Escalation & De-escalation
When people talk about conflict escalation, we mean that not only is there an increase in intensity in the conflict, but that the tactics being used become more intense. Changes in intensity are driven by interactions and reactions, by external forces and the involvement of more people – for as conflicts escalate, more people tend to get involved. While escalation does not always lead to violence, the threat of violence or harsher sanctions tend to increase. If there is violence, given the increasing number of people involved, the propensity for violence to be more widespread increases also
This is why understanding the stages of escalation becomes important for a number of reasons, but most importantly if our role is to de-escalate (reduce intensity) of the conflict, we need to know when (or if) we can get involved, and how.
- From a third side, we can hope to see at what stage a conflict is at (and hence determine our role)
- If we understand how conflict can escalate, we need the people involved to see how escalated conflict reduces their options for voluntarily reaching agreements (see below)
- Recognising that conflict, even very small disputes, given time or external pressures or pre-existing relationships, can escalate.
- Preventing conflict is easier than dealing with conflict
- Where possible, de-escalation is preferable to mediation or other dispute resolutions
It should be noted that not every conflict escalates. Travellers have managed, and continue to manage, conflicts in many ways to ensure that escalation does not occur, for example:
- People recognise that differences need to be resolved in order to reduce tensions
- Elders play a calming influence in striking bargains to reduce tensions
- In the past, families moved to avoid tensions developing (which has become close to impossible with the criminalizing of nomadism)
- Fair fights were often used as a means of resolving disputes- however, recently, have been linked to escalations in conflict
What happens when Conflict Escalates
There are a number of models that try to capture what happens when conflict escalates. Two that are complimentary are the model by Pruitt and Rubin and the classic model of Glasl.
For Pruitt and Rubin (www.beyondintractability.org) there are five stages in escalated conflict:
- Parties move from light tactics to heavy tactics. Light tactics include such things as persuasive arguments, promises, efforts to please the other side, while heavy tactics include threats, power plays, and even violence.
- The conflict grows in size. The numbers of issues in contention expands, and parties devote more resources to the struggle.
- Issues move from specific to general, and the relationship between the parties deteriorates. Parties develop grandiose positions, and often perceive the other side as “evil.”
- The number of parties grows from one to many, as more and more people and groups are drawn into the conflict.
- The goal of the parties changes from “doing well” to winning, and finally, to hurting the other.
Glasl’s model of Escalation aims to provide greater awareness of the steps one should take care to avoid if one wants to prevent a conflict from escalating out of control. Rather than seeking causes in the individuals, the model emphasizes how there is an internal logic to conflict relationships, stemming from the failure of “benign” ways of handling contradictory interests and standpoints. Conscious efforts are needed in order to resist the escalation mechanisms, which are seen as having a momentum of their own. There are nine stages, the first three allow for people to de-escalate through their own actions (self-help). However once conflict tactics are deployed, outside supports are needed, which may or may not include roles that people from the Local Traveller Organisation can play
Thomas Jordan (www.mediate.com) provides an overview of Glas’s escalation theory, which is modified and edited below:
STAGE 1: Positions Taken
The first stage of conflict escalation is when an incident has occurred and despite time or efforts to resolve, the difference remains. Positions taken means that people are hardening in their stance, fixed to certain (ideological) positions: I am right & you are wrong. At this point, intention becomes unimportant, as both sides will readily accept negatives about the other, they will struggle to accept positives. The importance for both groups is to show how they differ, and how this information the framing of the conflict for both sides.
Both sides will see each other as stubborn and may doubt that the other side sincerely wants to be part of solving this problem. However, there is still some communication at this stage. It escalates to stage two when one or both parties lose the belief that it can be solved through fair discussion.
When straight argumentation is abandoned in favour of tactical and manipulative argumentative tricks, the conflict slips into stage 2.
STAGE 2: Positions Polarise
The dispute is no longer just about the specific issue – it moves from the specific to the general, and with that, people (including their standing, identity and power) are now at stake. In order to protect their positions, people will hold to everything they have and not engage in meaningful debate for fear they weaken their own position. Often discussions will in fact argue less about substantive underlying issues at hand, but on “who started it”, appeals to outside authorities to shore up positions, ridiculing the opposition’s position in order appear reasonable. Neither side is now willing to compromise for fear of showing weakness so there is at least dialogue and communication, albeit limited.
