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The Hyper-Polarization Challenge to the Conflict Resolution Field: An Online Discussion

You are invited to participate in and contribute to an online discussion of how those with conflict resolution and peacebuilding expertise can do more to defend liberal democracies while also helping them live up to their ideals.

We, at Beyond Intractability and the Conflict Information Consortium, have been concerned for several years about the degree to which fear, hatred, and misinformation (among other factors) have been driving hyper-polarization and anti-democratic attitudes and actions in the United States and elsewhere around the world. In the U.S., both the Left and the Right hold an almost existential fear that the other side might be able to win enough power to be able to inflict their completely intolerable beliefs and policies on the other side. This fear has led both sides to employ increasingly extreme tactics — tactics that often violate long-standing democratic norms and taboos.* The result is a hyper-polarization spiral that threatens to escalate into something
truly catastrophic.

As we argued in a Feature Article published in the July 2022 issue of the Conflict Resolution Quarterly, those of us in the conflict resolution, peacebuilding, bridge-building, democracy, and public involvement fields have important knowledge and skills about ways in which these destructive processes might be reversed. We believe it is critical that those of us who have these skills do more to address these threats.

The CRQ article was designed to get people thinking and talking about this and related issues. So, as a follow-up, we have established on ongoing online discussion on Beyond Intractability, where we have been posting essays about these ideas and what can be done about them. We invite all readers to follow this discussion and contribute to it.

  • Why are so many societies abandoning power-with approaches to governance and decision making in favor of power-over approaches?  And, what can be done to reverse that trend?
  • How can we get more people to abandon the prevailing “us-vs-them” mindset when even the suggestion of compromise is so widely seen as traitorous? 
  • How can we scale up our traditionally small-scale, table-oriented processes to deal with the size and complexity of conflicts that envelope entire societies?
  • How can we better counter “bad faith actors” who are trying to advance their narrow interests by generating and inflaming tensions and hatred? 
  • Can we be partisans (fighting for justice in left- or right-leaning senses) and neutrals at the same time?  How do we choose which role to play? and when? And how do we maintain our credibility and effectiveness when doing so?

Questions we would like to address (among others) are:

If the United States and other threatened democracies around the world are going to survive as democracies, we are going to have to figure out how to de-escalate these hyper-polarized conflicts and build a better version of democracy than the one we currently have. We know from our work in other countries that it does not work (nor is it morally acceptable) to simply try to destroy or banish the other side. We need to figure out how to create processes and structures that meet the legitimate interests and needs of a very socially and economically diverse society and work together to solve our problems as wisely and equitably as possible. Mediators, bridge- builders and other dispute resolution professionals have been facilitating such processes for years. It is time we applied these skills to our current political landscape.

Will you contribute to our discussion about how to do this?

In order to prevent malicious contributions from bots and other bad-faith actors, we (Guy and Heidi Burgess) are screening all submissions before posting. So, send your submissions to us at [email protected] or through our contact page on BI. We would be happy to post something written specifically for this discussion, or, if you have written something already that addresses one or more of these issues, we would be happy to link directly to that or republish it if that is an option. We are also interested in things you know about that others may have written that you find especially valuable. And, don’t think you need to agree with us.  As you’ll see if you
read some of the current comments, many people have very different views on these issues. 

That’s what we’re trying to explore!  

*We believe that both sides are contributing to the problem and trying to assign proportional blame is a distraction that will not help get us out of our difficulties. However, this is one of many topics we are exploring further in the discussion.


Guy and Heidi Burgess

Heidi and Guy Burgess have been partners personally and professionally since the early 1970s. They both received their Ph.D.s in sociology in the same year (1979) from the University of Colorado and then did post-doctoral work at MIT a year later during the 1979-80 "energy crisis." That, together with their… MORE >

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