Transformative theory describes the phenomenon of conflict escalation (aka interactional degeneration). It acknowledges people’s propensity to fall into a vicious cycle of feeling threatened, losing compassion for each other, and then behaving in ways that perpetuate or worsen those experiences. In that vicious cycle, we behave in ways that are either too aggressive or too accommodating, and that cause unnecessary harm to ourselves, the other, or both. Transformative theory also describes the path out of that vicious cycle: shifts toward greater strength of self, accompanied by greater responsiveness to other, which bring with them behavior that reinforces those experiences of strength and responsiveness – and with that greater strength and responsiveness come more constructive actions that honor our preference to care for both self and other.
But the theory does not tell us precisely what actions will foster those shifts. And it acknowledges that being responsive to the other does not necessarily mean accommodating the other – it may mean taking clear, strong action to oppose the other, but action based on a clear understanding of them.
So let’s say you’re a citizen in a country that has elected a president whom you fear will be harmful to your country and the world. What do you do? In the name of compassion, do you assume the best about that president-elect? Do you remind yourself that demonization is a natural part of conflict, and so do you remain vigilant to make sure you aren’t seeing the president-elect worse than he is? Or do you take action in an attempt to prevent him from having the damaging effects you fear? Do you lobby members of the electoral college to change their votes? Do you lobby your legislators to do everything possible to fight the president-elect’s predicted actions? Do you protest in the streets? Do you participate in other forms of civil disobedience? Or if you do any of that, are you just part of the problem of escalating conflict? Transformative theory doesn’t answer these questions.
Transformative theory reminds us to be aware that we may be acting from a place of weakness and self-absorption; and it reminds us that we aspire instead to act with strength and responsiveness. It also reminds us not to believe everything we think – in other words, it reminds us that our perspective is always limited. At the same time, it reminds us to take responsibility for our actions, to realize that though our understanding is limited, only we have our perspective, so we must make choices about how to respond. At times, the life, liberty, and dignity of ourselves and others we care about may need to be protected in ways that don’t benefit the person or people we’re opposing. At other times, we may need to withstand some losses for ourselves for the good of others. Only we can decide what’s called for in any particular moment.
So ultimately the theory exhorts us to remain mindful. Are we acting out of weakness? Out of self-absorption? Or are we acting out of strength and responsiveness? What can we do to ensure that we’re acting from clarity and understanding? What actions will help us maintain the strength and compassion we aspire to? Deep breaths? Reflection? Meditation? Conversations with supportive friends? Conversations with the people we disagree with? Each of us must decide for ourselves how to respond in ways that both empower us and that help us recognize the other.