Some Philosophizing About Conflict

by Ben Best




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Wars fought for wealth, territory, or power lack the initial enmity associated with religious wars or wars of ethnic hatred. Bitterness by those who are victims of attack can be swift. As war proceeds it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between attacker and defender. Some persons view war as a kind of game, without much regard for the lives of others — and sometimes without much regard for their own lives.

Arguments can be components of persuasion or can be an intellectually stimulating game. Or arguments can be bitter, accompanied by anger, accusations, and insults. Conflicts between spouses or lovers have the quality of ongoing argument (disagreement), but can erupt into fights. Disagreements between anyone can be amicable — without any ill feeling or disrespect. Or such feelings can be very temporary.

Competition among business-people can become emotional, but it is rarely a personal matter, whereas a competition between politicians or suitors is typically among the most deeply personal forms of conflict — often leading to acrimonious argument.

Games can be lighthearted fun or bitter contests. In games, an able competitor contributes to the fun — as long as the competitor is not excessively able. Hockey players and boxers easily develop bitter enmity — which may be part of the entertainment for the observers. Team sports can engender feelings of comradeship among teammates, and a warlike spirit of chauvinism against opposing teams. Nonetheless, there is opportunity for argument and competition within team members.

When injury and frustration increases as conflict proceeds, anger or hatred can readily increase also — in war, in arguments, and in games. Some people seem to get pleasure from the adrenalin associated with acrimonious conflicts. Others will avoid the simplest argument out of a desire to "get along".

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Winning games usually requires knowledge of the rules and requires adeptness at operating within those rules — which can involve physical or mental skills. Practice and heredity provide physical skills, whereas mental skills may additionally require study. Many books exist that explain how to win at poker, chess, bridge, etc. There are also manuals explaining the principles of winning a war and business competition.

Psychological studies have shown that speaking first gives an advantage in a public debate where one speaker immediately follows another. The greater the time separating the presentations of the two speakers, the more the advantage will shift to the second speaker.

General principles for winning in conflicts involve strategy and tactics — or more generally, good planning, good decision-making and good thinking. The distinction between strategy and tactics in the context of war can be generalized to planning and decision-making. Tactics refers to tasks and decisions determined under pressure from an adversary, whereas strategy refers to more long-term planning and decision-making. Some people prefer to deal with situations and seize opportunities as they arise, but this short-sighted approach is often unlikely to produce good results. Planning is less important for winning in basketball or badminton than it is in war, business competition, football, debate, or chess.

(See Planning and decison-making for more about this subject.)

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Anger is more often directed against an event or action rather than a person, as exemplified by anger over an action by a loved one — where love and anger can coexist. Hatred, by contrast, is associated with the desire to see or cause harm to the object of hatred. Anger is typically temporary, whereas hatred is a sustained emotion. It is tempting to call hatred a sustained form of anger. Anger and hatred is generally directed against persons or groups, but many people can have these feelings toward malfunctioning machinery. Envy and resentment of wealth or success is a frequent stimulous for hatred or even moral outrage.

Hate is a four-letter word that people often will refuse to see applied to themselves. Being seen as a hater or an initiator of nastiness can make the hater look worse than the object of hatred. Moral outrage, by contrast, is a form of hostility that is often regarded as justified. To transform hatred into moral outrage haters must convince themselves or others that the object of hatred is objectively evil (something they generally believe, anyway). Passionate haters can be extremely imaginative in finding and imposing the worst possible interpretations upon available information. Mistakes are described as permanent character defects rather than things that can be corrected — that is what the hater wants to believe. A hate campaign thus becomes a public-spirited endeavor.

Momentary anger can lead to a fight, whereas hatred is an enduring feeling more characteristic of war. In this context, it is not inappropriate to use the term "war" to describe an enduring conflict between individuals or groups. Conflict motivated by anger or hate has the goal of hurting or harming the adversary. In a war or fight over property it may be a sufficient goal to subdue or drive-away the enemy. Both parties are usually injured to some extent by fighting, but where anger or hatred are strong, the desire to harm can exceed concern about injury. Suicide bombers are an extreme example of this.

Although anger can be momentary, it can be repeatedly re-activated. Anger is readily provoked by the object of hatred. Sustained anger may be the equivalent of hatred. Expressions of hatred are not easily distinguished from expressions of anger.

Hatred itself can be costly. The hater suffers from the offensiveness of the hated, and the hated suffers the expressions of hostility of the hater. Mutual hatred is common — or it is common for hatred to become mutual — it is difficult to like or remain dispassionate about someone who hates you. If one group or person finds another intolerable, it seems more prudent to disassociate rather than maintain conditions of contact which evoke such feelings. Forced association in cases where disassociation is not an option leads to war (in the general sense), even if only "cold war". There are cases where there is forced association with an adversarial person who does not regard themselves to be adversarial. In other cases, an adversary will seek to conceil adversarial intent for strategic reasons.

