Discover more from The Medicine of Understanding
Stepping Back to Step Through
What software programming can teach us about conflict resolution.
They say “Talk about what you know.”
By that, most of us, unarguably, would have little to say about most conflicts and injustices in the world. By that, the best way I can speak from a place of authenticity and integrity into such a raw and livid wound is through what I do know. I spent a decade of my professional life as a programmer or software developer. In reality, what this means is you spend a lot of time getting frustrated about things not working the way you expected and being at great pains to work out why. The modality that software developers use is called debugging; you have to stop seeing the error as a failure, punishment, or injustice—it can feel that way, in every way—but that stance simply does not help you get one inch closer to a solution. So much of what went wrong is a lack of context and perspective, accidents of language and haste, and all the other typical classes of ways humans are susceptible to flawed reasoning.
What is happening in the Middle East right now, is not nothing.
It is the coming to a head of what happens when two people are indifferent to each other’s needs, justified by rigid belief in their own story.
There are wounds and grievances on both sides, which can never cancel each other out, but which cannot be justifications for further escalation or retaliation without simply and inevitably underscoring the justification for escalation and retaliation from the other.
But, what we should all be noticing now, is the sameness of it; The pattern, that plays out again and again:
The sameness of how the media amplifies and agitates. The sameness of how the self-appointed mouthpieces of moral authority rush to condemn or to pass their opinion as unequivocal judgment. The sameness of how the rest of us get drawn into factions, manipulated by the gentleness of our hearts into compounding the problem and making resolution more intractable than ever.
The conflict and human suffering, the risks, are not nothing. We cannot be indifferent, but we have to realise how captured we become by the vortex of emotional drama and raw empathy.
The American elections, then Black Lives Matter, then COVID, then the Russia-Ukraine war, then this, then that, now Palestine, and in a few months, it will be the American elections again. These issues are not nothing either. They are deeply consequential, and they could never have remained off the front page forever.
Again, speaking about what I know, twelve years of a troubled marriage that ended in a bitter punitive divorce in which everyone lost—where there were no winners—taught me how instinctively and impulsively we can get triggered into this behaviour, foolishly believing in the moment, that what is needed is a victory secured by ever more intensity. When we are emotionally aroused, our critical thinking goes offline, and whatever behaviour we allow, readily becomes habit. Without realising it, we integrate this behaviour as the default and normalise it as a part of life. This approach never ever improved my situation. Without fail, it galvanised the other party to “up the ante” on their side, which predictably manifested as more intensity and less restraint, and so on, until everything lay in a smoking pile of blood and rubble (metaphorically). And predictably, the innocents of the piece, the ones who were most vulnerable, helpless to prevent it and left to process their grief and find their way through the sad mess that remained. We can be too close to the drama.
All the bickering and slinging of insult and outrage, taking bad-faith jabs at each other’s morality or intelligence is unhelpful enough on its own—done when we do not understand what is happening invariably exacerbates the problem and makes strident enemies of the very people we would need to collaborate with if we were serious at all about resolution. Not only are we inevitably unaware or ignorant of the wider context and the heartfelt perspective of the other, or the truth and experience that led them to their position, but we are also unaware of how so much of our feeling is due to impulse—nothing more than an autonomic psychological gag-reflex we do not author, our responses born from raw empathy, nor how much of that is manipulated by the media and how much exacerbated by how we engage unguarded on social media.
And then we weigh in and add our noise and animus into the swirling vortex of pain and anger.
Even so, I have an enduring compassion for this. None of us arrive at our mistrusts dishonestly and we do not have other learned ways to process. Ultimately this is what we are witnessing: a processing. When humans do not know better, they resort to the means they learned by example. There are no right or only ways to process our senses of outrage, injustice, powerlessness or frustration, but there are most undoubtedly better and worse ways.
The inescapable reality is that if we cannot resolve that inner conflict inside us, moderate ourselves before we foolishly attempt to moderate the outer conversation if we cannot apply discernment and leadership internally, no amount of ire, opinion, grievance or empathy vented outwards is actually going to move the needle of the situation. The answer has to be grace. It has to involve listening. The only alternative is conflict and escalation.
A decade of social justice practised, faltering at times on the wrong side of this raw livid edge of empathy and outrage, taught us that vitriol and sanctimony, however justified, cannot be part of any mature conversation to find a way forward.
The first invitation is to not get caught up in the vortex, or, at the very least, not add to it. No one should be denied their right to have their say—this is the fundamental essence of what our notions of freedom of expression and inclusion are meant to enshrine and form the foundational cornerstone of democracy. Raw emotion, however valid, simply is not conducive to finding solutions to complicated and charged issues. A decade of social justice practised, at times faltered on the wrong side of this raw livid edge of empathy and outrage and taught us that vitriol and sanctimony, however justified, have such a reliable way of derailing any mature conversation to chart a way forward.
I invite you to take a moment to notice the sameness of it all.
We are on the threshold, on the one hand of calamity and escalation of suffering and conflict, and on the other hand, of an incredible and unprecedented level of potential and empowerment as a species. Some people will invariably be drawn deeper into the vortex of divisiveness, which will eventually reach a climax, for better or worse; that much is unavoidable. While this plays out, or perhaps even in the aftermath, what will increasingly become ever more crucial, more so than retribution and the naïve elation of a point scored for one side or the other, is real leadership: the kind of maturity that wants to survive more than it wants to be right.
It might be true that I cannot be a friend with everyone, but I can at least try to be a friend to everyone. And the world is so rarely made any safer or gentler by the adding of snide remarks or haughty opinions. We have handled each other so unkindly and ungently; always ignorant of how in our justification and wounding, simply pass the wounding on to others, who in turn were not responsible for ours. Someone has to break the chain and if it cannot start with me, with you and how we show up, especially in moments of tragedy and woe, then how and when? The one thing that remains true in any stalemate is that if there is to be any progress, there has to be change and that can only mean someone has to go first.
The punchline of this article is the idea of treating the troubling problem like a software bug, rather than a wound, or an injustice. It might manifest as the latter, but these become unskilful ways of resolving the problem or addressing the causes. The term ‘stepping through’ is a term used in software programming and debugging where the ‘run-time’ results are not aligned with our expectations or are causing errors.
When a program fails to produce the anticipated outcomes or yields errors, this term refers to the meticulous process of dissecting the code within the environment it is intended to operate. By navigating through each fragment of a subroutine incrementally, the programming exercise temporarily halts the unchecked progression of the software. This pause provides an opportunity to unearth lapses in understanding, misconceptions of scale, and imprecise applications of language. This unguarded and equanimous form of assessment allows the developer to rectify the 'bugs'—errors that often arise from flawed interpretations of language and logic, which are themselves born out of misunderstanding.
Programming is the art of algorithm design and the craft of debugging errant code.
This is the moment. And we are—the true change agents among us—being invited, not to wage and win the outer battle, but to win the inner one by being bigger than the moment.
The world's cacophony and mounting disquiet will not be silenced by louder voices or more forceful assertions but by the collective efforts of those willing to engage in the arduous task of tracing the threads of discord back to their source and rewiring the narrative. We are facing the same intricate programming bugs of our societal operating systems and their resulting conflicts. How many of us can marshal the courage and the prudence, to act not as impassioned combatants but as diligent brokers of peace?
No one else is coming, it might as well be you and I.
If this gave you perspective and helped to positively moderate your thinking, kindly share it.
I believe implicitly in the power of ideas, but I can only do so much by writing them. For the rest, I remain dependent on you and at the mercy of your goodwill.