When one party feels that further talking is useless, and start acting without consulting the other side, the conflict slips into stage 3.
STAGE 3: Act, not Talk
At stage 3, the parties no longer believe that further talk will resolve anything, and they shift their attention to actions. Things that people share (common interests, shared spaces etc) are put to one side, and now people see only competitors
In order to regain Power To people go to get what they want done, and don’t want to be seen to giving into pressure from the other side. This will usually mean that previous verbal agreements are no longer seen as valid or to be trusted, and once trust completely breaks down, conflict quickly escalates
The threshold to stage 4 is veiled attacks on the counterpart’s social reputation, general attitude, position and relationship to others. “Deniable punishment behaviour” (see below) is a characteristic sign of slipping into stage 4.
STAGE 4: Deploy Conflict Tactics
At stage 4 the conflict is no longer about concrete issues, but about victory or defeat. Defending one’s reputation is a major concern. It is at this stage that conflict parties start to attribute collective characteristics both to members of the other side and to in-group members (“we do this”…”they do that”). The negative other-image comprises prejudices and attributions of motives and intentions, but does not yet, as in stage 5, deny the basic moral integrity of the counterpart as someone deserving to be treated justly (see below).
However the negative image is the frame that people use when interacting with each other and stops people from seeing each other as individuals with similarly complex needs and wants. If presented with how they are viewed by the other side, each party will reject that simplified view for themselves, but will apply it to the other side.
In this stage, the parties actively try to enlist support from bystanders. Actions to enhance one’s image in the eyes of others are planned and implemented. The parties also consciously seek to stage their confrontations in public, in order to recruit supporters.
The threshold to stage 5 is constituted by acts that lead to a public loss of face for one or both parties. If the basic honour of someone is offended repeatedly and deliberately, in particular in a public setting, the conflict is highly likely to slip into stage 5.
STAGE 5: Loss of Face
The transition to stage 5 is particularly dramatic. The word “face” signifies here the basic status a person has in their community. The public loss of status polarises people as the action creating this means that positions the parties hold are no longer regarded in terms of superiority and inferiority, but in terms of good and evil.
One’s own side is a representative of the good forces in the world, whereas the other side represents the destructive, subhuman, and bestial forces. The counterpart is no longer only irritating and denying basic needs, but something almost evil. incompetence and the irritating behaviours of the other. In stage 5 the image of the counterpart centers on the moral inferiority attributed to the other. The conflict is no longer about concrete issues, but about the absolute moral matters and values of who is right and wrong.
The transformation of the image of the other side drastically increases the role of negative expectations and suspiciousness. All seemingly constructive moves of the counterpart are dismissed as deceptions, while one single negative incident is conclusive proof of the true nature of the other. This leads to a situation where it is extremely difficult to build mutual confidence. The gestures needed for establishing minimal trust in the sincerity of the other side become extreme, and are often felt to be humiliating. For example, in order to prove a sincere constructive intention, one side might be asked to make a public apology for past statements. However, the parties often fear that such concessions would be interpreted as weakness or culpability, and that they would further damage one’s public status. In this deadlock, denigrating the other side may be the only visible option for gaining a moral upper hand.
Incidents leading to loss of face are usually followed by dedicated attempts by the parties to rehabilitate their public reputation of integrity and moral credibility. Such efforts may now dominate the conflict process. Loss of face, and ensuing retaliatory acts often isolate the conflict parties from bystanders. This may further exacerbate the escalation mechanisms, because the opportunities for getting tempering feedback about the conflict are reduced.
The threshold to stage 6 is felt to be less dramatic than to stage 5. When the parties start to issue ultimatums and strategic threats, the conflict enters stage 6.
STAGE 6: Threats as a Strategy
People are now trapped in conflict and the only way they can “win” is to force the other side to comply with their wishes. Both sides will often issues threats to show they will not budge or lose credibility. Often these threats are issued as ultimatums- either you do this or else..
