Investigative journalist Amanda Ripley believes good conflict can help solve deep political divides. But when it escalates beyond the point of no return, it becomes “high conflict”: a fight less about the issue at hand and more about owning the other side. In her new book, she chronicles how dangerous high conflict is to individuals and societies—and offers suggestions for how to dig yourself out of it.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Amanda Ripley discuss the ways in which high conflict deepens political polarization, how to create a better education system, and how to overcome seemingly intractable conflicts.
This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: Tell the readers about the story of Gary Friedman. I think it is such a great window into conflict and how alluring it is and how difficult it is to get out of it.
Amanda Ripley: Gary Friedman is one of the world’s leading experts on conflict. This is someone who has helped 2,000 people through really unpleasant disputes—everything from labor strikes to custody battles, divorces. He’s written three books on conflict, he’s taught negotiation classes at Harvard and Stanford—a really thoughtful, interesting guy. In 2015, his neighbors urged him to run for office in his tiny town in northern California, thinking: Who better to fix politics, to heal the sort of nasty tone that had crept in, even in this little town? As he put it, it took him about an eighth of a second before he got sucked into the conflict of local politics. He lost about two years of his life and peace of mind to these petty feuds—at least, they look petty to me as an outsider. He really lost the things he holds dear to this conflict. Then he realized what had happened. He painstakingly excavated himself out of it and created a different kind of healthier conflict, to his credit. It showed me that if Gary can’t stay out of high conflict, then I surely cannot. It’s very magnetic.
Mounk: Why is it so easy for somebody who has all the knowledge and self-awareness to get drawn into that? What’s the mechanism by which we get sort of deep into the muck of conflict?
Ripley: There are conditions that, I have found, reliably predict that kind of ugly, unhealthy conflict. Every conflict has a thing we argue about endlessly, and then the thing it’s really about. Until you get clear on what that is—I call it the understory—you’re going to be likely to get stuck on rotation. For Gary, he told himself and everyone else that he was running to improve the tone, make politics less toxic and more inclusive, and that was true. But also, he was trying to prove underneath that his whole life’s work—40 years—could be applied to politics: that the things he fundamentally believed to be true about his own worth in the world could fix this problem, too. There was a grandiosity to that, but also an understandable belief that he did understand conflict. He was out to prove something quite ambitious that wasn’t on the surface. This is now an existential problem. That is partly why he experienced it as humiliation. Humiliation is one of the four firestarters that reliably leads to really unhealthy conflict. So, should he have experienced that as humiliation? No, but he did. That’s usually how humiliation goes.
Mounk: You mentioned humiliation as one of the firestarters of conflict—a sort of binary thinking. What else is there? What other conditions are in place when we go into this mode of “high conflict”?
Ripley: Often there are people around the edges or in the conflict who are sort of fanning the flames. This is true in divorces. This is obviously true in politics: people, companies, platforms, who sort of delight in the conflict, who profit off of the conflict, who maybe more often seek camaraderie or purpose from the conflict. These are “conflict entrepreneurs.” It's important to recognize that we all have this potential, including myself and all journalists: It’s very easy to be a conflict entrepreneur. In Gary’s case, he had an adviser who was a seasoned veteran political organizer. She was helping him in this little campaign and applying the same rules and strategies you would use in a national political campaign in the United States, which is a hyperpolarized, dysfunctional system. When you apply those binary rules, she talked about killing the other side, winning and losing, and going forward, not backward. You see the binary thinking in all of that. When you apply the rules of an adversarial, us-versus-them system that’s deeply entrenched to a little tiny town, it’s going to get the same results. Soon, Gary started using those words, too.
Mounk: When is conflict productive? When does it turn into what you call “high conflict”? Why should we think that high conflict is such a danger to avoid?
Ripley: Going into this, I was kind of skeptical of a lot of this. I intentionally don’t use words like compromise, dialogue, and peace very often in the book. I went into this about four years ago, [thinking], Look, I’ve got to do something differently as a journalist. I need to understand conflict better as a system, especially intractable conflict: What does it look like when people get out? I quickly learned that that’s the wrong question. To your point, it’s not about getting out of conflict, it’s about getting out of “high conflict.” High conflict can start small; it can actually start about anything. It gradually escalates until it becomes an us-versus-them kind of conflict. It actually takes on its own momentum, like a perpetual motion machine. Everything you do to try to end the conflict typically makes it worse: Our brains behave differently; groups become very important. All these things kind of shift it out of the realm of good conflict—which can also be super stressful, heated, unpleasant, but goes somewhere, questions get asked, there’s a sense that you’re not sure where it ends—whereas with high conflict, that is the destination.
Mounk: I’m still trying to understand how to categorize conflict versus high conflict. Is it that in conflict, I might have a demand, I might have something that’s really important to me—I’m a worker who wants a raise, or I’m part of some identity group that feels inadequately recognized and valued—but there is a goal where if I make real progress towards it, or if I reach it completely, then I’m happy to stand down. Whereas in high conflict, it actually feels like the goal is hating the other person.
Ripley: It becomes hard to let that go.
