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Cartesian Conflict Theory Part II: Mapping Individual Motions in Conflict Patterns

By Dr. Christopher W. Smithmyer

 

Baitballs are an interesting phenomenon in the animal kingdom.  In some areas around the world,  when baitfish are distressed they form into what has become known as a “baitball”, which is a grouping of thousands of baitfish swimming in a ball to confuse predators.  For a long time, baitballs were seen as an evolutionary collaboration between fish to scare off predators and it was credited as a survival mechanism.  However, more and more they are being looked at as a community of individuals.  The concept is similar to concept of herds of animals and flocks of birds, when a stressor is introduced to the group the animals increase their chances of survival by banding together into a group.  Some argue that this is more because it increases the odds of survival (going from 1:1 ration to a 1:10 or 1:10,000) by increasing the amount of other targets for the stressor.  Thus this odd defense to stressors exists throughout the animal kingdom.

 

Whether you agree with the theory or not, the concept that a person surrounds themselves with allies during a conflict situation has both anecdotal and academic support throughout all of history.  When people are challenged by another person or an organization, they tend to look for support.  Now there are a plethora of ways in which a person can do this; but in this article we will look at three specific methods:

 

  • Relying on ones own network (Health);
  • The Enemy of My Enemy (Unhealthy);
  • The Social Network (Modern);

 

Each of these patterns has its own distinctive nature and can be mapped within a Cartesian methodology of conflict resolution.  Once the pattern is understood, the neutral or arbiter can then proceed in helping the parties understand their ex parte relationship with themselves, and the need for this to be accounted for in the resolution of the conflict.  Only when the external stressors (the dispute) and the internal stressors (individual network) have been dealt with can a conflict truly be resolved or managed effectively.

 

The healthiest flock that a person can develop is a network of their own.  The most traditional network would be the nuclear familial unit, followed by the extended familial unit, the tribal/clan unit, the community unit and so forth.  These can be traced across successful situations, and many times the fall of civilization can be tracked back to a failing in one of these units.  By no means are these the only healthy units, people can form healthy social units around faith, hobbies, work, sports, entertainment or a plethora of other nuclei.  The general requirement for these networks to be healthy is that the sense of community is around something positive: mutual protection,  enjoyment of a productive activity, learning, ect.

 

When a stressor is introduced into an individuals life, people who have this type of network tend to turn to their network as a means of support.  This means that the stress of the stressor is distributed among more people, similar to the danger to the flock being spread out over more birds.  To this end, the person who is the focus of the stressor can then use the resources of the network to deal with the conflict.  This can have several manifestations, but most common are the network helps the person deal with the problem, the network turns its attention to chasing off the stressor or even if the network does not chase off the stressor the size of the network may cause the stressor to re-think the situation.  Any of these can be an effective way for the individual to gain power or leverage in the conflict with the stressor.  To illustrate the network effect we look at three examples of the effect being used at the individual, local and international levels.  These examples are:

 

  • The cliques in high school;
  •  Book Clubs;
  • The Israeli Civil Conflict.

 

Each of these problems can demonstrate how individuals, or groups of individuals can use their network to extend the conflict map well beyond the initial disturbance to something much larger as a way to deal with their relation to the stressor.

 

High school cliques may be one of the simplest networks to see in effect.  The complexities generally associated to the high school clique phenomenon are generally generational issues, rather than true complexity.  Students associate with students that they related to, which increases their chance of social “survival” in the archaic institution of high school.  Students who associate with sports band together because the team mentality allows them to avoid  being singled out.  Academically inclined students band together so that they are not singled out or targeted.  The same can be said for drama students, emo students or any of the other groups that students place themselves into in the modern school system.  The common theme is clear, that there is safety in numbers, because even if your group does not increase your strength it can still protect you by giving you the ability to be a face in the crowd when a stressor is around.  Further, the group also allows you to deal with stressors by giving you a network to fall back on when times get tough.

