In an age of ideologies seeping up from unexpected places and coalescing in strange new, strange old ways, the best way out of ideological thinking would seem to be a radical commitment to honest epistemology. Those who imagine themselves the freest from ideological thinking are often the most in thrall to it. A deep assessment of your own subjectivity—what you are and where you stand in historical time and on the social spectrum—might actually bring you closer to an objective understanding of things than assuming your own disembodied rationality.
But even if you could discipline your mind toward some kind of sublime, Zen episteme, you’d doubtless be confronted by that intransigent fact of life—namely, that conflict is inescapable. In our common life and in our private lives, we find our days riddled by conflicts big and small, personal and principled, petty and noble, and everything in between. In fact the conclusions of an honest epistemology might seem, to a strictly rationalistic mind, to be self-contradictory and even nonsensical. But that would be because of the frailty and contradiction in human nature itself, not the fault of the clear-eyed onlooker.
Clear-eyed onlookers aren’t always lucid in their depictions, but Amanda Ripley is, and High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out is a solid contribution to the popular journalistic literature on political and social polarization. It’s particularly good for its series of heuristics on the social (rather than exclusively ideological) basis of conflict, and for its surprising ability to make fresh the old idea that struggle dominates in human affairs and shapes those who do the struggling.
The book’s thesis—that conflict is inevitable and must be managed rather than eradicated—is most succinctly stated in its glossary at the front and in the three appendices at the back. The glossary helpfully defines and distinguishes the key terms good conflict (“serious and intense but leads somewhere useful”) and high conflict (“self-perpetuating and all-consuming”). The appendices likewise contain helpful guides for recognizing the characteristics of intractable conflicts—“Do people use sweeping, grandiose, or violent language to describe this conflict?”; “Are rumors, myths, or conspiracy theories present?”—and helpful strategies for navigating high conflicts one finds oneself in—“Reduce the binary”; “Buy time and make space”; “Complicate the narrative.” This all might seem like common sense, but Ripley is unsparing in her insistence that each one of us is tasked with interrogating our habits with regard to conflict. If all you do is look for the high-conflict habits of others, you are very likely partaking gleefully in a high-conflict situation yourself.
High conflicts, as Ripley puts it, are “what happens when conflict clarifies into a good-versus-evil kind of feud, the kind with an us and a them.” At some level they’re what much of mainstream discourse was, lazily and unhelpfully, calling “tribalism” a few years ago. But the high-conflict framing is helpful, because it demonstrates that self-righteous, dehumanizing, intractable vitriol can emerge over almost anything, and that escape from it is not a question of adopting new “anti-tribalist” political stances, but of committing oneself to personal habits counter to our own natural inclinations to high conflict. The framing also allows compassion for those engaging in high conflict as sufferers who need help, rather than nefarious natterers to be corralled or re-educated or destroyed.
But though they are useful, neither Ripley’s thesis nor her framing are the main draw of her work. Her main contribution is journalistic and narrative. The course of her book is a series of storytelling episodes looking at the lives of Curtis Toler of Chicago and Gary Friedman of Muir Beach, California, among others. The contrast between the splendidly told lives of Friedman and Toler is itself worth the book’s 368 pages. Friedman is a mediation lawyer who pioneered non-adversarial legal practices and attempted to bring them to local government in small-town coastal California, and Toler is a longtime former gang member from the Chicago streets who pulled himself out and has worked to forestall violence in the city. Ripley’s framing comes to life through these stories; without them the book might be a basic-level intro, but with them it becomes a fascinating web of realities inviting a whole new way of looking at our private and common life.
Ripley spends some ink making the proper prostrations to evolutionary psychology here and there, a distracting and spurious custom that anyone writing about human behaviour for a mass audience in our scientistic, TED Talk age is regrettably expected to engage in. While the studies she quotes are not central to her argument, they do give the impression that this whole high-conflict business is a puzzle and not a tragedy, something that can be “solved” with sufficient tinkering and techne and willpower, rather than something inescapable and ineffable, a reflection of human existence itself. But her three paradoxes of high conflict threaded through the book are not technical, and are probably better examples of Ripley’s core belief that high conflict is a natural and intractable state of things and we ought to brace for it, and work to change ourselves:
Paradox No. 1 of High Conflict. We are animated by high conflict, and also haunted by it. We want it to end, and we want it to continue.
Paradox No. 2 of High Conflict. Groups bring obligations, including the duty to harm—or, at other times, the obligation to do no harm, to make peace.
