Societies today are in a state of flux influenced by myriad factors—globalization versus nationalism, liberalization versus traditional values, and immigration versus closed borders. Some people perceive that an injustice has been committed against them while others are insensitive to the injustice and seemingly unaware of its consequences. There are countless other fissures along which conflicts, injuries, and partisan angst affect individuals and communities today. Nothing new!
Societies have always been engaged in conflict; in fact, it is impossible to imagine any time when humans have not been involved in some form of conflict. Conflict is part of being; it forms communication, interaction, and collaboration. Conflict is omnipresent.
The expression of conflict has been a constant throughout history, moving along a spectrum from its lowest form—unexpressed internalized conflict—to genocidal rampage.
And yet most of us spend very little time understanding conflict, what it means, and how to appreciate some of its underlying dynamics. Yes, we know what it means to be in a state of conflict, to be angry, to want to react—but what does all that mean? This paper can neither address nor provide a comprehensive analysis of conflict and its resolution. The topic is simply too vast, too complex, and too important to be undertaken in a short paper like this. But what we can do here is try to impart a sense of purpose for delving into the anatomy of conflict, for understanding the underlying dynamics involved in how individuals and collectives perceive and respond to conflict’s complexity.
Norms, laws, etiquette, and protocol are some of the mechanisms societies have developed for controlling, managing, and channelling conflict. Criminal laws, civil courts, alternative dispute resolution via mediation, arbitration, conciliation, diplomacy, and circle-conferencing expand the repertoire for resolving disputes. Moreover, religious norms, beliefs, doctrines, professional training, and political values form boundaries, expectations, and rules for controlling and channelling conflict.
Conflict and the processes and systems for its mitigation and resolution are so much a part of our daily lives that we tend to internalize them as inexorably tied to what it means to be human. Manifest conflicts—those that end up overtly observable—only represent a small fraction of conflicts. Most remain suppressed or unexpressed; yet even unexpressed conflicts contain profound implications for how people perceive themselves and others, their interactions, and the quality of life for those around them.
The United Nations, the International Criminal Court, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the International Chamber of Commerce, international treaties on human rights, trade, and refugees, along with monetary practices and the environment, police, border security, and security guards all represent systems or processes for mitigating, responding, or channelling conflict. These mechanisms range from punishment to those embedded in personal and internalized principles of morality.
While some conflicts remain unexpressed or internalized, injuries resulting from conflicts too can remain unperceived. Felstiner, Abel, and Sarat refer to these as “unperceived injurious experiences.”1 These are instances when an injury or an injustice is committed against a person or group who may not at the time be aware that the act was injurious. The injury remains an “unperceived injurious experience” until the person or group realizes the injury, at which point the incident becomes a grievance.2
Such internalized experiences are not necessarily benign; internalized conflicts can have a lingering impact on the individual’s perceptions of the world around them, their place in it, and how they are treated and perceived by others. The injured party oblivious to the unperceived injury may remain unaffected by its consequences as long as it is unperceived; however, once the individual realizes the unperceived injury, they reconstruct the events that caused it. Then, there is a reckoning of the consequences of the original injury along with the cumulative impact sustained between the point of incident and the point of realization.
The individual knows there has been an injury and can identify its nature—the injury is named, and a grievance established.3
Conflicts which are not internalized and are named may be blamed on something or someone.4 Naming and blaming, however, do not resolve the conflict. Resolution requires the third step—claiming, which is the process of seeking remedy through a legitimate dispute resolution process.5
For many, their grievances, whether psychological or material, lie along a range from those that have been named, to some that can be blamed, to others that are claimed.6 This process, while intended to explain conflict at the individual level, also applies to how groups, communities, societies, and nations respond to grievances.
“Terra nullius” was an injurious incident—it deprived Indigenous peoples of their right to the lands on which they had lived for thousands of years.7 Indigenous people did not, however, perceive that injury for some time after its application. While the impact of first contact remained unperceived, Indigenous peoples continued to cooperate and assist explorers and settlers. Injurious outcomes were only realized in hindsight—in many instances, people were taken advantage of without realizing that an injury was being inflicted. Many of the laws instituted prior to the naming and claiming had systematically underprivileged their status, or redefined their position within the new dominant social fabric.
