Three Miles

A couple of years ago I ran into a gentleman in the business section of Vroman’s.  He was looking for a copy of Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. We started a discussion about economics and inequality. A few minutes into the conversation he asked me if I ever listened to This American Life. He recommended that I listen to the Three Miles episode.

I listened and re-listened to the episode a number of times. The story involves a group of public school, University Heights High School, kids from a lower class neighborhood who visit an elite private school, Fieldston, just three miles from their neighborhood. What I heard sounded familiar. However, I was having a hard time analyzing the stories.

What initially struck me was this quote from Melanie, a University Heights High School student who disappeared after visiting the private school:

When we went there, we looked like a bunch of hooligans. I would say we looked like the goonies walking in a Wall Street building. I felt like you knew we weren’t from there. Like, who are these ghetto kids walking in? We just– we knew we didn’t fit in. We didn’t look like the rest of the students.

I recognized the signs of structural violence in the story. One of the most important ideas I have in analyzing structural violence is the economic concept of information asymmetries. Signaling, which is the idea that parties convey information to each other and screening, which allows one party to discriminate toward appropriate parties, are considered strategies to combat information asymmetries. They are also useful in imposing information asymmetries and conducting structural violence.

The private school, Fieldston, was certainly signaling class and status to the visiting students from the public school with its “18-acre campus on a hill” and “landscaped paths.” The screening is most certainly the $43,000 tuition. It was also noted in the program that Fieldston’s student body is 70% white.

The University Heights High School students were certainly signaling, going back to Melanie’s quote “we looked like a bunch of hooligans.” It appears that the signaling from Fieldston and its students was certainly overwhelming to the University Heights students based on another quote from Melanie, “I felt like a ratchet ass girl from the hood. I felt like I didn’t belong there. I just felt like I have no business in this building.”

The idea about signaling and screening is reinforced in this quote about Raquel, a young woman from University Heights High School who attended and graduated from Bard College, “Raquel has to not look at the mountain of evidence that what she’s working toward will not be possible, and instead has to repeat to herself, you do deserve this. You deserve this. You do deserve this.” Her boyfriend Jonathan suffered from a similar sense of self-doubt; his reaction upon learning of his acceptance into college, “My main thing was, who am I to be accepted into a college?”

There is also the implication of profound positive conditioning that affects the Fieldston students:

A lot of Fieldston students do go on to be politicians, and run Walt Disney and the New York Times, and host evening news programs, and design major American cities. And part of the point of programs like these that try to bridge the divide is– seeing as the private school kids will likely go on to be important, influential people, maybe write education policy or finance new businesses– it’s good for them to know not everybody’s life looks like theirs.

It has been difficult for me to understand why this profound negative conditioning has been so difficult for the University Heights High School students to overcome. I have had some academic success personally, so I found this story particularly frustrating; especially considering that I could not quite put my finger on why this was happening.

Then I found this quote from Dr. David Hernandez of Mount Holyoke College:

My first job was at UCLA and I remember one time we were talking with colleagues … about drinking and dive bars, and I said, “Oh yeah, I grew up in a bar. My dad was an alcoholic and so I spent a lot of time in this bar when I was a kid.” It completely changed the vibe, people looked uncomfortable, some excused themselves … It just felt like everyone was looking at me differently, like I wasn’t that same scholar anymore because I had this weird background that was foreign to them … It made me realize that my PhD didn’t level the playing field. Because it’s my pedigree that matters more.

I have visited elite private high schools here in Southern California. I have noticed that the students of these schools seem to be praised for even mediocre work. I graduated from a public high school in a poor neighborhood where it seemed that you could only win praise by outcompeting other students; only winners were celebrated. So the idea of pedigree is starting to make sense to me as an explanation for these phenomena.

I found an analog to this idea in the writing of William Deressiewicz. In his article The disadvantage of an elite education he writes:

In short, the way students are treated in college trains them for the social position they will occupy once they get out; At schools like Cleveland State, they’re being trained for positions somewhere in the middle of the class system, in the depths of one bureaucracy of another. They’re being conditioned for lives with few second chances, no extensions, little support, narrow opportunity–lives of subordination, supervision, and control, lives of deadlines, not guidelines. At places like Yale, of course, it’s the reverse.

I am starting to see the whys and wherefores of this conditioning I am writing about, and the role of pedigree. It will take much more research and analysis to truly understand. I will have to stop before I end up writing a preliminary thesis statement; I could go on and on.

