Convince, Conquer, Coexist, or Collaborate?
We disagree. This is neither surprising nor unprecedented. As long as there have been humans, there have been humans who differ in how they see the world, or even their view of right and wrong. And while the latest iteration of our society may not have invented disagreement, it does feel like perhaps we have perfected it. Disagreement has become a national reflex. Even seemingly innocuous events and news stories must now be viewed through the lens of each person’s particular political tribe, and thereby become flash points for disagreement.
But disagreeing does not need to be something negative, different views of the truth do not need to lead to dysfunction. The key is how we respond to disagreement. As our nation has churned through internal conflict after conflict in the past few years, I have noticed four distinct ways people respond.
When faced with those who disagree with us, we try to convince, conquer, coexist, or collaborate.
The approach we choose suggests something about how we view the world as it relates to:
Who Holds Power: Do we view power as something that should be shared or concentrated?
Who Is Worthy Of Engagement: Do we view people who disagree with us as worthy of our attention?
Many of us, when faced with someone who disagrees with us, try to convince them to adopt our view. We marshal our facts and state our case, and try to win people over to our side. This suggests we are more comfortable when everyone in power sees things similarly, we value universal agreement. And it suggests we see those who disagree as worthy of the effort to try and change their mind.
Convincing people is a noble pursuit, and sometimes it actually works. A recent Pew research study found that 17% of people have changed their mind about an issue as a result of something they have seen on social media. But all too often efforts to convince people are not effective. During the 2016 election, despite a massive onslaught of media coverage, advertising, and social discussions, only about 2% of people changed their mind about who they intended to vote for during the months leading up to the election..
Stacks of books have been written about why convincing people to change their mind is difficult, but much of it comes down to difficulty reconciling the fact they may have been wrong about something, blocking out information that may conflict with what they already believe (confirmation bias), or simply having their personal identity so tied up in a point of view that to change their mind would cause them to question aspects of who they are.
But, when our efforts to convince fail, what do we do next?
When convincing fails, for many of us, it seems like the only option is to dominate the other side. The argument goes like this. We need to have a society where folks who are right (who believe as I do) are clearly and completely in power. And, if some folks will not listen to reason and be convinced, then they are not worthy of having a seat at the table, of having a voice. We dominate them by shouting them down in the media, or marginalize them because our side has one vote more than their side has.
This politics of conquest appears to work at first. We get our laws passed, our priorities recognized. We make our voice the loudest one, and this triumph of the truth makes the world seem sane again. Successful conquest always brings a measure of peace. But, every conquest sows the seeds of the next revolution. Since 1976, there have been six occasions when one party controlled all three branches of the U.S. government. And in every case this control only lasted two or four years.
The term backlash has become a huge part of our political vernacular for good reason. Groups that feel they do not have a voice sooner or later will drive a shift in power. Conquest, while it may feel momentarily satisfying, is ultimately not sustainable. Reagan rallied industrial state white voters, Obama rallied African American voters and younger voters, Trump rallied rural and industrial state white men. Of course, this is a bit of an oversimplification, since each of these leaders had to build broader coalitions to gain power. But the theme is consistent, each of these elections featured the enfranchisement of groups who previously felt they did not have a voice. They had been excluded from the process, and there was backlash. Conquest did not really bring lasting unity.
People who do not try to convince or conquer those who disagree might decide to simply disengage, to just co-exist with them. Co-existing suggests we are ok with having power shared by folks with different opinions. We accept a world where power is not clearly held by one side or the other. But it also suggests we are comfortable with viewing part of the population as a somewhat dehumanized ‘They’, with whom it is pointless to try and communicate about important topics.
Whether driven by indifference or disdain or frustration, we decide people who disagree are just not worthy of our attention.
Around 45% of Americans have disengaged from discussing political or social issues with another person because of a statement that person made. 83% of social media users say that a friend posts something they disagree with on social media, they choose to ignore it rather than comment.
Co-existing keeps the peace, but it also inhibits progress. Our society faces real problems that almost everyone agrees need to be addressed: healthcare, immigration, energy, infrastructure, education. We cannot solve these big problems with huge chunks of society disengaged. We cannot marshal the resources we need without some level of agreement. And agreement requires discussion, engagement that goes beyond simply coexisting.
So where does this leave us? If convincing the other side that we are right is not possible, and conquering them is not sustainable, and simply co-existing locks in an undesirable status quo, then our remaining choice is to collaborate. Collaboration is easily the most difficult of the approaches to conflict, but it is likely the most productive.
Collaboration requires that we set aside the drive for a grand “kingdom of agreement”, where folks who believe like me are unquestionably in power. We must accept that there will always be people in positions of power who have fundamentally different views about what is wrong and how to fix it.
Collaboration also requires that we view those who disagree with us, who will always disagree with us, as worthy of our engagement and attention. The Declaration of Independence was prescient, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…” There is no provision for dehumanizing people because of their political and social views.
Collaboration focuses its attention on the problem in the middle of the table, not the people sitting in the chairs around the table. Collaboration says, “I will not try to change you, to judge you, to parse your motives, to control you. Rather, I will work with you to solve this problem we are both facing.” Collaboration puts pragmatic progress ahead of dogmatic catharsis.
It is a simple change in mindset that can have a profound impact. Collaboration requires humility and it requires work. But it is exactly the kind of work our divided nation needs.
© W. Kerry Morris 2021 Atlanta GA