 

Book clubs (garden clubs, jogging clubs ect) serve the same function in adult life.  The “rat race” of being an adult in the modern world creates a situation that increases stress on the individual while stigmatizing people who seek help to deal with their stress.  Many a psychiatrist has made a healthy living being rental “friend” that a person can talk to when they become stressed.  Clubs serve the same function in a more natural means.  People can reach out to their friends to discuss a problem, or even to not discuss the problem and just talk.  The club becomes a support group that simply focuses on something other than the problems of its members.  This allows people to deal with stressors in a healthy way without going through the artificial process of therapy.

 

Finally, we can see the phenomenon of networking at the highest level when we look at the Israel/Palestine Conflict.  Realistically, no one cares.  It is a small spec of land in the middle east that has been mined of its resources, holds little strategic value on its own and has been at war for most of human history.  However, the people there are another story.  More than two thirds of the worlds population care who controls this region because of history of the area.  I will make the statement that the reason that Israel/Palestine conflict has not been solved is because all of the negotiations have been between the wrong actors.  The Jews and the Palestinians are pawns, expendable bodies that the rest of the world can use fight a proxy war over sites dedicated to peace, all the while keeping their hands clean of the innocent blood that is shed daily.  Both the Jews and the Muslims have created networks around the globe, each vying for their version of history to be recognized.  These “baitballs” have become larger and larger until they became something more than a group of individuals, they became something with a  collective consciousness.

 

The truth is the Jews and the Palestinians want peace.  They are tired of their schools, hospitals and places of worship being bombed.  They are tired of the radicals on each side being the ones who are given the money.  They want their families to go to work and school with the assumption that they will come home healthy at the end of the day.  Billions upon billions of dollars have been spent on the peace process in Israel; however, it has not because the Israelis and the Palestinians do not want peace, but because the networks they created do not want peace.  Billions of dollars in industry, national pride, military contracts and faith based donations go into the preservation/destruction of Israel.  Corporate and theological empires are built on the concept that Israel needs to last forever or be destroyed.  Until these networks are mapped out and their interests can be preserved in another way, there will always be a suicide bomber or a rogue solider that will stop the peace process with an atrocity.

 

The second type of conflict network is the “enemy of my enemy” network or EME.  An EME network is based around the idea that if someone is against someone who we are also against, then we can work together to overcome our common enemy.  If we look at any of the popular media in the last 10 years we can see this in effect: the good guys and the bad guys team up in the Fast and The Furious franchise, the plot of every marvel team movie is people who do not like each other working together, or even the comedy Tropic Thunder where four idiots overcome their dislike of each other to deal with a problem.  These films highlight the human concept that if someone is against us, that those who are against them are on the same team.  We can see the failures in these situations at the local, national and global level.

 

At the local level, the level where most mediators work, we can see this when local groups get together because they dislike another group.  While there are many areas where this is true, the easiest area to see this is in sports.  When your team is out of the playoffs you can either be healthy and root for another team, or you can follow the unhealthy route and root against at team you dislike.  The old adage around where I grew up is “you can not like the Steelers or not like the Browns, but everyone hates the New England Patriots.”  The concept that someone else is enriched because of someone’s failure is a cancer in a society.  Yes, you can achieve something by succeeding where another has failed, but it is the success, not the failure, which advances you.  However, we see in many areas that watching the other side fail looks easier, thus people relate teaming up to see someone fail as a success, when really it is nothing more than collaborative group failure.

 

One area where it is quite easy to see the EME network is in America’s current political system.  For a case and point I will look to a friend of mine who was the leader of a state party caucus.  She took over control of the county party two years ago in a contested election.  The person whom she beat was not a bad person, he was just a member of the old guard and not keeping up with the changing times.  The party saw monumental progress under her leadership, but some were still incensed by her winning the party chair.  Rather than challenge her in an election for the chair, her opponents teamed up with others to have her committeeperson seat taken away from her in a low turnout off cycle election.  The lack of a committeeperson seat prohibited her from running for chair again, thus she was removed from office.  While her detractors may have had a “win”, what they really ended up with was one of the most vibrant local leaders in the community being removed from office.  Truly, the only winners in this situation were the leaders of the other political party.