Terra nullius changed the trajectory of Indigenous peoples’ futures. By the time Indigenous communities became aware of its impact, they had been subjected to, and therefore entitled to redress from, a host of injuries (real or perceived) stemming from the impact of laws, treaties, and agreements. Many of those injuries have only recently been named, blamed, and claimed. Interestingly, even the genealogy of the term “terra nullius” is today a matter of contention.8
Injuries are not only material or physical, they can also be psychological or perceptual. Today, there is a realization and reckoning of unperceived injuries that impacted Indigenous peoples’ status from that of a once-proud, self-sufficient group to marginalization, stigmatized by the imposition of imported and imposed norms. Realization of the original injury founded in the declaration of terra nullius brought an awakening to a myriad of other injustices—giving rise to new grievances and conflicts—each on its own trajectory of being named, blamed, and claimed.
While it is nearly impossible to identify unperceived injuries, one can sense signs of their effects. For instance, marginalized communities that remain resigned to their status quo in society are uninformed and unaware of their rights and entitlements—they require external assistance to be mobilized and to develop the capacity for self-advocacy.
All major social movements, including anti-slavery, anti-racism, and anti-discrimination, women’s rights, and LGBTQ, have progressed along the conflict spectrum from unperceived injurious experiences and claiming. The challenge, however, is that not all aggrieved parties always agree on the legitimacy of the mechanisms for remedy. The processes for claiming, therefore, become compromised themselves and form part of the grievance. Law enforcement and the criminal justice system, two such dispute resolution systems, are today subject to diminished legitimacy.
Claiming can be responded to in a range of forms, from a simple apology to healing through processes for truth and reconciliation, restitution, or retribution. And where claiming is blocked, that right to claim is sought through advocacy, political engagement, civil disobedience, or protest.
Myriad grievances today involve borders, exploitation, and ethnic groups. These previously dormant grievances are only now being named and claimed. The situation in Eritrea, Myanmar, and Kurdistan exemplify three such conflicts. In some instances, there are simply no legitimate options for the parties involved and the result is to resort to violent confrontation. The conflict between the Palestinians and Israel exemplifies an intractable conflict, because neither side can agree on a dispute resolution mechanism—there is no agreement on a legitimate process and structure for claiming.
To complicate matters, even those systems with the power and authority to make corrections to the aggrieved dispute resolution systems, including politicians and legislators, no longer enjoy the legitimacy they once did. Consequently, citizens experiencing conflicts, disputes, and injuries—even if they have been realized, named, and blamed suffer from a lack of trust in the institutions and systems for their resolution. There is a blockage for claiming and those with the authority to correct this blockage are also not trusted.
Black Lives Matter and police reform are two movements that have perceived, named, and blamed their injuries; they have even claimed their injuries. The protests are about the legitimacy of structural and procedural justice, which in their views have failed to respond justly to their claims. However, procedural and structural justice is neither monolithic nor immutable; it is a temporal representation of the normative values held by the majority or those whose views exert influence in a society.
Social change invariably threatens those who perceive that their sense of community, values, and customs will be eroded or altered by the inclusion of new views or by those who will diversify and alter the culture to which they are accustomed. Conflict invariably involves another party—there is always more than one side to a conflict. Protests, therefore, often represent the tensions between those who previously held a certain social view and those whose growing influence now presents an increasing challenge to traditional values—the civil rights movement, laws dealing with abortion, and women’s suffrage, for example.
Interestingly, as some make the transition from unperceived injurious experiences to claiming, the process itself may create tensions and new sources for conflict, especially where the naming and blaming involves a collective conflict or injury. Those who are willing to name or claim may not always agree on how or whom to blame. There may also be resentment against those who choose avoidance as a strategy or are wilfully blind—differences between those who prefer avoidance versus confrontation, those who seek aggressive claiming versus those who pursue more moderate means, or those who seek healing versus those seeking retribution.
