Retaliation Means Escalation

What often amazes me as a conflict mediator is NOT that people intentionally wound each other with words or actions. I see it happen so often that, while it saddens me, it does not surprise me.  It’s the bizarre rationalizations folks use to justify hurting others with glib impunity that astonishes me.

  • “I’m trying to teach them a lesson.”
  • “I want them to know what I feel like when they hurt me.”
  • “I can’t help it; I’m angry.”
  • “I can’t let them get away with this. I gotta win!”
  • “They did it to me first.”

Retaliation happens so often people have given it creative names.

  • Tit for tat. Anatol Rappaport
  • Eye for an eye. Moses
  • Schismogenesis (schism = conflict; genesis = beginning) Gregory Bateson. He used this phrase to describe the ever-increasing escalation between nations: we get rocks, they get spears, we get fire, they get sling shots, we get bullets, they get bombs, on and on.
  • Wounding from a hurt position. Terry Real
  • Vigilantism. Bald Knobbers

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see where this ends up: Timothy McVeigh, gang warfare, lynch mobs, geo-political conflict. When I listen to couples fight I often think I’m witnessing a reenactment of the Cuban missile crisis in miniature. Sad. Very sad.

How do we get out of this vicious cycle?  Some things to consider:

  1. Unchecked, retaliation can infect generations. You’re hurting not only your disputant. You’re setting up an action-reaction cycle that can last for generations.
  2. Being committed to peace means being the first to lay down your weapons: name calling, violence, swearing, criticizing, sabotaging, etc.
  3. If an injustice needs righting it’s helpful to call in neutral mediators as peace keepers.
  4. It might even be worth considering (brace yourself) to suffer a wrong and move on rather than perpetuate an emotional and draining conflict.

Some people are addicted to retaliation. They just can’t pass up any opportunity to get back at those who hurt them. This is a serious psychological as well as social problem so I propose all peace-loving folks agree to create a climate of non-retaliation.  Just as there is now a social stigma against domestic violence, let’s create a social stigma against tit for tat. Are you with me?

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