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From High Conflict to Good Conflict
Ben Klutsey and Amanda Ripley discuss how to have healthy, productive arguments in a polarized age
In this installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, talks with Amanda Ripley, an investigative journalist and author, about the benefits of not watching the news, the conflict industrial complex, whether divisions in the U.S. are getting worse, the importance of positive interactions and much more.
BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: Today I have the great privilege of speaking with Amanda Ripley, an investigative journalist, a New York Times best-selling author, Washington Post contributor and co-host of the Slate podcast “How To!,” which is one of my favorites. She’s also co-founder of Good Conflict, a company that creates workshops and original content to help people get smarter about how they fight. Her latest book is “High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out,” which is the subject of our conversation today.
Curiosity and News Consumption
KLUTSEY: Before we get into the book, I would love to ask you a question about an article that you wrote in July of last year in The Washington Post, and you made a big confession. You confessed that you stopped reading the news years ago. I guess the reason that would be surprising is that you’re a journalist, and so one would imagine that that would be a part of your daily routine. Can you say more about that, and why did you stop reading and watching the news?
AMANDA RIPLEY: Yes. Well, I used to consume a massive amount of news, and I would read several newspapers from across the political spectrum and have CNN on mute in my office at Time magazine. I was a high consumer, maybe unhealthy level of consumer, but I actually really loved it. I thought it was a huge perk of my job that I could justify spending all that time consuming news. It was important to my identity and my feeling of being informed and being a good citizen and a good journalist. It actually usually made me feel more curious, not less. That’s a crucial distinction.
Then, about six years ago or so, I felt like the news was getting under my skin, so to speak. After my usual morning reading, I would feel so lethargic and drained that it was hard for me to be useful in other ways, like to do the writing or creative work or reporting that I am supposed to be doing. I, of course, presumed that there was just something wrong with me. I used to cover terrorist attacks and crime and education, which was the most controversial of all, of course. I thought I was tough; I could handle conflict and bad news.
I felt like, “Wow, I’m really losing my edge here. I don’t know what it is.” I felt really embarrassed, and I had to cut way down on news consumption. I stopped TV news altogether, which I would recommend and is fully supported by a ton of research. But still, the news was just creeping into every crevice of life, which we can all relate to, which is relatively new in the human experience.
You can’t control when you’re going to be suddenly ambushed by some kind of terrible news. The problem was, it wasn’t making me more curious anymore. It was making me less, so I wasn’t taking action. I wasn’t more informed about the world or myself or other people. I just felt paralyzed by a lot of, not all, but a lot of the news I was reading.
Long story short, I eventually noticed that I wasn’t the only one. That, in fact, I had a lot of journalist colleagues who were quietly telling me the same thing, that they also were having to dose the news like it was a painkiller and be very careful with it. Then the Reuters Institute had a new study showing that the U.S. has one of the highest news avoidance rates in the world, so four out of 10 Americans are often actively avoiding contact with the news, which is a higher rate than 30 other countries. And consistently across all countries, interestingly, women are more likely to be avoiding the news than men.
Then I started wondering, well, maybe I am part of the problem, for sure; I usually am. But also, maybe there’s something going on with the news. There was an interesting study during the worst days of the pandemic showing that U.S. mainstream news media coverage of the pandemic was significantly more negative than scientific journal coverage of the pandemic and more negative than international coverage.
Even when there would be some moment of hope, like vaccines seemed to be working, the negativity didn’t change. It started me thinking that maybe there’s something about how we’re doing the news, for a variety of mostly understandable reasons, that’s worth questioning. This was a very long answer. I apologize, Ben.
KLUTSEY: No, this is great. No, it’s wonderful.
RIPLEY: This is my full confession, is that I very slowly came to the realization that, while part of this is me and part of it is also the way the news is covered, importantly, it does not have to be this way. This is the key point that I buried the lede here. I spent about a year just researching what humans need to thrive and take action and be useful and make hard decisions in a difficult, complex world. There were a few things that the news clearly does help us with, and then there were a few things that are just missing that we now know humans need.
We didn’t always know that, really. Maybe we should have known, but those things that seem to be most glaringly absent from a lot of news coverage are dignity, agency and hope. Interestingly, every story I’ve done, those things tend to be present somewhere in the reporting, but they didn’t make it into the story. Then it begs the question, well, why not? And what if those things didn’t get cut from the story, and wouldn’t that be more useful?