Nonetheless, there are those driven by anger or hatred who will make great efforts to seek-out the object of their enmity. Desire to cause harm is the prime motivator. Their enemy may have no appetite for fighting, but the belligerent will pursue combat as an opportunity to vent hatred or anger.

Sometimes the identity of the victim is not so important, such as for someone filled with frustration seeking an outlet for rage. The attacks are a form of vandalism.

Other times the hatred is very much tied to the identity of the victim(s) — hated because of who they are, what they believe in, or things they have done (including mistakes they may have made). People who hate readily believe negative information about those they hate (especially that the hated one lacks integrity and has done bad things) — and discount or ignore positive information. Facts about those they hate become twisted in their minds into ugly, distorted images. Emotion influences belief in everyone, but the mind of the hater requires only the flimsiest evidence to believe the worst — or manufactures negative evidence as required (consciously or unconsciously). Such people seem as if they are addicted to adrenalin.

When there is no audience for hatred other than the object of hatred, the hater may enjoy emitting hostility. Every action or vocalization expresses the sentiment: "I hate you, I want you to know I hate you, and I want you to be hurt by the fact that I hate you. I want to hurt you in any way that I can get away with." The person or group who is hated can easily be made to look paranoid — or seen as perpetuating hate — when attempting to convey the behavior of the hater to others.

In civilized society, words are the weapons of war. The hater wishes to portray their enemy in such a way as to inspire others to hate, contempt, and disrespect the enemy. The enemy is portrayed as incompetent, dishonest, worthless, and dangerous. The hater seeks information about the enemy to support false allegations, to make mountains out of molehills of small mistakes, and to aggressively, repeatedly rub salt on the wounds of larger mistakes. An unscrupulous hater cares little about the validity of the accusations — any accusations are justified in a propaganda campaign seen by him or her as a war against evil — although the appearance of public-spiritedness must be maintained if the campaign is to be effective.

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When a foe is an implacable hater, the only possible resolution is to fight until the enemy is destroyed, subdued, or too war-weary to continue. If someone hates you for who you are or what you believe in, accusations are simply weapons — and answering accusations not only doesn't get to the root of the problem, it supplies the hater with more information about you. Answering accusations can be fruitless and self-defeating against someone who is a bottomless pit of accusations as a result of being an implacable hater. The less such people know about you, the better off you are. And them more you can avoid interacting with them, the more they must rely on their own momentum to maintain their attacks. By not responding, the interest of an implacable hater can shift to another outlet that is more commanding of attention. When there is an audience, a hater may become self-conscious about being the persistent initiator of hostilities that can't be portrayed as public-spirited concerns.

Insults in arguments are inflammatory, and it is best to ignore them when possible and not respond in kind. In arguments that play to an audience, however, it may sometimes be necessary to correct false allegations without fanning the flames with counter-accusations. Ignoring allegations in some contexts can be interpreted as an admission of guilt. The more public accusations are, the more important it becomes to answer these accusations publicly, and the less chance that answering will prove additional unwanted publicity for the hater. The answer should be directed to the audience and not the hater — and should preferably not occur on the hater's "turf".

Enmity may not be implacable, and it is fruitful to be on the lookout for opportunities for resolution, while not fruitlessly wasting effort on persuading or peacemaking with implacable enemies. For a rapacious enemy, attempts to placate will be interpreted as signs of weakness — and be an invitation for further aggression.

"Know your enemy" is not only an adage of use for being able to fight better, but to find opportunities for resolution. Attempt to understand the motivations and beliefs of the enemy. Even if the enemy is an implacable hater, he or she may have insights into your shortcomings which can help you become a better person. Even attacks on your character may be justified — everyone has character defects. You can make efforts to improve your character, even if your enemy wishes to characterize those defects as permanent.

For a fair-minded opponent, there is much to be gained by trying to understand their point of view. Actively looking for valid aspects in the views of another, and granting them respect and careful attention helps provide a basis for efforts on their part to understand what you have to say. Perceptions that are obvious to you may not be so obvious to your critic. Try to avoid easily attributing dishonesty, stupidity, or malicious intent to those who disagree with you. Egos quickly and easily become bruised in arguments, and efforts should be made to swallow some pride and accept looking foolish — especially when there is no audience. In some cases, your honesty will be respected for having done so. But even if not, it may be better to attach your ego to your humility and ability to learn than to always "looking good" in an argument.

You should look for validity in criticisms, even when made in anger. It is possible that your critic is simply seeking to disparage you, but it is possible that he or she is simply passionate about the issue. In the second case, resolution may be possible, and the first case could nonetheless be a learning experience.

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