From My Bookshelf: High Conflict

In High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, Amanda Ripley distinguishes between healthy conflict and high conflict. In healthy conflict, “we remain open to the reality that none of us have all the answers to everything all the time, and that we are all connected. We need healthy conflict in order to defend ourselves, to understand each other, and to improve.”

However, in high conflict is when there is a state of good versus evil between groups of us and them “itemizing the indignities, tending to it like a fire.” “When conflict escalates past a certain point, the conflict itself takes charge. The original facts and forces that led to the dispute fade into the background” and the conflict reaches the end of its usefulness. Dehumanization, extremism, and shifts to violence take over, with many people so distressed by the conflict that they step away and tune out altogether.

After explaining how concepts of binaries set the stage for conflicts, Ripley describes four fire starters for high conflict: group identities, conflict entrepreneurs, humiliation, and corruption. She uses examples that are extreme, such as political polarization or gang conflicts, “but it is through extremes that we can see the contours of the commonplace more easily.” After reading this book, I started to notice binaries printed everywhere in media headlines, social media commentaries, memes, and even tee-shirts. Of course, I always knew that binaries existed, such as black-white, male-female, gay-straight, or able-bodied-disabiled, pro-choice-pro-life, vax-anti-vax, omnivores-vegans, science-religion, UM-OSU, and even science of reading-balanced literacy. But I didn’t realize the depth and breadth of the role that binaries can play in high conflict to the point of becoming a war between us versus them. From there, I can begin to see who becomes the conflict entrepreneurs holding on very dearly to their identity, experiencing humiliation, and even resorting to corruption.

A topic for a literacies circle surfaced: How do we share our understanding and views without positioning it as a binary? How can a journalist report on an issue without pitting two sides to the story? And how can we “swap out a narrow identity for a broader one?”

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