My First Principles of Conflict

I am blessed — or maybe cursed — with the ability to see multiple sides in most conflicts. From a young age I would introduce disparate groups of friends to each other, only to see conflict break out and find myself in the horrible position of alienating one group by taking a side, or both groups by not taking a side.


I captured this image of conflict on Oct 8, 2011 in Washington DC during the Occupy Wall Street protests. This image is available with a Creative Commons license in my Flickr account.

This document describes the first principles that underlie my understanding of conflict based on personal experience. It is a work in progress.

  1. We all have different standards for what constitutes ‘evidence’.Evidence for or against: climate change, vaccine safety, gun control, immigration reform and other hot topics is available just by searching Google for “evidence for/against X”. We never need look at the other side but can rely on the oracle to give us the truth we want. This point is about more than just confirmation bias or other forms of motivated reasoning, though they are usually implicated. We may accept anecdotes as evidence in some cases and reject them in others. Frequently it comes down to different standards of trust. If we don’t trust government or mainstream media, we reject their assessments of evidence.
  2. Almost all of us want to avoid harm, but we apply the concept of harm to different spheres. If you are an abortion rights opponent you are concerned with harm to the unborn child. If you are an abortion rights supporter you want to avoid harm to the already born person. Likewise if you dispute the severity (or existence) of climate change you want to avoid harm to the economy. If you support the need for immediate action to mitigate the effects of climate change you are probably concerned with harm to ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.
  3. The only mind I have real power to change is my own. So long as I will not budge on my standards of evidence and harm domain, there is little hope I will change my own mind on an issue. This is the bind we are all caught in. So where is the way out? Do we want to keep fighting the same culture wars for the next hundred years?

The most contentious social issues will not be resolved by changing our opponents’ minds, but by changing our own. I don’t mean giving up our moral values, but expanding our understanding with the practice of moral empathyand a willingness to practice the ideological Turing test for the issue until we can represent our opponents’ position so well that they would not know we didn’t hold their position. Ideally we should be able and willing to improve their arguments against our position!

Moral empathy is a prerequisite to moral re-framing. Once we understand that our opponent’s values are as important to them as ours are to us, we have to seek common ground solutions to the serious problems that plague us. Our side will never unilaterally “win” on any issue because every win is only a temporary setback for the other side.

I will flesh this out with examples on three of the hottest issues of the day: abortion rights, gun control and immigration reform. I will publish a separate set of articles that will be linked from this one when they are completed (timeline: by the end of April 2019).

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The Proliferation of the Word

In the novel House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday, there’s an interesting sermon given by a native American preacher on John 1:1: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

And old John, he must have fallen down on his knees. Man, he must have been shaking and laughing and crying and yelling and praying – all at the same time – and he must have been drunk and delirious with the Truth. You see, he had lived all his life waiting for that one moment, and it came, and it took him by surprise, and it was gone. And he said, ‘In the beginning was the Word….’ And man, right then and there he should have stopped. There was nothing more to say, but he went on. He had said all there was to say, everything, but he went on. ‘In the beginning was the Word….’ Brothers and sisters, that was the Truth, the whole of it, the essential and eternal Truth, the bone and blood and muscle of the Truth. But he went on, old John, because he was a preacher. The perfect vision faded from his mind, and he went on. The instant passed, and then he had nothing but a memory. He was desperate and confused, and in his confusion he stumbled and went on. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ He went on to talk about Jews and Jerusalem, Levites and Pharisees, Moses and Philip and Andrew and Peter. Don’t you see? Old John had to go on. That cat had a whole lot at stake. He couldn’t let the Truth alone. He couldn’t see that he had come to the end of the Truth, and he went on. He tried to make it bigger and better than it was, but instead he only demeaned and encumbered it. He made it soft and big with fat. He was a preacher, and he made a complex sentence of the Truth, two sentences, three, a paragraph. He made a sermon and theology of the Truth. He imposed his idea of God upon the everlasting Truth. ‘In the beginning was the Word….’ And that is all there was, and it was enough….

In the white man’s world, language, too — and the way which the white man thinks of it–has undergone a process of change. The white man takes such things as words and literatures for granted, as indeed he must, for nothing in his world is so commonplace. On every side of him there are words by the millions, an unending succession of pamphlets and papers, letters and books, bills and bulletins, commentaries and conversations. He has diluted and multiplied the Word, and words have begun to close in on him. He is sated and insensitive; his regard for language — for the Word itself — as an instrument of creation has diminished nearly to the point of no return. It may be that he will perish by the Word.