The House select committee investigating the January 6 protests and assault on the Capitol in Washington exemplifies how the Republicans and Democrats can neither agree on the naming of the incident (protest versus violent protest versus terrorist attack), on the makeup of the committee, or its legitimacy. While both Republicans and Democrats have perceived the incident (no disagreement that there was protest), they disagree with the naming, claiming, and legitimacy of the process for resolution. Within the Republican ranks, there are differences among those who now sit on the committee and those who refute the legitimacy of the process.
The pace of activation, engagement, and commitment varies, even within what may appear as cohesive social movements—that is, an individual’s position within a group may remain fixed at any point from an unperceived injurious experience to naming, blaming, or claiming. As Macfarlane notes, there is much diversity within single cultural communities, reflecting a range of personal conflict orientations.9
Indigenous communities did not immediately perceive the injuries inflicted on their peoples, cultures, and traditions. That realization of perceiving their relationship with the new arrivals as first benevolent and then malevolent was neither instantaneous nor uniform for all peoples across the Americas. And when injury was perceived, the naming occurred in different and complex ways across the continent. Some peoples formed alliances, some accepted treaties, and others fought their adversaries.
Some people in the women’s rights movement diverge on their perceived positions and engagement.10 Some in the police reform movement not only diverge on their positions but may also resent non-participants.
Conflict has a profound impact, even if the injured party is unaware of the injury at the time. Whether Americans perceive their response to the Capitol protests as significant or not, or whether they respond to COVID-19 as a serious threat or not—their actions or inaction will have an impact on those outside the U.S.
The unperceived injury does not dissipate or disappear. When the injury is eventually perceived, there is a tapping into the dormant accumulation of other unperceived injustices accumulated during the interim. These injustices then must be reckoned with and almost invariably assessed retrospectively via existing cultural values and morality. The current discourse on the value and position of statues celebrating historic heroes—King Leopold (Belgium), Gen. Stonewall Jackson (U.S.), or Egerton Ryerson (Canada) is an example of reckoning with the accumulated dormant, unperceived grievances.
Social conflicts also proceed through each stage; injuries must first be realized and named before resolution can commence. In some instances, particularly when the aggrieved are substantially weaker than the aggressor, or due to prevailing norms, victims may not be willing to name their injuries for fear of repercussion. The systems for resolution present obstacles for naming an injury or conflict. Those in the LGBTQ community lived hidden lives in fear of social and legal repercussions—the law was against them. Punishment for non-normative compliance suppressed higher levels of moral considerations. Only after the aggrieved LGBTQ community was willing to name, blame, and claim their rights did a moral and ethical acceptance of those rights evolve. Not everyone, either in the LGBTQ community or society at large, transitioned uniformly.
As Macfarlane points out: “Much of what appears to be cultural conflict is really an attempt at cultural domination. When one culture is in a more powerful social position and can impose many of its norms and structures on other cultures, then the dynamics of dominance and submission must be considered.”11
She further states: “There is also an argument that the impact of cultural norms—in particular culture in the sense of nationality or ethnicity—is overestimated and suggests an oversimplified analysis of disputing behaviours.”12 This oversimplification is also too often implied in our consideration of the culture of micro-groups like organizations and protest movements. It is important to note that positions on conflict, injury, or harm, and resolution are perception-based and impacted by a multitude of influences—risk tolerance, personality, lived experience, ideologies, group affiliation, and many more.
This partly explains why some grievances remain dormant, unnamed, or unclaimed for decades following an injury. The aggrieved may simply have been too afraid of the consequences of naming an injury, fearing ostracization or retribution. The culture of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s represented evolving attitudes and norms that today have empowered so many to name and claim their injuries. Many of the grievances of the Me Too movement are decades old—why many women did not claim their injuries at the time they occurred is now understandable and legitimized.
