The New Religion: Destructive Escalation

Whether with President Trump, certain celebrity speakers at the Women's March or disagreements with family or friends -- each of us must decide how we respond to differences that offend us: Do we continue this game or change it?
01/27/2017 11:38 am ET Updated Jan 28, 2018

If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking. General George S. Patton

Whether with President Trump, certain celebrity speakers at the Women's March or disagreements with family or friends -- each of us must decide how we respond to differences that offend us: Do we continue this game or change it? Louder shouts, more offensive language, more aggressive tactics are part of the current game that magnifies the conflict and escalates the arms race. It is a game this country knows: duels killing the likes of Alexander Hamilton, bloody civil war, deadly gang-wars in Chicago, political gridlock. Differences grow into dysfunction, then destructive conflict by herding everyone into a forced-choice of "us" and "them."

Destructive Escalation

This game has a name, Destructive Escalation and it is a psychological process that moves opposing parties down a path of growing conflict and carnage. It has been oft studied, the steps are widely known and highly predictable (Cait Malek):

1. Retaliate: Escalation begins when one party believes the other party has deliberately provoked them. They then retaliate, setting off an ever-increasing cycle of blame and aggression.
2. Stereotype: Each side begins to stereotype the other side as all the same -- bad. Whether the sides are divided by race, region, ideology, theology, gender -- indiscriminate discrimination rules.
3. Disassociate: Each side then cuts off communication with its adversaries and associates only with their own, leading to increased misunderstanding and distrust.
4. Polarize: Within the group, members become more homogeneous as moderate voices are silenced, punished and often expelled. Leaders compete for power by making more vicious claims about the opposition. Media coverage rewards the most extreme voices.
5. Violate: The last stage is escalation to physical or emotional violence as the parties completely de-humanize each other, legitimizing elimination of the "other" -- literally or figuratively.

Retaliate, stereotype, disassociate, polarize, violate. This slope begins gradually but becomes steep and slippery. We quickly move from discounting opposing viewpoints to impugning their motives and intentions as 24-karat evil, implying ours are 24-karat good. To quote former President George W. Bush after the Dallas police shooting: "Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions."

Escalation predictably produces destruction as large as war or as small as breaking ties with loved ones. A friend recently lamented that one of her colleagues was breaking-up with a number of her close friends and neighbors after the election -- literally terminating relationships. It is this fervent, narrow righteousness that some abhor about certain religions, yet revival is also alive in the secular church of "zealous righteous."

Differences: The Seed of Growth

One of our greatest relational gifts to each other is that we think differently. Frequently in marriage we choose an "other" that is different. My wise friend, Mike Murray says: creation does not come from an egg and an egg -- it comes from two very different things -- an egg and a sperm -- with different DNA. Gene pools that are too homogeneous lead to inbreeding and defects. Our differences are life-giving.

Nothing carries more developmental potential than squarely facing strong differences. Today's leaders, hungry for growth and innovation, are encouraged to listen more, seek out different viewpoints (often unflattering) from customers, employees, shareholders. Certainly, not every variant is valid or morally equivalent but differences are our lifeline to growth and transformation. If we did not have differences, we would need to invent them.

Unfortunately, in today's world of instant information, we often use knowledge as a weapon and shield to protect us from and de-legitimize oppositional differences.

Opposition as Teacher

The right question is: What does my opposition have to teach me? Three thoughts for changing the game:

1. Recognize: your opposition bears gifts you can get nowhere else.

It all starts with recognizing the role of opposition in our own development. Nothing challenges us like dealing with "those people" who question us, push our buttons, attempt to defeat us. Nothing helps us dig deeper, try harder, or find in ourselves resources we did not know we possessed, like adversity and challenge. To paraphrase Brene Brown: "you're hard-wired for struggle." In family, faith, athletics, business -- the moments of greatest trial are also often our best teachers, leading to the greatest breakthroughs. It is why developing athletic teams often benefit from playing top teams early in the season -- they discover here-to-fore unrecognized development needs. The trick is to look for the "gift" inherent in oppositional challenge -- and often nowhere else -- that switches the paradigm from fear and fatigue to hope and expectancy.

2. Diversify your relationship portfolio.

In investing, diversified portfolios are recommended to avoid the risk of asset concentration. Concentrated relational portfolios (only hanging-out with those "like-us") are no different. If you were surprised by Trump's Presidential victory, the size of the Women's March, or the rise of Black Lives Matter, it probably means your relational portfolios and the media you absorb have limited or even blinded you.

It is time to intentionally diversify your relationship portfolio. Rather than reinforcing our own views and attempting to convert others, how about we invest more to understand those different from us -- first understand, then be understood. Many of us are stuck in "convenient" diversity -- diversity of demography but sameness of belief. How about diversity of belief?

Robert Putnam warns us that with diversity come challenging side effects; often sub-groups fracture, participate less and are less engaged. Similar to investing, the goal is to optimize the gain from a balanced relational portfolio of both difference and sameness.

3. Understand: often your most passionate disagreements are rooted in your deepest wounds.

The big question is how do I tolerate "those people" whose ideas seem dangerous or unjust? It starts with understanding your own passion. What is it about your beliefs that stirs-up emotions? Often we find underneath our passion are old wounds. Maybe we or someone we love was bullied or treated with contempt. Think about and name those old wounds foundational to your fear or loathing of certain groups or beliefs.

Next seek to understand the wounds of those you disdain. Chances are they too were bullied or injured. Notice how often successful athletes cite past "injustices" as a source of their passion. Understanding others' wounds can change the game.

De-legitimized differences and destructive escalation produces losers. It is time to change the game.