By Bill Southworth

We live in a world full of conflict. Look at the headlines of national and local newspapers. It's all around us -- at home, in our neighborhood, at school, in town, on the highway -- nationally and internationally. Deborah Tannen, a linguist at Georgetown University, refers to this situation in her book The Argument Culture. Conflict is a fact, and usually a very unpleasant part of life that not many people enjoy, particularly if they are on the receiving end.

To simply declare that conflict is a fact of life does not mean we should ignore it, nor does it mean it can't be changed. Like so many things that impact our lives in adverse ways, we need to understand how conflict happens in order to change it. Understanding can be the first step and often the best way to prevent difficulties from turning into conflict.

One of the reasons we get into conflict is of our own doing. We have a tendency to separate people on the basis of their differences: e.g. opinions, income, race, religion, political views, and age, physical and mental health. The problem is not that there are differences, but rather how we deal with those differences. We so often choose to separate and exclude on the basis of differences in ways that are harmful, even cruel, rather than look for similarities and reasonable ways to associate. Our excluding limits where people can live, what jobs they can have, what education they are allowed, whom they should marry, even how they should worship. We not only exclude on a personal level, but also on a societal, national and international level. "My way or the highway" is a familiar approach to differences of opinion and beliefs. If life were only that simple!

Why do we exclude people on the basis of these differences? One reason is comfort. We are more comfortable with people who think, live, and act like us and have a similar background in terms of income, race, religion, age, etc. Another reason is safety and security. We feel safer being with people like us because we are more familiar with their ways and so we know what to expect. People who are different can seem threatening so we lump them into categories such as others, them, or even the enemy, all terms that exclude people who are different and eliminate opportunities to understand each other. It's quicker to lump people into the other category so we can set them aside. Why waste the time to deal with them, let alone understand them, if it's easier to ignore and exclude them.

So, is there a problem of associating with similar people? In some instances it's not a problem and no one is harmed. It is also a fundamental right; the freedom to associate with people of our own choosing. The problem lies in those instances where we use differences to discriminate and limit other people's choices. (e.g. to get a decent education and job, to live in a pleasant and safe neighborhood, to hold views that are different from ours.) The problem lies in not taking the time to listen, so we might begin to understand, broaden our ways of thinking about issues and find common interests and concerns.