Anyone who has been following U.S. politics, at least a little bit, undoubtedly knows how partisan and polarized our discourse has become. In the halls of Congress, in the televised debates, and even among rank-and-file Americans, both major parties paint each other in shades of criticism and mistrust. Bipartisan policies are becoming almost a thing of the past.
This partisanship is not unique to national politics, and the disability world is just as guilty. People with one disability tell me they feel unwelcomed by people with a different disability. Two consumer groups, based around the same disability, deride one another in their national newsletters. Tensions arise between activists and researchers, or between researchers from different universities. And relations between disabled and nondisabled people, as collectives, have an unmistakable “us vs. them” character. Too often, one member of either group is seen as an ambassador for them all.
I’m an independent consultant, so I have a professional interest in getting along with everybody. I also prefer harmony in my personal life. And, both professionally and personally, I tend to be a pragmatist. I like to get things done, and it’s impossible to accomplish anything when two groups do nothing but sabotage each other. So, all this partisan bickering gets under my skin. Yet I recognize that it’s an inextricable part of the human condition.
Although I’m certainly no expert in conflict resolution, I do want to share three insights that, I think, could help us all cooperate a little better during these tense times.
1. Practice mindful acceptance.
Intergroup conflict is, ironically, critical to our survival as a species. After all, we are social animals who once lived in tribes sharing limited resources. Our ancestors who could secure food for our families, while warding off intruders, successfully passed their genes on to us. Humans are evolved to quickly distinguish kin from stranger, friend from foe, and to act in the best interest of their own tribe.
Along with this, groups tend to splinter along all kinds of dividing lines. Although this phenomenon breeds conflict, it also breeds innovation from a diversity of ideas. I am certainly grateful to have more than one political party in my country’s government. I also appreciate a choice of more than one organization to join, and more than one way to effect change. Perhaps cooperation begins with accepting the fact that partisan divides are inevitable, and if we handle them appropriately, they can enhance progress rather than impede it.
This can be easier said than done. I have trouble “agreeing to disagree” at times. It’s threatening to me when a person I like says things I don’t like. However, sometimes the beliefs I initially dislike can give me a new perspective on an issue. Other times, they give me a deeper understanding of that person’s life experiences, which can strengthen our relationship. It takes work sometimes, but I try to make peace with the disagreement, and to be mindfully accepting of my own emotional reactions so I can get past them.
2. Look for the third side of the story.
When I was in college, I read quite a bit about theories of conflict resolution, compromise, and negotiation. To be quite honest, I remember little of what I read. The one lesson I still recall to this day was not acquired in a classroom, but during a random late-night phone call with a friend.
“You know there’’s three sides to every story,” he said.
“Three sides? Not two?” I asked.
“Yeah, three. There’s what you think happened. There’s what they think happened. And then, there’s what really happened.”
Too often, we assume our side is right, and their side is wrong. We may hear a story and assume our friend is telling the truth, and our enemy is lying. However, it’s rarely that black-and-white. Usually, the reality of a story is somewhere in the middle between two opposing accounts. Two people may present different facts in their stories. Or, two people may interpret the same set of facts very differently. The third side of the triangle appears only when both participants have had a chance to tell their full account without interruptions or attacks. At that point, places of agreement become apparent between the two accounts, along with possible resolutions. Looking for the third side of the conflict triangle involves acknowledging that both parties bear responsibility for the conflict as well as the resolution.
As an advocate, when I hear about instances of discrimination, my first impulse is to ask what the second side of the story is. This is not to invalidate the experience of the person who encountered discrimination. Rather, it is to understand the motives behind the discrimination so that we can find the third side of the story, where resolution can occur. I believe that most people who discriminate against us are not bad people. They generally believe that their behavior is justified, whether by safety concerns, by a lack of understanding of disability, or by a belief that making things accessible is beyond their means. Only by understanding these motives can we find a solution that gives the disabled person opportunity while also addressing the other entity’s concerns or fears.
3. Find a more inclusive “us.”
One of the most interesting experiments on intergroup conflict was done at a boy scout camp in Robbers Cave, Oklahoma, in the 1950’s. Twenty-two preteen boys, who didn’t know each other, were randomly divided into two groups. Each group was brought to camp, unaware of the other group’s existence. Both groups engaged in team bonding activities and chose names for themselves, the Eagles and the Rattlers. After a few days, the two groups were brought into the same camp space. The researchers contrived a series of competitive games where only one group could win a prize. After only a few days, members of both groups began taunting each other, throwing food, and raiding each other’s cabins. At one point the two groups had to be physically separated so they wouldn’t hurt each other.
Then, the researchers tested peacemaking strategies. They first tried bringing the groups together for shared, noncompetitive events like watching a movie. This didn’t work to lessen the conflict. So, they devised a series of problems that required members of both groups to work together in order to solve, such as staging a bus breakdown and a water pipe failure. The boys from both groups found themselves working together to solve these common problems, first out of necessity, and eventually by choice. By the end of the camp session, the two groups were intentionally sitting together and even pooled their money to buy a shared treat.
It is not surprising that the groups with the most intense conflicts are often in close proximity. After all, we call it sibling rivalry, not third-cousin rivalry; and college sports fans most eagerly anticipate the showdown between two teams from the same state. Groups in close proximity have more resources to fight over, both physical and social in nature. However, such groups are also in a great position to discover identities and goals that they share in common. We can short-circuit our evolved tendency to pit “us” against “them” by generating a more inclusive “us” The social psychologists refer to this as “superordinate identities.”
However, just expanding the definition of “us” isn’t quite enough. After all, reminding Democrats and Republicans how much they love their country could only intensify tensions. It is further necessary to come up with shared goals, and strategies that rely on input from both groups. Disability groups focused on different impairments may benefit by collaborating on cross-impairment issues. Activists and researchers can pool their complementary expertise to conduct participatory community research on important social problems. And so on.
The above recommendations are not meant to be a panacea for all conflicts. Certainly just bringing people together to work on common projects can’t undo conflicts that are decades or centuries old. I do hope that the concepts of accepting disagreement, looking for the third side of the story, and finding a more inclusive “us” can help stretch our thinking when we find ourselves in a difficult situation. Although we can’t (and shouldn’t) all agree, I believe we are capable of giving each other the respect that moves us closer to achieving joint progress.