The Causes of Conflict

I hate confrontation and am bad at it. I also hate to see confrontation occur. Other people can see a confrontation and look on with bemusement or eager interest. To my memory, I have always been pained when I see one.

This has given me a sharper awareness than most of its causes and nature. Superficially, there are is a huge range of things that can lead to conflict. Everything from the way we roll the toilet paper to the philosophical underpinnings of shockingly similar economic systems leads people to anger, frustration, argument, violence, and war.

But, I think it doesn’t take too much effort to see that all of these fights come down to essentially one single fight: I think things are/were/should be like this, while you think things are/were/should be like that. Simply put, we have conflicts because we disagree.

But disagreement doesn’t automatically lead to conflict. Conflict instead grows out of our inability to accept that we disagree. It’s a result of our myopia toward the fact that we can have different opinions about what flag should fly over Somaliland, Kashmir, Alsace-Lorraine, or South Ossetia and not go to war. Our myopia to the fact that it’s not meant as a personal slight that he sometimes leaves his socks in the middle of the floor.

Conflict is rooted in a failure of understanding. War breaks out because Country A can’t understand how it can get what it wants from Country B without resorting to violent force. Arguments break out because Person A doesn’t know how to explain their problem with Person B without attacking Person B in some, sometimes subtle, way.

When involved in conflict, we are usually blind to some aspect of the situation in which we find ourselves. Frequently we can’t understand the motive of our opponent in the conflict. Sometimes we make mistakes in evaluating the situation or the state of conflict. And almost always we miss that the best way to come to a satisfactory resolution to the situation is unlikely to be either a verbal or physical confrontation.

A domestic partner’s failings are almost always better solved with a friendly request than a passive-aggressive sneak-attack or an active screaming match. The disposition of contested land is almost always better solved by talking extensively than going to war. Mistakes about matters of fact are best corrected gently and subtly, not overtly and aggressively.

Minds are almost never changed when directly confronted. Few people will yield to even the most flawless argument if it forces them to lose face. (And in public confrontation, someone usually does.) Many people would rather escalate a conflict than admit a mistake. This is how we get deadly shootings over silly things like video game systems, romantic entanglements, and minor religious differences.

I’d like to end this in a nice place where we can put all conflict to rest forever. But I don’t know that place, and it may not even exist. But I do know that if we stop and think and look at conflicts, the majority of them can be seen for their foolishness. That, I suppose, is where we must start.