Mine’s bigger’n yours

Last week we touched on the question of conflict. It was in the context of blanket bombing and the nuclear arms race. Standing back, we might wonder how it happened that a handful of nations were actually ready to destroy each other with bombs so powerful that Hiroshima and Nagasaki, terrible as they were, would have looked like garden fireworks in comparison. And the Cuban missile crisis showed us that the threat of the destruction of society was a real one.

Today we see Syria consuming itself with internal war and a future of despair for generations to come. And Muslims and Christian rabbles are rabbles first, and religious last. So it has it been throughout my life and throughout history – but with longbow, club and tank replaced by mass destruction.

How is it that human beings who want to live in peace, and on the whole wish their neighbours well, can behave so irrationally?  Let’s explore a little.

The basic model is two five year-olds quarrelling in the playground. Some trivial incident starts the process. It is treated as a hostile action and a stronger riposte is made. And the sequence continues to mount so that, stage by stage, a violent, screaming fight brings teacher running over to separate the children by the scruffs of the neck. Ten minutes later the children are contented, even playing happily with each other. End of story until the next time.

The step from small incident to full scale fight seems a big one – but not when it comes stage by stage, with each combatant faced at each step by victory or defeat.  Remember a little incident at Sarajevo?

It is not so strange; it is very close to us. I have seen disputes on this blog quite quickly move in the direction of anger – it starts perhaps with one contributor including a little taunt or a challenge. And surprise, surprise! the target responds with a stronger taunt or challenge. And so on – upwards. We may be critical of such antics, until we get into such a dispute ourselves and find that the crushing retort which will win the day becomes all important. Lord, what fools we mortals be! Blessed are the peacemakers, says the Beatitude. But it does not remind us of how our own pride contributes to our own conflicts.

In the early years of marriage my wife and I would tend to get stuck in arguments. They could go on for a long time after we had forgotten what had triggered them in the first place. Then we discovered a solution: the first one who apologised was taken as having won the argument. It worked like a charm.

The patterns of human conflict are so universal and so predictable that the psychologists are happy to develop mathematical equations to track the escalation of conflict. From the domestic example of rising conflict between parent and screaming baby to “Bloody Sunday” the same patterns pertain. That tells us something about our helplessness. And the whole sequence of ‘game theory’ has been studied and developed into an area of psychology and sociology large enough for an expert to spend a professional lifetime exploring it.

Perhaps a deeper understanding of how easily we allow ourselves to be pulled down into sterile conflict can give us insights into how it happens on a global scale. We can perhaps begin to change ourselves through our understanding, but can we ever transfer that into peace for the world?

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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33 Responses to Mine’s bigger’n yours

  1. tim says:

    “The first to apologise is taken as having won the argument”

    Great rule. But – a note of caution – it has to be agreed beforehand. If it isn’t, you may find yourself involved with someone who believes that the first to apologise has lost the argument, and is therefore obliged to pay a penalty. The next stage is then arguing about the penalty, which can make matters worse.

    Would it transfer to the international arena? One problem there is that participants are not negotiating as themselves, but on behalf of others. You may feel unable to make concessions on behalf of others that you would think proper to make for yourself – or the others may not let you.

  2. Horace says:

    I was, I presume like Quentin, at school during the 1939-44 war and inevitably imbibed the
    “My country right or wrong . . “ philosophy. I remember once that I wrote a sonnet – I can’t remember the details – and sent a copy to my mother who replied with a reprimand for my ‘glamorising warfare’.
    At that time my parents acquired for me an Irish passport, in addition to my British one (since I could claim dual nationality) in case the Germans invaded Britain and I had to flee to Ireland.
    Later, when serving, as Flight Lieutenant (RAFMS) in occupied Germany after the war I was surprised to find that the British were treated in a friendly manner by the Germans, who however disliked the Americans.
    Once, in a cafe in Munich I was mistaken for a postman; despite my rather basic German which I had learnt from a Belgian Jesuit [Incidentally he was a great admirer of the ‘Har Jor’ (Hitler Jugend) whom he considered superior to the British Boy Scouts].
    Warfare, and its sequelae, is irrational !

  3. Singalong says:

    I became friendly with a German exchange student during the 1950`s, and kept in touch with her until she died about 2 years ago.
    She told me how she too was evacuated, from her hometown of Marburg, as a child during the War, and how her family was split afterwards by the Berlin Wall.

    Both and all sides are equally badly affected by war. I sometimes wonder if assassination would be a better and more moral response to wars and atrocities started and sustained by personalities within the Dark Tryad like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mugabe.

