And then there is utopia – a Panglossian utopia – where we live in harmony for ever and ever amen, sans rancour, argument, disagreement or… conflict.
But what of the scientific method, Hegel and his dialectic, of opposing ideologies and beliefs, of two steps forward and one step back, and of what goes round, comes round? Or of T. S. Eliot’s “in my beginning is my end”? And of the literary, musical and mythical opposites which are an inevitable reflection of ourselves and with which we somehow have to come to terms: Jekyll and Hyde; Narziß and Goldmund; Eusebius and Florestan; the Apollonian and Dionysian?
Amongst all of this as well, in its centenary year, is W. B. Yeats’ vision of things falling apart and the continued challenge posed by those with conviction and passionate intensity, offset by a highly unlikely Second Coming. Not to forget the ancient Chinese curse of living in “interesting times”.
I am tempted. Tempted to believe – hope – that choosing between utopia or a conflicted dystopian alternative is a false dichotomy. So rather than conflict, think of it as compromise and, in turn, of how you frame the argument. For argument it is, in its non-confrontational sense. However, calling it compromise immediately brings to mind notions of giving in, the worst of all worlds and the rather narrow interpretation of “the art of the deal” which is currently in vogue and which is all about winners – well, one particular winner – and losers. Far more attractive and much more engaging are these ideas: consensus, accommodation, win-win, gentleman’s agreement, meeting in the middle; and maybe unfashionably, the super-ego as the broker between the ego and the id.
So we haven’t outgrown conflict and in fact need it. In spite of its reputation, “conflict” can imply something other than pejorative and threatening. According to the Oxford University Press online dictionary, these are some of the ways in which the word can be applied: “bewildered by his own inner conflict, he could only stand there feeling vulnerable”; “there was a conflict between her business and domestic life”; “’parents’ and children’s interests sometimes conflict”; and “the date for the match conflicted with a religious festival”. These examples of conflict seem pretty OK to me. What is associated with the dangerous is the more familiar sense of “armed conflict”.
Thus, it is to do with nuance and degree; stepping away from physicality back into reasoned debate and discussion. If you strip away the conditioned response to “conflict”, there emerges something more productive that is to do with positive results, beneficial outcomes and mutuality.
And storytelling? I find myself thinking about other sorts of arguments that structure “conflict”. Thesis, antithesis and synthesis; exposition, development and recapitulation in the sonata form of classical music; critical writing, the essence of which is to compare, contrast and hypothesise; the good guy/bad guy in many a newspaper story; and the comeuppance of the villain in any detective story worth its salt, where good is pitched against bad, leading to punishment, justice and possible redemption.
Are there any exceptions? That is way above my pay grade! But I am sceptical for a reason that can be easily verified. It is this. Find a story, article or other piece of writing which you believe to be conflict or argument-free. Then do a word-search for the discourse markers – connecting words – which are used to compare and contrast and which therefore, implicitly or explicitly, point to some form of argument, debate, disagreement or conflict. These words and expressions can include “however”, “nevertheless”, “on the other hand”, “notwithstanding”, “in contrast” and “in comparison”. I am not placing any bets on whether you have found find these terms. But if I were to, I’d be surprised not to scoop the jackpot!
Let us also comfort ourselves by remembering that, in the event of my losing, the exception proves the rule and that, in any case, it’s hardly breaking some unknown universal law about the immutability of conflict as a necessary ingredient in storytelling and argumentative writing.
What, then, of the world in which we live today? Of history unfolding, which will one day become tomorrow’s stories about all of our yesterdays?
It is easy to persuade ourselves that we live in seminal times. But it does feel as if there is something millenarian about current events, in which we are on a war footing that is reminiscent of the fabricated antagonism between Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia in George Orwell’s 1984.
It doesn’t need to be this way.
I will refrain from mentioning names, but here in the UK we have a politician who has gained my respect. His is a rare voice – the voice of the centre, of reason and of common sense. True, there is an element of compromise when he urges parties on both sides of public debate to come together and seek consensus, on the assumption that no-one gets everything they want. However, it is a refreshing circumvention of the endless treadmill of winners pitted against losers and a reminder that conflict can be resolved amicably.
So let’s hear it for consensus over compromise. Conflict there surely will be. But that is what can lead to consensus. Which is why I, an unreconstructed optimist, feel inclined to finish with the words of Julian of Norwich (1342-1416): “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”