Becoming a Better News Consumer
KLUTSEY: That’s really amazing. Now, before news is fixed, in the meantime, how should we consume the news to stay informed? Because if you ignore it, then you don’t know what’s going on. And if you’re interested in what’s going on, you get on there and you’re being bombarded with a lot of things that are in some ways detrimental. What’s the best way?
RIPLEY: It’s really tricky because it’s a little hit or miss. You can scroll through The Washington Post on your phone, and there’ll be a bunch of really useful stories that maybe do have some of those elements like hope, agency and dignity, but then there’ll be other ones that really are not helpful.
I think there’s a bit of magical thinking that I sometimes notice myself doing, where I think if I read enough about, say, the terrible earthquake in Turkey and Syria, I am helping somehow. That is just not true. Now, that doesn’t mean I should look away and pretend it’s not happening. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that by reading and suffering and feeling bad, you’re helping. You’re not. No one I’ve met who’s been through an earthquake is like, “If you could just please read about us, that’s all we need. Thank you.”
Then the question is, what is the right amount and what is the right time of day to take in some of this news? How do you find news outlets that tend to present a fuller story and include things that are being done by others or could be done by you? This obviously, as you said, hasn’t been fixed and won’t be fixed for a while. But in the meantime, like I said, I would strongly recommend removing TV news because there’s just a lot of research about how they affect the salience of video. This comes up a lot when we see police shootings, police video shootings.
Here, again, you want to be thoughtful about when and why you’re consuming it. Not to say you shouldn’t, but I’ve really tried to be thoughtful about, okay, what am I hoping to get out of this? There are a bunch of those videos that I have watched, and I’m glad that I have. There’s some I haven’t. Don’t let the news organizations decide for you what’s newsworthy and what’s useful. Definitely don’t let kids watch those videos. There’s been a bunch of studies on the ways that children in particular develop PTSD from watching news footage of disturbing things. They just don’t have the capacity to process it. Those are a couple bright lines.
Then I also find specific outlets that tend to be a little more thoughtful. Sometimes the BBC, because they have more of a global view, which is helpful. But also, believe it or not, The Christian Science Monitor, which is not something that I read until recently, but they forever have been trying to think about how to be useful to humans in their coverage.
KLUTSEY: That’s interesting. I canceled cable about eight, nine years ago, and it was incredibly helpful to my mental health, I have to say.
Doing Conflict Better
KLUTSEY: Now, to your book “High Conflict,” it’s really a fascinating book, and again, thank you for writing the book. In April of 2018, you joined a group of liberals from the B’nai Jeshurun synagogue in New York City to visit a group of conservative correctional officers in Lansing, Michigan, in a special exchange program. I imagine this was a novel experience for the participants. And you were an observer, but how did you feel about that trip going in, and what did you learn from it?
RIPLEY: Yes, that was wild. I basically was out reporting this book, trying to find examples of people or, even better, communities that had shifted out of toxic, destructive conflict into healthy conflict. Because it turns out, we need conflict. That’s how we get better. That’s how we defend ourselves. That’s how we get challenged.
The problem very clearly, in the research, is when conflict tips into what’s sometimes called high conflict, which is the kind of conflict that begins to create its own reality, where there’s an us versus them, things get very clear. You start to feel morally superior to the other side or other person. They do things that increasingly bewilder and enrage you, and you make a lot of mistakes. The brain and groups of people behave really differently in that category of conflict.
Then the question is, okay, are there examples of people who have gotten out of high conflict into what we might call good conflict? I was asking everyone this question. Everyone I interviewed—conflict experts, hostage negotiators, divorce lawyers, everybody who’s in the thick of conflict, gang violence interrupters—and they all had different examples, but one of them mentioned—Melissa Weintraub from Resetting the Table, she mentioned this synagogue in New York City that had really made a shift over the course of a year, with help from her and other mediators, to change its whole culture around conflict because they almost imploded in conflict over Israel, which has happened in a bunch of synagogues in the U.S.