    • johnbunting says:

      The trouble with assassination is – who comes after? Hitler, dreadful as he was, at least had the saving grace, from our point of view, of being a very bad military strategist. After his early and easy victories in Europe he thought he was invincible. If a man like Rommel had been in charge things could have been very different.

      • St.Joseph says:

        Your mention of Rommel takes me back to my father after the war, always speaking about it, all the time, I would have thought he would like to forget. He served with Montgomery and driving the tanks in desert. telling us all the awful time they had, My grandmother used to get very upset and they used to row,as my granddad was killed in the Somme July 1st We had to listen to that as youngsters Not very nice memories, I am sure it affected his mind also his hearing.
        I don’t believe it is meant to be glorified especially in Films as it is.

  4. Vincent says:

    Quentin mentions Sarajevo. And it is true that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, started the process. Austria took issue with Serbia because they had tolerated the terrorist action, while Russia supported Serbia. Then, AJP Taylor claimed, the problem was the railways. These were able to bring up troops to the frontier so quickly that any sign of troop movement was a threat which had to be countered. The Germans, rather unwisely went to war against Russia and Western Europe at the same time.

    Britain need not have entered the war, although they were nervous of German domination of France. Their treaty with Belgium was their legal excuse. But another reason was that the Liberal Government would fall if they failed to do so. (Churchill, for one, would have resigned.) Of course they were totally unprepared, and the popular belief that it would end in a short time was mistaken.

    Whether Quentin’s equations would deal with all this I don’t know. But the trench warfare was very much tit for tat; it might have gone on forever, or until there were no soldiers left, if the Russians hadn’t collapsed and the Americans hadn’t come in.

    That’s folly for you.

    • Quentin says:

      Not my equations! I am not a mathematician so in this kind of thing I look at summaries. But if there is a mathematician around who would like to do some analysis, email me and I’ll send you the Paper. That would be a great help to me, as a check.

  5. johnbunting says:

    Regarding the moral aspect of conflict, it so happens that I have just received the January issue of ‘The Newman’: the journal of the Newman Association, containing the text of a talk given to the Manchester & North Cheshire Circle of the Association by Canon Albert Radcliffe, an Anglican.
    His title is ‘The Holocaust and the Problem of Human Evil’. Here, I can only mention one or two points that he makes.
    First, the industrialisation of the killing process, to keep the victims ignorant of their coming fate as long as possible, and prevent direct human contact between victims and perpetrators: the latter had to be convinced that what they were doing was morally justified.
    Second, the Nazis were not mad, nor were they automatons. The death camps were the logical outcome of their pseudo-scientific racial theories. Reason and science alone are not enough. Everything depends on the rightness, or otherwise, of the axioms on which reason builds.

  6. Nektarios says:

    You mentioned that all such atrocities such as the Jewish Holocaust, war, right down to disagreements on the blog all stem from fundamental aspects of human nature. It may seem rather simplistic of me to ask, but what are these fundamentals of human nature you are referring to?
    If it is due to that, what can man do, so as to not operate out of human nature but another principle? And what principle would that be?

    Is that possible? If it is we have lots to discuss

  7. ionzone says:

    “Hitler, dreadful as he was, at least had the saving grace, from our point of view, of being a very bad military strategist.”

    This is one reason I look upon his attempted assassinations with a lot of interest. One reason out of many that they stopped was because he was incompetent. Another is that they never worked, and often they seemed to go wrong in ways that seem almost miraculous. Some people think he had the devil’s own luck, but maybe God intervened to prevent the rise of someone far worse? Indeed, remember that Communist regimes were sucking up countries left and right. The rise of the Nazis caused a deadlock that could very well have been the thing which prevented the Communists from marching across Europe. If they had reached the Vatican there would be no united Catholic religion anymore. They would have desecrated the Vatican and destroyed it all block by block, just as they did with the Cathedrals in Russia. They would have marched the heads of the Catholic Church out and publicly tortured them as they did the priests, nuns, monks, and bishops in Russia. They would then have executed them in some horrific and dramatic way (such as crucifixion, they did that a lot) and then publicly declared that they had ‘conquered God’. From then on it would have been only a matter of time until the world was in a far worse state than we can possibly imagine. As it is, they are the prime suspects for the failed assassination of Pope John Paul.