Let’s consider the notion of culture. What exactly is culture, and how does culture impact the naming-blaming-claiming necessary for a healthy and cohesive society? Culture has been defined in a variety of ways—there is no one universally accepted definition. And yet we are immersed and entwined in culture throughout our daily lives. Helen Spencer-Oatey provides several examples of how culture has been defined.13
British anthropologist Edward Tylor defined culture in the 1800s as:
…that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.14
American anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn defined culture in 1952 as:
Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behaviour acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiment in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e., historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other, as conditional elements of future action.15
David Matsumoto defined it as:
…the set of attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors shared by a group of people, but different for each individual, communicated from one generation to the next.16
Culture is a fuzzy set of basic assumptions and values, orientations to life, beliefs, policies, procedures and behavioural conventions that are shared by a group of people, and that influence (but do not determine) each member’s behaviour and his/her interpretations of the “meaning” of other people’s behaviour.17
Culture therefore determines social norms, how conflicts and injuries are perceived and assessed, and how they impact structural and procedural justice. Culture also determines the legitimacy or trust ascribed to those structures and procedures.
But what exactly do we mean when we speak of trust? Roy Lewicki and Carolyn Wiethoff differentiate trust into calculus-based trust (CBT) and identification-based trust (IBT), which carry different implications for trust violations and for the building and rebuilding of trust.18
CBT is related to task-oriented trust, wherein one’s reputation for honesty, ability, reliability, and consistency ensure trustworthy behaviour, even if one is not an honest person. Trust is an outcome of compliance. Trusting behaviour is motivated by both the rewards associated with being trusted as well as the threat of loss of reputation— reputation being an asset or prerequisite for rewarding opportunities. Short-term gains from untrustworthy acts are forgone for long-term benefits. CBT is, therefore, in large part avoidance-based and is also called “deterrence-based trust.”19
Compliance with laws and regulations is deterrence-based trust. Apparent compliance with societal norms does not necessarily coincide with underlying beliefs or values. Concealment of underlying attitudes counter to normative expectations and/or their explicit expression is a form of deterrence-based trust.
Coming out of the closet by those who had previously suppressed their values, or those who had not named their grievances, in apparent compliance with what their colleagues expected, is a release from deterrence-based trust—the reward for conformity no longer outweighs the benefits of non-conformity.
Healthy societies need to continually invest in understanding the impact of unperceived injurious experiences, develop effective and efficient ways for claiming injuries, and establish legitimate institutions, procedures, and systems for conflict resolution.
How we conceptualize, understand, and respond to conflict and injury is really a consequence of our societal moral orientation.
American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg postulated that moral development progresses through a series of fixed stages.20 Each stage represents a specific level of moral orientation. At the preconventional level, moral thinking is determined primarily by consequences (punishment or reward). At the conventional level, actions are directed by a desire to conform to the expectations of others, or to uphold socially accepted values and rules. A post-conventional level represents advanced moral development wherein self-accepted moral principles direct behaviour. These stages can easily be applied to the development of societies.
In reality, individuals and societies are constantly evolving in different aspects, each at their own pace and stage of moral development. Societies, almost invariably, initially institute punishment for ensuring conformity to normative expectations—subsequently advancing to more progressive stages of conflict resolution and justice. Societies can be generally classified using Kohlberg’s moral development stages:21
Stage 1: Punishment orientation
Behaviour is determined by consequences. The individual will obey in order to avoid punishment. (North Korea, Iran, Taliban-Afghanistan)
Stage 2: Pleasure-seeking orientation behaviour is determined again by consequences. The individual focuses on receiving rewards or satisfying personal needs.
(Those whose political aims are driven by self-satisfaction or status—for example, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine—are equivalent in national terms to pleasure-seeking self-interest).
Stage 3: Good-boy or good-girl orientation
Behaviour is determined by social approval. The individual wants to maintain or win the affection and approval of others by being a good person.
(Nations that amend national policies and practices to gain acceptance into organizations representing the international community, such as several countries which previously aligned with the Soviet Union but are now part of NATO).
