Politics and Existentialism: Zhi Mian and United States Politics—Part 1: Facing Conflict and Disagreement Directly
United States politics is fraught with conflict and disagreement as is evident even to the casual observer. These are natural occurrences in all organizations and political systems. They can be used poorly or for gain. Often, disagreement and conflict, when handled properly, can encourage creativity and development. When handled poorly, they can stifle any growth or development. Rarely in our political system do we witness them being used well today.
Stages of Conflict
Speed Leas (2002) developed a model for the levels of conflict based upon his work with churches, but it has relevance well beyond this setting. Although, as with any stage model, it has its limitations, it can help illuminate a common progression witness during the presidential and other political campaigns.
According to Leas, prior to the emergence of conflict, the focus typically is on sharing one’s ideas. Gradually, there is a shift to critiquing the ideas or others and/or defending one’s ideas. As the conflict escalates, the focus becomes being critical of the other person and defending oneself. Already at this point, the content is no longer the central focus; instead, the focus is now on the individuals in conflict. Often, this is where attacks on the person’s character emerge. As the conflict escalates, the desire is to emotionally or physically harm the other person, often reaching a point of intractability, where it seems impossible to continue to work collaboratively together.
More than three presidential elections ago, I began teaching about models of conflicts during a presidential campaign. I found that the campaign provided great illustrations of the levels of conflict. Since this time, I have observed each political election in relation to these stages of conflict. Not surprisingly, the model fits quite well, although there have been some changes over time. With each subsequent election cycle, it seems that the candidates move more quickly through the stages of conflict.
“I Am Not a Role Model”
Conflict is big entertainment in the United States. It sells our reality TV, sports, news media, and our politics. It often seems that the more sensationalized the conflict, the more interest. Yet, conflict in politics is much different than conflict in reality TV, and it is a sad state when they begin resembling each other. When Charles Barkley was playing in the NBA, he famously noted, “I am not a role model.” It is also sad when we need to urge our politicians, who should be role models, to make the same disclaimer.
Politicians today regularly model a type of violence to our children: an emotional violence. This violence can be extremely painful and leave deep, emotional scars just like physical violence. However, there is a more disturbing side to this. If you were to put children and even many young adults in similar conflicts in terms of the level and intensity, many would lack the resources to keep the violence at the verbal level. Politicians have years of practice at dealing with this conflict and have a constant support system surrounding them as outlets to vent and reminders to watch their tongue. In a very real way, it can be argued that politicians routinely model styles of conflict and behaviors that could easily be translated into physical violence if the individuals and contexts were changed. We ought to expect more from our political leaders. We ought expect from our politicians that they are able to deal with conflict in an honest, diplomatic, and respectful manner.
Zhi Mian and Political Conflict
…we must dare look things in the face before we dare think, speak, act, or assume responsibility. If we dare not even look, what else are we good for? (Lu Xun, 1925/1961, p. 198)
Zhi mian is a concept that is becoming better known in the existential literature in the United States. It is being popularized through Xuefu Wang (2011), who has introduced the term from the writing of Chinese literary figure Lu Xun. This term can be translated as “to face directly,” and symbolizes a unity of facing oneself, others, and life directly, honestly, and with integrity. This is lacking in United States politics.
Instead of looking honestly at conflict, it is routinely distorted and spun for political gain. Taking responsibility for one’s mistakes in most situations is considered political suicide. It is more advantageous to distort, deceive, and lie than to apologize or own one’s mistakes.
If we were to zhi mian United States politics, even if just related to political conflict, it would require radical change in the behaviors of politicians and the news media. It would encourage asking what we can learn or gain as a country from these conflicts instead of focusing on how it can be used to the advantage of a politician or a political party. It would require listening to the other perspective and reflecting upon our own. It would require much of what Schneider (2004) advocates for his existentially rooted awe-based approach to politics.
My dream for United States politics is that we could attract and elect politicians that I would want my children to see as role models. However, today, I am embarrassed to say, politicians are one of the last professions to which I would look for role models for my children. If my children emulated many of the behaviors of politicians they would be sent to time out or grounded. It is sad when our children are the role models of morality for our politicians.
Leas, S. B. (2002). Moving your church through conflict. Bethesda, MD: Alban Institute.
Lu Xun (1961). On looking facts in the face. In Y. Xianyi & G. Yang (Eds. & Trans.) Lu Xun selected works (Vol. 2). Beijing, China: Foreign Language Press. (Original work published in 1919)
Schneider, K. J. (2004). Rediscovery of awe: Splendor, mystery, and the fluid center of life. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House.
Wang, X. (2011). Zhi mian and existential psychology. The Humanistic Psychologist, 39, 20-246.
-- Louis Hoffman