    So, we have an interesting and unusual thought experiment and proposition. If we factor in the fact that Germany’s discontent made a second war almost inevitable, and that Communism was spreading like a plague, and that God values free will hugely, and that death is not the end: Did our God, who sees all ends, step in to allow and facilitate both the rise AND fall of Hitler as a tactical move designed to prevent the world, and Christianity, being consumed by a horrific Godless empire while educating us all about tyranny, extremism, and forcing us to put in place the safeguards needed to prevent a true global tyrannical dictatorship ever coming to pass?

    If we think about it that way, with God as a master tactician and social engineer, other things start to seem engineered. What if the current financial crisis and abuse scandal in the Church was allowed to play out the way they did in order to humble both society and the Church?

    Of course this is all massive speculation and I am not proposing anything I say as a definite reason. Everything could be a matter of proceeding events and chance, after all. However, if God does take an active interest in our society, and nudges things one way or another to keep us on the right track without holding our hand, then this is one possible explanation for how and why events have played out as they have. If there is a devil, and he is, as many people think, a contrary force fighting God, that could also be a factor that would explain the virulence of the anti-God movement and how nothing bad they do ever seems to stick to them.

  8. Nektarios says:


    Yes, you are absolutely right, you’re comment is a massive speculation.
    It is also clear that like so many, God is but a projection of themselves. Tragic really.

  9. John Candido says:

    The world would be better off if it took a leaf out of a psychologist called Dr. Thomas Gordon PhD. He was a family therapist who advocated resolving conflicts through mutual equality, and agreement. He was the author of ‘Parent Effectiveness Training’. The way he did this is through six steps. It would be a mistake to dismiss this list as sentimental pop-psychology or gobbledegook. It isn’t.

    Step 1: Define Everyone’s Needs.
    Step 2: Brainstorm Solutions.
    Step 3: Evaluate the Solutions.
    Step 4: Decide on Final Solution(s).
    Step 5: Implement Solution(s).
    Step 6: Evaluate Solution(s).

    It is not enough to simply commit this list to memory and you are done. You need to firstly read about it in detail, and then if you agree with such as system; try it for yourself. You can find more information from this link.


    The following six steps are not Gordon’s, but someone else’s.

    Step 1: Cool off.
    Step 2: Tell what’s bothering you using ‘I messages.’
    Step 3: Each person restates what they heard the other person say.
    Step 4: Take responsibility.
    Step 5: Brainstorm solutions and come up with one that satisfies both people.
    Step 6: Affirm, forgive, or thank.


    Here is an expanded list along similar lines.

    Click to access pluginfile.php

    Conflict resolution used to be seen as a fad back in the 1970s. It is no fad.

    • johnbunting says:

      Certainly it’s no fad: the problem is getting people to make use of it.
      The talks on Syria have ended, at least for the present, and starvation is being used as a weapon. “Hand over your leaders to us, and we may let you have some food”.
      It’s a familiar situation in many conflicts: people think they have more to gain or less to lose by fighting than by negotiation; and if you’re negotiating under duress that may well be true.

  10. Quentin says:

    There has been an interesting discussion on major conflicts; I think it would be useful to look further down the scale to see whether the same pattern is there. We have trade union/management conflict. We hear Prime Minister’s questions — which quickly degrade into swapping insults. Many of us must encounter conflicts in our own lives. And we seem to enjoy conflict so much that we even devise games so that we can enjoy the pleasure of conflict without too much pain. It must be very deep in human nature.

  11. Nektarios says:

    We need to be quite clear in our minds, whether we want to merely refine conflict or eradicate it completely? Is that possible?
    To me, mere refinement of conflict within does not solve the problem because conflict within continues; and conflict is always very destructive. However subtle and refined it may be, however learned, sophisticated, analysed or reasoned away, conflict makes the mind dull and stupid.

    So the question is: how are we to be totally free from conflict? Not that one should seek a method or a system, as JC was suggesting, for then we get caught in the system, and again begins the conflict between what we are and what we should be.
    So, is it possible to eliminate conflict altogether?.

  12. John Candido says:

    Conflict will never go away. You might as well ask when breathing air will decline and eventually be abolished. It isn’t going to happen. A more appropriate question is how can we prevent conflict form occurring in the first place and how can we better manage conflict in our lives, so that we can progress towards a better future, as a family, neighbours, at work, at school and between nations. For any form of conflict resolution to work, both sides should be familiar with the method, so as to allay any fears that it is being used to manipulate people. Mind you, it can be explained to the side that is not familiar with it, so that you can maximize its chance of success with others who have not had any exposed to it.

