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Resist the Binary

Kathy Werner
Posted 11/12/21

Amanda Ripley has written a book that our entire world needs to read in these fraught times. High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out is Ms. Ripley’s example-rich examination of the …

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Resist the Binary


Amanda Ripley has written a book that our entire world needs to read in these fraught times. High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out is Ms. Ripley’s example-rich examination of the perils of binary thinking and the subsequent dangers of living in a hyperpolarized world.

She defines high conflict as “a conflict that becomes self-perpetuating and all-consuming, in which almost everyone ends up worse off.” Think Hatfields and McCoys. By contrast, good or healthy conflict is “(f)riction that can be serious and intense but leads somewhere useful (and) does not collapse into dehumanization.”

She then takes a wide-ranging look at examples of high conflict and the toll they take on people and society in general. Her subjects include Gary Friedman, a former trial attorney now considered one of the preeminent conflict mediation experts in the world, who decided to run for the town board in Muir Beach, California (an unpaid position) in order to give back to the community. Sadly, when he was elected and became head of the board, he entered a time he now refers to as his “personal derangement”. He began seeing himself as completely virtuous and the other side as bad. He created many rules for meetings and set up numerous committees to work on different issues, and when others did not go along with his changes, he attacked them. After two years, his only political ally was defeated, and Gary lost his leadership role. He then had to reflect on his behavior and make some decisions about how he wanted to proceed. It was time for reflection and humility and a reckoning of sorts. He began to resist the right/wrong labels and began to see his fellow board members in more reasonable terms, realizing that they also had honest and honorable motives.

Ms. Ripley also profiles Curtis Toler, a former gang member who grew up on the mean streets of Chicago. Curtis found the sense of belonging that he sought in his gang membership, where life was divided into gang territories. Yet getting married and having his own children Curtis reached his saturation point and realized that he had many more valuable aspects to his life than being a gang member. Now he helps former gang members find their own ways out of gang life into a more productive existence.

Although our country has always been polarized, it has never seemed more divided than it is now (with the obvious exception of the Civil War). This is truly tragic. As the social media landscape has exploded, with its 24/7 avalanche of unfiltered info, we have seen the development of echo chambers where one side is constantly vilified, and binary thinking is the order of the day. Ms. Ripley cites the rapid emergence and dangerous rhetoric of what she calls “conflict entrepreneurs (who) exploit conflict for their own ends.”

She leaves the reader with three useful appendices: “how to recognize high conflict in the world”, “how to recognize high conflict in yourself”, and “how to prevent high conflict.” To prevent high conflict, she suggests determining what the argument is truly about; resisting us/them thinking; silencing or ignoring the conflict entrepreneurs; giving the topic some time and space; and not over-simplifying things.

Issues—and people—are much more complex than many current firestarters would have us believe. Reducing either to simplistic slogans or slurs causes division and inflicts harm to a peaceful society. Ms. Ripley’s compelling tome suggests a better way.


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