Once these threats are made, both sides are rapidly losing any control they may have had on the situation. Both sides essentially force the other to respond more radically and increase the likelihood of violence- as we know a threat to violence only is credible if people are willing to carry it out (see Power section).
Threats ultimately lead to one party feeling that in order to avoid these threats being carried out, they need to weaken the other side, which leads to stage 7
STAGE 7: Limited Destructive Blows
It is no longer possible for either side to see a solution that includes their opposite party. Both sides now seek to eliminate the opposition by targeted attacks aiming to maim the other. The counterpart is now a pure enemy, and has no longer human qualities. No human dignity stands in the way of the attacks, the enemy is just an object standing in the way. This may go as far as using words like “eliminate” and “exterminate” when discussing what to do. Targets may be property, including cars, trailers and horses.
The attacks lead to retaliations, often even more destructive. In the frustrated situation, attacks may generate feelings of being powerful and in control, thus giving secondary benefits that reinforce further escalation. The calculation of consequences becomes increasingly skewed: the losses of the counterpart are counted as gains, even though they don’t give any benefits whatsoever in terms of one’s own interests and needs. The parties may be prepared to suffer losses, if only there are prospects that the enemy will suffer even larger losses. Malice may become a powerful motive.
The objectives now revolve around neutralising the firepower of the counterpart, and thereby secure one’s own survival. Superiority is sought in order to ensure ability to block the counterpart in a longer-term perspective.
There is no longer any real communication. At stage 6 the threat strategies build upon at least a minimum of communication: one must know if the counterpart rejects or accept an ultimatum. In stage 7 each party is only concerned with expressing their own message, and they don’t care about how it is received, or what the response might be. Threats followed by immediate interruption of communication is a sign of stage 7 dynamics.
At this stage ethical norms are subsumed under more pressing concerns. At earlier stages the parties exploited gaps in the norms, now they are cast aside if they are bothersome. This is war, and normal rules do not apply.
The parties see that it is no longer possible to win. It is a lose-lose struggle. Survival and less damage than the counterpart suffers are the main goals.
The threshold to stage 8 is attacks that are directly aimed at the core of the counterpart, attacks that are intended to shatter the enemy or destroy his vital systems.
STAGE 8: the Goal is to destroy
At this stage the attacks intensify and aim at destroying the basis of power of the adversary. Negotiators, representatives and leaders may be targeted, in order to destroy their legitimacy and power in their own camp. The system that keeps the counterpart coherent is attacked, hoping that the very identity of the other side will crumble so that it falls apart.
When a party is attacked in a way that threatens to shatter it, it is forced to make strong efforts to suppress internal conflicts. This increases the stress and the internal pressure within the parties, and leads to an even stronger pressure to undertake further attacks on the other side. The parties fall apart into factions that fight each other, making the situation completely uncontrollable.
The attacks on the counterpart targets all signs of vitality. The main objective is now to destroy the existence basis of the adversary. The only restraining factor is the concern for one’s own survival.
The threshold to stage 9 is reached when the self-preservation drive is given up. When this happens, there is no check at all on further destructiveness.
STAGE 9: Together into the Abyss
In the last stage of conflict escalation, the drive to annihilate the enemy is so strong that even the self-preservation instinct is neglected. Not even one’s own survival counts, the enemy shall be exterminated even at the price of destruction of one’s own very existence as an organization, group, or individual. Ruin, bankruptcy, prison sentences, physical harm, nothing matters any longer.
All bridges are burnt, there is no return. A total war of destruction without scruples and remorse is waged. There are no innocent victims, no neutral parties. The only remaining concern in the race towards the abyss is to make sure that the enemy will fall too.
If we look at Glasl’s model above, we can see that as conflict escalates, the range of options available to the participants to take voluntary non-adversarial approaches narrows towards involuntary adversarial approaches (from self-help to the imposition of court orders by the criminal justice system). As conflict escalates it similarly places limits on potential third side roles a Traveller organisation can take (link to roles)
If we look at escalation, we can easily see how a small issue can in fact lead through these stages.
In this theoretical example, an issue on a site between children leads to a confrontation between parents. If there is an underlying tension on the site an individual issue might become a family issue with past traumas revisited, leading to an expansion of who is involved, leading to violence and destruction of property- which are close to the models outlined above.