  13. Nektarios says:

    John Candido
    The problem with us we are continually in conflict. We are in conflict about so many things. – in the relationship with the wife or husband, children, society; and in our relationship with ideas, beliefs and dogmas.
    We try to be positive, as they say, by joining some group, a religious tranquilizer, but the war goes on within, spilling out in our society and nations.
    If we say it is not possible to live without conflict, then we are defeated before we start. However I think that it is possible.
    Perhaps we accepted conflict as inevitable and have made God our refuge of peace and calmness and all the rest of it.
    If one has asked oneself whether the mind can be free of conflict, then I think one has to go very much deeper into the problem. So, I want to know why I am in conflict, not merely the superficial explanations, but I really want to get to the root of it. Perhaps we could become free of conflict.
    Just think, a dozen people free from conflict could change the world.

    • John Candido says:

      ‘If we say it is not possible to live without conflict, then we are defeated before we start. However I think that it is possible.’ (Nektarios)

      I am not saying that we must have conflicts for the sake of having them. That would be misinterpreting what I am saying. For any person to say that they have lived a life without any conflict whatsoever is most likely lying. It is simply unavoidable. I think that you must see that conflict is not only inevitable but a part of daily life, regardless of your level of wealth, status or general amenability. Given a healthy non-defeatist acceptance of conflict, people can take-up valuable skills such as conflict resolution, in order to improve and deepen their relationships with those with whom they live or work with.

      Conflicts that are not resolved can fester and may become worse. They may hamper better relationships from developing. When disputes are resolved using conflict resolution, there is a corresponding increase in mutual trust and liking. You wonder if such methods can work in a parish setting; what sorts of conflicts are amenable to this method and which are not.

      • Quentin says:

        Your conversation with Nektarios could well be a fruitful one.
        Just as a matter of interest, a new study was posted today; it provides an algorithm for avoiding conflict in fairly common circumstances.
        If we cannot eradicate conflict, we do need to learn how to make it constructive. You have written about ‘valuable skills’. Would these include attitudes of mind and kinds of behaviour which help the atmosphere of conflict resolution?


      • Horace says:

        The ‘envy free’ algorithm (below) reminds me of a time when (as part/time Senior Lecturer in Artificial Intelligence) I had the job of devising a method of allocating Medical students who had qualified to Consultant supervisors for their first year as hospital interns.
        Students listed the available consultants in order of preference and similarly the consultants listed their students in order of preference.
        My program was based on the ‘stable marriage algorithm’ .
        One day I had a message from an irate senior consultant who had been allocated his 23rd preference!
        I went through the allocation process with him and at the end he said “Well, you have convinced me, but I still think it’s a **********!!!
        Conflict resolution ??

      • Horace says:

        Sorry. The ‘envy free’ algorithm mentioned should be (Quentin – above);

  14. ionzone says:

    “Yes, you are absolutely right, you’re comment is a massive speculation.”

    Yes, that is what I said. I pointed that out. I was basically thinking aloud and I made it clear that I simply don’t believe what I was saying. I just thought it was an interesting thought experiment.

    “It is also clear that like so many, God is but a projection of themselves. Tragic really.”

    No, the truly tragic projection is what you are doing. You wished to see wide-eyed fawn-like credulity in my post, and so that is what you saw. Everything I said to the contrary be damned.

    I am sick and tired of people misreading my open mindedness and my willingness to speculate and consider any argument as meaning that I am some loopy loo. Frankly, I am strongly tempted to take a leaf out of the atheist book an treat you like gibbering filth. Goodness knows politeness, openness and sharing ideas doesn’t seem to work so I might as well try spitting in people’s faces.

    • ionzone says:

      0k, I’m not actually going to do that, I am just annoyed that I cannot seem to express an idea, even on here, without someone’s insincere belittling. I was offering a nice speculative topic for debate that could have gone in any number of directions, but apparently you didn’t get that.

      • Quentin says:

        Ionzone, I am sure you wouldn’t spit in anyone’s face — it would be too ironic given that our subject is conflict!

        One element in controlling conflict is to remember that we all tend to interpret remarks through the filters of our own personality and outlook. So our first job is to try to understand what is said from the speaker’s point of view. And that wasn’t how you felt your comment was treated. There is another difficulty here. Very often we suggest the spirit in which we are speaking by the non verbal assistance we give to the words we use. But that isn’t available on a blog, so there is always a possibility of being misunderstood.

        Your God is a projection of yourself? That’s only to be expected, isn’t it? When we speculate about God we try to think of the highest good. So we are likely to understand him in terms of the highest good we can ourselves perceive. What else?

