On the Virtue of Conflict

Viruses and vaccines are very much on our mind at the moment, and they stand in also as ready metaphors for social dangers and prophylactics. There may well be more to the analogy than convenient literary devices though. The similarities between biological entities and societies seen from a systemic perspective has intellectual respectability. In fact, in plant and insect ecology the biological and social are barely distinguishable. Recent research on trees has established that they communicate through their root systems using fungi as an intermediary messenger. It is also conjectured that insects like ants effectively function as a hive mind, each individual insect functioning somewhat like the neurons in the human brain. This is not to argue that human society is a biological system, but that as systems the biological and social have strong functional similarities and that analogous mechanisms can be plausibly sought.

Evolutionary theory has been a strong source for such thinking. There is a case to be made that Darwin was primed to theorise the principle of variability and adaptive environmental pressure as a biological universal based on human social practices. The Origin of Species begins, after all, with a discussion of animal breeding for desired traits. Additionally, although Darwin did not originate the term, he apparently approved of the philosopher Herbert Spenser’s use of the term ‘the survival of the fittest’, Spenser’s application of Darwin’s principle of natural selection to human society. This reciprocation is not to downplay Darwin’s achievement, merely to recognise the important role of theoretical analogy in the advance of human knowledge. Even more apposite to this discussion, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins postulated the meme as a carrier for cultural transmission analogous to the gene in the transmission of heritable characteristics, which, although it has gained traction in cultural studies, I consider to be theoretically weak; it has functioned more as a vehicle for Dawkins’ invective against religion – considered a memetic ‘virus’ – than a serious theoretical basis for understanding the development of culture. The meme, unlike the gene, lacks a postulated structure, any differentiation or transmissive mechanism.

However, we shall not be entirely dismissive of Dawkins’ insight, as he pioneered the way for more serious, even quantitative, research on cultural transmission based on the model of viral vectors, notably the work of Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. In my own research on institutional resilience and value transmission, the viral nature of ideology, as an invasive form of information and values that changes the purpose of the institution into a mechanism for ideological replication and transmission, i.e. ‘infection’, is made explicit, as is the institutional defence mechanism, the equivalent of the immune system, of a spontaneously arising form of managed conflict.

I have argued in a number of essays and articles that the idea of peace as a state characterised by the absence of conflict is highly implausible and unrealistic, possibly even irrational. Rather peace, should be considered a state of dynamic equilibrium in which conflicts arise naturally, are even to a degree invoked, and are resolved, are managed, at the lowest possible level. Indeed, a failure to do so risks escalation of conflict to higher level.

Evidence for this, returning to the theme of the commensurability of the natural and the social from a systems perspective, and the potential fruitfulness of mutual analogising, can be sought in nature. Contrary to the idea of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’, natural biological and ecological systems are for the most part remarkably peaceful. However, this peace is maintained through self-regulation and includes hierarchies, competition for resources and predation for food. Although documentary films, naturally, to retain interest, tend to focus on animal combat for mating rights and packs hunting and bringing down prey, it is notable that order is predominant once established; also predator and prey typically live in close proximity with little interaction and even the sharing of common resources such as watering holes. There is even evidence of altruistic acts between different species, although this tends to be anecdotal and curated and I am not aware of research showing the extent of this. There is clear evidence, though, such as from the work of primatologist Jane Goodall, that the peace of nature is a dynamic equilibrium and that order is punctuated by violent episodes, sometimes by murderous rampages.

While nature can teach us much about human society, the information must be evaluated taking into consideration some fundamental differences between natural and social systems. Prime among those differences is that human society is structured by institutions and the quality of its institutions has a consequential effect on the quality of society as a whole. Institutions are fundamentally deontological, meaning they are structured by uniquely psychosocial and cultural – rather than physical – artefacts, such as laws, principles and values. This raises the nature of human social organisation onto a qualitatively different level than that of animal society and means that human interactions and conflicts are processed in a different way, through institutions. This doesn’t mean that conflicts do not occur, and cannot be resolved, between individuals, but that human society has evolved institutional processes to turn individual conflicts into building structural resilience in society. Indeed, even the non-violent resolution of individual conflicts involves the intersection with social institutions: their rules, principles and values.

The detail of how institutions accomplish this is explained in another, much longer essay, but it is fundamentally through the productive roles and value system that arises spontaneously in every institution and which are the basis for its perpetuation through time in a changing social, cultural and economic landscape. In every institution there arises a natural resistance to the dictates of authority, which is a function of the moral autonomy of the individual testing the moral integrity of the institutional whole. This manifests in the institutional system as a disjunction between discoverable shared values across subsystems in the institutional hierarchy and “core values” proclaimed by an institutional elite. The responsibility for discovery of these shared values and bringing them into an equilibrated compromise falls to a managerial class at every level of the institutional hierarchy. For this reason, it is more correct to speak of a managerial mindset, as this is a distributed task, not one that falls only to specific individuals.

