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This article is adapted from High Conflict by Amanda Ripley. Copyright © 2021 by Amanda Ripley. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc. All rights reserved.
On Wednesday, April 28, at noon Eastern Amanda Ripley will discuss High Conflict with former Slate Editor David Plotz. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
For 200 years, no wolves had been seen in Denmark. Then, in 2012, birdwatchers spotted a wolf trotting along in the countryside, having crossed over from Germany. Soon, a female appeared. Five years later, seven wolf puppies were seen romping across the land, like they belonged there. Now that qualified as a “pack.”
Very quickly, people started to argue about the wolves, which were popping up all over northern Europe. Farmers resented the animals for attacking their livestock. So did hunters, who were not allowed, under European Union law, to kill the wolves. Other people, especially (but not exclusively) environmentalists, protested any attempts to harm the wolves. They celebrated their return, pointing out that wolves rarely attacked humans.
This conflict was, in many places, healthy. Questions got asked. Opinions were complex. People could tolerate hearing one another, even as they continued to disagree. It was what you might call “good conflict.”
But then, as often happens these days, the wolf conflict began to take on a life of its own.
Conspiracy theories sprang up. In Denmark, a van was said to have crossed the border from Germany and released the wolves on purpose. In France, 50 angry farmers kidnapped the head of a national park in the Alps, holding him overnight and demanding that six wolves in the park be killed. The head of an anti-wolf group called “Wolf-Free Denmark” quit after receiving death threats.
One day in 2018, two naturalists were filming Denmark’s only female wolf when a man driving by leaned out of his window and shot the animal to death. The resulting video went viral online.
Actual differences of opinion became less important than the conflict itself, which gradually became its own reality. This is what’s known as “high conflict,” the kind with an us and a them. It “exceeds itself,” as Danish social scientist Hans Peter Hansen describes the wolf controversy. “Everything is magnified.”
High conflict is very hard to resist in our current culture, for many reasons. But I’ve spent the past four years following people and communities who have found ways to shift out of high conflict into good conflict, and there is hope. It can be done. There is a smarter way to fight—and a much less miserable way to live. I followed politicians, activists, former gang members and guerrilla fighters and all manner of people who have made this shift, and there were important patterns, things they all did, despite their very different contexts.
There are a dozen important lessons, but the story of one rural town in Western Denmark, near the home territory of the wolf pack, captures half of them. About four years ago, Hansen and a couple other social scientists invited everyone in this town to a meeting about the wolves.
Fifty-one locals showed up, including farmers, students, and hunters. There was a mix of opinions and plenty of anxiety and frustration. Things could have gone badly, or nowhere at all (the most common outcome of such meetings, no matter how well-intentioned).
Hansen, who has a white beard, a cheerful smile and a longstanding fascination with conflict over natural resources, thanked everyone for coming. Then he did something strategic: he reminded everyone of their shared identities, alongside their differences.
“We have two things in common,” he said. Everyone listened, wondering what these things could possibly be.
“First, we have nature in common. We all breathe the same air.” No one disagreed.
“And the future. The future is something we have in common.”
It sounds trivial, but this small step—to acknowledge any common identity—is a good way to start such a conversation.
Then, together, they started to investigate the understory of their conflict—the thing that it’s really about, not the thing everyone keeps talking about. This is another critical step in getting out of high conflict.
What bothered people about the wolf situation, Hansen asked? People called out every complaint they had. The wolves were destroying people’s livelihoods. The politicians didn’t understand the hunters. The farmers were exaggerating the danger. Hansen and his team wrote each lament in big letters on posted sheets of paper.
“Instead of avoiding the conflict, we confronted it,” he said. Some people said they’d stopped talking about the wolves in public because they didn’t want to be labeled one way or another. “There was a kind of ambivalence,” Hansen said, which was a good sign. No one fit perfectly into one group. No one ever does.
People may have arrived thinking of the conflict as a binary one, between the wolf haters and the wolf lovers, but the conversation helped to surface real complexity. There were not two sides. There were many. And some of them overlapped.
Slowly, people started to feel heard, so they could listen. Importantly, no experts or politicians were invited to that first meeting. Such people were not trusted, not yet. Regular people are the experts in their own lives, and so they were asked to tell personal stories, not intellectual or political ones.
Everyone then identified the one or two concerns that bothered them most. This helped clear out some of the noise. Slowly, they felt comfortable enough to start to say more complicated, uncomfortable things. Many were afraid to let their kids play in the woods. Others were afraid for the future. “Anxiety and fear were a much bigger issue than we thought from the beginning,” Hansen said.
In every high conflict I’ve seen, fear is lurking underneath. Until it gets excavated, it’s hard for the conflict to go anywhere. At a deeper level, the wolf conflict had to do with people’s sense of the world and their role in it. For some, the wolves (and the rules against killing them) undermined not just their income stream but their sense of autonomy. They thought of themselves as self-sufficient people who protected their land, livestock, and family from all manner of natural forces. In their minds, nature was to be controlled by humans, not the other way around. The laws, in this view, represented yet another example of elites telling them what to do, with complete disregard for the realities of their lives. In this way, some people saw the wolves the way others saw mask mandates during the pandemic—as an affront to their freedom and even their masculinity. “Real men shoot wolves,” one bumper sticker declared.
For other people, the wolves represented the purity of nature, of a lost utopia. The animals’ return to Europe offered a glimmer of hope, in this view, a sign that Mother Nature may yet recover from human harm. Any attempt to hurt the wolves represented yet another manifestation of human bigotry and destruction—an affront to deeply held values about the sanctity of nature.
After that first meeting, most people signed up to continue the conversations, known thereafter as the Wolf Dialogue Project. Before each subsequent meeting, over the course of several years, the group ate dinner together. (This is another baby step out of high conflict, maybe the easiest one.) Food is something we all enjoy, like air. It’s an obvious way to create a shock absorber.
Once they’d shared all of their fears about the wolf conflict, people were asked to imagine a better scenario. Anything was possible! The crazier the better. What would they do?
People came up with wild ideas. Maybe they could create a zip line into the wolf territory and make money off the tourism. Or implant chips in the wolves so all the locals could tell where they were through an app on their phone. Or maybe they could make the wolves vegetarian (my personal favorite). Then everyone would be happy!
In this way, the group created a little breathing room. In that space, they could get more practical, and they did. People did not have to like one another, Hansen kept reminding the everyone. The goal was understanding, not friendship—not even agreement. They are not the same thing.
As they talked, they came up with a list of 50 questions they wanted answered—about the biology and behavior of the wolves, the details of the relevant laws, and all manner of things. They researched the answers themselves or agreed upon experts who could be trusted to help them find the answers.
This is another key step in shifting out of high conflict: Incite curiosity. It is contagious. Honest questions can make conflict suddenly interesting again.
Six months later, the group presented what they’d found to the wider community. More than 100 people came, including journalists from several TV news outlets. “It was very beautiful,” Hansen said. “Not that everything was just ‘peace and harmony,’ but we’d managed to find a way forward.” They were not stuck in high conflict anymore.
Next, the group invited national policy makers to come meet with them. It took some time, but the officials did eventually make the trip out to this remote town for not one but two meetings. The Danish government began working on a new wolf management plan, and ideas from the wolf project made their way into that national process.
The conflict and the conversations continue. The wolf project was never meant to change people’s minds. It was about creating a common sense of responsibility for the problem— and the solutions. It was about shifting out of high conflict and honoring good conflict.