The rabbis were more to the left than many of the congregants, and they just realized they had to do conflict differently. They started leaning into it in different ways, trying to get curious about each other, having real conversations with some guardrails, not a lot, and they made some real progress. Then when each new conflict appeared, as it does, they were able to return to those habits. And then Donald Trump got elected. And this is a synagogue, a sort of mega synagogue, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where most of the congregants not only actively voted for Hillary Clinton, but many of them campaigned actively against Donald Trump and didn’t know anyone who had voted for Donald Trump.
They were marinating in despair for a while, and then they decided, with help from their rabbi and some congregants, to do what they’d done before, which is to try to get curious about people who enraged them and people they didn’t understand. They ended up going on this three-day homestay exchange program, which is very strange, in rural Michigan with a group of conservative, mostly Christian corrections officers, many of whom had never met a Jewish person or a Hillary Clinton supporter. It might have been easier for them to go to a different country, which was interesting. It felt like there was a lot of anxiety on both sides, a lot of fear going into it.
I was half nervous and half excited to be able to join them, and what you saw pretty quickly is that people realized they had a bunch of assumptions about each other, and some were true and some were not. And when you find that one is not true, it’s like a space opens up in your head. You know that feeling, right? You’re like, “Oh, what else don’t I know?” They went to dinner, and they went to a prison museum in town, and they talked about their lives. And the corrections officers talked about their jobs and about the kinds of reforms that they wanted to see in the criminal justice system, which they actually agreed was broken.
There were some surprising things that they overlapped on and lots of things they disagreed on, and they had a lot of difficult conversations on purpose. But it was striking how quickly there was this real affection that you could feel between these strangers, who had very little in common in many ways. They ended up also doing the reverse, where the Michigan folks came to New York City and stayed in the homes of the New Yorkers for three days and went to services at the synagogue. And they went to Ground Zero, and they did the Tenement Museum and different things, and also had conversations about things they disagreed on in a structured way. Yes, it was a cool and strange experience that unfortunately is just getting really hard to have naturally.
KLUTSEY: Was that contact theory in action, do you think?
RIPLEY: Exactly. Yes, for sure.
What’s Interesting About Conflict?
KLUTSEY: That’s interesting. I’m curious about you, though, and just looking at your bio and your background, what is it that draws you toward some of these conflict areas? You’ve done a lot of reporting on terrorist attacks and earthquakes and other conflicts and so on and so forth. What gets you interested in these types of things?
RIPLEY: I’m still trying to figure that out, Ben, but I think that as a journalist, I always thought of conflict like if you’re a painter, you need paint. Journalists, storytellers need conflict, and I always thought it was like the medium that I worked in. And then I realized, as I began to try to understand intractable conflict and spend time with people who were immersed in conflict differently from journalists and people who had shifted out of high conflict, I realized there was just a ton about conflict I had not understood. I found it really, really helpful to try to understand human behavior and conflict better because it just wasn’t making sense to me anymore, and I wasn’t sure how to be useful in that climate.
I think if I were to put on my pop psychology hat, I grew up around a decent amount of conflict in my own home between my parents. And there’s different ways that kids react to that, and I kind of tried to monitor and surveil the conflict. I would listen to the arguments from my room, and I would try to keep an eye on it in the delusion that that would be helpful, that I could protect myself from it.
Meanwhile, my older brother would go off into the woods when my parents fought or play with his “Star Wars” action figures, which I think at the time is actually a much better response. But either one as an adult—either avoidance or withdrawal, or sort of anxious attachment to the conflict—either one of those things doesn’t work that great as an adult. Part of what I think I was trying to figure out, subliminally or not, it was how to be okay in a high level of conflict without interfering or avoiding it.
The Conflict Industrial Complex
KLUTSEY: Interesting. Now, in several parts of the book, you talk about the conflict industrial complex. What is it, and who is involved in this system?
RIPLEY: Yes, we’ve really set up many of our institutions in a way that if you were trying to incite high conflict, you couldn’t do it better. All the things that tend to lead to high conflict, there’s four of them that pretty reliably will get you in trouble as a human in the modern world, and all of them are now baked into some of our institutions. It doesn’t have to be that way.
I don’t want to belabor the point, but the four trip wires that tend to lead to high conflict—and I’ll let your listeners decide if they agree with me or not—are a false binary, a sense that there’s two sides or two groups, and one is better than the other—obviously, Republicans/Democrats, Black/white. There’s other framings of this—rural/urban—but in any case, anytime you divide the world into groups where they’re fixed, and you start to attach to one group, and you believe that one group is morally superior to the other, trouble follows. It’s especially true in a pluralistic society, so that’s one thing.