My First Lessons in Conflict Resolution

I first learned about conflict resolution in the United States Army. They didn’t call it conflict resolution in the army, they called it combat. The idea was that you win or you die. Confrontational? Yes. It has proven effective enough to make people think that their nation is doing something to be the go to tactic for many nations.

The army was where I learned that conflict was something to be resolved. I learned that there are strategies and tactics available to deal with, and emerge victorious from, conflict. It was where I discovered the works of Sun Tzu and von Clausewitz. It was where I first learned to that to be successful in conflict you have to prepare yourself long before you start looking for your foes.

Now I can safely say that I understand conflict a little better than I did as a nineteen year-old private in the army. In many of the conflicts I have observed over the years (including my own, often enough), the people involved did not have any clearly defined reasons for getting involved in that conflict in the first place. Most of the time they were just angry at something; something that may or may not have had anything to do with the conflict they had involved themselves in.

One of the keys to being successful in conflict is knowing and understanding what your objectives are. If you don’t understand what you are attempting to accomplish, all the wisdom from every strategic genius in the world will do you little, probably no, good. It will be difficult even to judge whether you won that particular, and probably pointless, battle.

The army did teach me how to prepare for battle; how to fight and win. The only problem is that in the army somebody else picks your battles for you. If you are fighting someone else’s battles, only they can tell you if you have won, or not. As an individual, there is no way to win these battles; you are only along for the ride.

There is a lot of wisdom in the idea of choosing your battles. Choosing your battle involves calmness, preparation, and a healthy dose of self awareness. If you lack these things you can easily be drawn into battles that get you nowhere. Battles that distract you from your own objectives.

The Problem with Problem Solving

As a scholar in the field of conflict I spend a lot of time analyzing the dual concern model. One of the basic ideas of this model is that the actors in a conflict determine how important their goals are in relation to the other party’s concern for or against the same goal. Basically you are weighing your own willingness to fight for something against your perception of your opponent’s willingness to fight against it.

The model provide four basic strategies, plus a fifth alternative. I was introduced to the model when I read Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement (3rd Edition) by Dean Pruitt and Sung Hee Kim. Pruitt & Kim, very generally, describe the strategies this way: when neither side cares about a particular outcome, you avoid, that is you take no action. If you care about a particular outcome and the other side doesn’t, you contend, or push the other side to concede. If you don’t care about something that is important to the other side, you yield, let them have what they want. If both sides care about a particular outcome then they work together to problem solve. The fifth alternative is compromise, a mutually disagreeable solution.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the problem solving part of the model. Problem solve sounds nice. The model makes it seem like the contending parties are just going to come together and work everything out, calmly and rationally. This leads to one of my biggest criticisms of the field of conflict studies: the blind optimism that every conflict that can be resolved.

Don’t get me wrong, problem solving can be calm and rational, but it requires calm and rational participants. In my personal experience, not all people approach conflict in a calm and rational manner. Pruitt and Kim do have a chapter on contentious tactics in their book, so they are not turning a blind eye to the fact that conflict is not always so easily resolved.

Problem solving describes a situation where both sides are placing a high level of importance on the outcome. Both sides want it to go their way. If the parties involved are calm and rational, then there is a good chance that they can discuss the issues and create a solution that fully satisfies each side. I would guess that more often than not emotion and pride quickly move participants beyond calmness and rationality.

I suppose it is philosophically a good idea for students and practitioners of conflict resolution to believe that all conflict is resolvable. I suppose also that as a matter of pragmatism it is heartening for people to believe that all problems can be solved. I may be cynical, but I know one bad actor can destroy an optimistic outlook. One of my colleagues put it best when he wrote, “Conflict is inevitable, resolution is not.”

Why Disagreement is Not Conflict

The best definition of conflict that I have ever heard was provided by Dr. Ariane David. I attended a training she gave on the topic of Non-Positional Thinking. She said, “You know you are involved in destructive conflict when you start feeling defensive.”

It is the feeling that you are personally being attacked that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to walk away from a disagreement. It is this emotional content that turns a disagreement into a conflict. If you can walk away from a disagreement without it affecting you, without suffering any negative consequences, then you are not involved in a conflict.

