or your bias news reporting to very precisely to what a particular individual is likely to fall for or find attractive. And that information is never seen by the larger community. There’s no real way to tell what’s going on. We now have very sophisticated algorithms. I was just reading an article on how TikTok is especially scary in this regard to really psychoanalyze people with an astonishing degree of sophistication and figure out using these artificial intelligence driven algorithms exactly what bits of information will inflame the reader to get whatever opinion it is that you want.
And so this kind of micro targeting is a whole new level of propaganda. The other thing that’s scary is that some of this is quite intentional. Some of it is being pursued by hostile foreign powers to an unknown degree. Some of it is being pursued by political campaigns that feel really compelled to use every available trick to try to win over votes from the other side. It’s all hidden and dark and you don’t know who’s paying for it or what their motives are. And it’s a big part of what’s pushing us ever further apart. And so a big part of conflict resolution or efforts to try to diffuse all of this, is figuring out how to control this kind of inflammatory media dynamic.
Zach: A small note here. Regarding social media, a lot of the attention in this area tends to focus on the ways in which social media companies try to get our attention and arouse our emotion. A lot of the focus is on product decisions, in other words. But in the previous episode of this podcast, I focus on the ways in which social media and internet communication generally may have some inherent properties that amplifier divides in bad thinking. And maybe the inherent aspects are much more the problem than are the product decisions. For example, we behave worse to each other when we’re distant from each other and the internet is a form of communication at a distance. For another example, research shows that we’re less likely to change our minds when we write down our beliefs. And the internet induces us to write down our beliefs on a wide range of topics.
So it could be making us more hardened and stubborn in our beliefs. So if that topic interests you, you might like that old episode. Okay. Back to the talk. One thing we’ve talked about it a little bit, but maybe we could focus on it a little bit more. The obstacles that, the mostly liberal conflict resolution and peace building group of people have in tackling polarization. One thing you say in the paper is one cannot bridge the left right divisions while advocating for a progressive agenda with which the conflict field is largely aligned. Our interventions cannot succeed if we also advocate for values and policies that are contributing to hyperpolarization. And maybe you could talk a little bit about how possible do you see it as that these things will be effective because as you say, to get more people to think about these things the people that will help spread these messages. It seems a pretty big obstacle that they’re suffering from, in my opinion, suffering from the same polarization and peer pressure that tends to affect polarized societies generally.
Guy Burgess: Well, there are a couple of things here. One, I think it’s important to distinguish neutral peace building roles from ad social justice advocacy. And social justice can be defined differently depending on the community one belongs to. And one of the debates we’ve had in this discussion is whether or not this peace building role is even legitimate. And we argue that you certainly need peace builders to try to find some way to get parties to diffuse all of this. The other thing that we argue for is something we call, and there’s a big section on our website focused to this, something we call constructive advocacy or constructive conflict. And there are a lot of things that the conflict resolution field insights that come out of the field about ways people hear and respond to opposing ideas, how escalation and polarization dynamics work, what leads people to misunderstand one another, how you can communicate in ways that actually do promote understanding.
So the idea is to help people understand advocacy strategies that because they’re based in a more sophisticated understanding of conflict dynamics are more likely to work and less likely to inflame opposition and drive the escalation spiral. An awful lot of the things people do as part of their advocacy efforts really wind up making things worse. It’s great fun to have a snarky reply that puts down the other side but that’s what inflames opposition. And if you approach people in a more respectful way, you can still, well, basically it’s a chance of arguing your case without provoking the kind of backlash that’s counterproductive. So there are a whole series of ideas on how to be more effective advocates but that’s a fundamentally different role than the neutral mediator peace building role. And we need both of these.
Zach: Yeah, and it feels really connected to me too, the more I have thought about it. I was reading Erica Edison’s book beyond contempt about basically how liberals can be more persuasive in the arguments and also take a depolarizing approach. And I was thinking of her book as mainly a depolarization related book but to her it would be a book about how to actually accomplish your goals more effectively. And the more I thought about it, those things are so intertwined. I mean, to me they’re basically the same. And, and it doesn’t matter which side you’re talking about, these are just ways to actually accomplish your goals more effectively. And in the process you are actually taking a depolarizing approach. And maybe that’s a good segue into this question I had.