We know that countries that have multiple parties, more than two political parties, tend to have, on average, less polarization. That’s an example. Politics really set ourselves up to fail. I don’t know about you, but I catch myself generalizing about 70 million people who voted a certain way in an election, and that’s nonsense. I would never do that about another country. I would never be like, “Oh, they’re all blank,” and say something sweeping about their inherent moral core. That’s a trap.
Then the other is the presence of humiliation, which is probably the most underappreciated force, I think, for driving a lot of particularly violent conflict. Social media is set up currently—doesn’t have to be, but certainly currently set up to encourage roasting and disrespect and humiliation. Then the news media does that as well, as do other institutions. Then conflict entrepreneurs are a close cousin of humiliations. These are people or companies that exploit conflict for their own ends, usually because of their own problems that are undiagnosed.
Then the fourth one is corruption. When institutions are not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, or are not perceived to be doing what they’re supposed to be doing, then you’re likely to get high conflict because people can’t trust the institutions. They naturally will take things into their own hands.
Are Things Getting Worse?
KLUTSEY: Now, the narrative about American high conflict is that it’s gotten worse over the years. If we’ve always had these things, if our system has always been set up this way, what was the trigger point? Half of Democrats and Republicans saw the opposing party as not just ill informed, but actually frightening, since 1973. This is in your book as well. We’ve seen 50% decline in politically mixed marriages and so on and so forth. It seems to me that there is some indication that it’d gotten worse from a certain period of time. Do you have a sense of when this might have started, or are we wrong about the narrative?
RIPLEY: I’d be curious to hear what you think. I think it certainly has gotten worse. When I think about it, when people study intractable conflict, they tend to start by making a map. There’s one I have on my wall of a conflict in Nigeria. There’s a lot of different forces on that map that are interacting, and it’s hard to hold them all in my head at once, but it’s the interaction effect of those things.
It’s not just the rise of smartphones and social media. It’s not just the decline of sustainable print journalism models locally. It’s not just the demographic realities of a more diverse country. It’s the interactions of a lot of these things. The best grand unified theory I’ve heard is from john powell at the Othering & Belonging Institute. He basically says, “Look, the world is changing faster than we were designed to process as mammals.”
Some of that is real, and some of it is aggravated by conflict entrepreneurs and technology. There is a real malaise and a sense of anxiety and uncertainty. Again, some of that is real, and some of that is embellished by the news media and others. In any case, the fact remains that people feel worried and afraid of each other and insecure.
Into that void step conflict entrepreneurs, who are happy to give you a narrative for who’s to blame. There’s a term in psychology called splitting, which is where people will split the world. The more uncertainty and anxiety and fear they feel, the more likely they are to split the world into good and evil. Because it’s very reassuring to have that crystalline division, and of course, you’re on the side of good.
There’s a vulnerability, I think, that comes with change and with individualism and disconnection and hypercapitalism and all the -isms that you’ve heard. Into that vulnerability, a number of things can happen. One thing that can happen is that you can start to glorify conflict entrepreneurs. I think that’s my best argument or my best theory, I guess I should say. I’m curious, what do you think when you think about that, then?
KLUTSEY: I think your theory makes a lot of sense. In addition to what you said, I think politics is taking on a new sense of identity for a lot of people. I think that to put it in your context, political parties are doing an incredibly good job of exploiting the binary thinking in us, to put us in very, very strong categories so that people are now in some ways living out their politics, like their lifestyles. There are things that are—I think in your book you call it “tells.” I think you can pretty much determine how someone voted by the car they drive, where they get coffee, where they get groceries and things like that.
One author, Robert Talisse—he’s a philosopher at Vanderbilt University, who I talked to also in this series—has talked about this quite a lot: the extent to which politics has taken on a new identity for a lot of people. Our lives have been saturated by politics. He recommends that we do things with other people in society that have nothing to do with politics. If you’re having a hard time thinking about what it is that we can do together that have nothing to do with politics, that’s part of the problem. Because we are seeing it everywhere.
During COVID, you go to the gym, you want to go work out with people, and whether someone is wearing a mask or not wearing a mask becomes another tell of where they might be. And sometimes it’s wrong. We make these assumptions And I think that you’re spot on. What I’m saying is really just in addition to what you’ve already outlined.
