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..:: Conflict I ::..

"The Origin of Conflict"


Alan Schneider


              Perhaps no area of human experience is as difficult to come to terms with as the occurrence of conflict, either among individuals or groups. The field of communication studies has seen many volumes of material devoted to this single theme – its origins, development, and (hopefully) constructive resolution. This essay will be the first of three devoted to the examination of the human conflict process – the origins of conflict in human affairs. 

            Taken from one possible perspective, conflict among individuals, groups, and nations can be seen as the inevitable consequence of our biological condition in the flesh, confronted with the frustrating combination of an eternally demanding ego and physical sensory perception existing in concert with the customarily limited base of environmental resources nonetheless needed to appease the requirements of our biological condition. There is always an imbalance of distribution in the resource network that is bound to breed fear, resentment, and hostility on both sides of the notably bimodal prosperity curve – the fortunate and unfortunate alike are challenged with the same perception of this inequality, albeit from very different perspectives. The very nature of human perception is characterized by the temporary quality of gratification – homeostasis does not persist as a condition, but requires constant adjustment as the price of its maintenance. In its absence, we tend to fall back into the significantly less pleasant background conditions of basal consciousness. This is a recipe for HELL in human affairs, and it is no wonder that this is what we so often experience!  

            The root causes of conflict can be described as an interactive behavioral trinity: fear, resentment, and desire. They all are directly related to human sensory isolation, and all figure into the eventual development of conflict in specific proportions. Fear is a background condition of consciousness that we learn to disregard in all but the most strident cases, but is still present unconsciously. Resentment may be felt openly or covertly, occasionally manifesting as open or concealed hostility and anger, and is linked to the condition of dislike of something or someone. Desire may be as simple as the wish to be removed from the disliked condition, or as demanding as the wish to possess what is perceived to be another’s – property, partner, capacity, or achievement. We may simultaneously fear another’s social power, resent that person for wielding the power, and desire the power for ourselves. Under such circumstances, conflict is inevitable. The trinity is driven by the basest elements of consciousness, thus establishing the extremely negative, primitive character of conflict as a social phenomenon. The occurrence of conflict is directly related to, and proportionate to, the absence of communication.

           The only corrective measures that are effective in dispelling the root conditions of human fear and frustration are those that teach methods of non-emphasis and detachment from sensory motivation – meditation, yoga, the practice of austerity, and focusing on love and compassion.  The senses have evolved to be addictive to the organism and the ego, and any attempt to restrain their action is bound to be met with a high level of natural resistance until the positive effects of the detachment process have been noticed, and this can take a substantial length of time.  Although some – a very few – people will attain the level of perception required to note that the human organism is itself responsible for human suffering by its very nature, most of us will not successfully see beyond the dust of daily battle far enough to achieve that insight. For the masses of humanity, some externally experienced understanding of conflict resolution is necessary, beginning with the recognition of the processes of fear, resentment, and desire as the foundations of discord. 

            We have all heard the old saying “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence!”, and a wise observation this is, for it strikes to the heart of human conflict. We tend to become so involved in our personal struggles in this life that it becomes a natural consequence of perception to literally perceive others as having a substantially better lot in life than we do. This perception is inevitably followed by resentment of those “others” for their real or (more frequently) imagined advantages that we suppose they have enjoyed. Because we are all isolated in a vulnerable personal body of flesh, we cannot directly know what another’s experience of their life and condition might be, even in the case of otherwise close personal relationships (where more insight is normally the case), and this condition of isolated perception is exaggerated in the case of the strangers who nonetheless constitute the bulk of our daily social encounters, even if only momentarily. The ego is always at work in our perception, constantly screening every experience for relative indications of benevolence or malevolence, most of which goes on more or less unconsciously as we progress through our day, leaving the psychological doors open to a developing groundswell of fear, resentment, and avarice that may never really dissipate. It is these underlying conditions that form the motivational basis for all conflict. Even when the application of another well-known saying – “Walk a mile in another’s shoes before criticizing them” – is applied, they may well linger on. 

