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politics, psychology

Last updated: Aug 24th, 2011


Escalation is a process by which an argument or conflict becomes more polarized and intense. Escalation can involve both words and actions. As a conflict escalates, it becomes less likely that the conflict will be resolved in a constructive way, and more likely that the conflict will end in violence. In large-scale armed conflicts, escalation can lead to progressively larger scales of violence and destruction. Escalation of rhetoric can also lead towards extremism.

Escalation of conflict is an irrational process, based on irrational thoughts, and it leads to an outcome that has negative consequences to all parties involved. The thought patterns that are involved in escalating conflicts are also characteristic of both anxiety and depression, so when extremist and polarized thinking becomes embraced in mainstream society, it predisposes people to the destructive thinking characteristic of anxiety and depression, which can have sweeping negative impacts all throughout society. Learning to prevent or reverse escalation can have huge benefits. The opposite of escalation is called de-escalation.

Escalation in Political Debate:

Escalation is a common problem in the political debate in the U.S. and many other countries. In the U.S., this problem is particularly rampant because of the dominance of the two-party system, which provides some sort of structured institutional support for a black-and-white way of looking at things. I believe party loyalty is tied to escalation, and thus has a negative impact on society.

When the political debate becomes overly negative, hostile, and irrational, it causes a variety of sweeping problems across society:

How to prevent or stop escalation (De-escalation):

Preventing escalation of a conflict in which you are personally involved is actually relatively easy and straightforward, but it involves an approach that many people are hesitant to take. If you are involved in a conflict, you can prevent escalation by listening, taking responsibility, and acting generously and kindly. Here are some things to think about that I find give me peace of mind and help me to bring a calm, constructive perspective to conflicts:

Knowing when to remove yourself from a conflict is a key aspect to de-escalation, both when dealing with a one-on-one confrontation, or a larger political debate. If you sense yourself beginning to become agitated, irritated, or frustrated, it is a sign that it is time to remove yourself from the debate or discussion and re-center yourself in a positive place. If you feel yourself getting angry or depressed, you are long past this point--take a serious break and do not hurry to return. But do not give up in the long-run: once you regain your composure and are again feeling positive, hopeful, confident, and respectful of others, come back to the debate and offer your perspective.

For Political Participation:

Choose where to participate. Some communication media lend themselves more to escalation, whereas others are better at promoting genuine dialogue. As a general rule, I find that the more personal a forum is, the more constructive the dialogue tends to be, whereas impersonal communities such as unmoderated anonymous online forums tend to be the worst in terms of escalation. Rather than wasting your time participating on unmoderated forums where escalation runs rampant and extremists go unchecked, consider spending less time online and more time talking to people you like and trust, face-to-face, about politics. You will find it a lot easier to keep the debate positive if you have strong personal bonds with the people you are discussing things with.

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