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Comparisons and Conflict: Can Smarts Cause Conflicts?

There has been a lot written about conflict prevention, conflict management, and conflict resolution in the past. There will be much more written about it in the future. The army of specialists, experts, and practitioners are attracted to the problem of conflict because we are running out of space, out of resources, and out of ideas on how to achieve a peaceful coexistence among people on our progressively ‘shrinking’ planet. As much as we believe that there is nothing better than a good old competition when it comes to the advancement of new ideas, new technologies, and ever expanding world economy, somewhere on the back of our minds there is this creeping thought that we simply cannot compete all the time and that there must be some place for collaborative and cooperative enterprise.

While the concept of cooperation and collaboration is as old as humanity, it becomes often neglected, disregarded, and occasionally forgotten. It gains its importance after conflicts become too tiring, too bloody, too devastating, and too costly, when it comes to human toll and financial burden. From time to time, we refresh our memories and recall the ideas of common good, social harmony, well-ordered societies, and coexistence and then we tend to forget them as a matter of course.

The simple truth is that most conflicts are about values or resources. Conflicts are about diverse personalities, differences between genders and life styles, ethnic and national differences, cultural and religious differences, differences between the classes of property owners, and let’s not forget generational disagreements.

Social scientists like to invoke the vocabulary of stratification incorporating all types of differences mentioned above. Kenneth Cloke, who practices conflict resolution and writes about his experiences, believes that the majority of long-term, intractable conflicts can be described by three manifestations. They are social inequality, economic inequity, and political autocracy. Among many philosophers who write about the theory of justice, and philosophy of law, Thomas Nagel describes the sources of inequality by four categories: discrimination, class, talent, and effort. Stuart Hampshire, a British philosopher uses the title of his book to show the intimate relationship between Justice and Conflict. It is easy to discern that the issue of conflict is approached from a variety of directions.

Yet, often one dimension of conflict is not explicitly dealt with at all. It is the old quarrel between intellectual superiority and inferiority. Over and over again, we are witnesses to the claims of intellectual superiority followed by the standard reaction of resentment. We ponder “elitist versus egalitarian” approaches to education. We labor over the concept of merit-based as to knowledge and expertise and try to align it with the egalitarian attitude informed by access and opportunity. We talk about blue states and red states. We believe that education is the ticket to success and we often send our children to the best schools, while propagating the idea of self-esteem based on diminished expectations when it comes to children of the less fortunate. We pride ourselves in attending good schools or we believe in “street smarts.” We criticize ivory towers and occasionally claim the right to intellectual laziness.

What we don’t do is systematically look at how comparisons among people with regard to smartness and wisdom contribute to conflict across the cultures. Regardless of where we go, the issue of stupidity arises as the fault line between the sophisticated and the educated on one hand, and those who base their learning on life experience on the other hand. Snobs and rednecks, the smart and the unsophisticated, they all have something negative to say about each other. They fight and they battle, they plot against each other creating conflicts everywhere we look.

The claims of intellectual superiority cannot be easily subsumed by either the category of social stratification or by the endowment of a unique talent. We simply do not have a social organization based strictly on different levels of intelligence or on intellectual achievement. The reasons are obvious. To be endowed with intelligence and to cultivate intelligence are two different things. Learning and endowment cannot easily be tied together. Wisdom and the continuous acquisition of knowledge throughout one’s life are associated with learning and effort. Inheriting intelligence from parents and grandparents are associated with endowment. It appears as if effort and endowments are two incommensurable categories. And we don’t want to forget the difficulties cognitive scientists and research psychologists have when it comes to the assessment of intelligence with regard to different ethnic and cultural groups or the different domains of human activity. Think about the difference between abstract (mathematical) intelligence and social intelligence.

Yet, what these claims to intellectual superiority have in common with all other claims of difference (often leading to conflicts) is the relentless effort by the majority of people to compare themselves with others.

Comparisons and Conflict.

“Uniqueness and mediocrity, being better off than your neighbor, personal achievement and perfection;” all of these descriptions carry a need to compare, compete, and conquer. From class envy to all forms of discrimination the tendency to compare, compete, and conquer have left us with a bloody history. Therefore it is a good thing to have a closer look at comparisons as they contribute to conflicts.

In this article, I will not deal with comparisons based on extraordinary endowments such as good looks or musical talent. Neither will I focus on comparisons between classes based on ownership. There have been many before me who already pondered this subject. My focus is on the evaluative labels such as “smart,” “stupid,” “idiotic,” “crazy” or similar labels applied by different people with different cultural backgrounds. I am interested in judgments, which incorporate these labels as they become the basis for a potential conflict.

Especially in the Occident during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment eras, emphasis slowly moved from wisdom to smartness. Preference for rational skills such as reasoning and analysis reframed the debate about the intellectual faculties and with the arrival of psychology and cognitive sciences, the concept of intelligence replaced wisdom altogether. These days, wisdom is regaining some importance, yet it remains an elusive notion.

The problem of mediocrity and excellence never disappeared. It’s alive and well even today. The curse of mediocrity haunts many in creative communities and being average in the eyes of others is not a particularly flattering assessment. Many among us like to distinguish themselves from the rest and it is better to have your “15 minutes of fame” than to be an average Joe.

One important development occurred at the end of the 18th Century. Charles Taylor links this development to two distinctive ideas of that time, that is, to the idea of individualized identity together with the emerging concept of authenticity. Mentioning Herder, Taylor writes:

“Herder put forward the idea that each of us has an original way of being human:
each person has his or her own “measure.” ”

Once these two ideas started to resonate, the concept of being unique and assuring uniqueness by distinguishing ourselves from others could not be far away. There are not too many ways how to achieve this task and to find the measure distinguishing ourselves from others than using comparisons. There are comparisons, which make us believe that we are better than others and there are comparisons, which make us believe that we are worse than others. There are also comparisons, which lead us to believe that we are equal with others. These comparisons are not only performed by individuals. After all, we not only claim our uniqueness as the matter of our individual identity. We also identify with others and claim membership in a variety of groups, communities, and affiliations. The group conflict is a familiar story when it comes to comparing our group with other groups. Multiculturalism in America is one of those stories. Colonialism is another. The clash of civilizations by the virtue of comparisons is haunting us today as much as it did in the past. We talk about uncivilized people and underdeveloped nations. We have heard about Superior races and Chosen people. The point is that one way or another we come to believe “we are better than they are,” because we are more developed, more sophisticated, more refined, and overall we possess higher intelligence. This attitude is exercised by many groups, nations, and communities around the world.

Next to intellectual superiority based on comparison, moral superiority also becomes prevalent. “If I am good and righteous” than you must be evil, with harmful intentions. Whatever measure we take, the need to compare ourselves with others is very tempting–and the basis for a lot of conflict.


Milan Slama

Milan Slama is a practicing mediator and arbitrator in the Los Angeles area. He is a co-founder and the Board member of VBMC (Valley Bar Mediation Center). Currently he is a contractor for Los Angeles County and he also mediates for Chilren's Court.He has been associated with the LA Superior… MORE >

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