First published in the High Conflict Institute. Republished with permission.
After 911, our lives changed, and our innocence was tainted. Individual freedoms which we previously took for granted were hijacked from us; we were scanned and patted-down at airports— eventually our belts and shoes had to come off. We felt afraid and lost our trust that we could be safe in our own country. Because of the absence of any obvious solutions that would quell our fear, we increasingly took hardline political positions. Gradually, our elected officials began to turn on each other, hardening in polarized positions on many issues. As our citizens tried to manage this rupture of our basic safety, their own views and relationships became increasingly polarized. Some bought guns in an illusionary attempt to make them feel safe; some isolated themselves from others who might be potential threats. Gradually, the guns began shooting, triggered by disenfranchised citizens—both youth and adults. Mass shootings steadily increased—in schools, cinemas, churches, nightclubs, malls, restaurants, military installations, public and private offices, and other random places.
No longer a safe, secure, innocent society, Americans have come to a tipping point of these massacres, leaving us living in communities regularly visited by conflict, violence, and life-threatening risks. The discord is fueled on many levels—the personal, interpersonal, community, and national—all complexly interconnected and reciprocally influencing each other. When a complex system functions well, all the levels and parts benefit; when it is in dysfunction, all the levels and parts harm each other, as the functions of the system continue to spiral up or spiral down.
Solutions to complex social problems require some degree of harmony and cooperation, and these are hard to come by in our current political climate. These solutions must be structural— they must come from the top—generated by our elected officials crafting and implementing reasonable legislation that creates order, consistency, and fairness. When reasonable solutions are achieved, chaos and conflict subside, and people begin to behave more reasonably. This is as true of government systems as it is of family systems.
In 2012, just before the presidential election, my colleague Bill Eddy and I published a book titled, “Splitting America: How Politicians, Super PACs and the News Media Mirror High Conflict Divorce.” In that book, we drew parallels between the polarizations in politics that were rampant prior to and throughout that election cycle, and high conflict divorce. We presciently predicted that, given the degree of polarization in politics and its 24/7 reflection in the media, and given what we knew about high-conflict divorce, the rampant polarization in politics would lead to further public chaos and further discord, and that we would wind up electing government officials who would continue the polarization, and continue to escalate higher conflict within government and within the public—similar to how high-conflict divorces tend to result in long-term, on-going family discord.
The net result from such high conflict in divorce is children with emotional and behavioral problems (acting out), with levels of anxiety and depression (learned helplessness) that warrant professional intervention. The parallel, net result of on-going high-conflict behavior in government is general discord, anxiety, and depression (learned helplessness) among the populous, with (acting out) threats to the public by disenfranchised fringe groups, mass shootings by alienated youth and adults, and overall angst and alienation in the voting public. These children, and citizens, lose confidence in their leaders (parents, and politicians) upon whom they should be able to count to keep them safe and thriving.
Looking for Solutions
With the most recent of a long stream of mass shootings—the Parkland, Florida school-shooting—America’s response went into a quick split: those citizens who saw the problem primarily as a “gun control” issue, versus those who saw the problem primarily as a “mental health” issue. Each issue went into a further split: the gun control issue split into those who believed the solution should be raising the age for gun purchases from 18 to 21, versus those who believed the solution to lie in making assault weapons illegal to buy. The “mental health” issue split further into those who believed we need to profile, interrogate and then hospitalize or incarcerate potentially violent kids, versus those who believed we need to connect better with those socially-isolated kids and help them feel included, rather than excluded.
As Congress attempted to respond to this most recent tragedy, the usual polarizations among and between the Republicans and the Democrats kicked into high gear; some members of Congress went silent; some members spouted out expected Second Amendment Rights clichés, directly from the playbook of the powerful National Rifle Association, fearing their loss of support were they to go against this group; and some bravely, boldly, and finally, took a stance for gun-control. Some supported raising the purchase age for guns from 18 to 21; some supported strengthening background checks; and some supported increased funding for mental health.
While many members of congress responded, in some fashion, the responses were not coordinated into an overall, effective plan of action. A main contributor to this action-paralysis is the same factor that we wrote about in Splitting America, that members of congress no longer talk with each other—the essential element for coming to compromise resolutions. Whereas, members of congress used to eat lunch together in their lunchroom, they no longer do that. Absent a forum for casual, friendship-building discussions, they tend to hold firm to their positions, with the net effect being that nothing gets decided or implemented. Deep splits within and between the Republican and Democratic Parties, fueled further by daily, erratic, inconsistent, and high-conflict tweets from the President, have kept constructive, comprise resolutions from arising.