Mounk: I’m struck often, in our political discourse, by the ways in which many of my friends and acquaintances—people who are broadly on the, quote, unquote, same side—want to have a view of the other side that’s as negative as possible. Actually, they seem comforted when the other side does something horrible, because it allows them to hate them without any reservations or without any nuance. Then when the other side actually does something honorable, that’s sort of irksome.
Ripley: At this level of conflict, emotion is driving the train. I admit to that myself. I remember, early on in Trump’s tenure, he did something—I can’t remember what it was, something about China. I remember having this sudden thought that, actually, that was not a bad idea—but not even wanting to have the thought in my head, let alone verbalize it. Then I realized I felt like if I gave him an inch, he’d take a mile—as if we were in a relationship. It’s a trick of the brain, as if he and I were in conversation, which we’re not. So, it’s a fear. It’s a lack of trust. It’s easier, in a way, to keep things binary: bad, good. There’s really cool research that haunts me to this day by Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg, where they asked liberals and conservatives if they would reframe an argument for something in words that [would get] conservatives behind it. Interestingly, they found that 20% of liberals would not reframe their arguments to persuade conservatives, even if it would work better to get what they want. That’s high conflict: when any concession, no matter how small, feels too threatening to contemplate, even when it would be in their interest.
Mounk: I find it to be true that when you say, “Hey, these arguments really are not persuasive and popular to a lot of people,” there’s a particularly strong reaction against that among some readers and on social media, where they're saying, “Look, this is a question of justice, how dare you talk about it in these kinds of terms.” It’s like you're desecrating the sacredness of your cause by thinking about how you might put it in a way that’ll actually attract support. Of course, we live in a democracy, and that means you have to think about majorities, and that can sometimes be a slightly dirty business. But if you actually cared about the cause, you would be willing to reframe your argument in the ways that makes it most likely for your cause to happen—whereas I think it’s an indication that you care more about being on the good side when you become reluctant to do that. [...] To what extent do you think we can apply everything you say about high conflict to the current situation in the United States?
Ripley: I think 100%. That’s why I wrote the book. What I found is, if you come at [conflict] head on, you lose a lot of people. Many people are stridently locked in on one side or another. But if you come at it sideways, with an analogy, people will make the connection. When you’re in high conflict, it feels unique to you, your country and your pathology. You just can’t believe that this is a universal human condition that has anything to do with divorce court. But I’ll tell you what, there is no daylight between divorce court and Congress at this point. There is nothing different about it.
Mounk: Why is it that this frame of high conflict—which in a way starts from the premise not that both sides are equally right, but certainly that both sides have gotten dragged into an unproductive mode and are therefore, to some extent, each at fault—why would you defend that being a helpful frame?
Ripley: I think the differences within each group are greater than the differences between them on a lot of issues. I think what they have in common is that they’re all human. That is profound. Our behavior, when we feel threatened, is quite similar. Now, who’s to blame, more or less, is an important question. I happen to believe that, particularly, the politicians at the national level on the right are more to blame, as is Fox News. That doesn’t get me anywhere. It is important to hold people accountable, but that’s not the only thing I’m trying to do here. I’m trying to help us figure out [that] we need more conflict in America, not less, but it needs to be good conflict. Unfortunately, we’re stuck with each other. It’s the same, by the way—sorry to beat the tired analogy—with a divorce. If you have kids together, you’re never getting out of each other’s lives, whether you want to or not. You’ve got to figure out a way to fight smart. That’s true with Democrats and Republicans: We keep seeing it like we cannot solve the problems we want to solve. [...] The behavior is a fantasy that we carry, that the enemy will vanish from the face of the earth. It reminds me of how if you look at the research on emotion in conflict, anger is good because it assumes that you want the other side to be better. Hatred, contempt, is not easy to work with because it assumes that there is no redemption and annihilation is really the only logical solution. So there’s a difference between anger and contempt and hatred that you can measure in the research.
Mounk: Do you think that there is a way out of high conflict—that it’s not easy, it’s not straightforward, but there are steps we can take to actually get out of it?
Ripley: You don’t even have to want to make amends. To lower the bar—you just want to be less miserable and more effective in your cause—then I would argue that getting into good conflict is much more effective. In high conflict, you’ll eventually start to mimic the behavior of your adversaries to different degrees. You’ll end up hurting the thing you hold most dear, most likely: In every high conflict I’ve looked at, that’s what happened. So there's a lot at stake, even in a smaller-stakes conflict. One thing that is common to every case I followed—in all the research, whether it’s a former gang leader in Chicago or the politician we talked about—people who successfully leave high conflict often start by distancing themselves from the conflict entrepreneurs in their lives. What you’re trying to do is slow down conflict. Social media speeds up conflict. For a lot of people, it would mean changing who’s in your feed. Put some distance between you and conflict entrepreneurs: First figure out who they are, and then put some distance between you and them.
Mounk: If you’re in a divorce, stop talking to whichever member of your family most hates your spouse.