The thing that strikes me is that it’s a very important concept that I feel is often overlooked. It seems like the more polarized we become, the more we tend to forget what the role of a democracy is. That the role of a democracy is not to achieve some paradise of whatever sort any specific person envisions. The point isn’t to create a place where everything is right as we envision it. The point is merely to resolve differences of opinions without political violence. And I think for many people, as we become more polarized, that they become increasingly intolerant of the idea of not getting their way because they perceive things in such largely good versus evil ways. I think we need to remind ourselves that what the nature of democracy is and that we will have political losses and that we will have things that happen that we think are very wrong and so will the other side. d I think, I’m curious what you think of that as far as like something to focus on. Something to keep in mind as people work on these problems. Because I think at the end of the day, we do have to face the fact that the reality that we live in a world that people can believe vastly different things than us and have their own complex reasons for believing those things and we have to keep that in mind.
Guy Burgess: Now, one of the most important ideas and well, one of the other articles in this discussion focuses on vision. And if we don’t have a sense of where we want to go, it’s going to be awfully hard to get there. And one of the things we’ve done over the years with our students is ask them to describe, offer their vision of what a peaceful society looks like. And almost always they come back with a description of what society would look like if everybody finally agreed that their side had it right and that their vision for the future prevailed and nobody disagreed with it. That’s the sort of advocate’s dream is that the other side will finally decide that they were right all along and everything will be fine. But what we really need is a vision of not how one image of social justice will prevail but an image of how to build a society in which we have diverse communities with different images of social justice and how they can coexist and tolerate one another and still able to work together on areas of common interest.
And that’s a very different image. The democratic vision is something that underlies and makes possible a diverse society. Without it, the diversity will wind up tearing itself apart. And that’s sort of what we’re looking at the moment. So that’s one way of looking at it. Another thing that we talk about is something we call pragmatic empathy or I sometimes use the phrase bridge building or not bridge building, mirror building. The idea is to see yourself as others see you. And once you do that, then you get a sense of what makes others so mad at you and willing to fight so hard. And you can then start asking questions about, well, do I really need to do those things? Or maybe if we did it this way, I wouldn’t provoke so much opposition but I’d still get the things that I really care about.
And once you make that kind of jump, then our chances of working through our problems are a whole lot better, I think. And offer one example of this that I was thinking about this morning actually, and this goes to I think the core of the left’s contribution to the problem and maybe can help people understand this a little better. But right now we have an elaborate legal structure that has emerged to protect what you might call protected classes. These are groups that liberals have progressively over the last several decades argued are being unfairly discriminated against by society whether it’s on racial grounds or gender or any of these things. That civil rights laws have been expanded to protect those groups. And that we’ve now reached the point where anything that’s seen as threatening or well, that I guess the next point is we add to this a whole set of harassment kind of rules where now embodied in title and a lot of other legislation, there are rules that if people make you feel bad for whatever your identity is, that’s actionable.
And there are all these stories of people getting fired or otherwise canceled for doing things that members of such protected groups feel infringe upon their rights. And that all seems absolutely fine and there’s lots of very good reasons behind a lot of this, but it gets to the point where it’s so pervasive that it’s inspired a huge backlash. And a way to think about this and to try to understand it for folks on the left is imagine that we had another society that was, say, predominantly ruled by traditional Christian values. And when you apply for a job, you had to write an essay that says how much you support traditional Christian views on issues like sex and morality and family structure, or that when you went to publish a book, you had your manuscript went through sensitivity readers that would review it and see if there was anything that traditional Christians found objectionable. You could tell the story for quite a while. But the truth is that there are similar institutions enforcing progressive views on these issues and that’s what makes the right mad. And had that situation been reversed, had there been conservative leaning institutions enforcing things in the same sort of way, that would’ve inspired a similar response on the left.
Zach: A note here. One very good book about the unreasonableness and badness of some of these kinds of things is titled The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, The Academy and the Hunt for Political Heresies. That book was written by Robert Boyers, a politically liberal university professor who edit Salmagundi, a respected literary magazine. If you’re someone who doubts that these things are problems, I’d highly recommend checking out that book. At the very least, you’ll walk away with a better understanding of what it is that rational and well-meaning people can see as very big problems in this area. Back to the talk.
