We Don't Need a Civil War
Mounk and Ripley on avoiding high conflict
Yascha Mounk and Amanda Ripley, two of the stars of Fantasy Intellectual Teams, recently discussed Ripley’s recent book, High Conflict. It is a book that describes our current state of politics, a preferred better state, and how to get from here to there. Mounk introduces it this way:
Investigative journalist Amanda Ripley believes good conflict can help solve deep political divides. But when it escalates beyond the point of no return, it becomes “high conflict”: a fight less about the issue at hand and more about owning the other side.
I have yet to read her book, but it seems to me that the difference between good conflict and high conflict is that in good conflict our position is negotiable, while in high conflict our position is sacred. In high conflict, we cannot imagine that our adversaries could have any legitimate justification for their beliefs.
Ripley suggests that to get out of high conflict, one needs to “investigate the understory.” As she puts it to Mounk, “Every conflict has a thing we argue about endlessly, and then the thing it’s really about.”
I disagree with Ripley when she indicates that we should investigate the understory both for ourselves and for our adversaries. I think instead that you should only investigate your own understory. If you try to find an “understory” for your opponent, then, rather than take their opinions at face value, you will find yourself looking for some evil motivation that is behind their position. You might claim that “They just to virtue signal” or “They want to perpetuate injustice.”
This is what David McRaney calls the illusion of asymmetric insight, and it exacerbates conflict. It keeps you from listening to the other person, and moreover the other person knows that you are not listening. Within this mindset, you are so determined to hold a demonic view of the other side that, as Mounk puts it, “when the other side actually does something honorable, that’s sort of irksome.”
Instead, focus on trying to find your own understory, which is a much more difficult task. It means asking yourself: why does this issue make me so angry? What emotion am I feeling that makes me too heavily invested in this dispute?
Avoid the “conflict entrepreneur”
One of Ripley’s concepts is the “conflict entrepreneur,” someone who inflames conflict. She finds marital conflict to be a useful metaphor for political conflict. A friend who encourages you to take the most negative view of your spouse’s behavior is a conflict entrepreneur in the context of your marriage. Similar, in politics, a conflict entrepreneur encourages you to feel threatened and outraged by the other side. Both social media and legacy media often play this role.
Ripley says that one of the keys to getting out of high conflict is to disengage from conflict entrepreneurs. Stop following the conflict entrepreneurs. I would say to start following instead people like Mounk and Ripley and the Fantasy Intellectual Teams category leaders.
The alternative to civil war
At the moment, our political situation seems to be one of high conflict. But I suspect that only a minority of Americans are caught up in this high-conflict dynamic. The challenge is to keep this minority from taking control of political life.
Ripley discusses ways that we as individuals can escape from high conflict. But what about the larger political scene? She points out that sometimes an external shock can remind us of our common humanity and shared national interest, provided that our leaders and opinion-shapers take the right approach.
how do you elect the people who are not conflict entrepreneurs and who have an expansive definition of “us”? How do you do that without a common enemy or shock?
She appears to be saying that for American politics to get out of high conflict, two things must happen. First, we need a new threat that reminds us of our common interests. Second, we need leadership—and I would include media leadership—that tamps down the conflict entrepreneurs and instead elevates the status of reasonable people on all sides.
While most people aren't caught up in the high conflict dynamic, I fear that's only true to the extent they're disengaged from national politics. In other words, the understory for our national politics IS high conflict. Seems like there are a number of currently debated angles of response, like: de-emphasize national politics (federalism); re-emphasize policy substance (filibuster elimination); electoral reform to weaken conflict entrepreneurs (multi member districts, ranked choice voting, etc.); spiritual revival and intermediate institution building to reorient meaning and purpose. It feels like a problem that's entangled with so many dynamics - cultural, institutional, technological.
"If you try to find an “understory” for your opponent, then, rather than take their opinions at face value, you will find yourself looking for some evil motivation that is behind their position"
I disagree, but probably because I see the act of trying to find an understory a little differently than you mean here. If you are honestly trying to understand another point of view, and not merely trying to invalidate it regardless of the method used to do so, you'll be less likely to fall into the trap of asymmetric insight. Even less so if you're familiar with the idea, whether or not you've heard the specific term. Asymmetric Insight comes from refusing to honestly understand another person and taking an emotional cop-out to reinforce yourself. In many ways, it's the opposite of trying to deepen your understanding. Asymmetric Insight is all about you, whereas understanding is all about the other person. Asymmetric Insight is about reinforcing yourself, and understanding is all about exposing your preconceptions to scrutiny.
The problem isn't that trying to find another's "understory" leads to the Asymmetric Insight trap. It's that trying to do so dishonestly leads to that and many other intellectual failures.