About the Media and Political Conflict: “Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out”

From a Wall Street Journal column by Jonathan Marks about Amanda Ripley’s book “High Conflict, Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out”:

Amanda Ripley, a journalist whose first book, “The Unthinkable,” was about how people survive disasters, has covered “all manner of human misery.” Her latest book, “High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out,” is prompted by misery of the American political kind. After the 2016 election, Ms. Ripley reflects, journalists who cared about telling the truth in all its complexity were preaching to a “shrinking choir of partisans.” Those who still read the news searched it for weapons to use against enemies. It “felt like curiosity was dead.”

Curiosity is a casualty of “high conflict,” a term that Ms. Ripley uses to describe our bitter politics and much else. We need conflict because human beings, limited in experience, biased but needing to act, are natural partisans. We find ourselves in conflict with other partisans. But under the best circumstances, that conflict, even when “stressful and heated,” keeps us “open to the reality that none of us has all the answers.” In “healthy conflict,” we defend what we hold dear but understand what others do, and, even when we don’t revise our views, find a way to work with them. In contrast, high conflict imagines an “us,” whose ideas must prevail, and a “them,” whose books must burn. It appears to clarify matters by narrowing vision.

That clarity can be useful in wartime. Combatants eventually part. But it’s poison for those who are stuck with each other, for divorcing parents, or for neighbors in a nasty election season. Ms. Ripley pleads less for kindness than for intelligence….It’s one thing to have reasons for fearing the triumph of one’s political rivals, another to read those rivals wrong. Republicans think Democrats are “more godless, gay, and radical” than they are. Democrats think Republicans are “richer, older, crueler, and more unreasonable” than they are. In high conflict, Ms. Ripley argues, we often think that we’re being smart and furthering our ambitions. But we sometimes feel high conflict seize us, as if from the outside, and make us stupid and self-destructive.

Ms. Ripley is struck by “how similarly people behave in very different conflicts,” and she reports engagingly on, among other figures, a Chicago gang leader turned peacemaker, a pioneer in divorce mediation who forgot his own lessons when he entered local politics, and a radical environmental activist who opposed genetically modified crops until he let data change his mind. Drawing freely on psychology and political science research, Ms. Ripley explains how people get drawn into high conflict….

Our culture and values, Ms. Ripley argues, can draw us into high conflict. We all experience humiliation, but a member of Curtis’s gang learned to perceive small slights as humiliations that required a forceful response. What humiliates and how one responds to humiliation, she argues, are “socially informed,” sometimes by “conflict entrepreneurs,” bad actors who “exploit high conflict for their own ends.”…

Ms. Ripley occasionally sounds like the keynoter at a life coaching retreat. She writes of “conflict hacks,” practical advice for dealing with conflict (avoid conflict in the first place, remove your gang tattoos). But apart from reflexive cynicism, there is no reason to dismiss out of hand people who work hard to resolve serious issues, whom Ms. Ripley shows at work in conflict zones and in the relatively safe zone of fierce political disagreement.

Her last chapter describes an extended encounter between members of a liberal New York synagogue—Clinton people—and a group of rural Michigan corrections officers—Trump people. Ms. Ripley documents how strange and threatening these people seemed to each other—the spouse of one officer, her home replete with firearms, feels “unsafe” when she contemplates meeting the New Yorkers. Ms. Ripley also documents how they nonetheless “wanted to make sense of each other.” She spares us a happy ending. The gains the groups make in learning from and even liking each other aren’t permanent. But our present political discontents needn’t be permanent either. Curiosity isn’t dead.

Marks, a professor of politics at Ursinus College, is the author of “Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education.”

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