At the bottom of my previous post, I mention the Kula Evolution’s most recent statement about a proposed dinner between John Friend and Roger Pressman. I think this speaks less to Pressman’s admitted “error in judgement” or the capacity of the Leadership Committee to negotiate in good faith, and more to John Friend’s unlikeliness to do so. In writing about this on Facebook, the word “intractable” popped into my head. This immediately invoked the idea of “intractable conflicts” as we consider them in the course on the sociology of war and peace that I teach at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. I used to use James A. Schellenberg’s Conflict Resolution: Theory, Practice, Research (Albany: SUNY Press, 1996), but will in the fall be moving to Louis Kriseberg and Bruce W. Dalton’s Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012).
It is Kriesberg and his colleagues who have written about intractable conflicts, as Schellenberg notes. In particular,
Terrell Northrup, an associate of Kriesberg’s has formulated a general theory about the intractability of conflicts. She places a strong emphasis on the formation of personal and social identities, suggesting that intractable conflicts are usually those in which the pattern of opposition becomes strongly embedded in a party’s (whether of a person or a group) central sense of identity. This suggests that a rational discussion of interests—in terms of objective criteria—often does not get at what is really at stake in a very bitter conflict. Rather, the complexity of the conflict and the way it touches central identities may make it almost impossible to resolve. This, she suggests, tends to happen through a series of stages, which may be summarized as
- a strong sense of threat to a group’s (or person’s) central commitments,
- the distortion of one another’s positions because of the sense of threat,
- a hardening of positions so that central assumptions about the conflict become fixed for both parties, and
- the development of fixed patterns of response which assume the conflict as a central and ongoing fact.
Once a conflict reaches this final stage, it is extremely difficult for the parties to reach an agreement of any kind. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is some success with conflict management, seeking to guard against a further escalation of the conflict. Ultimately, conflict resolution rests on a reduction of the sense of threat and of the misperceptions that are caused by it—and this often requires a changed sense of identity for one or both parties. This is, of course, much easier to analyze than to apply, once conflicts become apparently intractable. (Schellenberg, 1996: 76-77; citing Terrell A. Northrup, 1989, “The Dynamic of Identity in Personal and Social Conflict.” In Intractable Conflicts and Their Transformation. Louis Kriesberg, Terrell A. Northrup, and Stuart A. Thorson, eds. pp. 55-82 New York: Syracuse University Press)
My point in seeing if the label “intractable” applies to the conflict within Anusara, or specifically between most of the teachers and with John Friend, is not to suggest that we are beyond hope of resolution. Indeed, one of the supposedly intractable conflicts about which Schellenberg wrote was the Cold War, and in Constructive Conflicts, Kriesberg and his colleagues have taken to calling these conflicts “protracted,” rather than “intractable.”
We who are not John Friend can do little to change his misperceptions or his identity. We can change our own. It seems that with the resignations of many teachers, the process of identity transformation has begun. That may be why these letters are always heartfelt, and intensely personal. It is important, moving forward, to also address possible misperceptions by maintaining clarity about what has transpired. This is why I am inspired by really articulate letters of resignation and the incredible efforts at dialog taking place on Facebook and in other online fora. It is an incredible new moment that we have such means at our disposal. The breathtaking speed with which events have unfolded is likely due in part to the degree to which this experience is augmented by the digital.
What does seem to be lagging to some degree is the formation of collective identities among those in conflict, to one degree or another, with John Friend and Anusara, Inc. One can only hope that these are indeed emergent properties, fueled by social media.