Democracy and Intractable Conflicts

Learn about five dangerous ideas and conflict


involving religion and ethnicity, along with the host of economic and political
issues, are the most deep-rooted and difficult. The Israeli-Palestinian
conflict is not about religion, but religion lurks in the background and is
implicated. Still, one important implication for intractable conflicts is that
simple negotiable material interests are less important than the recognition of
basic needs, and these needs such as religious and identity confirmation are
entrenched and not subject to negotiation. And to make things even more
complex, these needs are not subject to the traditional models of conflict
management; that is, they are not satisfiable within a framework of bargaining,
negotiation, third-party interventions, or expressions of authority. Most of
these models, especially the use of authority or force, will make things worse
and entrench cultural attitudes even more deeply. But the good news is that
intelligence can be applied to these issues and there are strategies for making
progress on satisfying the basic needs of the two parties. Within a proper
respectful political framework, and with sufficient cultural knowledge and
sensitivity, a zero-sum negotiation can be turned into an integrated solution
that meets the needs and interests of both sides.

groups in conflict can involve interventions on numerous levels of analysis. Political
scientists might design institutional arrangements conducive to democratic or
citizen rights and these institutions will have a “trickle-down”
effect such that they affect individual psychologies and attitudes. But the
political science approach remains primarily interested in political
institutions. The same is true for a relational and communication approach. The
entry point might be individual psychologies or group relations but as these
change and development they will influence expectations about larger social
structures. Deep-rooted intractable conflicts can benefit from political
arrangements designed to foster equality and democratic values, but such
intractable conflicts begin with distorted relational and psychological
patterns that result in what Bar
Tal and Teichman
(2005) called the “ethos of conflict.” A
conflict ethos is a repertoire of stereotypes, images, myths, and societal
beliefs that constitute a relationship between two conflicting parties that
defines how they perceive one another and how they communicate. The conflict
ethos is coherent and implies attitudes toward the two groups that legitimize
the ingroup and delegitimize the outgroup. This ingroup-outgroup contrast
fosters integration in one’s own society – albeit integration based on
distorted understandings – and various dangerous misperceptions of the other
society. The conflict ethos can be clustered around eight societal beliefs most
associated with resistant intractable conflicts. A fuller development of these
ideas appears in Bar Tal and Teichman (2005).

would add that this repertoire of beliefs applies equally well to the
generalized conflict between the West and Islam. We live in a historical period
characterized by the perception of a clear divide between the West and the
Muslim world. This is captured in Samuel Huntington’s unfortunate but appealing
phrase referring to the “clash of civilizations.” The strength and
depth of this divide between the West and the Islamic world is evidenced by the
outrage over events such as the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printing the
Mohammed cartoons in 2005. The subsequent violence reproduces the perception of
dichotomous cultures. The “conflict” between East and West is usually
described in intractable terms. Each of these below plays an important role in
conflict resolution. They must be the subject of discussion, moderation,
adaptation. They are issues ideally for the public sphere as well as the macro
political realm of institution creation.

first primary theme of intractable conflicts is the sense that your own cause is just. Both
Palestinians and Israelis believe that their version of history and the conflict
are correct and worthy of support. Muslims believe their religious tenets
produce “justice” in the eyes of God, just as Americans believe
strongly in democracy and its encouragement. Americans and Muslims, as well as
Palestinians and Israelis, will shed much “blood and treasure” for
the justice of their cause. Secondly conflicting parties stressed the
importance of security. The Israelis
feel existentially threatened. They are convinced that the enemy is committed
to their destruction. Palestinians invoke the language of occupation to justify
their own violence. Security discourse is harnessed to justify any sort of
violence. Security is a basic human need and an easy rationale for the
legitimization of violence. Third is a powerful sense of patriotism where group members attach themselves to country and
land fusing the identity of both to individual identities. Without a powerful
internalized sense of patriotism group members will not sacrifice. Patriotism
mobilizes members of intractable conflicts in the face of heavy costs both
human and material. The United States has experienced a surge in patriotism and
identification with soldiers as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The fourth is unity or the
expectation of agreement in the face of the threat. This creates pressures to
conform to your own societal group and discourages disagreement that might be
an impediment to the cause. The fifth element of the conflict ethos is the
discourse of peace. Each group in the
conflict expresses themselves in utopian and vague terms with respect to peace.
This discourse maintains the image of the peace loving society, and encourages
support for one’s group, but rarely takes the form of the hard work and
sacrifices relevant to true peace. Victimization
is a sixth quality of intractable conflicts and a powerful psychological
self-image that emphasizes group vulnerability and the evil intentions of the
opponent. Israelis have a long history of victimization, and Palestinians have
developed the victim image that garners international sympathy. The seventh
quality of intractable conflicts is a belief that reflects ethnocentric attitudes about your own group. The culture develops a
positive self image and sees itself as moral and heroic as it confronts a less
than human enemy. The United States has demonized Islam and regularly
characterizes the religion as “unevolved.” Finally, there is a very
sharp set of beliefs concerning negative
qualities of the adversary
. Stereotypes, poor communication, and
psychological distortions compose society’s image of the other.

These societal characteristics are deep rooted and
require serious analysis and consideration. Democratizing the conflict
resolution process is one way to approach these problems. More on how to do
that in coming posts.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on July 18, 2011, in Communication and Conflict Resolution, Democracy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Democracy and Intractable Conflicts.

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