When Simplicity Fails: Why More Complexity in How We Understand Human Conflict is Good for All

How We Think Conflict Works


We once sent an email to thousands of supporters asking whether they saw themselves as members of our community of peacemakers.

Unsurprisingly, many said they did see themselves as members, and therefore, "peacemakers". 

"I'm not a peacemaker!" 

But we were coming off the height of the ISIS occupation of Iraq and Syria, in which a lot of our community had been working on the frontlines. So we were unprepared for the loud minority who protested: I am not a peacemaker. It went so far as, “How dare you!? I’m not putting my life on the line like you guys. I’m just a _______ (mom, dad, businessperson, etc).”

What was going on here?

Here’s what we think was happening—one part positive, one part negative.

We believe the “how dare you” group was mostly expressing high regard for those who place their lives on the line for others. It was respect, even reverence, for those digging through rubble, rebuilding neighborhoods, and dodging airstrikes that made it hard for the “donor” to see themselves as belonging to the same classification as the “peacemakers”.

But it was also a low regard for what peace actually requires. 

More complexity, please.

You know that old maxim: if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t really understand it? That may be helpful in some cases. But in others, it’s preposterous. Some things are simply complex. Simple analysis and storytelling has a way of disappearing important facts, and even people, from the record (including ourselves).

A first principle of our preemptive love philosophy is this: the more complex we understand something to be, the more we can understand our role in it.

For example, if a conflict is simply X vs YBig vs Small—then it’s easy to write ourselves out of the story. Just tell me who plays the bad guy and the victim and I’m good. Most of us move on, happy to not sound dumb around the water cooler.

But human conflict is rarely so simple. There’s historical grievances. There’s money. Jealousy. Ego. Proxies. Alliances. Religious, ethnic, and political identity are often at issue.

And most of us aim for those outer edges of our imagined graph (above) in an effort to disappear ourselves from the story. But we don’t believe this is how most conflict works.

How Conflict Actually Works

When we understand conflicts as complex—and ourselves as interconnected—we’re more inclined to see multiple lines of response.

Dogma loves dualism. Doesn’t matter if it’s liberal or conservative, political or religious. We’re all conditioned for a simple “good vs evil” story. 

But peace—real, enduring, generative peace—loves nuance. Yes, nuance will lose a lot of battles. But in the end, nuance wins, because nuance seeks to avoid maximalist annihilation through the preservation of what is good in others.

So who’s a peacemaker? 

Is it just for those who put their lives on the line? We don’t think so. Though that looks like reverence, it’s still the product of a simple story that says “the entire conflict is over there; the entire conflict is physical; and the entire conflict exists between those groups and doesn’t involve me.” 

This is a worldview for a bygone era that is increasingly becoming irrelevant to the new world that is trying to emerge.

A peacemaker needs mostly to recognize our interconnectedness. Or, as we’ve said it in the past, that we belong to each other. In a connected world, conflicts are connected. In a connected world, conflicts are physical, psychological, philosophical, informational, algorithmic, and economic. In a connected world, I belong to every one of “those” groups—if I’ll only zoom out (or zoom in) from my current vantage point.

Simple stories might exonerate us from any sense of responsibility. But they also rob us of any sense of agency. And nothing is a greater existential threat to peace—both within and without—than feeling helpless.

Bottom line: a world of mindless "customers" or "donors" won’t change much. But a world of peacemakers who buy and give and serve because we see 1,000 different ways in which our own behavior, consumption, beliefs, and relationships create ripple effects throughout the world, is the only real hope any of us have.

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