            I have frequently heard the process of living expressed as an ongoing choice between fear and love. There is certainly much to fear in this life of instability, confusion, and sudden transition, with the question mark of death waiting at the end of the experience of life. It frequently appears that fear is the constant companion of the flesh, subject to dissipation, but never really absent. Yet, we cannot simply live in fear. To do so is to embrace a life of psychological implosion – always on the defensive against an endless array of real and imagined threats. Love is the obverse condition of both fear and resentment. To love is to overcome the barriers of mistrust and embrace the life that may be problematic, but is still ultimately the gift of conscious awareness that has miraculously manifested out of primordial chaos. We must love in order to live life as fully as possible – to experience the full extent of the gift of conscious expression that we have been given. That we are challenged by love to overcome fear seems to be the basic human equation of our existence amid life’s turbulent flow of experience. 

            When fear, resentment, and desire do linger on in our consciousness, the probable next outcome will be the most pernicious phenomenon of gossip, the unsubstantiated, customarily malicious, commentary regarding another when they are not present to speak on their own behalf. Even when there is some basis in fact for the gossiped remarks, the malicious intent is still the driving force at work, again compelled by underlying, and more or less irrational, fear, resentment, and covetousness. The covert quality of gossip provides a fertile ground for the development of wild rumor campaigns that may have little or no basis in fact, and rapidly spread like wildfires through social groups and organizations, wreaking about as much damage in the process. It would seem that we are predisposed to believe the worst about each other, imprisoned as we are for life in the lonely solitary confinement of the flesh! We have nothing but the senses to connect us to the outside world, and this connection is defined by a personal perspective that cannot be altered, and mediated by an ego that stubbornly resists even constructive change. What a dreadful state of affairs! It’s no wonder that we perform so many atrocities upon each other. The wonder is that we ever do anything else... 

            Like the dark trinity, gossip seems to be inevitable in human affairs. We must express our feelings in some way, whether they are positive or not – this is the most human of all behaviors – communication. And we shrink from confrontation because, in the final analysis, it requires us to confront ourselves in the process of being confronted by, or confronting, another. If self-knowledge is the most liberating knowledge possible, it is also the most personally painful and difficult to come by. Oh, woe is the little human consciousness trapped in the body of flesh!  

            At a certain point, gossip matures into malicious public opinion and open prejudice directed against target persons or groups, up to and including opposing nations, races, and religions. Presumably, there is at least some reasoned justification for the process by this point, but the reality is that it is still being driven by successively more organized versions of the same basic personal fears and resentments of those “others” presumed to have an unfair advantage in the battle of life, and these are no more rational or justified than they ever were! They simply have become socially acceptable as politicians and authorities take up the hue and cry.  Laws may be passed, invasions  launched, prisons filled, lives lost, and lost generations created, as this process reaches its logical conclusion in full scale social conflict. It is a testament to the persistence of our instinct-driven, fear-ridden animal nature that we are still every bit as predisposed to react with violence and condemnation as we were in prehistoric times. When we are confronted with even as slight a provocation as the unfamiliar along the way in life, our first response tends to be one of mistrust and hostility. 

            The unpleasant is another generator of fear, resentment, and desire. It may take the form of the merely unfamiliar as noted above, or may literally be significantly painful emotionally or physically, but it leaves a psychological mark on the mind in its wake, in any case. As I have tried to describe thus far, life itself is fundamentally uncomfortable and unstable – we simply have evolved the capacity to acclimate to the background chaos of existence and subsequently disregard it. Anyone wishing to resolve any kind of conflict successfully must come to terms with this reality of our condition. This by itself can be a harsh awakening to the naïve and unprepared. Yet, it must be acknowledged as the essential condition of consciousness by the competent negotiator. Once this understanding is in place, then the peacemaking process can move forward with the identification of some more or less neutral ground that will be at least somewhat acceptable to the conflicted parties as a site of negotiation. We will continue this discussion in the next essay that will expand on the development of conflict patterns in social contexts.        


                                                                                - With Love, Alan -

                                                                         (CR2007, Alan Schneider)


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