Guy Burgess: And what you need to do is to craft some sort of middle ground where you have a set of principles that apply equally to people regardless of their beliefs. So for instance, you can’t wear political branded clothes to work. That’s different from saying you can wear a Black Lives Matter hat but not a MAGA hat. I think that if we would recognize this kind of tension and try to find a mutually acceptable set of principles that would protect folks on both the left and the right, we’d really go a long way towards defusing our current problems. There’d still be these bad faith actors that will try to undermine something like that. I mean, there’s got to be a way to push back against that.
Zach: Yeah. It reminds me of, I was listening to a depolarization aim talk the other day that involved Erica Etelson and she had a great quote, which was something like: liberals often have a delusion that if you can prevent people from talking about something that they aren’t thinking it, or that you prevent them from thinking about it. But the more we act as if we can’t talk about certain things, the more the people that want to talk about those things will find that information elsewhere including from some extreme people if those are the only people talking about an issue. So it gets to that point of, we need to acknowledge that people do want to talk about these things, that they don’t always accept the liberal explanations of certain things or the liberal framings of things. And the more we can try to talk about that and not treat those people as outcasts, depending on the topic of course.
Guy Burgess: Now one of the lines I use is that we need a more diverse diversity. The basic principles that the left has articulated on how to make a diverse society work are by and large pretty solid. It just needs to be extended beyond the liberal coalition. You could make a similar phrase, we need a more intersectional intersectionality that extends the same sort of respect for differences outside of the liberal coalition as well as within.
Zach: Yeah. You see that a lot with liberal writing off of racial minority conservative views and such and acting like those, it tends to be those views are disrespected or treated as not legitimate views or something. Those kinds of things. Yeah. Maybe you’d like to talk about what are you working on these days. Do you want to talk about any projects that you have in store right now?
Guy Burgess: Well, the next big thing that we’re working on, and this goes back to this notion of massively parallel approaches to problem, that maybe should back up a little bit. There’s a important distinction to be made between what are called complicated systems. And this is what people are really good at. When you build tools, they’re complicated. You understand how they work, they’re blueprints. It could be an airplane, could be something really complicated, computers, the internet, but these are all things that somebody’s designed, somebody has the plans for. You get quick feedback if it doesn’t work. If it doesn’t work, you get out and you fix it and you know what it’s supposed to do. And people are very good at that sort of thing. And then there’s complex systems and complex systems evolve. They’re not designed. They’re better thought of in terms of organic metaphors, ecological metaphors that includes society where you have lots and lots of different people doing different things for different reason, interacting in a complex ecosystem in ways that push the aggregate of society in one direction or another.
Now we tend to think that the way you fix the hyperpolarization problem, as you treat it like a complicated system, you come up with a plan and a set of institutional changes, and if you do this, this, and this, then everything will be better. And it doesn’t work that way, unfortunately. What instead you have is you have this vast gigantic society and with lots of different people trying to do things that in their own way and for their own reasons, they think will make not only their lives better, but with a certain degree of altruism, the community’s lives better. So the solution to the hyperpolarization problem is not to have somebody with the great peace plan. And there are lots and lots of books out there where people say, “Okay, this is the way we fix it.” But instead what we want to do is to identify a very broad range of things that me doing to control these bad faith actors to deal with the inherent vulnerabilities of human society that make us more prone to polarization and conflict to deal with a whole set of objective problems like climate change.
And so what we imagine and this goes back to how today’s modern computing systems have gotten so unbelievably sophisticated, is that they don’t have one super smart processor. What they have is lots and lots of little processors working in massively parallel ways that do big things. So what we’re trying to first of all do is build a catalog of the broad categories of things that need doing to make democracy work. And here we try to focus on democracy, not as a set of political institutions, but the dispute handling system. And it picks up a lot of the insights of the conflict field like a dispute handling system needs to promote mutual understanding across the society. It needs to control escalation. It needs to be able to objectively analyze problems. It needs a common vision that everybody can support. It needs collaborative problem solving, all of these things.
