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Escalation: Jesus Fish and Darwin Feet

by Bill Withers
May 2006
They seem to be everywhere – the simple metal loop that outlines a fish and is placed on the back of cars, trucks, and SUVs across America. Some wag has created a take-off that has also become familiar – the same simple fish has sprouted feet and replaced the “Jesus” that is often printed in the fish with “Darwin”. A third version that answers the Darwin version is a combination of the first two, with the Jesus fish appearing to swallow the Darwin critter whole.

This simple escalation may be tongue-in-cheek to some, deadly serious to others, and just a chance to sell stuff that people can put on cars for still others. The fact that we can’t tell what motivates someone to choose fish or amphibian for the back of his or her car suggests a key lesson to be learned about conflict escalation.

Often, it isn’t what the other side in a conflict means by its move that prompts our response, it’s what we think that they mean. Let’s take a look at the Jesus fish:

I learned in school years ago that the simple looped outline of a fish was a secret sign early Christians used to identify meeting places at a time when the religion was still illegal under Roman rule. The word “fish” in Greek is “ichthys”. The letters in “ichthys” form the initials in Greek for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”. Some of the modern incarnations of the fish that have shown up on cars have the word “ichthys” printed inside the fish outline, some have “Jesus”, some have crosses, others are blank.

Nothing about the Jesus fish specifically denotes a stand on evolution or creationism, but somebody got the idea to counter the proliferation of chrome-colored Jesus fishes with a fish that has sprouted legs. To make the symbol more clear, “Darwin” is printed within the outline of this proto-amphibian.

The response to the Darwin feet that can be seen on some cars is the original Jesus fish, now labeled “Truth”, swallowing the Darwin thing whole like Moses’ snake eating the snakes of the Egyptian magicians. Whether we consider these escalating steps to be a series of funny “gotchas”, or impertinent challenges to truth depends on who we are. Either way, they give us something to chew on as we think about our role as participant in the escalation of any conflict we may be involved in.

Escalation as Strategy

Often when we think that a conflict is something we have a good chance of winning, we think of it as a contest with a series of moves and countermoves: “I’ll do A, then they’ll do B, then I’ll do C, and that’ll get ’em.” Of course we know that it can be more complicated than that. They know that if they do B we’ll do C, so they might do C first unless we start with X… and we get trapped in our own chessboard strategy like the villain in the movie The Princess Bride:

Are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy's? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you...But you must have known I was not a great fool; you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me . . .

Of course there is always the possibility that I do A and you do B and while I’m planning C you surprise me with LMNOP.

Escalation as Inevitable

Other times we think of escalation as something we’re sucked into: “If they do A, I must do B, they will then have to do C, and I will have no choice but to do D or E or F or else I will lose everything.” When we see escalation this way, our only hope to end the spiral is to either willingly take one on our chin or hope that the other side blinks so that we can deliver one on theirs.

What’s With the Fish?

Let’s assume that the Darwin feet were a direct response to the Jesus fish, and that the Darwin-eating truth fish was a response to the Darwin feet. A fish on the back of a car can probably safely be construed to mean that the person who put it there is a Christian. We can only guess whether or not this particular Christian has beliefs either way about Darwin.

If the Darwin feet are a response to all Jesus fishes, then we might assume that anyone with a Darwin fish assumes that all Christians are creationists. Further, if the Darwin-eating truth fish is a response to all Darwin feet, then we can assume that anyone with a Darwin-eating truth fish thinks that anyone with a Darwin fish has missed the truth somewhere and is probably not a Christian.

The fuel for this type of escalation is assumptions about the other side’s intent without checking, and it points us toward a third way to interrupt conflict escalation. Instead of either winning by outsmarting the other or waiting for them to make a mistake, or losing by making a mistake or surrendering, we can ask “What’s with the fish?”

By “What’s with the fish?”, I mean finding out about the meaning or purpose of the move a person in a conflict makes. If the Jesus fish has nothing to do with evolution for a particular person, then the Darwin feet countermove is meaningless, and there may not even be a conflict. If the Darwin feet move is prompted by a misunderstanding, then it only has the power to prompt the next move if we don’t take the time to learn about the misunderstanding.

If the “What’s with the fish?” conversation eventually leads to some level of understanding among the people involved, then one side may choose to undo a move, or both sides may decide to view the moves differently and therefore respond differently to each other.

Ask Both Sides, Tell Both Sides

The next time you find yourself in an escalating conflict – either one that must certainly be someone else’s fault or one that you recognize as being fueled by your own clever planning – ask yourself, “What’s with the fish?” Figure out what your intended meaning is to be sure that your fish – whatever it is – sends an accurate message and will get the response that you want. Share what you have learned about your motivation and intent with the other side, and ask them what’s up with their fish to be sure that you understand where they’re coming from and the response they are looking for.

You may be surprised to find that there is little or nothing to escalate. The conversation that results may be difficult, but may also be less painful than feeding a fight based on missed meaning. One Fish, Two Fish

Sometimes, of course, we have a whole kettle of fish and it is hard to remember who put what fish in the pot first. The difference between parties seems not only to have a life of its own, but to have always been in existence. Nobody can remember what started the fight or who started it or how it began. That is when a third party can be helpful, either by sorting through the fish so that both sides get a glimmer of their own contributions to the misunderstanding, or by helping people imagine the possibility that they can find a new way to live with (or without) fish.

Sometimes the answer lies in “red fish, blue fish” – when both sides may be looking at the same thing and seeing completely different things. Here is where a skilled helper can guide adversaries to understand not only the sources of their own interpretation for what the fish in question means, but the sources of the other side’s definition of meaning as well. In this situation, there may never be consensus, but the investment of all parties in discovering what makes one another tick can go a long way toward getting them to work together on a solution or at least recognizing that the other guy is not as crazy, vengeful, conniving, or dangerous as once thought.

If the side of the fish that I can see is red and the side facing you is blue, the only way we can understand what one another is seeing is to trade places for a while.

The great lesson for us to remember about escalation is that it is neither inevitable nor inescapable. We escalate it by making choices. If we think about our choices and – better yet – talk to the other side about them, we give ourselves a better chance at inventing decisions we can live with.


Bill Withers is a mediator and mediator educator who has written books for mediator educators and for people who find themselves in conflict at work. His most recent book is the second edition of Resolving Conflicts on the Job (AMACOM).  He has also written The Conflict Management Skills Workshop and (with Keami D. Lewis) The Conflict and Communication Activity Book, both from AMACOM Books.

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