Adversarial vs Dialectical Views of Conflict

A distinction between two views of conflict, termed adversarial and dialectical, is helpful for understanding the difference between a “nonviolence” approach to problem-solving and other approaches. This short essay takes a dialectical perspective, because it is the more inclusive of the two. The dialectical view does see the sense occasionally of viewing conflict in an adversarial way, but the adversarial view alone neglects dialectical complexities.

Conflict usually presents itself, in the moment, as adversarial. That is, there are usually two adversaries, engaged in a fight or contest, with each side’s goal being to win, and thereby force the other side to lose. An adversarial view may be likened to a snapshot, taken in the present, showing a two-sided competition aimed at victory.

In contrast, a dialectical view likens conflict to a movie, with the current apparently adversarial contest being only a part of a larger story. The contest before our eyes in the present has a past, and perhaps several possible futures. In order to understand the full span and meaning of any conflict, it is necessary to gather information that goes beyond immediate perception.

Martin Luther King, Jr. adopted a dialectical view of conflict at an early stage of his career. Throughout King’s books and sermons, there are many references to the philosopher J. F. Hegel’s terminology of thesis, antithesis, analysis, and synthesis. Hegel’s framework was dialectical, and a brief explanation of these terms is in order.

Hegel was one of several major thinkers in the second half of the 19th century who incorporated time in a significant way into their theories. Darwin and his mentor Lyell used “deep time” as a way of understanding how species and the planet itself could change adaptively in such a way as to produce huge discontinuities between different animals, and phenomena such as seashell fossils on mountaintops and rock strata at right angles to each other. Freud explained adult psychological difficulties in developmental terms, tracing aspects of the person’s inner life to decades-old unresolved issues from childhood. Hegel understood history itself in terms of interactions between ideas and forces playing out over time, and developed a general theory for these dynamics.

For Hegel, the structure of adversarial conflicts in the present moment is a contest between a thesis and an antithesis, two opposing sides. But what happens as this contest unfolds? Of course, one side may overwhelm the other and so prevail. But Hegel suggested that often more interesting things may happen. The two sides, or a third party, may engage in some analysis of the conflict, bringing new ideas and interests into the picture. Eventually, the two sides may change enough to produce a new synthesis – a combined position in which the original parties are no longer opposed, or a changed situation that would no longer be described as a conflict. This new synthesis then becomes a thesis and may encounter opposition from a new antithesis. This framework is obviously more complex than the view that conflicts only result in a winner and a loser. In Hegel’s dialectical framework, many things may happen as a conflict evolves and new features unfold, including the important and only slightly more complex scenarios of lose-lose and win-win. He emphasized that history does not “just happen,” but involves inevitable tensions between theses and antitheses that propel it to take the shape that it does.

Martin Luther King Jr. had become familiar with Hegel during his education at Morehouse College, Crozer Theological Seminary, and Boston University. King took two ideas from Hegel that gave coherence to his whole approach to social change.

First was the idea that changing legally sanctioned segregation in the United States would not come without struggle. Hegel reinforced philosophically what King and other African-American leaders already knew – that there were tremendously strong forces to be overcome to achieve civil rights for people of color. But while the status quo responded to those forces with complacency, Hegel encouraged the idea that it is natural in history for one strong force to be opposed by another strong force, and that in fact this is precisely the way change happens. King was challenged to assemble a strong force for racial justice.

Second, King saw in Hegel’s framework of thesis, antithesis, analysis, and synthesis an opportunity for creative leadership. If conflict was not limited to the zero-sum outcome of a win for one side coupled with a loss for the other, then a wise leader could attempt to engineer more interesting futures. Within his value system, King aimed at an outcome of the struggle for civil rights in which there would be no losers, and in which the adversaries of his day could eventually join together as allies.

The adversarial view of conflict is continually reinforced by the world around us. Often it is said that seeing the world in terms of adversarial conflict is only realistic. But paradoxically, our adoption of the adversarial view, and our assumption that it is the way the real world works, is maintained by some very artificial examples of conflict. Competitive sports are adversarial contests, but only because we have designed them to be so. Adversarial conflict in movies and gaming are similarly contrived for artistic effect and emotional impact. They are adversarial not out of a necessity imposed by reality, but because of our interest in stories that are adversarial narratives.

In the real world of social intercourse, business, service delivery, local politics and international relations, many and perhaps most conflicts are known not to be adversarial, but dialectical in nature. Disagreements may be resolved through negotiation or new information, business rivals merge and form new synthetic entities, the enemies of a past generation are the trading partners and tourist destinations of today, and so on.

Time is a powerful force in our lives, and it should be incorporated into an understanding of conflict, and all human behavior. The dialectical view of conflict uses time in this way; it carries us beyond our immediate impressions of a conflict, and forces us to seek a more comprehensive understanding than the snapshot world of our current perceptions. A dialectical view encourages us not to settle for jumping to conclusions based on the one scene before us, but to understand the whole movie. It is a strong foundation, and motivation, for impulse control and rationality. It is a framework we can use to step back, question our first impressions, gather more information, and think strategically about how to solve problems nonviolently.

Charles Collyer