Stage 4: Authority orientation
Social rules and laws determine behaviour. The individual now takes into consideration a larger perspective, that of societal laws. Moral decision-making becomes more than consideration of close ties to others. The individual believes that rules and laws maintain social order that is worth preserving. (China)
Stage 5: Social-contract orientation
Individual rights determine behaviour. The individual views laws and rules as flexible tools for improving human purposes. That is, given the right situation, there are exceptions to rules. When laws are not consistent with individual rights and the interests of the majority, they do not bring about good for people and alternatives should be considered.
(Example: the global movement towards an international order based on the values and principles embodied by the United Nations).
Stage 6: Morality of individual principles
This is the highest stage of functioning; however, some individuals or societies may never reach this level. At this stage, the appropriate action is determined by one’s self-chosen ethical principles of conscience.
(Bhutan is perhaps the lone place that approaches a movement towards this stage of development. It is the first nation to institute a national happiness index as a measure of its health and prosperity).
The classifications of national status are of course arbitrary and subjective, but nonetheless demonstrate that societies, like individuals, go through a process of moral development. We might roughly equate these stages by tracing the development of justice from a time of trial by ordeal—the Inquisition—to the declaration of the Magna Carta and trial by judge and jury, to modern conventions and treaties on international law to the advancement of laws dealing with human rights. Each of these stages represents our moral development.
Perceived injustice is often the source of conflict, and injustice is exacerbated by processes perceived to be unjust, but what is perceived as just may be relative. What is just cannot be trusted if, when conflict occurs, the naming, blaming, and claiming are based on limiting the claim, limiting the opportunity for voicing concern, or treating the aggrieved as inferior, someone whose rights only have legitimacy because they are conferred by others. Participative democracies can only be founded on participative justice. Understanding and managing conflict represents a fundamental step towards our moral advancement and is everyone’s responsibility.
Conflict is omnipresent, whether fuelled by global engagement, environmental concerns, patterns in manufacturing and supply chains, runaway technological evolution, social disenfranchisement, political skepticism, inequality, or historical injustices. Many people are confused by the confluence of new fissures, by partisanship and tribalism, and many more are just tired of the world’s increasing contentiousness. As always, the way forward is through the pursuit of moral development—relinquishing some of our tendencies towards a punishment orientation and investing more in defining our next higher collective moral position.
Anil Anand is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash.
- William L. F. Felstiner, Richard L. Abel, and Austin Sarat, “The Emergence and Transformation of Disputes: Naming, Blaming, Claiming..,” Law and Society Review (1980): 631–654.
- Julie Macfarlane, J. Manwaring, E. Zweibel, W. H. Hamilton, R. Fisher, W. Ury, and B. Patton, Dispute Resolution: Readings and Case Studies, 2nd ed., (Toronto: Emond Montgomery Publications Ltd., 2003).
- Andrew Fitzmaurice, “The Genealogy of Terra Nullius,” http://caid.ca/GenTerNul2007.pdf.
- Macfarlane et al., 55.
- April Dawn Fosdick, “Competing Discourses: Early Strategies for Women’s Rights,” PhD dissertation, Montana State University-Bozeman, 1999.
- Macfarlane et al., 55.
- Ibid., 56
- Helen Spencer-Oatey, “What is Culture? A Compilation of Quotations,” University of Warwick, 2012, https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5&q=++Core+Concept+Compilations+What+is+Culture%3F+Helen+Spencer-Oatey&btnG=.
- Edward Tylor, Primitive Culture, (New York: JP Putnam’s Sons, 1871, 1920).
- Alfred L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn, Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952): 181.
- David Matsumoto, Tsutomu Kudoh, and Sachiko Takeuchi. “Changing Patterns of Individualism and Collectivism in the United States and Japan,” Culture & Psychology 2, (Boston: Cengage Learning, 1996): 77–107.
- Roy J. Lewicki and Carolyn Wiethoff, “Trust, Trust Development, and Trust Repair,” Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, Peter T. Coleman, Morton Deutsch, and Eric C. Marcus, eds., (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2011): 86–107.
- Amir Qorbanpoor Lafmejani, “Lawrence Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development and its Comparison with Ethics from the Perspective of Shia Islam,” European Journal of Science and Theology 15, no. 1, 2019: 97–112.