Everybody is different. We have different thoughts, ideas, identities, experiences, politics, and ideologies. We like different types of food and different kinds of movies and have different hobbies than our spouses and siblings and friends. We disagree with people daily without engaging in conflict.

My wife and I disagree about what to have for dinner almost daily. We typically have to discuss, at length, our reasons for wanting or not wanting a particular type of food: we already had that for lunch today, or we ate that the other night. We work it out. We don’t always come to the most satisfying agreements; we do have enough options to come to some mutually pleasing, if occasionally suboptimal, agreement.

A disagreement over something simple like dinner can remind you of other issues that are bothering you. These small disagreements can remind us of, or lead to, anger and hurt and pain about issues that are not even be discussed at that moment. It is these emotions, the angers and hurts and pains, that lead us down the path to conflict.

It pays to remember that you can easily walk away from a disagreement. The consequences of a disagreement mean little to you. You can let the other party have their way without risking a loss or hurt. When you start getting emotional about the possible (even if they are improbable) consequences of a disagreement, you are spiraling into a conflict.

What is Conflict Resolution?

Conflict resolution is relatively easy to define. A conflict is a serious disagreement powered by the idea that one has something to lose. The threat of loss is sometimes real. In many cases the threat of loss is a perception of  the parties and is powered by the emotional content of the disagreement, rather than being an actual threat of loss. Resolution describes the actions taken to end said such disagreements.

Conflict and its Resolution

In reality, conflict resolution is difficult. Conflict resolution is the sum of the knowledge and practices that allow a person to assertively and confidently deal with the conflicts they face and to avoid unnecessary conflicts. Some people seem to have these skills innately. Most of us, however, will have to put in some effort to master these skills.

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that there are many possible responses to any given disagreement. Each response will lead to a unique outcome. Some responses will resolve the disagreement. Some responses will spark conflict. Other responses will create no change at all. Any response on the spectrum of good to bad can possibly lead to additional problems. So, how does one decide what to do?

There is some basic knowledge that enables people to make the right choices toward resolving conflict. The most important is self-awareness. Understanding what your interests are and what you are attempting to achieve will make it easier to navigate your disagreements without them spiraling into conflict. Knowledge of your competitor’s values and goals can also make it easier to achieve your aspirations.

Types of Conflict

It is important to understand that there are different types of conflict. Cognitive conflict, sometimes called task or team conflict, is about how something gets done. Primarily, it is conflict around ideas and processes and plans; things that participants might take seriously, but they do not take personally.

Affective conflict is a conflict where a person’s emotions get involved in resolving, or not, the conflict. In affective conflict people are taking the conflict personally and attacking each other rather than the problem. As a result, they often lose sight of how the conflict got started. People definitely lose sight of their own interests when caught up in this type of conflict.

I could list business, social, and personal as types of conflict. In my opinion, these are not types of conflict as much as they are the milieu, or context, of the conflict. These help define the stakes of the conflict. The primary difference between business, social, and personal conflicts are the scope and scale; the number of people affected, how they are affected, and how much it costs to resolve, or not resolve, the problem. The cost of conflict to people and organizations is time and money spent, loss of opportunities, and damage to relationships.

Purposes of Conflict Resolution

There are two main purposes to conflict resolution. The first is to avoid turning disagreement into conflict where and when possible. Second, to attempt to resolve conflicts with a minimum of damage to all parties involved. I use the word attempt because not all conflicts are resolvable. With knowledge of yourself and your goals, along with vigilance against getting emotional about your disagreements, you can learn to assertively, confidently, and effectively navigate your conflicts.

Information Asymmetries and Pragmatic Nonviolence

Background

I first learned about information asymmetries in the 2001 when I read a newspaper article about George Akerlof, Michael Spence, and Joseph Stiglitz winning a Nobel prize for their work on the subject. At the time the idea angered me, that one party might use another party’s lack of information against them. Not only did it seem pretty obvious; it confirmed, for me, an idea that I had that the Nobel Prize in economics was handed to researchers whose work best protected the status quo.

Though I was aware that information asymmetries existed over the next several years, I did not have much use for them. I almost forgot about them. Then, while I was taking the capstone course for my bachelors degree in Public Administration, we were given an assignment to write a twenty-page paper on the subject of our choice.

