Remaining Civil in a World of Conflict

by Bala A. Musa, Ph.D.

During a recent father-daughter outing with my 13-year-old, I asked her what one thing in all of society she would change if she had the power to do so. She paused, then offered, “I’d like to make people not hurt or be cruel to one another, and instead, be more empathic and caring toward one another.”

As I pondered her answer, I thought about the epidemic of physical, psychological, and structural violence that saturates society. Today’s youth may be surrounded by amazing technology, entertainment, and fantasy worlds that make life more convenient, but danger, insecurity, and mass destruction still comprise their social reality. Human beings have tamed the planet, conquered space, and harnessed nuclear energy, yet the greatest threat to our civilization remains the inability to engineer the kind of relationship we would like to see among families, colleagues, communities, and nations.

Manufactured violence depicted in the media, and real violence rampant on our streets, have converged, making it difficult to tell which drives which. A typical news story reads like fiction and unfolds like a reality show: A father critically injures his son’s coach for not giving the son enough playing time. A sports fan is beaten into a coma by fans of the rival team. A driver overwhelmed by road rage opens fire on another. Passengers who resort to fistfights over legroom force a fighter jet to escort the plane to the airport. School and community leaders struggle to find a solution to the epidemic of face-to-face and cyberbullying involving children as well as adults.

Clearly, the Net Generation exists in a world shaped by great optimism as well as much despair about the state and fate of the human family and civilization—a world becoming more tech-savvy and socially inept in equal measure. Rapid advances in science and information technology have increased awareness, interaction, and contact among groups and individuals of different backgrounds, thereby increasing the potential for partnership, cooperation, and collaboration in social, cultural, educational, economic, scientific, and other endeavors. People located thousands of miles apart can transact business, relate to one another, learn, and collaborate in real time. At the same time, however, society has seen the capacity of people to use the ingenuity of science and technology to commit unimaginable atrocities against others. Those same individuals who have witnessed the triumphant collapse of the Berlin Wall have also been affected by or felt the reverberating effects of genocides in Bosnia-Herzevogovina, Rwanda and Sudan; the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., suicide bombings in Indonesia and India; and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We now live in a global village, but much of its norms are far from the ideals of care, kinship, and neighborliness associated with true community. Traditional village neighborhoods and communities are composed of blood relations and kinship groups where shared identity, values, and norms form the basis of relationship, interaction, cooperation, and conflict resolution. Modern society offers the opportunity to expand relationship circles beyond blood and kinship ties. Our neighbors are not necessarily people with whom we share similar ethnic, linguistic, religious, or political identity. The question, “Who is my neighbor?,” posed long ago remains pertinent today. What does it mean to be a neighbor or fellow citizen in a world where you can have thousands of Facebook friends and Twitter followers, and yet have very few or no real friends at all?

The greater the psychosocialdistance between people, the more the tendency to view others through stereotypic lenses. Social distance forces us to look for quick and simple solutions to problems, including conflicts with our fellow human beings. In the past, city dwellers were viewed as the civilized members of society. Today, the city has become an urban jungle where etiquette, patience, politeness, empathy, and conviviality seem to have disappeared. Interpersonal and intergroup relationships are becoming anything but civil. We see an inverse relationship between increases in communication and quality public discourse. Politicians stake out the most extreme positions as a means of garnering support. Public figures adopt inflammatory and caustic rhetoric to portray themselves as strong and powerful.

Against this backdrop, however, the ever-present, uplifting narratives in the human story remind us of our capacity for good, and what can happen if we choose to tap into it. We saw firefighters and emergency response personnel put their lives at risk, some even losing theirs, to help others on 9/11. We witness thousands of people donate blood and organs to help total strangers. We observe an outpouring of compassion mobilize around the world to aid the victims of devastating natural disasters like the tsunami in Indonesia, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the earthquake in Haiti, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and more recently, the tornados in Missouri, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Kansas, and Massachusetts. Volunteers with Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, short-term missions, and philanthropic groups show us what it means to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

All cultures teach that to be human is to be humane. As the Austrian-born Jewish philosopher Martin Buber observes, “To be human is to be in a relationship.” Yet, humans are fallen and sinful by nature. As imperfect beings, we cannot build a perfect society, culture, or relationship. Conflict is natural to the fiber of society and all human relationships. Conflict, in itself, is not a symptom of a broken society or broken relationships. Indeed, manifest conflict may signify a healthy relationship. People in secure relationships feel comfortable expressing disagreement. Insecure people tend to be passive and acquiescent rather than assertive. The problem of abuse, violence, inhumanity, and hostility is not due to differences, diversity, or even conflict between people. The real problem lies in the way we manage, mediate, resolve, or transform conflict. Whether it is real or pseudo-conflict, perceived opposition of interests, means, and/or goals between interacting parties, conflict will always be present. There will always be differences in values, beliefs, approaches, styles, goals, etc. The ability to transform conflict, however, differentiates healthy marriages, teams, organizations, communities, and nations, from unhealthy ones.

In conflict, various options for response exist. We can choose to press our interests and protect ourselves, seek the other party’s interest, or find a mutually beneficial outcome. To resolve conflicts civilly, we must realize we have a choice—a distributive (win-lose) or an integrative (win-win) route. As human beings, we possess the distinct ability to exercise moral freewill. Often, when people fail to act responsibly or civilly, they blame it on circumstances or other people. Moral imagination allows us to choose what kind of person we want to be and what kind of behavior we deem appropriate or inappropriate. If we decide that appropriate moral behavior consists of treating others kindly, respectfully, and cordially, then when conflict arises, we will most likely have a proactive response based on that moral choice. The choice we exhibit demonstrates and shapes our character—the measure of a person in nearly all societies.

From an early age, we learn the civil norms of our society. We criminalize inhumane behaviors because they diminish the collective worth of humanity as a whole. We learn that a good (civil) person shows his or her good nature through polite, respectful, hospitable, congenial, caring conduct. However, deciding to be civil is one thing, but living up to it quite another. Often, we find ourselves apologizing for losing our temper, acting out of control, or overreacting when provoked.

Effective conflict management requires competence—a communication skill that must be cultivated. The Greco-Romans believed the marks of a (good) citizen or civilized person included the ability to resolve dispute through persuasion rather than reliance on brute force. Therefore, rhetorical skill was viewed as an art that needed to be taught. Civility as a basis for conflict transformation requires us to not only possess the rhetorical skills necessary to win arguments, but also the dialogic communication skills. That includes the ability to listen, empathize, and identify with our opponent. Valuing, respecting, and affirming your opponent requires mindfulness, discipline, and self-control.

A competent person knows how to communicate in conflict situations by confronting without being confrontational. Scripture teaches us to address conflict with gentleness and in the spirit of love, not avoid it. Believers often emphasize the Great Commission “to go and make disciples.” However, the command “to go” and be reconciled with your brother or sister with whom you are in conflict should be taken equally as seriously. A world at peace is one where the lost are reconciled to God and human beings are reconciled to each other. The way to build true community is to learn the language of effective conflict transformation involving the cultivation of civility in character and conduct.

Bala A. Musa, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Communication Studies at Azusa Pacific University, received the Clifford G. Christians Ethics Research Award for his chapter, “Dialogic Communication Theory, African Worldview, and Human Rights,” published in Communication, Culture, and Human Rights in Africa (Lanham: University Press of America, 2011).