Healthy Conflict: A Lost Art

Healthy Conflict: A Lost Art


Leonard Zwelling

The Sunday Review section of The New York Times on January 21, 2018 contained a host of opinion pieces expressing the difficulties the various authors had in coming to terms with the Trump presidency and its effects on America.

I found this to be the most interesting, but they are all worth a read:

It’s a short piece by Annie Pfeifer of Tufts University about the contrast between how some Europeans oversee conflict on the playground when compared to the way American adults do it.

In Switzerland, it seems, it’s a free for all. It is not unusual for children to go after each other, even to the point of physical confrontation. Furthermore the adults do not intercede. They believe the kids will best learn to handle adversity, conflict and bullying by personal experience with adversity, conflict, and bullying. Americans, by contrast, will rush in and force the kids to resolve their differences with words, which may mean no resolution at all. Dr. Pfeifer argues the European way may be better at developing strong, independent citizens capable of resolving healthy disagreements without the use of force since they have found no benefit to such violent conflict resolution already.

This struck me because my childhood, although on the south shore of Long Island, might have been in Switzerland.

Behind my house was another home. I was about ten. The neighbor’s kid much older. He bullied and teased me and one snowy day he went too far. I cannot even remember the circumstances or particulars, but I do remember running at him, diving at his head, wrestling him to the ground, and clubbing him with my fists until my father pulled me off the boy. I am proud to say it was one of my father’s proudest moments. I had taken care of my problem myself. And what parent doesn’t want to raise a strong, self-sufficient child?

Unfortunately, this upbringing of mine did not always serve me well as an adult, especially in the American playground that is academic medicine where the behavior is “knives out, but draw no blood.”

There were times in my professional career when I felt threatened, or actually was threatened, and would stand for cowing in a corner no longer and struck back. Not with fists, of course, but with harsh words that were often poorly chosen for today’s climate. I eventually learned to keep my mouth shut in the face of others’ bad deeds when I knew better. Late in life, after 60, I have come to terms with the fact that I will rarely keep quiet any longer and that my words can get me in trouble. That doesn’t make me wrong. It does make me a bad politician, but an honest one.

And isn’t that a microcosm of where we are today.

At MD Anderson, we just got finished with a bully of a president who no one would stand up to so he ran roughshod over the institution almost bringing it to the brink of financial ruin. And no one would say a word. There was definitely a need for more conflict under Dr. DePinho and I hope Dr. Pisters will welcome conflict when it arises and seek to resolve it both rapidly, amiably and fairly.

Nationally, the members of Congress have clearly all been raised on an American playground of playing nice, calling names, avoiding real confrontation to get to compromise, and in general acting like, well, kids on a playground.

Then along comes a new bully, Donald Trump, who eschews all common courtesy, creates conflict left and right, and to whom no one will stand up. It’s time Congress. Do your job!

The Congress must resolve to create compromise legislation on immigration, health care, and foreign affairs and to send that legislation to the president’s desk. Force him to sign it. If he won’t, it’s on him, but Congress do your job. Legislate through the conflict. Show that you still got it—if you do!

Switzerland may be famous for being neutral in war, but clearly less so in the mini-wars on the playground. America could use a little more feistiness, a lot more real and transparent conflict, and a tutorial or two in how to resolve the conflict without fists or a government shutdown.

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