What to Make of the Behavior We See Today

Well, Zizzy said it simply, “We are animals, really. Why would we expect humans not to fight—that’s what animals do, they fight.”

Recent results from western civilization’s policy actions leave me discouraged. The attempts at spreading democracy are failing. Attempts at fairly allocating scarce resources leave little hope. Assessments of climate change dynamics simultaneously generate greater concern, increased skepticism and I fear, less empathy. With this backdrop my recent intellectual conversations have focused on human behavior, its underlying motivations, and, developing future expectations for society, my family, and my friends.

My thoughts narrow down to three core concepts:

  1. How do animals manage conflict?
  2. Can people coexist without shared values?
  3. Do too many people live on the planet?

Animals Managing Conflict

I recognize three conflict management strategies that animals use. They fight. They negotiate to coexist. Or, they use distance to separate and avoid each other. That’s it. Human and bear, skunk and dog, christian and muslim, any conflict resolution derives from one of these three. Each has conditions upon which it is best employed. Understanding the conditions, helps predict when a strategy might be used, and prepares our expectations for the paths our leaders are following.

Fighting is the most simplistic and has the fewest conditions. Fighting is employed when attacked or when the aggressor believes they will win. Outcomes are also clear, the winner imposes their will, and the winner’s values define the loser’s treatment. For many countries, the Geneva Conventions codify values and define treatment norms. For many animals, the loser becomes food. Disturbingly, humans—despite claiming sophisticated value systems—display behavior some what close to our animal cousins. Recent news illustrates examples near the low end of acceptability: Islamic State fighters beheading Syrian soldiers after winning a battle for a military base in eastern Syria; and the reported gang rape of a young Indian woman for the crime of falling in love with a Muslim.

Conflict is often resolved through negotiations to coexist. Many people find the phrase, “agree to disagree,” familiar. However, ending conflict with coexistence depends upon certain necessary conditions—given the conflict type one or more conditions must be met in each participant’s mind, although, not necessarily the same condition in each mind. In negotiation, there should not be an assumption that transparency exists between participants.

The first condition applies to resource allocation conflicts. Successful negotiation requires that participants perceive ample resource availability—the fight over one chicken simply does not end with negotiation until each person gets its own chicken, note however, the fight can end with violence or the threat of violence.

Secondly, negotiations necessarily imply a trust between opponents, and perceived trust requires shared values. Without a base from which to identify commonality, there will be no trust. And that base will often be rooted in biases like, people like me believe like me, and people different from me, can’t be trusted.

Thirdly, negotiation is often feasible because for one party or the other the conflict’s justification disappears. There are many reasons conflicts dissipate; emotion levels go down, alternative solutions are identified, or new information comes to light—Like a second chicken walking out of the henhouse, when everyone thought there was only one.

Considering conflicts across the animal kingdom, it’s easy to remember that negotiating requires that both parties have acceptable mental capacity, or else there is no negotiation. A limiting feature—the last required condition of negotiating to coexistence—is language and the ability for effective communication. I can’t negotiate with a dolphin because our language and communication skills makes the tool incapable.

When discussing race relations one day, a co-worker illustrated perfectly, the use of distance for conflict resolution when he said, “I try to operate under the guide, you leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone. I don’t care what you do, and I think the world would be a better place if more people followed this advice.”

His notion avoids coexistence or acceptance, it’s keep your behavior away from me, and I’ll reciprocate and keep mine away from you. Acceptable segregation. Yet technology, for example the internet and social networking sites in general, greatly reduce the ability to isolate anyone. In a way, communication technology makes my co-worker’s ideal moot.

Distance as a successful conflict resolution strategy has a few requirements. Number one, ample resources must exist. In reality, one cannot segregate from another, if the other has access, possession, or uses a resource I also want. Similarly, the likelihood of interaction must be low. If two animals can find different places that don’t require an interaction, then they can effectively employ a distance strategy to reduce and remove conflict. Think of the watering hole in the wilderness. In times of plentiful rain, the animals have a numerous places to access water, however, during droughts only one or two watering holes may exist, thus all animals exists in close proximity. The hunters will not need to guess where to lay in wait.