If we approach our political situation in the way that mediators approach high-conflict divorces, our first intervention would be to observe the “positions” that the parties are taking. Then, we would look for the actual, underlying “interests” that the parties have. For example, both parents in a divorce typically love their children, want the best for their children, and want to resolve their differences in a way that minimizes their emotional distress and the wasting of their financial resources when fighting and litigating. By exploring these common interests, mediators often are able to move the parties off their “positions” (“I want 50/50 custody!”) to their actual interests (“I want to maintain my relationship with my children and be significantly involved in their lives”). Through constructive, structured conversations, their disputes turn into agreements and positive actions that enhance their children’s lives, rather than tear them apart.
How might such an approach be used in our government for dealing with the many, significant problems that we face? Considering a very current and pressing example, how are we to keep our kids safe from more school shootings, in this climate of high-conflict, polarization, and inaction?
If we reframe the politically rhetorical “positions” into their underlying interests, the following are likely to be accepted values by both sides:
- We are all Americans;
- We all love our children;
- We all want to keep ourselves and our children safe;
- We all want to get along with one another, take care of business, and get things done.
Need for Compromise
Essential to any effective conflict resolution is the need for compromise. When parties are polarized, for each party to achieve something important, each must be willing to give up something, even if only temporarily.
To protect our kids from further gun violence and mass shootings, both political sides must give up something; we all are in deep need of “Corrective Action” in which the norms must be temporarily yielded in order to accomplish something bigger and more important. This requires us to re-adjust the balance between competing value positions to achieve common interests. Specifically, there is a dynamic balance between:
- Gun control vs. second amendment rights
- Public safety needs vs. privacy needs
- Government intervention vs. individual rights
Adjusting Our Priorities to Keep Kids Safe
If we truly value our children, then each of us also needs to adjust our priorities, make compromises, and move away from political or personal “positions” to our shared “interests.” Minimally, we must do this by enacting all of the following “corrective actions”:
- We need to be able to reduce the number of assault weapons available to the public while still respecting individuals’ rights to “bear arms”;
- We need to be able to respond quickly and effectively to individuals who manifest violent messages, conveyed in writing (home diaries/social media), orally (bragging, threatening), and in actions (brandishing weapons, assaulting people and animals), while protecting the individual rights of non-threatening people;
- We need to require extensive and enhanced background checks, and long cooling-off periods, prior to selling any guns to individuals (who must be over 21 years of age), while allowing non-threatening gun-enthusiasts to enjoy their sport;
- We need to highly prioritize the allocation of necessary funding for schools (from local, state, and federal resources) to use for preventative and defensive security equipment, training, and protocols for active school-shooting situations, while adjusting all budgets for other needed services, accordingly.
While these “corrective actions” may turn out to be just temporary, it would be ideal if such actions would shift the values in our country from just giving lip-service about “caring for our children” and wanting to protect and nourish them, to actually demonstrating real caring, through pro-active, constructive actions on the personal level, and bi-lateral actions on the political level. It has been said that “love” is not a feeling, but an action; when you truly love someone, you “act lovingly towards them” and make sacrifices for them. How would it look if our nation really cherished its children, and showed it by actually taking action on their behalf? We simply would not allow them to periodically be shot to death in our schools; we would take any and all reasonable actions to protect them. There would be consistency across our stated values, our allotment of resources for them, and the compromises and sacrifices we would endure to make such protective actions result in real change!
It is imperative that we move from the ordinary expressions of our values and business-as-usual, to the extraordinary state of coming together to keep our children safe. We can no longer allow high-conflict politics and its resulting paralytic inaction to prevail. The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are leading the way, and quite possibly, they will change the paradigm of values and methods for how we keep kids safe. Please support them and their mission. It will benefit us all, and keep our kids safe.
Donald T. Saposnek, Ph.D., is a clinical-child psychologist and family therapist in practice since 1971, and a child custody and family mediator and national and international trainer and consultant in child psychology and mediation since 1977. He is the author of Mediating Child Custody Disputes: A Strategic Approach (1983/1998 Rev., Jossey-Bass/Wiley), and co-author of Splitting America: How Politicians, Super Pacs and the News Media Mirror High Conflict Divorce (2012, HCI Press). Don serves on the Editorial Board of several international journals of conflict resolution, is Editor-in-Chief of the Academy of Professional Family Mediators publications and has published extensively in the professional literature on, children, divorce and mediation. He has been teaching on the Psychology Faculty at the University of California, Santa Cruz, since 1977 and is an Adjunct Professor at Pepperdine University School of Law, Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution since 2009.