Learning to Walk the Walk
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Learning to Walk the Walk • Posted: Aug 04, 2011 12:20:44Comments WelcomeVote CoolPhotoblogsPurchase a PrintShare

There is a kind of post-game analysis going on in earnest right now all across America. All sides of the recent debt ceiling battle in Washington are reviewing plays, recalling desires and expectations, and matching those expectations with outcomes from each and every strategic play during the preceding several weeks of haggling. With few folks claiming clear winnings, each player is struggling to understand what went right and, more importantly, what went wrong. No side, no individual, is satisfied with the fact they didn't get everything they wanted. Meanwhile, a significant portion of the U.S. electorate is struggling to understand what might be done to strangle the increasingly dysfunctional rancorous standoffs now typical of governance within our nation's capitols.

A recent AP article by Seth Borenstein quotes American University international studies professor Joshua Goldstein as saying the game of chicken, i.e. two cars speeding toward each other, neither driver inclined to yield, "has to be dangerous in order to give people the incentive to cooperate. It helps if you are crazy or if you pretend to be crazy". Some may recall President Nixon declaring that's exactly what he wanted the Soviets to think, that he's so unpredictable he might do anything. Borenstein goes on to report the somewhat naive wisdom behind such a strategy, that experiments with individuals suggest, about two-thirds of the time, fear of mutual destruction will inspire cooperative resolution of conflict. However, that so called wisdom goes only so far. Per a 1997 study involving groups, appearing in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, mutual destruction was avoided only 25% of the time. That figure suggest there is a 75% certainty mob face-offs will more often than not result in nothing less than irreversible disaster. That the U.S. Congress avoided such an outcome this time was luck. Next time, chances are they won't. That a significant portion of our electorate desires choking off additional Congressional mob-based dysfunction is, in deed, seeing things for what they are. Per that study, their concerns are eminently justified.

So what is the answer? What can our very concerned citizens do to short-circuit the next Congressional mob face-off in a game of chicken leaving all of our welfares at stake?

Borenstein's article quotes Daniel L. Shapiro, founder of the Harvard International Negotiation Program, as saying that from what he has observed of Washington, "There's very little listening, very little learning - mutual learning - very little cross-group communication, very little creative thinking." Other professional mediators and psychologists concur, advising per Borenstein that "what's needed is a sense of empathy on both sides, the idea that we're all in this together".

But how do you frustrate mod reinforcement of uncompromisingly adamant positions? How do you get crazed, invigorated, invincible feeling individuals to stop and empathize with the other side, much less think creatively toward a solution wherein all sides win and sacrifice is fairly born by all?

The only solution I know of in the literature, beyond appealing to innate compassion, is one noted in the previous post "Loose Ball", that of superordinate threat. By superordinate threat, I mean something totally outside the issues of conflict. Within the recent debt ceiling standoff, the superordinate threat, convincingly destructive to all sides, was the consequences of default. It's interesting to note that only within the last 10 days of negotiations, after the Republican leadership brought in a noted economist to explain in detail to recalcitrant Tea Partiers the unavoidable consequences of default, compromise began to be possible. Going forward, the most compelling superordinate threats facing all of us on this planet are those of global warming, destruction of our sustaining environment, depletion of nonrenewable resources, ignorance, and over-population. One would think those threats would be enough to focus anyone's mind, no matter how distracted by personal or ideologic concerns. But, apparently not.

Conservatives and radicals often invoke God's judgment and wrath. But, that fantasy only works on the ignorant and superstitious. The skeptical, the truly selfish, and the power-hungry are unaffected.

Perhaps we might try the simple ploy of appealing to vanity? Maybe all we need ask is: what kind of example are we setting for our children? Take a look in the mirror. Would we really want our children behaving like we're behaving?

No doubt, many of our numbers are now carefully considering their next moves. May the strategies you and they arrive at eventually yield lasting desirable consequences for all of us, especially our children. Though imaginative on their own they may be, a clearly inspiring example to follow wouldn't hurt any of them.

Wednesday, June 23rd, 1971