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It Depends: Finding balance in conflict

January 31, 2009

As much as we might like to believe we are impartial (without bias or prejudice), no one is that objective or free of socialized or cultural influences. We all have biases towards or against certain things. Even though we may be unaware of it, our thoughts, words,– body language and behaviors all express those biases. Careful listeners and observers can hear and see our– preferences. We telegraph, in our answers to questions and statements of– opinion, whether or not we are impartial.

There are a few different consequences of this unconscious bias; I will touch on two of them.

  1. Our biases can prevent our seeing the full complexity of a situation. In complex issues, we fall back on what we already believe to be true. That helps us manage the amount of information we would otherwise need to have in order to understand what is happening. A bias or two here and there means we accept some things as true whether they are or not. Thus, we don’t have to rethink everything we accept as true. Whatever does not fit with what we believe to be true, we can reject as false. While this simplifies our life, it acts as a barrier to getting the full story from all perspectives.
  2. A bias towards something is just as limiting in our points of view as a bias against something. I love ice cream. It is my bias towards what makes a treat great. I’m happy to reject the knowledge that ice cream is bad for me. That point of view doesn’t fit with my idea of what is good for me. If it’s just ice cream, no harm is done. However, if my point of view is limited because I accept or reject something as true or good without seeing that my bias is the reason, then I may be perpetuating myths about something, someone or some place.

One of the ways around this is to be a relativist, rather than an absolutist, even though that makes some ethicists cringe. By relativist I mean that you couch your answers and opinions in terms that acknowledge the many variables that exist in each unique conflict situation. Instead of relishing the simplicity of having your biases decide your opinions and answers to questions, challenge your own thinking and feelings about whether you believe a statement is a true fact based on your bias.

A practical application of this need for relativism is in complex conflict situations, such as the Middle East. We know what we already believe, and we can then reject the other sides’ facts. If we don’t acknowledge the complexity of the situation, we can stick doggedly with our own point of view. Believing what we already believe to be true and rejecting anything that disagrees with our bias certainly is easier than challenging whether we have a bias towards one of the sides. However, it might be that our underlying assumptions, beliefs, and biases are not true, or at least not as true as we want them to be.

When people, families, societies or states are in conflict, we don’t have to state a preference for one side over the other in order to be advocates for peace. The answer and the opinions of who is wrong and who is right might well warrant the best answer of all: "It depends."

Filed Under: Conflict Competence      

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