Paradox No. 3 of High Conflict. No one will change in the ways you want them to until they believe you understand and accept them for who they are right now. (And sometimes not even then.)
Probably the most interesting and original bit of Ripley’s project is her contention that conflict is as much an identity-shaping, purpose-making, life-force-driving aspect of our lives as, say, education or friendship or faith. The implications of this are huge—staring into the abyss and the abyss staring back, dialectical friend-enemy relationships shaping foes to become more like each other than like themselves.
Those who like me read a lot of political biographies might initially sniff at all this: Of course conflict is an integral part of human life. Why the surprise?
Conflict is as much an identity-shaping, purpose-making, life-force-driving aspect of our lives as, say, education or friendship or faith.
But upon further reflection, I think a lot of us approach political biography from what might be called a legacy-constructing—perhaps even ideology-constructing—basis: person exists, person approaches challenge, person conquers challenge and becomes hero, person becomes truer heroic version of self on other side of challenge, hero has built something that outlasts his own life.
Ripley’s framework does not allow so neat a split in time or function. According to her, conflict in general exists to shape us and to drive us, for better and for worse. Conflicts are not “solved,” although some of them are best not fought; what’s more, conflicts exist and influence us at every level of our personal existence, and will refuse our strongest efforts to drive them from our moral cockpits.
I begin to wonder if an instinct toward Ripley’s contention that conflict is at the core of human life is what differentiates hagiographical pop biography from Plutarchian character study. Edmund Morris’s trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt and Robert Caro’s multivolume biography of Lyndon Johnson are famous for their unflinching depictions of their subjects presented without commentary, with overwhelmingly torrential depictions of environment and circumstance to bring the stakes to life. Painted as such, Roosevelt’s and Johnson’s titanic struggles, resentments, and tragic tics come across not as mere flaws but as central aspects of their personalities, even driving forces behind their greatest virtues. (Other great biographers, it is worth saying, have not quite managed to do this for similarly conflict-ridden American statesmen like Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, and Richard Nixon.)
Ripley’s distinguishing heuristic can enrich and enliven the understanding of anyone who pores obsessively over public life, be it in the venerable annals of forgotten history or the cacophony of today. She simply doesn’t let you rest in the contention that conflict can be resolved—she forces you to admit that it isn’t going away, and that it is likely shaping you now in ways you don’t fully understand. She gives a few suggestions on how to deal with it; but like a good self-help writer, she’s trying to force you to deal with a problem you don’t know you have and may even imagine is only the province of your enemies. Here she enters the realm of the spiritual and, in the best sense, the therapeutic; and it is here where the real radicalism of her book resides.
This past June, Ripley testified before the Select Committee for the Modernization of Congress on Capitol Hill, alongside my colleague in Braver Angels the pioneering family therapist Bill Doherty and other scholars. Ripley has also been a guest on the Braver Angels Podcast, and is routinely cited among our members as one of the most interesting thinkers on polarization and politics. So her work, obviously, is strategically and heuristically important to me and to the organization I work for.
The first story woven across High Conflict oddly brings to mind some of Braver Angels’ work, and might serve as a warning to myself and my colleagues about the pressures and limitations of our own ambitions. It tells of Gary Friedman’s work to bring principles of enlightened mediation law to local government, and the tragic downfall of his dream of a politics transformed by higher principles and commitment to strict process for personal moral change. His downfall, fittingly enough, comes about by his ironic transformation into a petty, polarizing elected official believing himself to be above politics.
Friedman’s story, in a nutshell, is about his high-minded attempt to bring civility and higher standards of discourse, empathy, and deliberation, pioneered outside of politics, into the political process. In his legal work, he had discerned ways to bring conflicting parties together to see each other’s humanity and decency, and to work together to find common ground. So he ran for the Muir Beach Community Services District Board of Directors, won, and was appointed its president. His intention was not to push for any particular policies or projects but to reform the process by which the board conducted its business along the lines of the humane process of the legal mediation work he’d been doing. He wanted to change politics for the better and help his community mature in the process.
So Friedman set up a “Principles of Unity” document and instituted a series of reforms in the board’s meetings, meant to foster more participation and deliberation. But in short order his idealistic vision began to come up short: Board members and citizens resented his strict enforcement of the new procedures. That resentment led to deep tension within the board about Friedman’s leadership. And in time Friedman began seeing his opponents as enemies bent on stopping him and his high-minded attempt to improve the state of politics. As his cherished programs and processes foundered, Friedman stewed and raged and began to resemble precisely the “old guard” favour-handling politicians he’d run to replace, although perhaps a more preachy and less effective version of them. During his campaign, he’d told his son he wanted to change politics. “It’s way more likely that politics will change you,” his son replied.
