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Understanding Conflict in a Modern Democracy

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Understanding the reasons for internal conflict in modern democraciesHave you ever thought or wondered about the seemingly vast chasm that exists between those who who consider themselves social conservatives and those who consider themselves social liberals, and the conflict those differences set up?

The OECD Insights Blog has a very interesting take on the differences between the two viewpoints and why they exist, based on the ever-presence of conflict, both constructive and destructive.

[T]here is constructive conflict – the conflict inherent in trading cities as different cultures meet, for example – and there is destructive conflict. What we have now in many places is the latter, either as physical conflict – war – or, more widely, as destructive conflict over foundational values. Ethics, morality, and values are usually at play in various political environments, of course, and the dialog among them can be an important source of cultural evolution. But a different dynamic begins to dominate when conflict over moral absolutes gains ascendancy over the usual political arguments. Constructive conflict can be resolved through traditional rational discussion and dialog, political solutions which spread benefits among constituencies, and the like; destructive conflict is phrased in terms of moral absolutism, of good and evil. The latter is accordingly far less amendable to rational discourse and compromise. I can talk to you about different ways to raise taxes; I can’t talk to you about taxes when to you they represent primordial evil. I can talk to you about ways to manage climate change; I can’t talk to you when anyone who doesn’t accept your perspective on the phenomenon is the equivalent of a Nazi. The tactic of terrorism is ineffective, indeed fails dismally, in an environment of constructive conflict; it is a signature activity of destructive conflict.

The apparent shift towards destructive conflict may be partially illusory, but there are some reasons to suspect it may not be. We are, after all, in a period of unprecedented technological change across essentially the entire technological frontier, as a result of accelerating evolution in nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and communication technology, robotics, applied cognitive science, and similar technology systems. Technological change at this scale causes accelerating social change; the flexible thought necessary for success in high technology environments undercuts traditional social norms and practices. And, of course, how do individuals react to a complex and unpredictable world if they are left behind, baffled and unable to cope, as technological and social change continues to accelerate and a global technocratic elite increasingly captures economic and political power? They retreat to belief systems: they’re simple and provide psychological refuge, and, equally important, because they rely on faith rather than reason, they are resilient against scientific and policy discourses that are complex and demand unpleasant change. Destructive conflict is thus a predictable outgrowth of modernity. Conditions favor not the creative interplay of pluralistic democracy creating adaptability and flexibility in the face of an uncertain future, but retreat to simplicities that are both enormously powerful and yet profoundly dysfunctional when deployed against irreducible complexity. Creationists are not arguing the factual basis of evolution; rather, they are rejecting a fundamental tenant of modern science and Enlightenment rationality, and they are doing so for very real and important reasons. [emphasis mine]

With this insight in mind, it might be possible, then, to begin to understand – and resolve – the inherent conflict that exist in the political arena regarding many of the issues we, as a nation, face today.


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