Managing Acceptable Conflicts

Conflict is a sign of life. The only place you don’t find conflict is probably in the grave where everybody lies in eternal quiet and calm undisturbed by the noise and clamor of the surrounding world.

Every organism harbors some sort of conflict within it, as the forces of opposites are intrinsic to it. Remember the dialectics of history which can also be applied to nature. Any growth which every living thing manifests must create opposite forces within it. These opposite forces are in their own natural way synthetically reconciled resulting in higher development. That’s what is known as organic growth.

But it must be known that growth, which assumes complexity, is eternal, for stopping or ceasing means absolute death, a word which the law of nature abhors. So you have the synthesis bursting into sparks of thesis and antithesis and then again into …., and the process goes on and on forever in a journey towards a never-ending growth and complexity.

The same process does also take place within our thoughts, in our emotions, in our needs and drives, in our plans and actions; for nothing remains static in the universe and we are part of the universe. In fact, we are the universe in miniature.

Conflicts have their origin in the inner working of things. Although their purpose is to make that critical jump from the simple to the complex, in the absence of the right reaction, the outcome may prove to be only destructive. Fortunately, from the ashes of that ruination starts the eternal conflict all over again. Back to square one.

Conflicts can be manifested in many shapes and forms. In open warfare between opposing forces; as clashes and strife arising from differences of ideas, principles and doctrines and as mental struggle resulting from unconscious opposition between simultaneous but incompatible desires, needs and impulses.

Even in the nation-state, the same principle of internal conflict applies. Hence, we can say that nations exist because of the conflicting interests between the rulers and the ruled, between the vociferous minority and the silent majority, between the indefinable policies and interests of the state and the clear aspirations of the masses. 

Acceptable conflicts can turn into unacceptable ones when badly managed or when left to go their own natural ways. Thus wars are unacceptable conflicts. They start as acceptable conflicts and left unattended become destructive. However, unacceptable conflicts like wars appear to solve the problem in a destructive way, thereby teaching us a lesson through pain and indelible scars. The League of Nations and the UN can be cited as examples.

Says Stuart Hampshire, a British philosopher: “We should look in society not for consensus, but for eliminable and acceptable conflicts, and for rationally controlled hostilities, as the normal condition of mankind…”

This also applies to individual humans. Let’s say I have a desire to buy a house, and at the same time I have also a family obligation to pay for the education of my children. Hence, I have conflicting desires within me, which I consider acceptable. How do I resolve the problem?

First I have to identify it as a problem and as an acceptable conflict at that, and state it clearly and sincerely for a proper solution. Where do my priorities lie as a father? What is the long and short-term advantage of my decision (in buying a house or educating my children).Finally I arrive at a conclusion: the house can wait, but the education of my children can’t, and that for obvious reasons.

And now let’s go to a family conflict. A friend of mine had some problems with his wife because he was a womanizer and a drunkard to boot. The situation had come to a point where the wife, unable to withstand the nightly rows and daily incriminations, saw only one way to end the comedy: divorce at all costs! Fortunately, the marriage could finally be saved thanks to some wise and honorable gentlemen from the neighborhood who hated to see ‘divorce’ destroy what God has constructed and labeling it as the devil’s work.

But, later I came to learn that part of the success in resolving the problem or conflict lay in the fact that both parties handled the problem with honesty and sincerity. The problem had roots that went far back beyond their married life, when they both met in a disco and it was love at first sight.

It’s not the conflict that’s the problem; it’s the inability or the refusal to see it as an acceptable and solvable problem; for there is no conflict that is too complicated to refuse to respond to the dictates of reason and justice.

How about social conflicts arising from ethnic, racial, religious and economic misunderstanding and prejudice?

In one of our discussions about some of Eritrean ethnic groups wanting to air their grievances during the Wa’ala, a close friend of mine told me that it was not the time for Eritrea at the moment to focus on minor and uncalled for accusations and counter-accusations by bringing up ethnic problems fabricated by some elements that strive for secession, bla bla… and more bla bla…..We should strive for unity at all cost!…. That’s what he said.

Why was he afraid to bring the real or imagined claims and counterclaims to the table for a final solution? We have a proverb in our country which goes more or less like this: Habae kuslu, habae fewsu (hiding one’s ailment will simply keep the cure away).

”Let anyone with legitimate problem come to the fore”, I told him. Such problems or claims should be examined and then accepted as components of our social and political growth. They should be laid on the table, examined, debated on and finally given a just solution. It is only subdued claims and complaints that cause a nation to suffer from a political gangrene that turns it finally into a hermit or a rogue state.

Acceptable conflict (which is good for healthy development and growth) can be said to be simply diversity in unity, while real peace is unity in diversity, which means that one should see conflict as a component of organic growth, peace and harmony, and not as a curse cast upon humanity. Looking at it this way helps one to find ways to try and resolve it with hope and optimism.

Tribal or clan conflicts are normal manifestations of social growth and cohesion. I think that’s how tribes grew in the past and that’s how they passed into confederations and from there into nations and eventually into nation-states: through the appearances of internal and acceptable antagonisms that were solved either though armed clashes entailing death and destruction, or through the intervention of reason and justice and commonsense, and without the shedding of blood and the destruction of property. The first solution slows down the final outcome of peace and development, while the second speeds it up. 

The problem with conflict resolutions in our days seems in the first place to lie in the fact that the world’s reconciliation techniques go for quick fixes only. That’s refusing to see the conflict as acceptable and solvable.

The arbitrators of this world have therefore the tendency to focus their deliberations on the symptoms rather than on the malady itself. It is good that they at least acknowledge the existence of a conflict. However, instead of trying to solve the conflict by going down to its roots or to its intrinsic causes, they simply put a healing balm on the open wound and then go about looking for other world trouble spots where the same healing methods could be applied. It is then that the acceptable conflict passes to an unacceptable conflict and manifests itself in wars and skirmishes.

Such are the methods used by most ‘messengers of peace’ in our time that wars and strife have become part of our lives as attested by the daily news broadcast by media outlets all over the world. The Middle-East crisis is one example. 

In this, the law of the nations and conflict of interests seem to play a very important role. What is law but a means of providing a safer ground for conflicts of interests so that antagonistic ideas, creeds, ideologies, wishes, hopes and aspirations, can live in a state of no-peace-no-war, for the interest of the rich and the mighty. And deep inside, the lawmakers know that in the scheme of things, might is always right, and that the rich is more to be believed than the poor.

Rudolf von or Jhering, (1818-1892), German legal philosopher, argued that law arises from conflicts of interest rather than abstract theory. He analyzed law as the end product of a process of adjusting and resolving conflicting interests. But as long as men are led by self-interest and the principle that might is right, no law on earth is going to stop people from throwing at each others’ throats for a long time to come.

In conflict resolution, the mental, psychological, traditional and historical causes that brought about the crisis in the first place should be taken into consideration, similar to the marriage example given above. Short of this, the methods that one uses or the total neglect that one shows may help only to cause the crisis to explode right in one’s face.


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