It seems like it should be obvious, but most conflict-related terms have become muddy. What about “rude” or “victim” or the latest, “bully?” With time, they all seem to drop to the lowest common denominator, becoming synonyms for “something I don’t like.”
In a space devoted to conflict resolution, it seems essential to have a clear operational definition.
Online dictionaries simply define conflict as a synonym for battle or fight, which isn’t very helpful.
What about this definition? A conflict happens when two or more parties make mutually-exclusive claims on something.
This definition might sound odd, but it fits with the contemporary conflict-resolution models of cooperation and collaboration that give us another popular term, “win-win.” That refers to an outcome of conflict that results in all parties getting what they want.
That thing can be an object, like a resource or a boundary, but it can also be control of an organization.
You can get a sense of your own default conflict-resolution style (competing, avoiding, collaborating, compromising, or accommodating) at http://academic.engr.arizona.edu/vjohnson/ConflictManagementQuestionnaire/ConflictManagementQuestionnaire.asp
If “mutually-exclusive claims on something” still sounds like an odd definition then consider how it manifests in the world.
All aggression, all violence is conflict. If you want to call me a name, or take something that belongs to me, or touch me, and I don’t want that, then we have mutually-exclusive claims on my dignity, my property, my body. Aggression puts us into conflict.
A definition of mutually-exclusive claims, however, allows us to disagree about something. We can vote for different political candidates or cheer for different sports teams, and those players are in conflict – only one can win – but there’s no conflict between us as long as neither of us tries to silence the other, which would be aggression.
In response to a previous article about the Chik-fil-A controversy, a reader suggested that the restaurant’s owners have actively opposed gay marriage and equal treatment for homosexuals for years.
If that is the case then there is a conflict between Mr. Cathy and the general community of persons who are homosexual and persons who support them. It’s not a surprise – we know that there is widespread resistance to the concept of homosexual persons as healthy and respected citizens. That resistance often manifests as verbal and/or physical violence, and when it does then it must always be actively opposed, which does not require responding with violence.
The Chik-fil-A controversy, however, wasn’t triggered by a disclosure of Mr. Cathy’s actions opposing homosexuals.
It was triggered by his public expression of his opinions, which raises the larger question of whether we are in conflict whenever we encounter a perspective that we don’t share.
We certainly can be. It’s a choice, and it seems to be a popular one.
However, the mere encounter of a different opinion does not, in the absence of acts to silence dissent, seem to incarnate or require conflict. Even if those opinions are factually erroneous or morally wrong, in America, the solution to offensive speech is more speech and, perhaps, from time to time, a bit of listening to all of that speech.