Reactions to the tragedy that took place in Tucson, Arizona, this past week illustrate critical errors that must be corrected if we hope to prevent future tragedy.
We must remedy such errors if we hope to resolve conflict in our national discourse and find ways to reconcile diverse interests.
A vital step in resolving conflict is correctly identifying the causes and conditions that precipitated conflict or an outbreak of violence in the first place. If one attributes incorrect cause conflict will escalate. If we identify actual causes, we can bring about resolution.
This approach is common sense. If a doctor diagnoses an illness incorrectly the patient continues to be sick and may die. If he arrives at a correct diagnosis, the correct treatment, if available, will cure the patient and return them to health.
A correct medical diagnosis and an accurate assignment of cause in conflict both require skill. Discernment is vital if we are to resolve conflict. We must identify root causes if we hope to make a difference.
This past week, I delivered a presentation on discernment in conflict resolution in which I argued a mediator must assist parties as they assess the nature of their opposition. Only when they understand the causes that precipitated conflict can they begin to collaborate on a creative solution. Collaboration is nearly impossible when the actual cause of conflict is an unknown.
In my presentation I identified two primary errors we often commit when we are embroiled in conflict: 1) we demonize those with whom we disagree and attribute evil where none exists, or 2) we overlook actual evil and fail to identify people who actually intend to cause harm. The first error is by far more common.
The second error frequently arises as a result of the first. Here is how that happens…
First, we all too often incorrectly attribute evil intent to another when the actual cause is misunderstanding, miscommunication, misperception, disappointed expectations, poor negotiating skills, or inability to present our interests. After we have committed this error too many times, we tend to shy away from attributing evil. We do not want the embarrassment of being wrong once again.
After numerous incorrect attributions of cause we jump to the opposite extreme and assume evil does not exist; there are only misunderstandings. This assumption leaves us vulnerable to the adverse consequences that accrue when the other party truly intends to cause us harm. Our lack of discernment in the present moment puts us at risk.
The pendulum swings back in the other direction after we are harmed: we decide it is safer to demonize others and maintain an aggressive defensive posture, even if we may be wrong. In both instances we lack discernment. We fail to assess the actual situation; we fail to discern actual causes.
In a world in which bad things happen we cannot afford to allow emotions and lack of discernment to obfuscate actual causes. We must discern the nature of events and the intentions of those behind events in a manner that provides sufficient data for us to engineer a creative solution. As with the case of the doctor who fails to correctly diagnose a patient’s disease, our failure to act competently can cost lives.
The second step, after we determine we are not dealing with benign factors that can be addressed with simple mediation techniques, is discerning the nature of the evil we face. Evil (destructive intention) can driven by situational fear, and it can be driven by fear that arises from wounds suffered in the past. A skilled mediator or pastoral counselor can locate and work to diminish these types of fear, though not without considerable difficulty.
A rare (but more dangerous) evil arises from those who suffer deep ontological fear. In this situation, the simple fact that other people exist causes the evil or destructive party to experience extreme (silent) terror. The destructive party conceives the very existence of other people to be a threat.
They imagine all others seek to do them in—their unreasoned worldview becomes paranoia on steroids, a certainty that they live in an unforgiving “survival of the fittest” world. This terror dictates they must undermine, confuse, or destroy others and render them harmless. Twenty–four hours a day, seven days a week.
This person, who embodies all we consider to be evil, typically does not work in plain sight. Such visibility, in their view, would be too dangerous; instead they operate as the hidden influence, the covert destructive third party promoting conflict between others. As long as other people are fighting against one another the destructive party feels safe and hidden.
This is the deadly gossip, the covert agent, the smiling detractor, the corporate boss or politician with the easy handshake who secretly sabotages his enemies in the dark of the night. This is the meek mad scientist standing alongside the insane dictator he has drugged; this is the evil agent puppet master who covertly controls the front man whose mad rampages kill millions.
This is the most difficult agent of evil to detect, to confront, to transform, and to help. Shower this destructive person with love and he suspects your love is a Trojan horse intended to infiltrate his defenses and sabotage him. He perceives love as an attempt to do him in.
The skill required to transform such evil is quite beyond the ordinary. We usually are better off walking away, putting distance between us and the evil agent; however, at the same time, this is the hidden cause we must discover if we hope to create lasting peace.
Thus, one must assess a continuum of causes and conditions. One usually faces a relatively benign cause easy to resolve but, on rare occasions, one faces evil in its deepest nature. This will present considerable challenge.
We will not know which type of situation we face until we engage in robust assessment. We can fail as a result of lack of effort or skill in assessment; we can fail if we do not take the time needed to assess causes or if we lack skill in discernment. We can remedy such shortcomings in effort and skill fairly easily once we realize the importance of the task we face. If we choose the lazy option of working off presumption and assumption we are doomed to failure.
The other reason we might fail is intentional deception. The party causing harm does not want to be discovered; they want their influence and their presence to remain obfuscated. They work in the shadows unsettling and harming others while remaining undiscovered, unidentified. They hope the lack of light will defeat our attempts to discern exact causes. Their compulsive and unending need to foment unrest and conflict drives them to extreme measures of duplicity.
Thus, the response to the tragic shootings in Tucson deserves close analysis by anyone truly interested in conflict resolution and peacemaking. Both the vile and libelous media attacks spreading unfounded accusations and the naïve or disingenuous “let us just make peace” proclamations do not rise to the occasion.
If we hope to resolve widespread conflict and make society less vulnerable to the insane actions of disturbed young men, we need skilled, in-depth assessment. We need people skilled at sorting out the causes behind the conditions we suffer. We need peacemakers gifted by the Holy Spirit with the clear sight of discernment; we need people who have developed the penetrating gaze of discernment that prepares the path leading to creative solutions.
When we encounter baseless media attacks that attribute false blame or we hear disingenuous calls for civility by those who covertly stoke unrest we must recognize we are not on the path to peace, rather we have encountered ignorance or deception or both. We are called on to look closer and call on the gift of discernment to shine a light beneath the surface.