RIPLEY: Yes, no, I think that’s an important piece. Lilliana Mason writes about this, about how a bunch of identities have lined up, and part of that’s on purpose and part of it’s not. When that happens, you don’t have a lot of crosscutting relationships. We live in D.C., and my kid—when Trump got elected, all the kids in his public school knew which family had voted for Trump. That’s wild. Everybody had their signs, and everybody picked sides, and it meant all kinds of things. I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, nobody knew who voted for—nobody really cared that much. Maybe we should have, but it just wasn’t the main way to tell or to see into someone’s soul.
Going to the Balcony
KLUTSEY: Now, one of the conflict hacks you mentioned in the book is an approach called reappraisal. You used the term “going to the balcony” to describe this. Can you unpack this for us? Because I think it’d be helpful to a lot of listeners and readers who may be experiencing some conflict in their own spheres.
RIPLEY: Oh, this is a good one. Glad you asked about that. This comes from William Ury, who way back wrote “Getting to Yes” as a big negotiation book. Since then, he’s done a lot of work behind the scenes in really difficult conflict zones all over the world, war zones, helping to negotiate peace treaties. One of the things that he talks about in his more recent writing is this technique—which, by the way, you have to practice in low-stakes, calm settings, or you won’t be able to access it, just in case that’s not obvious. Because for me, I’ve tried to access it without practicing, and it doesn’t work. You have to practice it normally, and then you can bust it out when you’re actually under stress and see how that goes.
The idea is, so much of conflict interruption is about getting time and space—just slowing down the conflict, slowing down your reaction, buying yourself a little time and space. That’s literally what peace treaties are, and nonaggression pacts. Part of that starts in your own head. When you’re feeling a surge of emotion, it gets really hard to access your higher-order thinking, and you tend to make a lot of mistakes. You literally lose your peripheral vision, literally and figuratively, so you miss things that might be really important. Then what?
Well, Ury talks about when he was in Venezuela trying to help negotiate some treaty, and detente really, with Hugo Chávez. And Chávez had kept him waiting for a very long time, and it was very frustrating. He finally comes in at midnight with his entourage, and he just starts screaming at William Ury, just bombarding him with rage and totally unearned disgust. He’s just clearly bullying and mistreating Ury. And there’s people there, right? This is like all the things that are just, based on evolution, you’re not going to react well to that, right? It’s humiliating; it’s frightening.
He’s there trying to be helpful. He’s waited for six hours. He starts to feel himself get really triggered by this, understandably. He does this thing, which he’s practiced many times, which is called going to the balcony, where he imagines he’s watching himself from above. This is eerily close to disassociating in psychology, but watching himself from a balcony and thinking about this almost like you’re watching a play. He’s trying to get some space in his own head.
Then he’s trying to imagine if there’s any way he can get curious about what Chávez is doing here. Not about the content, because he knows the content is B.S., right? But about the emotion underneath it. This is the key, that if you can make that shift, oh my gosh, it’s amazing what can happen. It’s really hard, though. I struggle with it.
This goes on for 20 minutes, and Ury in his head is trying to get to the balcony. Finally, he finds that space. When Chávez pauses, Ury basically acknowledges what he’s heard to show that—because half of what people want in conflict is to be heard, and they almost never get it. Part of what Chávez needed, for whatever messed up reason, was to be heard, right?
Ury knew enough to give him that and acknowledge what he’d heard, that he understood him, that he was listening, and it was like all the rage drained from Chávez’s body and from the room. He said, “What do you think we should do?” Then Ury could propose a Christmas Day truce, I think it was. They would just have 24 hours without violence because everybody was just exhausted, and Chávez was clearly too. He said yes, right? Now did that solve all the conflict? No, right? It’s an example of where, by doing the counterintuitive thing and actually trying to listen to this guy, which is the exact opposite of what your body and brain want to do, he was able to interrupt that spiral.
Pursuing Positive Interactions
KLUTSEY: That’s really interesting. You also talk about the research by psychologists Julie and John Gottman studying conflict in some 3,000 couples over the years, and finding that the couples most capable of keeping conflict healthy were the ones whose everyday positive interaction succeeded the negative by a ratio of five to one, which you call the magic ratio. I find that really cool. Does this mean that if we spend most of our time pursuing more positive interactions than negative ones, we’ll be less prone to high conflict? Should we be doing this consciously pretty much on a daily basis?