 

At an international level, we can see the effect of EME in the relationship between the United States and the USSR.  During World War II, Adolph Hitler had an agreement with Stalin that he would not invade Russia.  There was also a tacit agreement that he would leave American Ships alone.  When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Hitler declared war on the United States to go to the aid of his overly ambitious allies.  This created an enmity between the United States and the German Reich.  Hitler also broke his agreement with Russia, which resulted in the USSR having animosity against Hitler.  The EME relationship between the USA and the USSR was born out of mutual hatred for Hitler.  This is perhaps one of the best examples of networks where both sides hate each other, they just hate someone else a little more.  This EME relationship ended up leading to 40 years of war (cold and proxy) between the United States and the USSR, along with national debts which exceed the amount of money that currently exists in the world.  It was a necessary collaboration, but an unhealthy relationship.

 

The final type of relationship that we are going to discuss herein is the social media network.  This is a new type of network (less than 100 years old) that is having major effects on the world stage, specifically elections.  While it is too early to determine whether it is healthy or unhealthy, we can see elements of both in its nature.  On the side of it being healthy, it allows people to connect with their family and friends at an unprecedented level and also allows people to link up with different groups to which they are affiliated.  While this can be effective as a way of networking, the algorithms used by social media sites to “suggest” people for you to connect with can create an echo chamber of viewpoints.  This can reinforce information, whether it be true or false.  In the era of “Fake News” (sites like yournewswire.com and jewsnews.com) the echoing of dubious stories can be damaging.  Time will tell if the networking overcomes the problems of the echo-chamber, but this type of relationship is rising to a level of popularity it took the other relationships thousands of years to reach.

 

Knowing some of the basic types of relationships, we can now see how the bait ball analogy can be relevant in conflict resolution.  Regardless of the type of relationship that a person is in, their relationships create a conflict support network around them.  Much like the fish in the baitball, individuals embroiled in the conflict have a position in the conflict relative to the stressor.  The relationship defines where the person is on the conflict map, whether their network protects them (like the fish in the middle of the ball) or if it uses them to advance its own interest (using the conflicted person as a shield, like a fish on the outside of the ball) or even if the nature of the network is constantly undulating through social media, the relationships can define the conflict map which the mediator must navigate.

 

These relationships challenge the outdated first wave theories that the conflict is between the two parties and only the two parties.  The dynamic nature of conflict is highly vested in the nature of the human animal.  Whether a conflict be between companies, people or even internal, understanding the conflict dynamics, and by association the conflict map, allows the neutral to be more effective in dealing with the problem.  Only when we understand this can we break away from the dyadic concepts promoted in the litigation system we still use as a primary system and the AI conflict systems some companies are passing off as conflict management technologies.  Unless the conflict is holistically approached, we are but as children solving disputes by throwing rocks.

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Cartesian Conflict Theory

Cartesian Conflict Theory

 

By Dr. Christopher W. Smithmyer

 

In the study of conflict management, the process itself complicates the ways in which we deal with conflict.  Human beings are wired with an instinct for self-preservation and if that is absent then there is a mental problem there.  Now this instinct for self-preservation varies from person to person, in fact there is quite a spectrum.  On one end of the spectrum, we have the xenophobe who is agoraphobic- this person stays in an area that they can control and only associates with people whom they are comfortable with, reducing risk greatly; on the other end of the spectrum we have the adrenaline junkie with the devil-may-care attitude who takes measured risks for the thrill of it.  Both action sets are managed by the same concept.  The person from the first example creates a feeling of safety because they cater to their risk management, the person from the second example gets the thrill by challenging their risk management.  However in both cases there is a common thread, that the self is central to their story line.  The agoraphobic stays safe because they are protecting the key factor in their story and the adrenaline junkie gets their thrill by putting the key factor in their story at risk.

 

Cartesian Conflict Theory posits that each person is central to their own story and that once you realize this you are more able to “map out” the conflict so that it can be effectively managed.  All too often, conflict management professionals maintain the illusion that they are the core feature in each story they interact with, that because they are the mediator they have a key role in the conflict management process.  Ideally, the conflict management professional has as little a footprint in a persons story as possible.  This means that as conflict management professionals we succeed the most when no one remembers us in their stories.  When we realize this, we become much more effective as we become, quite simply, part of the process.

