Monday, February 08, 2016

On the function of conflicts

People make choices and act in order to realize them. They don’t simply act, but they have to act, as we have seen in my blog last week. In their choices people follow what they consider their interests, or usually they do. Choices don’t need to be conscious and as a rule people are not aware that they make them. Most choices are made unconsciously. We follow the stream of life as, for instance, the sociologist Alfred Schütz has made clear. Only when something needs special attention we become aware of it. This doesn’t mean that we are a kind of zombies most of the time. You must see yourself as the captain of an aeroplane that is flying on the automatic pilot. Maybe you don’t know how the mechanism works but as long as the plane is moving in the right direction and everything is okay, the pilot lets the automaton go its own way and doesn’t take action. He or she only keeps control.
Our interests often clash with the interests of other people. Then there is a conflict. Usually it is innocent and we would hardly give it that name. There are social rules to regulate the matter and to solve the discord in good harmony. Sometimes we find conflicts even fun and we organize them with the purpose to solve them. Sport competition is a case in point. Then we don’t talk of conflicts, but we call them games, play, a challenge, and the like. For the word “conflict” has a negative connotation: We see it as something that must be avoided. Is it right?
It’s true that a clash of interests and then the conflict that follows is often associated with quarrel, and, when the quarrel escalates, in the end with violence and even with war. Since clashes of interests, so conflicts, cannot be avoided, one could get the idea that society is based on violence and force. And it’s true that it happens that conflicts are solved violently. Everybody knows such cases. If we look at states, we call them war. Is it necessary?
As the American political scientist and peace researcher Gene Sharp made clear, conflict and violence are two things. They are not fundamentally related, also not in the last resort. Conflicts cannot be avoided, so Sharp. Conflict in society helps creativity and brings about necessary political and social changes like making an end to oppression and dictatorship. We can express it by saying that conflict has a function (in the way Robert K. Merton used this concept). But this doesn’t imply that this function has to be fulfilled by violence. The essence of solving conflicts that threat to become violent is to look for alternatives that have the same function as the violent solutions in the sense that they substitute them by meeting the interests of the people that are in a conflict relation but that don’t lead to all the nasty effects of violence. Within societies this has already been completely accepted. Think of mediation, taking legal action, and what other means there are for non-violent conflict resolution. And if violence is used by private individuals, the police or another state authority interferes and stops it. In theory this is also accepted on the international level. The first steps have already been made. About a century ago the International Court of Justice was established in The Hague, the Netherlands, for settling legal disputes between states. In the meantime there are several other international courts of different types. It’s also a task of the Security Council of the United Nations to prevent that international conflicts end in wars and to stop wars once they have broken out. Besides there are international organisations with the task of resolving or, preferably, preventing violence between states and between major groups within states; both state organisations and private organisations. Often their efforts are successful (it’s cynical that usually you don’t hear about it). Too often their efforts fail yet. But just as once violence was an integral part of conflicts within society but stopped by the development of functional equivalents, there is no reason to assume that this can’t also happen between states. However, there is yet a long way to go before violence as a way of resolving international conflict has been banned. But the first steps have been taken already.

Reference: Gene Sharp, Social power and political freedom. Boston: Porter Sargent Publishers, 1980. See also

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