RIPLEY: Yes, and yes. It’s funny because I was always one of those people who, especially when I was younger, if there was a birthday cake in the office kitchen, I was like, “Oh, god, this is awkward, and we’re all going to have to sing.” I did not really relish those occasions. They felt forced, right? Now, I’m there. Like if it’s your birthday, Ben, I’m coming. You know what? I’m going to bring candles.
KLUTSEY: All right. I’m inviting you to my birthday, then. It’s in April.
RIPLEY: All right. I’ve started to realize that, yes, it would be nice if we all organically had meaningful positive encounters without any intention of having them, but that’s not how it works, especially now, right? You got to get to five to one, which I actually thought was a pretty scary ratio. Five is a lot. If you’re investing in your future sanity and you know there’s going to be conflict in any group of humans, then how can you get to five to one? How can you boost up that positive? I hate to say it, but it definitely helps when we’re in person. It’s just easier to get to that level.
You can give people food, you can play music, all the obvious dumb things that help people have a good experience. It’s much harder to do virtually. That’s part of what I think we’re dealing with in what are hopefully the waning days of the pandemic. Yes, five to one for marriages, for communities, for strangers even.
Real quick, the last thing I’ll say about this is when I recently interviewed—I guess it was last year—I interviewed one of my favorite people to talk to about conflict: Bus Driver Dan is his Twitter handle. Great guy. He drives a city bus in Portland, Oregon. City buses see a lot of conflict, right? They’re an interesting laboratory for human behavior. He has learned that he needs to boost that ratio with strangers, with rioters on the bus. Because as he puts it, he assumes that everyone except him is armed, and he’s strapped in, right? He’s got to do whatever he can.
Through trial and error and a lot of reading of various books on conflict, he’s come to a formula, which is: The first thing when people get on that bus, he greets them with a hello and smile. Even behind his mask, when he had to wear a mask, he said people could tell. They reacted differently when you’re smiling, and you can tell right when someone’s smiling; their voice changes a little bit.
That’s one, right? Now he’s at one. Even if they didn’t respond, that’s okay, right? Somewhere subconsciously, he hopes they think of him as a friend, or at least not an enemy. Then when conflict erupts, as it often does, the first thing he does is make them feel heard, just like William Ury. He’ll get on the PA system right in the bus and say, “You sound mad,” or something like that. That sounds so simple and basic, but he wants them to know that he’s hearing them. We usually skip that step, right? That’s the first thing. Now he’s at two.
Then he asks them two questions, and he also pulls over, pulls the bus over, which is important metaphorically as well as literally; you want to give people space in that hot conflict. You don’t want to corner them at any cost, right? He pulls the bus over and opens all the doors. Now he’s at three, because he’s giving them a path out, which is what a lot of people in these situations want.
Then he asks them questions, because questions slow down that automatic thinking because people don’t expect it. He’ll say, “What happened?” That’s the obvious one. With genuine curiosity in his voice, which is hard to do unless you’ve practiced it. Then they’ll yell about something, “He did this,” or whatever, “He closed the window,” whatever it is. And then he’ll say, “What do you want to do?” Again, it throws them, so they have to think.
You can see how he’s building up the ratio, and then he’ll give them a choice. That’s the last thing, is, “You can come up here and sit with me and we’ll talk and get everyone safely to their destination, or I’m going to have to call someone.” It’s up to them.
KLUTSEY: Yes. Fascinating.
RIPLEY: Yes, so that’s an example, right? Even in really difficult, sudden conflict with strangers, you’ve got to build up that ratio.
Tension and Saturation
KLUTSEY: That’s right. Another term that you use a few times in the book is “holding the tension.” Can you explain what that is?
RIPLEY: Yes, that’s a phrase that Gary Friedman uses a lot. He’s the conflict mediator that is featured in the first part of the book, who is really one of the wisest people I know, after Bus Driver Dan, when it comes to conflict. He’s taught conflict negotiation for decades at Harvard and Stanford, and he’s negotiated and mediated 2,000 conflicts all over the world. Then he himself ran for local office in California and immediately got sucked into high conflict. That’s what the story is about in the book. And he then extracted himself out of high conflict very intentionally.
