My husband and I belong to two different schools of thought when it comes to dealing with conflict. The other day a man tried to jump the queue in the supermarket. I was about to intercept him and ask him to get back in line when my husband stopped me. He asked me to let it go. He said, “There is a difference between humans and animals. Some people are uncivilised and have no manners. If we fight with them, how are we any better?” Though that would not be my natural response, the explanation made sense. So, I didn’t push the matter any further.
Lately, confrontation has been my way of dealing with what I perceive to be a lack of regard for rules. I wasn’t always like this. For a long time, I would let these kinds of transgressions slide. Maybe, it resulted from being part of a society where the tendency to “not create a scene” is pervasive. And, phrases like “leave it be” and “anything goes” are particularly endemic. Most people think “It’s not my problem” or “There’s nothing to gain from this” and move on. But, one incident changed my perspective.
I was still in school. It was a weekend and, at around ten in the morning, a group of young men and women were talking in the building premises. There were four of them, probably, in their early to mid-twenties. The conversation, soon, turned loud enough to attract the attention of people living in the building. A few minutes later, one of the men started punching a woman from the group in full public view. The punches then turned into kicks. While there were several people observing this whole incident unfold, including the building security, not one of them said a word. I am ashamed to say that I was one such mute spectator. At this moment, my mother came to the window. The second she saw what was going on, she shouted, “Hey, what are you doing? Stop! Security, stop that man and call the police.” The assault ceased. But, now, everyone was looking at my mother. I was standing next to her. I pulled her back and said, “Why did you have to do that? No one is saying anything. Why did you have to intervene?” She told me, “He was kicking her in the stomach. Think of the consequences. Who is responsible?” At that moment, I realised that when you see someone doing something wrong, you must act to stop it. If you don’t, it is as good as condoning or, worse, partaking in the act. This made me realise that people, who have scant respect for rules or law, are bullies. When they are not opposed, they are enabled and emboldened. The reason for the assault wasn’t clear. But the degree of violence should have warranted immediate intervention.
But, the grocery store incident brought forth another perspective which also made sense. My husband believes that the best way to prevent arguments from escalating is to not indulge in them. He thinks that when someone in front of you loses their temper, the best response is to be silent. If you do that, they will eventually calm down and the situation will diffuse. I must admit I have been at the receiving end of this silent treatment several times. But, the irony is, the results haven’t really been to my husband’s liking. When I am all fired up, I don’t lose steam easily. My philosophy, on the other hand, is to give as good as you get. Living in Mahatma Gandhi’s country hasn’t brought out my peaceful side.
My mother recently told me about an incident. She and my brother were travelling by car to the market. Due to some misjudgement, the car brushed against a pedestrian. My brother, who was driving, immediately apologised. The pedestrian was unhurt but he started raising his voice and said, “If I slap you and say sorry, will you be okay with it?” My mother stepped out of the car and calmly said, “If hitting him will please you, go ahead.” The person was lost for words and just left. She told me that if she had argued with him, things would’ve escalated and gotten out of hand.
So, what is the best approach? When a conflict arises, is it better to be passive or to be aggressive? I suppose the answer lies in the situation at hand. The pros and cons of each approach need to be weighed to determine which one will yield the best result. Would wars be fought if the powers that be had carefully considered the cost and consequences? Would slavery be abolished if there was no revolt? Conflict avoidance may be the best solution in some situations but, in some situations, peace can only be achieved by conflict.
History has numerous instances where the initial strategy had to be changed to achieve the desired outcome. The anti-apartheid movement started out peacefully before resorting to an armed struggle to achieve its objective. On the other hand, the Indian independence movement began with violence but became largely peaceful towards the end. Many conflicts would be resolved if the right approach was adopted at the right time. Personalities of people involved also matter. Aggression is likely to escalate conflicts with megalomaniacs. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is a classic example. Patience may not yield results with stubborn individuals like Stalin. No one size fits all.
So, which side are you on?