People Coexisting Without Shared Values—In The Same Place

Can people without shared values coexist? Or is conflict inevitable, shared values or not? Seemingly, a person’s mindset toward others is one critical component for assessing conflict risk among human beings. When humans accept each other’s differences, coexistence becomes a likely outcome. People who accept differences show less need to judge, compare, or alter others. Thus, much conflict can be remove from human interaction. You like chocolate, I like vanilla and neither one of us are compelled to:

  • explain why before someone asks,
  • change our perception of the other, nor
  • advocate that the other change from their expressed preference.

And, the same approach would be true for any other differences. Until, differences are about our core values, or a resource shortage. Under either circumstance, a conflict will arise. We can trade off preferences, we can delay consumption of many desirable resources, however, core values eat at us from the inside when violated and we do not deprive ourselves of necessities when we know they exist. When the news came to me that Boko Haram kidnapped 200+ girls because they were being educated, and this morning, kidnapped the wife of Cameroon’s vice PM, it took me seconds to realize that my values and Boko Haram’s values do not align, and there could be no coexistence.

When a group’s mindset reflects low tolerance for differences, conflict is reduced only if segregation remains high. With segregation and shared values systems, group norms are more easily adopted. Although, segregated groups can display troubling actions when managing compliance to the group’s norms—itself a source of conflict. With desegregation, conflicts increase. A civil society offsets the increased conflict by reducing violence as a conflict resolution or group conformance tool. It is a mistaken notion to believe desegregation, by itself, encourages acceptance, it does not.

Another theory of coexistence is that international trade & interdependency reduces conflict. Thus, several policy environments have grown over the last 40+ years: international trade, Word Trade Organization, United Nations, and Multi-national corporations. An unintended consequence of economic growth has been the greater demand for resources. China is laying claim to resources around the world. This form of competition is bound to create conflict, but to date has not. At its core, trade and interdependence are meant to counter act conflict’s perceived causes:

  • lack of education
  • boredom / lack of opportunities
  • lack of hope for improvement

The idea supposes that economic growth stimulates hope, and opportunities, which encourage education and alleviates boredom. At its best, I’m not convinced the economic activity focuses on the cause of conflict—scarce resource, incompatible value systems. Even among the people who are interrelated for food and necessities, conflict is far from removed in our world today. If anything, among these interrelated groups the polarization makes the conflict crystal clear.

The leaders pushing trade and interrelationships have overestimated education and economic opportunity’s benefit. Value systems do not simply result from education (religious or otherwise) nor interaction & exposure with the unfamiliar. Conflict is a part of animal nature. Efforts to reduce it are worthwhile, expanding people’s ability to resolve conflict through non-violent methods are likewise desirable. But, unless policy efforts are addressing the acceptance of a broader set of values, and the allocation of scarce resources—I’m afraid the efforts for reducing conflict with be futile.

Too Many People Alive

In a recent lunch conversation, a colleague concluded a thought with the statement, “the world has too many people.”

My reply, “and just think how many there would be, if China did not have its one child policy for the last 30+ years.”

Everyone at my table generally nodded. Many constructs in Western Civilization consider increasing life expectancy an admirable policy goal. Why is this considered good? After all, its desirability is positively correlated with expectations of unlimited resources, which thankfully, are wanning.

Given today’s considerable technological capabilities, one would think the world should have ample food and water availability. Contrarily, many technological advances are introduced with a net negative impact on sustainable resource use, for example, ethanol made from corn in the United States. Combine these two concepts with the unremovable human trait, greed, and it is clear that the world does not have sufficient resources or delivery systems to manage the necessities of food, water, energy, or basic sanitation. Thus, the need to now challenge the notion that long life expectancy is desirable.

Climate change results will likely increase conflict as Western civilizations’ preference for non-nomadic living faces into resource movement realities, or better said, increases the desirability of someone else’s resources, especially those more recently obtained.
Finding, acceptable policy actions for either cause, however, will require conflict resolution at its finest to avoid large scale war. But alas war, I feel, is unavoidable. In part because too many people are resistant to change, and in part, because today’s conflicts reflect a polarized view of highly regarded values. Thus, policy makers would do well pursuing two directions:

  • resolve scarce resources, either by addressing demand (the number of people) or influencing resource relocation (from climate change)
  • recognize where core values are incompatible and define clearly, friend, acquaintance, and foe.
    • make sure you can win the inevitable fight against a foe
    • make sure your acquaintances are dear, as you might have to fight on their behalf

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