He talks a lot about trying to hold the tension in a room or in your own head. To not allow yourself to engage in that splitting that we were talking about, right? To really try. Everyone I know who, by the way, has made that shift—so Curtis Toler is another one in the book, a former gang leader who’s made that shift—they all hold a lot of complexity in their heads, almost more than I can fathom.
They don’t give up on people, even when all logic would say you should—partly because they were those people at some point. They know change can happen, and they just really resist the urge, and they have a bunch of tricks for resisting the urge to assume they know what’s in everyone’s hearts. If you can keep that curiosity alive, it just gives you a superpower in conflict.
KLUTSEY: Yes. That’s really interesting. Mentioning Curtis reminds me of another term, the saturation point, that a lot of these folks that you write about get to at some point in a high-conflict situation. When it comes to a nation, though, like the United States, is it possible to hit a collective saturation point? I’ve wondered about that.
In my conversation with Robert Talisse as well, he says, “I hope that at some point we will all get exhausted from this polarization and begin to think about ways in which we can step back.” Maybe some are making these choices on their own, like not watching news or not reading the news or not paying attention to conflict entrepreneurs and things like that. Can we collectively hit that point as a nation?
RIPLEY: Yes. I don’t think everyone’s going to hit it at the same time, but I think you can get enough of a minority of people to hit it. I actually think, probably, most Americans have already hit it. They’re already exhausted by the conflict, and there’s a lot of evidence for that. That doesn’t mean they’re taking action to disrupt the conflict, but they are exhausted. They’re unhappy with the level of conflict. The thing is, you need a group of people to decide that, and the thing is, you can’t wait for that to happen.
This is the lesson I learned from Curtis. When he is working with gang violence in Chicago, they are also looking for saturation points, and it could be something as simple as a snowstorm. There’s a sudden, unexpected, three-day period of peace because of the snow. That is an opening. Or it could be violence. Someone gets shot and no one visits him in the hospital from his organization, so then that’s an opening—if you go visit, if you have a relationship. A lot of it is preparing for those saturation points.
This is something I try to nudge members of Congress and their staffers when I get to talk to them. You have to be laying the groundwork for, unfortunately, the next act of violence, because as messed up as it is, there’s an opportunity right after these really hard, low points, whether it’s January 6 or the attack on Paul Pelosi or other things. There’s an opening there, but you can’t just start then. You have to be collecting names, building relationships, having third parties who are respected by both sides, lay the groundwork to say, “Okay, do we want to do this differently?”
KLUTSEY: Yes. Interesting. Now, on the flip side, though, while we try to avoid conflict entrepreneurs, do we need to cultivate and encourage peace entrepreneurs?
RIPLEY: Yes. I’m trying to figure out the best phrase, the best title for that. I like “peace entrepreneurs.” I think that is a real thing, and something I’m glad you brought up because I don’t think we talk enough about it. In every really dysfunctional conflict, there are, in that conflict map I talked about, conflict entrepreneurs, but there are also conflict interrupters or peace entrepreneurs.
It’s really important—and I often tell this when I train journalists—it’s important to look for those people. Sometimes in, let’s say, an ugly divorce, there is someone on the outside—maybe it’s a sister, maybe it’s a psychologist, maybe it’s someone who’s worried about the kids, grandparent—who is really actively playing a role to try to interrupt the spiral of blame and hostility. It is very important, if you’re the mediator or the lawyer, to figure out who that is.
At a bigger scale, we know there are people like this in politics and in journalism and in entertainment. And in every industry, there are people who are actively trying to step out of the dance of high conflict and do something differently. So how can we support them, because it actually is a very lonely, difficult place to be, and also amplify their voices, to your point?
KLUTSEY: Now, going back to your earlier story with the folks at B.J. synagogue and Lansing, Michigan—and I asked this question to Mónica Guzmán as well when I talked to her about her book, “I Never Thought of It That Way,” because she also sent some people from Seattle to Oregon, and they were political opposites. The question is, is it possible to scale these types of interactions? Have you thought about opportunities like that?
RIPLEY: Yes. I love Mónica’s book and her work and her way of talking about this, so I’m so glad that you had her on. I think the easiest, most efficient way to scale it is through storytelling. If we can experience vicarious contact theory, that’s good. I don’t think we’ve done a lot of that.