I chose to write about Mohamed Bouazizi and the Arab Spring. Bouazizi is the Tunisian man who set himself aflame in December of 2010 who is credited with starting the Tunisian revolution and touching off the larger Arab Spring movement that led to numerous protests and the overthrowing of several governments. I was interested in the Arab Spring because I understood that many of its large-scale actions were coordinated by text messages and social media applications. Bouazizi’s story only got out of Tunisia because the Al-Jazeera news network found it on Facebook. Not only did I find the entire story fascinating, the implications for public administrators were obvious.

Originally my idea was that technology, in the form of smart phones (which are essentially hand-held computers), text messaging, and social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) would allow citizens to overcome information asymmetries that exist because governments and large institutional powers typically held a monopoly on the transmission of information because of their ability to broadcast. These technologies essentially put the power to broadcast a message in the hands of anybody with a phone.

I wrote my report, got my grade, and kept on researching the subject. I started a blog to write about it in March of 2012. I rediscovered information asymmetries and found the ideas of adverse selection, structural violence, and information warfare. Along the way I decided that, for my purposes, information asymmetries are tantamount to power asymmetries.

Berghof Article

I read Véronique Dudouet’s (2011) Nonviolent resistance in power asymmetries. I was drawn to this particular article for a couple of reasons. I had been doing a lot of reading about nonviolence once I began my graduate studies. Also, learning how to overcome power asymmetries was an objective of the research I was doing.

I believe that nonviolence is a strategy of paramount importance in any movement that hopes to bring change to society. I do not think it is an appropriate tactic in all situations. I also understand the efficacy of violence. There are few things that work better in the short run than violence. However, I know that no matter how good any entity is at using violence to obtain its objectives, it will always encounter someone or something better at waging violence. This, of course, will lead to defeat and the collapse of whatever it is that has been built to that point.

I was pleasantly surprised that Dudouet (2011) wrote, “In extremely asymmetrical situations, particularly acute in ethnic conflicts, nonviolent strategies might not have sufficient leverage to bring about necessary changes (p. 253).”  The subtext of this is that there are certain adversaries who are more than willing to use violence against a group of nonviolent protestors, despite the consequences of any such action. I think this supports my position that nonviolence does not work in all situations.

Another reason I enjoyed reading this article is that Dudouet (2011) breaks down nonviolence into two camps: principled, or Gandhian, nonviolence which she defines as nonviolence “by conviction rather than expediency (p 242),” and practical, or Sharpian, nonviolence; she writes, “… Gene Sharp embodies the pragmatic, strategic, or technique-oriented approach to [nonviolent resistance]… (p 243).” Most of the material I have read sits squarely in the principled camp of nonviolence. I found it comforting that it is possible to view nonviolence as a tactic to be used when appropriate rather than an ideological panacea.

I like fact that Dudouet (2011) works not just as a treatise on nonviolence, but also on a policy level as well. Dudouet, in defining NVR (nonviolent resistance), writes:

… the authority of any ruler rests on the continued voluntary obedience of its subjects. Therefore, the essence of NVR rests on withdrawing this consent through non-cooperation or civil disobedience towards unjust laws (e.g. boycott, strikes, tax resistance), so that governments can no longer operate (p. 240).

Most of what I have read about nonviolence has focused on the spiritual and philosophical reasons for adopting nonviolence. Essentially, the idea is that we should adopt nonviolence because it is the right thing to do. Dudouet (2011) (and by extension, Gene Sharp) provides the idea that nonviolence might be adopted because it is a practical thing to do:

According to the pragmatic school of nonviolent action, empirical evidence shows that in most registered cases of NVR in recent history, the protagonists were not motivated by a principled commitment to the avoidance of bloodshed. Instead, they selected this strategy in order to defeat a particular opponent with the most effective and least costly means at hand, or for the lack of better alternatives, because a viable military option was not available (p 243).

Before I read this article I was growing bored with the idea of nonviolence. It was not that I failed to see the value of nonviolence; I was turned off by the preachiness of some (many) of its practitioners. I had heard of Gene Sharp prior to reading the Dudouet (2011) article, but I had no idea of his real significance until Dudouet pointed it out to me. In at least this aspect, reading this article was a great benefit to me. It gave me new avenues to explore, within the realm of nonviolence, more in line with my pragmatism.

References

Dudouet, V. (2011). Nonviolent resistance in power asymmetries. In B. Austin, M. Fishcer, H.J. Giessmann (eds.). Advancing conflict transformation: The berghof handbook II. Opladen/Framington Hills: Barbara Budrich Publishers.