Ripley: Right, haha. Don’t go to them for guidance. They often don’t mean to make things worse, [because] they think they’re commiserating with you. Same with conflict entrepreneurs writ large. I used to say you should get off social media. Now I feel the problem is, people are fleeing social media and leaving the extremists behind, which is what happens in high conflict. You want to change how you interact with it and change how you understand what it does and doesn’t do. I changed how I interact with people on Twitter, and I don’t follow people who I believe are really exploiting the conflict. Another thing is to investigate the understory. We talked about how there’s the thing you fight about and the thing it’s really about. Get really curious about what that thing is underneath it—not only for you, but also for the people on the other side. Most big controversial policy debates in the United States are about fear. But we don’t talk about that as much as we do the policy. At this level of conflict, the fear is driving the train. Let’s get curious about what that is. At least you can then figure out what you should really be fighting about. You can end up fighting about things that are not really the core issue, because there’s so much noise. Try to figure out what is really going on here for people, why is it so threatening to think about immigration or whatever it is. That doesn’t make it right, or okay, or validated, but it changes how you fight about it so you can be much more effective.
Mounk: It seems to me that there’s real resistance to understanding the understory. What role do journalists have in helping people understand the understory of the other side, rather than being conflict entrepreneurs? How can we try to understand the other half of the country in the United States, and other deeply polarized societies, when you have a price to pay for trying to do that?
Ripley: This is exactly how we get trapped, isn’t it? Because we don't get curious anymore. Journalists are captured by the high conflict. We’re not different. We’re human. I think there’s this magical thinking that we think we’re not. We think, “Oh, we're just dispassionately covering the issues.” That’s just not the case, as we see over and over again. If Trump wins the next election, or some version of Trump wins who’s more dangerous, everyone will say, “How could this happen?!”
Mounk: I haven't yet read your book on education (The Smartest Kids In the World), but I’d love to learn a little bit more about it. You looked at why it is that some kids do incredibly well on these international tests to see how proficient they are at reading and math, and why some kids do really poorly. And also why it is that this is not a static picture—that Finland was not actually doing all that great 20 or 30 years ago, but now it’s sort of at the top of many of these lists. What did you find out about when education works and when it doesn’t? What do we need to do in order to make sure that kids do learn to read and do math as well as possible?
Ripley: The biggest, most intangible difference is that school is serious in these places. It’s taken seriously, it’s respected. And there’s a consequence of that, particularly in Finland, but also elsewhere, where teachers are respected the same way we respect pilots and surgeons in America. But it's very respected, and kids pick up on that, families pick up on that. You can say, “Education is important,” but if you don't act like it, kids are the first to notice the difference. There’s a rigor—not just in the curriculum, although that’s important; not just in the teacher training, although that’s important—but in walking the walk, and prioritizing critical thinking for kids above almost everything else.
Mounk: Let’s talk about the ideological aspect of this. As you’re saying, in order for our society to respect teachers, schools can’t be seen as ideological breeding grounds. I think both because of the teachers unions and their associations with the Democratic Party, and at the moment because of a real push to introduce elements of Critical Race Theory to the classroom, it feels like we’re polarizing the debate about education more. How can we get out of that high conflict?
Ripley: I think you’re just going to see more and more of this—the politicization of things that really don’t need to be politicized—and there’s going to be a lot of casualties, and most of them will be kids. It’s painful to watch. I do think some of what we have to realize is that when you have an adversarial, us-versus-them dynamic that predates all of this, as we do in many of our cities between unions and management, that kind of corrodes everything else. In other countries, they have strong teachers unions—countries that do much better by equity and by other measures—but there’s not this us-versus-them relationship to the same degree. The way unions came up in America, the way universal schooling came up in America, at the time when it did, has really tainted all those institutions. I would argue you need to reboot them for what we need today. What we need today is not teacher union leaders who are going to war every day; that is not helpful and not serving anyone. There needs to be much more trust. How do you rebuild trust, right? Some unions are right to distrust, by the way. It goes both ways. But I think there needs to be a real investment in rebuilding trust in our schools.
Mounk: What would be a way to recover a new narrative of “us” in a place like the United States? Will it require something dramatic, like high conflict with China? Or is there some hope that we can retell our national narrative in a way that overcomes these deep divisions?
Ripley: You need a shock, and you have to be on the lookout for it. That’s how you get out of high conflict. If this level is there—some kind of shock that destabilizes that self-perpetual motion machine—you have to have people in place before that who can seize that moment. The pandemic was a shock, clearly a hard one, because look how long it took to turn that into a positive from a conflict point of view. But if you have people in charge who are conflict entrepreneurs, you’re never going to be able to seize that opportunity. Some of it is a chicken-and-egg problem—how do you elect the people who are not conflict entrepreneurs and who have an expansive definition of “us”? How do you do that without a common enemy or shock? Because there will be another shock, there will be violence, almost certainly more political violence in the U.S. So there's two paths from that: One is, double down and then there’ll be more violence and more violence and more violence. And one is, seize that as a saturation point. Which is [the way to] get out of high conflict: hit bottom, reckon with what has happened, and try to interrupt some of those feedback loops.
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