Let’s talk about just the biggest scale. If we really are going to dream big, it would be probably still TV, I would say, most likely. Maybe YouTube or TikTok, but probably TV. We don’t see scripted series tackling our political divide. I have not seen much of that. Yet, that is a strength we have as a country. We are actually still unusually good at doing great fictional video content. The one example would be, remember when there was a reboot of “Roseanne,” the sitcom “Roseanne,” a few years ago?
KLUTSEY: Yes. That’s right.
RIPLEY: The pilot for that reboot—40 million people watched the pilot. That’s unheard of. That’s like Super Bowl numbers. Do you know what I mean? You just don’t get that anymore, which shows you, obviously, yes, it was a good show. She’s recognizable. But it’s more than that, because the whole setup, which was widely publicized, was that she was a Trump supporter, and Jackie, her sister, was very liberal, and there was conflict. Every American has that in their family.
How is it we’re in a place where a problem every American is struggling with to some degree or another—some more, some less—is not reflected in popular storytelling? That’s different from other conflict zones around the world, where the first thing you do is go try to do a soap opera or a TV show about real people living, even with a lot of humor, with a lot of differences and disagreements.
KLUTSEY: Yes. That’s interesting. As we get to the end of this conversation, there’s one question that I often ask guests, which is about optimism. Are you optimistic about the bridge-building efforts going on now in America, and do you think that these will be instrumental in helping to advance a more pluralistic society, or at least move us from high conflict to good conflict?
RIPLEY: Yes, it’s tricky because there’s not going to be one thing. There’s going to have to be a bunch of different things that happen. I think the bridge-building movements are great. I’m a huge fan of Braver Angels and some of the other ones. I’ve gone to a couple of their workshops, and I’ve definitely had—even though I was there as a reporter—I’ve had those moments of curiosity and surprise and noticing my own assumptions.
That’s actually—once you experience it, you kind of want more of it. There’s a certain euphoria that goes along with that, and so if more people can experience that, they’re going to want more of it, for sure. Braver Angels is really unusually good at that. I recommend that, but it’s also going to take other things.
I think we need new ways of covering the news, of covering conflict in the news. I think there are people working on that and doing great work at the local level, much less so at the national level, but I hope that’ll change. There are signs in my own little tiny world that things are changing. I did that op-ed you talked about for The Washington Post about how I stopped reading a lot of news, and they asked me to come write for them more, and so now I’m doing a monthly column for them. That’s a funny thing that would not have happened five or 10 years ago.
First of all, I don’t think they would’ve published the story at that length, right? Then I wouldn’t have been allowed in the tribe anymore, in a team of journalists, because they’re drinking the Kool-Aid; they’re in it. It’s hard when you’re in it. Even they are like, “Oh man, something’s got to change here.” They don’t all agree with me, which is good. But the fact that enough people are questioning basic things about our institutions, whether they’re our police or our politics or journalism, there’s definitely a critical mass of questioning happening.
Now, I think we need to create places for people to go. There’s nowhere good to go if you’re a Republican and you don’t want to vote for someone who’s actively undermining our institutions. There’s not a clear place to go where you can feel good about it and your identity is still intact, right? That’s not good. I think we need to give people places to go. As Curtis told me, 80% of people in high conflict want out, if only someone would invite them.
KLUTSEY: That’s fascinating. It’s interesting, your point about people being curious and wanting more of these types of engagements. We run a program called the Pluralist Lab at Mercatus, and we bring students from across the country together from different backgrounds and political views and things like that. They spend a couple of days with each other on topics that are potentially complex and controversial. It gets testy at times. They have fun together. They play some games together, and at the end of it, they want more. They’re interested in participating in more of these types of things.
RIPLEY: That’s cool.
KLUTSEY: I think that’s really spot on. There’s an appetite for more of this.
RIPLEY: I didn’t know y’all were doing that. That’s really cool. We need more of that. Education is the most obvious way to do it, right? We used to have domestic exchange programs between historically Black colleges and the Ivy League. In the ’60s, that was started. There were just a couple left. I really think that would be a good thing to reboot, right?
KLUTSEY: Yes. Well, Amanda Ripley, I can’t take too much of your time. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us today. I really, really appreciate it. Thank you.
RIPLEY: Thank you so much for having me, Ben. I really appreciate it.
KLUTSEY: Sure thing.