This is an activity that is carried out intuitively in many good institutions, being anything, from a family, to a local organisation, to a government body to a multinational corporation, with little understanding of the nature of the process; which is why it is done poorly in some situations and why some in others it falters after a period of success, resulting in institutional decline and possible collapse. The main problem is the failure to acknowledge that the dynamic equilibrium necessary for institutional resilience in the face of continual challenges lies in the acceptance of the phenomenon of resistance and managing the necessary conflict between the elite, with their sensitivity to environmental volatility together with their hegemony over institutional information, and those further down the hierarchy, with their more self-interested and local assessments. In spite of the somewhat evaluative language, this is simply an explanatory phenomenology of institutional resilience, which comes about through the negotiations and compromises necessary to achieve the fine balance between change and stability within the purpose and parameters of the institution.

Through such a process of system integration is conflict managed and contained and, therefore, not allowed to escalate. The implication also is that conflict is both natural and a necessity for institutional resilience and, through that, for societal peace. It is not too difficult to see that the obverse is true; that institutions and a society that do not accept the role of resistance and conflict, that try to ignore it, or banish it, and do not, therefore, participate in the process of managing it, will exacerbate it and allow it to become unmanageable. However, it seems that on any metric and at every level, this is where we are today in Western societies.

To return the analogies with biological systems with which this article began, we know that it is important for the immune system of children to be exposed to a range of pathogens, which primes its ability to recognise and deal with environmental threats later on. There is research, speculative but plausible, that the lower incidence of intestinal worms in societies that have modernised correlates well with the rise in allergies. Moreover, the prevalence of allergies among children in developed countries, some extremely serious, has been blamed in part on the practice of the overuse of disinfectants and other antibacterial materials. It is a reasonable assumption this applies at a psychosocial level as well; at least, no evidence has been offered to refute the belief that children need to deal both with obstacles to their immediate gratification within the context of the family as well as environmental threats outside the family, in order become resilient persons as adults. What we are seeing increasingly is an epidemic of young people wracked by depression and anxiety who simultaneously demand that the institutions of society conform to their damaged psyches.

The reasons for this are many, but they are connected at some level to a culture which has made safety its top priority and has legislated the institutions of society and its education system to conform to this priority. A number of factors have been hypothesised for what has brought this about: the increasing density and immediacy of information, particularly of a sensationalist nature, which confers a sense of ever-present hazard; the decreasing size of families and increased cost of raising children, which makes each child precious, but also in some sense commodified; changes in family life and the workplace which are resulting in the increasing prioritising of caring and protectiveness. Whatever the reasons, the prognosis for society of such an imbalance is not good.

If the issue was just one of the reasonable requirements for protection against industrial and workplace accidents and the understandable concerns about bullying in school and the workplace, and abuse to minors, this could be accommodated within idea of the moral progress of society. However, values such as care, love and protectiveness that do not conform to the reality that they must be applied in contexts that incorporate resistance, challenge and conflict, will undermine the resilience of individuals, institutions and society as a whole.

The apotheosis of this trend is now to be found in universities, in which students demand not simply to be protected from each other but to be protected from any ideas that challenge them to think outside the comfort and safety of their ideological conformism. The universities’ acquiescence, by and large, to such demands is changing the nature of such institutions, from bastions of academic freedom, intellectual challenge and unorthodox thinking, into ideological superspreaders, whose cadres are now entering the professions and compromising all social institutions, including the media, law, government, the arts, corporations, schools and charities. One of the marks of a developed society, above that of pre-modern tribal cultures, is the transference of conflict from acts of violence to the combat of ideas. It is the supremacy of an idea that has survived the trials of proof, reason and attempts at falsification, that has contributed to the very developments that are now being taken for granted and even disparaged.

When institutions are ideologically captured, they are no longer adaptive to the shifting environment, as their fundamental purpose has changed. The function of resistance to the hegemony of the elite is suppressed in the name of ideological conformity. In such cases, the effect of quelling resistance, rather than reducing conflict, exacerbates it, both institutionally and globally. Firstly, it increases competition among institutional players to prove ideological purity within an authoritarian culture. Second, the art of compromise necessary to achieve dynamic equilibrium intra-institutionally is lost in a culture of conformity. Third, as institutions are no longer optimally functional and may even fail, the loss to society creates conditions of scarcity, which themselves can lead to greater conflict. Ideological capture, in short, allows conflict to move outside the institution, where it is no longer manageable.

Just as a vaccine inoculates the individual with a less harmful form of the virus, in order to build up immunity in the face of the real thing, managing conflict within institutions allows societies to remain largely peaceful, while still being dynamic and challenging. This requires a managerial mindset in whatever position we hold in any area of social life that actively discovers issues of potential conflict, accepts this as a reality of human social interaction, and rather than attempting to suppress it, understands, accommodates, and seeks a path of ongoing compromise as part of the dynamic equilibrium that underlies resilience. A successful mediation of authoritative priorities and local know-how proves to be transformative for any institution and for society as a whole.

About the Author

Don Trubshaw
Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

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