 

To accept Cartesian Conflict Theory, there are a few truisms that someone must accept.  First, a person’s life is made up of stories and processes.  Many people from the conflict management field will be able to accept that stories make up a major part of people’s lives because it is the core concept of narrative mediation; however, the idea that processes are parts of our lives is something that many people reject.  We reject this concept because we are trained to think we are not predictable, when in most cases we are.  This rejection is a Western concept, the Eastern concept of continuous improvement embraces the constant improving of processes in your life.  Individually speaking, think of your day.  What do you do each day, every day?  Do you take time to improve your process, to make it more efficient or have you found a level that you are comfortable with?  Each of us have our own process.  And when we combine this with our stories we have our life.

 

The relationship between stories and life, however, is at the core of Cartesian Conflict Theory.  Stories are, for the most part, the deviations from our normal pattern.  Most of us go through life doing the same things over and over, improving them when we can, to get through the day.  I would be willing to bet that I can name the pattern for 90% of people reading this of wake up, go to work, come home, relax go to sleep with only minor deviations each day.  One person may read a book to relax, another may watch TV, a third may go to a bar but the same basic concept is there; we do the same basic pattern each day.  For those of you that say “I have bowling league” or “I have book club”, this just shows your extended pattern, your bowling league meets each week or your book club meets each month.  The stories of our lives arise when we do something different and step outside of the pattern.

 

The question now arises as to how this relates to conflict management.  In our stories we are the main actors (parents may share the “main” concept with their children).  As conflict management professionals, we need to understand that this not only applies to us but also to the people we work for.  Our natural instinct is that we should cater to the “I” in a conflict because “we” are resolving the conflict.  The parties resolve the conflict, whether you are a judge or a mediator your guidance just helps them along.  If the parties refuse to resolve, the conflict is still there festering under an artificial “resolution” just festering and waiting to explode.  However, if we take a procedural role- a role beyond the self, then we have the ability to help others help themselves and actually manage their conflict.  This is the core concept of Cartesian Conflict Theory, that the conflict management professional makes their footprint on the map as small as possible.

 

Now I assume many of you are already thinking “I already do this in my practice, I make a point to be confidential, impartial and neutral.”  Good for you.  There is no claim that this is a new process, in fact there are very few processes in the world that have not been tried before.  Cartesian Conflict Theory is designed to help you embrace your role as a conflict resolution professional.  In being a smaller part in other people’s stories, we have the ability to increase the efficacy of our process and thus make conflict management part of our process.  We become beacons of peace in the world.

 

If we look back through history, we can see beacons of peace and conflict throughout time.  Christ, Buddha, Confucius and other leaders have proposed ways to make the world a much better place, and if we look we see that they empty themselves of forcing themselves on other peoples lives.  More accurately they all become light in the lives of others, something that is ethereal and indistinguishable but is still there to help.  Conversely, we have beacons of conflict throughout history such as Hitler, Bin Laden and Pol Pot.  These are people who interjected themselves into the lives of others in such an epic way that they destroyed lives, ended stories and forced their procedures on the lives of others.  They were far from ethereal and devastated people far and wide.  The majority of humanity falls somewhere in-between, and this is where we operate as conflict management professionals.

 

Overall, Cartesian Conflict Theory builds conflict maps of individual conflicts which we are helping to manage.  When we start with the parties, then expand the map to aggravating and mitigating factors, we can start to see how the conflict arose.  In knowing the genesis of a conflict, we are better able to  manage the conflict.  It is akin to knowing where an infection entered a system or where a pollutant entered a stream.  Once we know the cause, we can often offer a solution.  Conflict mapping is an internal process, but it is also an important process that, with the advent of more advanced computer software, we now have the ability to do in real-time while we are managing conflicts.  This process can make us more effective and help us deal with the problems that plague the world today.

 

June 2018.