      • Nektarios says:

        Forgive me, but I was just, in agreement reiterating what you said… and moved forward.

  15. John Candido says:

    There are many limitations to conflict resolution. For one, it cannot be imposed on the other party if they will not cooperate with such a method. Any person who digs their heel in and has no desire to compromise will never use it. Similarly, anyone in a more powerful position in relation to another person, or other body, can ignore their opponents if it is convenient for them to do so.

    Sometimes there are cases in the real world where any amount of brainstorming will come to zero. This can arise when another person’s needs or desires cannot be accommodated by the other person. For example, a husband wants to move to the United States in order to further his career and increase his income and prestige. The employment package is simply too tempting to pass by.

    There is a prospect that the husband could one day, given some luck, become the next CEO, President or Chairman of the Board of Directors of the company, with considerable increases in income, as well as significant other amenities and privileges. The wife on the other hand sees this issue very differently. They have three children; one at university, one at secondary school and the other at a primary school. Relocating to another country will cause a significant disruption to their children’s quality of life, as well as an unwanted disruption to their schooling. The wife is a very busy general practitioner who works part-time and loves her work. The wife does not want to lose any contact with her aging parents, as well as her other relations and friends.

    This couple genuinely tried to resolve this conflict by entering into the entire process of conflict resolution in good faith. They were very sincere in trying to use this method without trying to impose a solution on the other party. They both have used this method in the past for resolving some very significant and not so significant conflicts in their marital lives. This time they are both at an impasse and no amount of significant and concentrated effort in resolving this issue cooperatively, through the use of non-judgemental language, active listening, or brainstorming, has produced a satisfactory outcome that is suitable to the both of them. How do they get through this situation in a mature, Christian manner? Has anyone got any advice for them?

    Maturity, rationality and a basic goodness are priceless ingredients that will see them through, I suppose. As an outsider to this imaginary but not entirely unrealistic example, my feeling is that the husband needs to weigh the advantages of his potential career move to the United States, to the very real possibility that should he put his heel down and insist that he is moving overseas, he may cause the breakdown of his marriage, given sufficient time.

    He will most likely have to make a value judgement. Are his career, prestige and income more important than his marriage? It is a thorny problem with probably no answers that can be applied across the board to all and sundry, due to the fact that every individual and every marriage is different.

  16. johnbunting says:

    “It cannot be imposed on the other party….”. Yes, too true.
    If one party is in a much stronger position than the other, they may choose to fight, being confident of winning. But the weaker party may also choose to do so, fearing that any ‘settlement’ will in effect be a capitulation, with dire consequences for them. I thnk this situation may arise both in international and in personal conflicts.
    And of course there’s the old saying, “It takes two to make peace, but only one to make war”.

  17. John Candido says:

    Very true, John Bunting.

  18. Nektarios says:

    Can we approach the whole question of conflict from the other end, if we can live a life and living where there is no conflict? What kind of life and living would that be? After all, one still has to go to the office or place of work or wherever, working out the problems where we are.

  19. John Candido says:

    ‘…if we can live a life and living where there is no conflict? What kind of life and living would that be?’ (Nektarios)

    Nektarios, how do you live a life without running into a conflict or two, every now and then?

    • Nektarios says:

      John Candido
      The fact is, very few live without conflict, therefore one seeks peace. However, that progress towards living without conflict is impeded. We have been educated from childhood to compete. Our examinations, not to mention the schools themselves were competitive, you know all of this.
      We have been brought up on all that: psychologically always wanting more, using function to gain status. One can see what it does to the mind. It really makes the mind old, insensitive and dull. An ambitious man is everlastingly in conflict, he doesn’t know a moment’s peace.
      We in turn are encouraged to be ambitious from the start. Conflict is therefore firmly rooted in us at different levels, from the superficial to the very deep.
      To begin to answer your question first get to grips with these facts of our own conflict.
      The we can proceed.


  20. Singalong says:

    Christ memorably said that He had come not to bring peace but a sword, and also spoke of setting father against son, mother against daughter. The existence of Satan and evil does seem to make conflict inevitable.

    I think He must be saying, this is what will happen, rather than, this is what I want to happen, so all human strategies for achieving agreement and reasonable conflict must have His blessing.
    He also said, Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall see God.

    As John C. said, if one side is determined to stick to their position, come what may, no strategies will work. We find this admirable in a martyr “keeping the faith” but not so admirable in marriage disputes for instance.

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