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Laurie JohnstonNovember 18, 2021

When I traveled to Bosnia in 1998, the active phase of the war there had already been over for a couple of years. But the conflict there was quite evident—and not just in the bombed-out buildings and minefield warning signs. Rather, it was in what I heard from the local religious leaders.

High Conflictby Amanda Ripley

Simon & Schuster
368p $28

Traveling with other theology students, I first met Patriarch Pavle of the Serbian Orthodox Church, then a series of Catholic bishops and then Muslim leaders in Sarajevo. Each had a painful and compelling story to tell us about the war. There were many similarities in their stories, in fact—but radically different ways of ascribing blame. We were left baffled, confused, with our sympathies deeply torn. It felt impossible to construct any kind of coherent narrative about what had really happened.

Oddly, though, the dizzying feeling from hearing such wildly different viewpoints from the Balkan leaders was quite familiar. I had experienced the same thing back in the United States when listening to my divorcing parents. Their bitterness, grief and utter inability to understand the other’s perspective was precisely what I heard from the opposing sides in the Bosnian war. It was both disturbing and comforting to see how similar the dynamics were.

Amanda Ripley: “People behave very similarly in all kinds of high conflict, from neighborhood feuds to divorce courts to labor strikes.”

This is precisely what Amanda Ripley’s astute new book High Conflict reveals: “People behave very similarly in all kinds of high conflict, from neighborhood feuds to divorce courts to labor strikes.” An investigative journalist who has written for Time and The Atlantic, Ripley is clearly someone who does not avoid conflict. At a time when many of us are experiencing painful overlaps between political conflict and family conflict, this book offers some hope for a way forward. Along the way, her masterful storytelling makes for a fascinating read.

Much of this nonfiction book focuses on Gary Friedman, a divorce lawyer who is asked by friends to represent them both in their divorce. Surely that would be unethical, he thinks; as a lawyer, he ought to be an advocate for one side or another. But when they persist, they set him upon a radically new path. Gary becomes a pioneer in the field of divorce mediation. He goes on to help many other couples—and even large organizations—navigate conflicts in less destructive ways.

But after decades as the “godfather of mediation,” Gary finds himself part of a bitter conflict. He is elected to a volunteer position on his local neighborhood governing committee, where he sees himself as part of “the new guard” that has arrived to save the neighborhood from the mistakes made by “the old guard.” Despite his best intentions, seemingly minor disagreements soon spiral into the “high conflict” of Ripley’s book title.

Conflict is a normal part of human life; it is vital, in fact, for change and growth. It is impossible to fix injustice without conflict. The challenge is in making it productive rather than part of a zero-sum or even lose-lose game. “When conflict escalates past a certain point,” Ripley writes, “the conflict itself takes charge. The original facts and forces that led to the dispute fade into the background. The us-versus-them dynamic takes over.” She offers the metaphor of the La Brea Tar Pits: It is easy to get sucked into conflict, but when you try to get out, everything you do seems to make the situation worse. Indeed, Gary’s neighborhood dispute ultimately gets so bad that he and his wife consider moving away.

How can we recognize when we are stuck in “high conflict”? The most common feeling is bafflement at the people on the other side.

Gary’s story is quite humbling to read. Despite all his expertise in conflict resolution, he is no more immune to “high conflict” than the rest of us. Actually, he has a great deal in common with the other individuals whom Ripley profiles: an anti-G.M.O. activist in the United Kingdom, a gang member in Chicago and a member of the FARC guerilla movement in Colombia. In each case, they are stuck in destructive conflict. And yet in each case, they eventually find a way out.

Mark Lynas comes to understand that his radical activism against genetically modified crops is actually causing harm to humans and to the environment he claims he is protecting. He realizes that making common cause with scientists—rather than throwing whipped cream at them during their book signings, as Lynas once did—is a better way to pursue his goals. Curtis Toler becomes a violence “interrupter” in Chicago. Sandra Milena Vera Bustos leaves FARC, returns to her family and becomes a social justice activist in Bogotá. The process is bumpy for all of them, but the key is that they all find a new identity in a way that does not require them to utterly betray their previous identity.

Just as Gary imagined that he was immune to high conflict, many in the United States have imagined that our country is immune to the kind of internecine conflict or election violence that might happen elsewhere. Ripley’s book is an antidote to such exceptionalism, and it provides a helpful context for understanding recent events, particularly the insurrection at the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6. She reminds us that to address many of our contemporary problems—climate change, the pandemic, racism—we need groups with different goals to work together. Protest movements are vital to raise awareness and force people to come to the table; but once they are at the table, they have to collaborate somehow.

The final portion of Ripley’s book describes what happens when she accompanies a group of New York Jews who visit a group of prison guards in central Michigan in an attempt to bridge political divides, and the synagogue members later host the guards back in New York. Genuine friendships develop despite the significant cultural divide. But without ongoing interaction, these friendships fade; and the two groups slide back into their own political and social bubbles.

High conflict is not inevitable, Ripley says—but factors in our society are certainly making it more likely: the sped-up interactions that happen on social media, the “power of the binary” that emerges in a two-party political system and the decreasing likelihood that we live near people who do not share our political opinions. Unless we push back against these things intentionally, high conflict (and, often, violent conflict) will become more and more widespread. New modes of interacting are crucial.

How can we recognize when we are stuck in “high conflict”? The most common feeling is bafflement at the people on the other side. That is precisely why curiosity is a key tool for getting out of high conflict. Ripley says that what we need is not less conflict, but better conflict; we need to go deeper into it by becoming curious and examining the “understory” that is really driving the conflict. Part of the power of her book is that she herself models this curiosity throughout, showing us—with genuine humility—what she learns from each of the people she profiles.

Pope Francis writes in “Fratelli Tutti”: “Disagreements may well give rise to conflicts, but uniformity proves stifling and leads to cultural decay. May we not be content with being enclosed in one fragment of reality.” Ripley’s book is a powerful invitation to step outside that enclosure.

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