How do we remain bridge-builders during times of war? A conversation with Amanda Ripley
The author of ‘High Conflict’ has suggestions for how to navigate challenging times
Times like this call for introspection. As the violence abroad and at home escalates, I spoke with Amanda Ripley, the journalist, bestselling author and co-founder of Good Conflict, to discuss “high conflict” — what it is, how it impacts individuals and society, and ways to resolve high-conflict situations.
During our conversation on my podcast “Interfaith America with Eboo Patel,” Ripley emphasized that high conflicts are characterized by contempt and disgust and that those who are engaged in high conflict often take pleasure in other people’s pain. In so doing, Ripley warns, combatants often end up destroying what they are nominally seeking to protect.
I asked Ripley, the author of “High Conflict,” how one can shift from being a “conflict entrepreneur” to a peacemaker. She offered three steps for de-escalation for when we find ourselves in high-conflict situations:
1. We can take a break and get some space. Sometimes, simple disengagement is the best course of action.
2. We can slow down the conflict. It’s helpful to slow the conflict in your mind by imagining seeing the conflict from afar, rather than something that requires your immediate action.
3. We can recognize in ourselves if we are being or helping a “conflict entrepreneur” and ask ourselves the question, “Who do I want to be in this moment?”
We also talked about the influential role of religion in each of these matters. Often, the power of religion is in teaching us rituals where we can take a break and slow down the conflict.
The fact that so many great peacemakers have been people of deep faith, across faiths — Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Dorothy Day — is profound and not coincidental.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Eboo Patel: There have been various reports of hostility here in the United States related to the war in the Middle East. There have been dueling protests on college campuses. Some have gotten quite ugly. There was the beating of an Israeli student at Columbia University for handing out flyers, and in the most horrific incident, there was the murder of a Palestinian American Muslim child, reportedly for being Palestinian American Muslim. Is this a high conflict?
Amanda Ripley: Yes, there’s actually a bright line in the research between healthy conflict and high conflict. High conflict is the kind of conflict that takes on a life of its own, that becomes a perpetual motion machine in which each side sees itself as morally superior, which is always very dangerous, and there’s an “us” and a “them,” and there’s a sense that it’s a zero-sum game, and if you win, I lose, and vice versa.
There’s a real collapse of complexity in high conflict, whereas you can have conflict even about really hard, deep things where complexity still exists, where curiosity still exists. Whenever you see contempt, disgust, violent rhetoric and action, that’s usually a sign of high conflict, and more personally, you can feel it internally. When I find myself feeling a jolt of pleasure if someone else or some other side experiences a hardship, that’s probably a high conflict where I’ve sort of lost the complexity. Literally in high conflict, you lose peripheral vision, so you make a lot of mistakes.
EP: Yes, you’re not only losing complexity, you’re losing compassion. Particularly when another person is not a direct combatant, they’re just randomly part of the other group, and you are happy that that person is hurt. One of the things that struck me about reading “High Conflict” is you say, “In a high conflict, you always destroy what’s most precious to you.”
EP: That is how you know it’s not a healthy conflict.
AR: Right, you usually don’t even know. That’s the diabolical thing, you end up harming the thing you went into the fight to protect, whether it’s your children or your country or your faith. You see it in high-conflict divorces and high-conflict politics. People begin to imitate the behavior of their oppressor, or their perceived enemy, and they begin to destroy the things that they went into the fight to protect. It is really heartbreaking to see.
EP: The thing that I love about this is the opportunity for a combatant in a high conflict to reflect upon themselves and say, “I don’t want to be contemptuous. I don’t want to feel pleasure when somebody else is in pain. I don’t want to destroy what’s most precious to me. That is not a good thing to do.” There’s a great insight from Buddhism: Hating somebody else is like drinking poison and hoping your enemy is going to die.
AR: Absolutely. It is so hard, though, to get there when you’re in it. High conflict is so magnetic, but I do hear from people who have had that awakening. It’s a journey. I like to say you can visit high conflict, but you don’t want to live there. It’s not going to be like, “Okay, this is it. I’ll never experience these emotions again,” but it is like being aware of it and saying, just like you said, “I don’t want to live here. I don’t want this to occupy my heart and soul.” There’s a lot I can’t control about the world, but that’s something I can work on. It’s how I understand the conflict in my own head.
EP: Yes. Tell us what’s a conflict entrepreneur and how are you seeing them play their role in what’s happening in the United States right now?
AR: Typically, conflict entrepreneurs in research on conflict are people who are literally like war profiteers who are selling weapons, but I also think it applies in any high conflict where you have people or companies who are exploiting conflict for their own ends. Sometimes it’s profit.
I actually think even more often it’s power, it’s attention, it’s a sense that you matter, which are (things) just as important to humans as money. I think conflict entrepreneurs are right now really rewarded in our country. We have designed our institutions — from politics to the news media to social media — to raise up, amplify and reward conflict entrepreneurship. For me, I just wake up every day and try not to be a conflict entrepreneur, because it would be easier to just create a new “us versus them.”
I have spent many, many hours with people who were conflict entrepreneurs and aren’t anymore, and now have done more good in this world than I ever will. There is room for change. We don’t want to commit the same sin of high conflict in trying to get out of high conflict by “other-izing” huge groups of people or even individuals.
Eboo Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith America, is a contributing writer for the Deseret News, the author of “We Need to Build: Field Notes for a Diverse Democracy” and the host of the podcast “Interfaith America with Eboo Patel.”