It’s a mistake to think of Friedman’s failures as the result of a noble, perfect plan foundering on the shoals of a reality that was too debased and putrid to accept it. We must take human nature as we find it; any political ideology or theology that can’t accept and address the actual human material it’s trying to work with will deserve whatever humiliations the real world deals it. Friedman’s flaw seems to be that he sincerely believed his program was above politics and could transcend politics; that at a certain level, if you just didn’t play politics, you could cleanse yourself of its logic and transform politics itself in the process. He didn’t give politics its due, and wound up being the worst kind of political actor—self-righteous, petty, incompetent, despised by his own allies, incapable of doing anything good for the public or maintaining his own dignity.
It was all for a noble cause of course, perhaps one of the noblest—a higher way of engaging public business, based on collaboration and not on destruction. And that’s why I find the story compelling. Friedman’s civility project can be read, in many ways, as a stand-in for the “goo-goo” political-reform tradition in American politics, and specifically for the civil-discourse organizations that carry that tradition onward nowadays. My organization, Braver Angels, is one of those organizations par excellence, and we have a purpose and program suspiciously similar to those Friedman spent his mediation career doing (albeit in the context of family-therapy workshops and grassroots citizens meeting across the political divide).
Any political ideology or theology that can’t accept and address the actual human material it’s trying to work with will deserve whatever humiliations the real world deals it.
At Braver Angels our whole approach is about setting up processes to help citizens find the good in each other and engage about politics in ways that keep that good front-and-centre, no matter how high the stakes might be. It’s about changing ourselves to be charitable, humble, and empathetic, and serving as examples of how free people can live together in a diverse and pluralistic self-governing society, with a productive politics not based on the destruction or conversion of dissenters. The supreme value we bring is not in bipartisanship or moderation or centrism or civility for its own sake; our value to America comes from the process and spirit we pioneer and invite our fellow Americans to join. But we can’t expect anyone to take our vision seriously if we don’t hold ourselves vigilantly to its precepts and practices.
And so Friedman’s descent into his own kind of polarized high conflict is a foreboding story, because it suggests one possible fate my organization might face—the transmutation of our cherished ideas and practices we hold ourselves to into just any other ideological program whose adherents squabble pettily and resent those on the outside for being less enlightened than they are. As we grow and increase our reach to work with national institutions like Congress and the media and academia and others, we ought to bear in mind that worldly success has a way of changing those with even the best intentions, and that no matter what, the best things we can offer to America are the spirit and processes we’ve built in good faith. We should offer those to our countrymen, with the understanding that holding true to our depolarizing goals in a polarized culture, and not polarizing ourselves in the process, will always be a tricky line to walk, and maybe the line most worth walking.
But maybe the real issue here is that we can’t simply “change politics.” We can hold ourselves to higher standards. We can find new sorts of common ground, new horseshoes and coalitions that we previously hadn’t imagined. We might even be able, over time, to shape political culture and political institutions in ways that make for meaningful common ground and collaboration. But in the long run, as Friedman found, politics is politics. It does have its own logic. It stubbornly refuses to budge, and defeats the reformer when she fails to adapt; and then the reformer, in despair, succumbs to that combination of political crookery and moralistic self-righteousness that defines the logic of politics at its worst. Wrestle it, beat it down, it’ll always be there. You have to work with it and acknowledge its place.
A few years back Jonathan Rauch wrote a handy guide to what he calls “political realism” in which he outlined the structural ways that acceptance of a certain banality in our politics is conducive to its freedom-preserving virtues. One of the great frontiers for thought on depolarization nowadays, I think, is squaring the interest-based grittiness of Rauch’s political realism with the intensely moral and therapeutic focuses of classic depolarization workshop programs, and keeping the work honest to its own standards while considering what its implications might be for practical politics. There are other directions, of course, but I think this one is most important for avoiding the hypocrisies that come with engaging in politics while wanting to appear not to be engaging in politics.
For plenty of reasons, it will be difficult (as Andy Ferguson said of our theory of change at Braver Angels, “the world—for better or worse—isn’t a workshop”). But at a certain conceptual and narrative level, Ripley’s book has given us all a decent preliminary investigation into the questions involved, and those who look will see a stirring, haunting reminder that we are each wracked by conflict in our lives, and we must deal with it as it is. That coming-down-to-earth, I think, is one of the best things anyone in this business can be forced to do, and Ripley has forced us to do it.