And so what we’re doing is trying to identify things in each of these categories that could contribute to a healthier society. Then we’ve been involved in organizations like the Bridge Alliance, which is an alliance of something like 200 different organizations with something like 5 million members that are all trying to work on helping to depolarize our society in different ways and that they’re affiliated with other groups that are trying to do things in other ways and basically build a catalog of all of the different things that people are trying to do to make things better and to help people identify them, identify where the gaps are, identify, “Hey, this was a great idea, worked in Kentucky, we could do this in Colorado.” So it becomes a matchmaking kind of thing. And sometimes talk of the Google Maps approach to conflict resolution or complex conflict resolution.
And what Google does is they have a map and if you turn on the traffic layer, it highlights all of the places where the transportation system isn’t working. And it will highlight sometimes that there’s actual construction going on to fix these. But the idea in extending this is we need a map of all of the places in which the conflict system that runs our society isn’t working. And then you extend the Google Map metaphor by adding the highway idea. So the idea is that you get people to look at the big picture, find places where things aren’t going right and then adopt or take responsibility for fixing one of them. And that’s ultimately the way that we do big things. That’s the only way humans have ever done big things is you take a giant problem and you break it down into pieces, you get people to volunteer to work on those pieces, and sometimes they have to raise the money to do that and do it.
One of the, I have a slideshow on this on the website that looks at the example of open source software. Our system runs on what’s called a lamp server, Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP. Those are all open source programming languages. And we use Drupal which is a content management system. And in Drupal it’s fascinating. You can go into the sort of back end of the system and see who volunteered to write every line of code basically in this entire incredibly sophisticated program. And you have this continuing process where people will say, “Well, this program isn’t working right here, I’m going to take responsibility for fixing that.” And they fix it and they upgrade the system and everybody gets a copy of the new upgraded thing. And that’s how the internet works. This open source stuff has a vastly larger share of the internet than the closed source proprietary stuff. And we need to do something like that with the conflict problem. So what we’re trying to do is to start to build the catalog of the things that need doing and the things that people are doing to work on all that.
Zach: Yeah, that’s great. The work I do on the podcast and then in this depolarization, book I’m working on, one of the things I emphasize is I don’t think I have answers. I’m more just somebody who wants other people to think more about these things that I’ve read about and think about. And I think to solve the problem, like you’re saying, we need to reach some critical mass of people even recognizing what the problem is and working on the problem. But I think yeah, we’re pretty far away from that because I think the challenge is that polarization just creates, naturally creates an environment where even discussing the problem of polarization is difficult. And that’s the core problem we face. And yeah, thanks a lot for your time, Guy. This has been great and I appreciate your work and thanks for taking the time to talk to me.
Guy Burgess: Well, thank you. I enjoyed the conversation and we should stay in touch and certainly the kinds of things that you’re doing are just one of the- and an important element of this massively parallel approach.
Zach: That was conflict resolution specialist Guy Burgess. You can learn more and his and Heidi’s work at BeyondIntractability.org. Their recent paper, the one that led to me wanting to interview either Guy or Heidi, was titled Applying conflict resolution insights to the hyper‐polarized, society‐wide conflicts threatening liberal democracies. And just a reminder that on their website they include discussions about their work and about their ideas, if you’d like to see some of those debates.
In my opinion, it’s very important for everyone, liberals and conservatives, to think more about what they can do on their side to help reduce polarization, and to speak out when they see people on their side behaving in unreasonable and divisive ways. The reason for that is simple: we only can influence our own group; we can’t influence the other group. If we want to solve this problem, we have to focus more on our group, and less on the other group. And that’s something backed up by group psychology research; I recently wrote a piece laying out the arguments and research behind that; you can find it on my Medium blog, which you can find by searching for ‘zachary elwood polarization medium’.
If you enjoyed this talk, I think you’d enjoy checking out the other past episodes I’ve done on polarization. A popular recent one was a talk with Matthew Hornsey about group psychology and persuasion. For other polarization-related talks, go to my site www.behavior-podcast.com.
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Thanks for listening.