People grow through conflict and discomfort. I was reminded of this recently by a Facebook post showing a lobster shedding its shell only when it grew too big and the pressure too high.
I spent a lot of time thinking about conflict while developing training modules for administrative and counselor training weeks at camp, and I have never come to a satisfactory conclusion about how to teach conflict.
When conducting exit interviews several months after the summer, each year one of the most cited examples of “staff issues” would involve a seminal argument in the staff lounge. I can’t identify why it is that these conflicts hold so much power over people’s perceptions, though I think there are several connected explanations:
First I think these arguments serve as a shorthand for other issues those people are already having. It’s not that disagreeing about feminism (or change, or racism, or politics…) is all encompassing, it’s that it embodies the laundry list of faults and unresolved disagreements each person sees in the other. When we don’t like or get along perfectly with a person, we can use a public display of disagreement to justify those feelings even long afterwards.
Secondly I think people like things to be resolved. We like there to winners and losers, facts and liars, heroes and villains. When we can cast ourselves as heroically defending truth against some other, we feel good about ourselves. Many of the arguments that got cited were about topics that have no easy resolution, so to feel complete, we retreat to our well-worn opinions.
Thirdly I surmise that most people are bad at the process of conflict, and thus tend to see the argument at irreconcilably far from resolution when it is mostly a matter of viewpoint. I am reminded here of an example in a physics class I took in college that discussed string theory:
Imagine an ant on a power line that can travel along the wire or around it. For the ant those are two distinct dimensions. If we zoom out to street level, we can only observe the ant moving along the wire one way or the other.
Conflict is often zoomed way too far out. If we started in close by using conflict resolution skills like agreeing on what we agree on (usually arguments surround small fractions of things while the core principles are agreed upon), we would tend to see that there are many dimensions of agreement despite the one or two ways we disagree.