Americans may be more divided currently about what is right, wrong and how to fix things than at any time since the Civil War.
Economic inequality is greater among U.S. people than it has been for over a century, according to a 2013 Pew Foundation report and 2014 articles in Fortune Magazine and the Huffington Post.
People on all sides disagree vehemently about voting rights, gun ownership, who should be allowed into the U.S., the rights of the unborn, matters involving sexual orientation, marijuana use and a whole range of scientific issues such as global warming. The list of conflicting views goes on and on.
Among people involved in farming, opinions also differ broadly. Agriculturalists differ about GMOs, pesticide use, water runoff regulations as well as water rights, livestock production methods, food labeling, a broad range of farming and conservation policies and nutrition funding programs.
Perhaps the U.S. Government reflects our country’s deep divisions. The Legislative branch seems incurably divided and ineffective, which explains its dismal approval ratings.
The Supreme Court has fierce differences of opinion among its judges, as we just witnessed over their recently released decisions. And the public disagrees considerably about President Obama’s leadership.
Enough complaints already! Are there solutions to the rampant divisions and bickering? Do solutions necessarily entail taking a side?
It’s not my intention to take a side in this article but to suggest approaches to fix the problems that involve seemingly intractable differences of opinion.
The field of study, conflict resolution, which has evolved over the past seventy years, provides useful resources for solutions.
Sometimes this academic area has a different name, like “peace and conflict studies.” It is possible to major in these programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels in a growing number of educational institutions in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Conflict resolution is a field with research and practical applications, not just theories. Its graduates find employment positions within companies and mega-corporations, municipalities, bargaining organizations, governments at levels ranging from local to state and national levels, and within international entities such as the United Nations and global humanitarian foundations.
Conflict resolution integrates information from many disciplines: psychology, ethics, mathematics, cybernetics, sociology, political science, theology, philosophy, history and sometimes other fields too.
Getting people to work together is a basic premise to resolving differences. Getting people to talk together shouldn’t be all that difficult, but is hard because usually no party in the conflict wants to be the first. A neutral third party can help.
Starting discussions doesn’t have to be about winning. I like the approach that psychologist Kenneth Hammond took when I worked for him in the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado almost 50 years ago.
Hammond’s research focused on finding how “both can win” instead of “who can win.” As his research determined, working together is sustainable for existence but adamantly clinging to a stance is not sustainable.
To start the conflict resolution process all the disputing parties have to agree that they want to survive.
General systems theory (GST) broadens the thinking about bridging differences. A core feature of GST is that everything is interdependent on everything else.
Achieving an optimal level of functioning, called homeostasis, is the aim of all systems that seek to survive indefinitely. Any change anywhere in the system produces changes in the other components of the system.
For example, the death of a family member affects everyone else in the family system. Without recognition that all the components of the system must work together, the system will collapse.
GST was founded by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, an Austrian biologist who spent much of his career in Great Britain, Canada and the United States, and Kenneth Boulding, a native of Scotland who became an economics professor at Iowa State University, then at the University of Michigan and finally at the University of Colorado in the same Institute when I worked there.
There are occasions historically when one or more parties in a conflict seemingly didn’t care about their long-term survival. WWII, in which the Nazi and the Japanese empires pursued total world domination to their very end, exemplifies such a conflict.
Today’s Islamic fundamentalists such as ISIL take a similar position of total adherence to their beliefs; ISIL won’t be viable if its members succumb in a war for survival. Perhaps that is why they seek new recruits, brides, and conduct social media outreach.
Conflict resolution formulas can be applied in agricultural settings, whether by farm families struggling to resolve disputes about land ownership and management, estate settlements, or to settle internal struggles of agricultural corporations and larger issues such as who should manage water runoff from agricultural land.
Winning at all costs has a finite end that won’t solve long-term problems, whether about family farming issues or larger matters such as water nutrient management, but working together to find compromises is infinite and sustainable.
The author is a Harlan, Iowa psychologist and farm owner. He can be contacted at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.