Action and Inaction

Many modern disputes are seemingly intractable. Israelis v Palestinians, Greek Cypriots v Turkish Cypriots, Greece v (FYR)Macedonia, Orangemen v Garvaghy Road residents – all make regular appearances in the headlines. They often disguise subtler, more fundamental disputes, such as the relationship between church and state, the legitimacy of power, and the nature of society.

In many such cases, a minority is disadvantaged in some way, but the only fair solution appears to be to change the entire system. The majority who do just fine out of the current system are thus upset that they are being forced to change at the behest of a minority concern. In others, one group has traditionally held more power than the other, and fears for its prospects if the balance of power is changed.

The standard, and sensible-sounding, solution is that both sides must come to the negotiating table. We usually approach negotiations from the standpoint that there are two parties, one who supports proposal A (the thesis) and another who supports proposal B (the antithesis). They then sit down and trade off various things until they come up with a proposal C (the synthesis) which both can (perhaps reluctantly) support.

But this assumes that both sides are motivated to negotiate because the fourth alternative of inaction is unacceptable to both parties. If one of the proposals is itself “do nothing” then this model breaks down. The “inaction” party can simply refuse to engage for as long as they like, until the “action” party either gives up or resorts to extreme measures (such as violence). This is how revolutions happen. In many cases the “inaction” party are not being wilfully stubborn, they just don’t comprehend that there is a problem in the first place. If the “action” party resorts to extreme measures, then the “inaction” party feel justified in treating them as malcontents or criminals. This is how counter-revolutions happen.

We need a better framework for action/inaction disputes.

(This post is based on a comment I made on Ian Parsley’s blog)

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