I keep hearing colleagues and others ask, “Why can’t we all just get along!” It brings back memories of Rodney King, a Los Angeles-based taxi driver who became internationally known after a tape was released of him being beaten on March 3, 1991, by LAPD officers following a high-speed car chase. In a 1992 TV appearance on the L.A. riots, Mr. King said, “"I just want to say - you know - can we all get along? Can we, can we get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids?”
That plaintive call for calm has been repeated by those who don’t understand what drives people to act out in vicious and hateful ways. For those who only deal with the normal stresses of life brought on by work and personal frustrations common to all of us, don’t see how external influences can cause people to lash out with the degree of violence we see happening in our nation and beyond.
The neurosciences have established an irrefutable fact: Human beings are emotional, not rational. Even so, aren’t our emotions eclipsed by our rationality? Aren’t we distinguished from all other creatures by it? Haven’t our laws, foreign policies, and economic theories been set by establishing comparisons to prototypical rational human behavior?
The truth is we’re 98% emotional and only 2% rational. This imbalance helps to explain much about conflict behaviors. It boils down to our “Fight or Flight Response” in anxious situations.
To understand how our brain deals with conflict, consider a simple emotional model. In this model, conflict starts with some problem. The problem is serious enough to cause anxiety, reflected in a feeling of insecurity. When anxiety or insecurity are first experienced, we have a choice between reactivity and reflection. If we do not make a choice, our default mode is to be reactive.
By being reactive, we might reject the problem, give up, or feel inadequate to deal with the problem. If the problem is persistent, we might struggle or exit. As the conflict develops, we perceive it as a threat, and we may blame, attack or withdraw. These behaviors constitute our fear reaction system.
If the choice for reflection is made, we learn to relate, and relax. The insecurity arising from a conflict situation is recognized as pointing to a pathway of growth towards greater peace and self-realization. We are led by our curiosity to discover something new, find what is lost, or complete unfinished business. Success leads us to wholeness, authenticity, power and wisdom.
On the other hand, if problems persist or intensify without relief or resolution, when people feel backed into a corner, persecuted, preyed upon, or held back or blocked from achieving their goals, that’s when violence can occur—especially in a group who all feel the same. It can occur either in retaliation or without provocation. Violence can develop from situational or environmental factors. They may result from a mental condition or from personal or cultural beliefs.
There has always been, and there will always be, those in society who feel they are not getting their due. But there is a tipping point at which enough is enough and getting along and “staying in your lane” is no longer tolerable. The plight of African Americans in the U.S. is a prime example in light of police violence against them. The increase in population beyond acceptable levels, pollution, environmental concerns, global terrorism, threats of war, all play a part in increasing our level of anxiety and stress. Ignoring the mentally ill population is another contributing factor.
The sad forecast is there is no answer. Yet.
But, hopefully, one day we will find a way to deal with our growing stresses and those in power will willingly, collectively put their heads together and find a solution.