Is conflict caused by diversity?

Some white nationalists would have us believe that:

  1. Conflict is always bad;
  2. Diversity causes conflict;
  3. Therefore, diversity is bad.

However, these beliefs are based on some flawed assumptions.

Conflict per se is not ‘bad’ – it’s how we handle conflict that can cause harm.

In fact, conflict can be constructive when it’s treated as an opportunity for achieving new understandings, growth and development. It’s when people don’t talk about their differences that conflict can escalate into violence.

It’s a bit like family life – open discussion during family disagreements means all members have a chance to feel heard and learn new ways to behave. That’s crucial as children and teenagers develop and start testing boundaries! If one family member won’t listen and tries to force their opinion on everyone else, other family members are left feeling angry and resentful.

It’s the same in society – ‘healthy’ conflict gives people and groups the opportunity to explore their differences so all groups develop and grow; unhealthy conflict stifles productive discussion and can result in violence.

We often have ‘unhealthy’ reactions to conflict when we feel confused, concerned or threatened, and this leads to another flawed assumption – that diversity causes conflict. Diversity literally means differing elements and variety, and some people feel threatened by the ‘unknown’, or things they don’t understand.

In fact, diversity can be very helpful, especially when different viewpoints and experiences are involved in decision-making. We can see the benefits of this in work teams that are able to draw on a diverse range of experiences and backgrounds amongst their members.

There’s even some research suggesting that people exposed to diversity are more creative and have increased self-confidence. That’s partly because experiencing diversity first-hand can challenge unfounded stereotypical expectations, and contribute to greater tolerance and harmony.

We tend to often think about people from other groups in terms of ‘categories’ and ‘stereotypes’ to save time. Stereotypes are like mental ‘short-cuts’ – we think we know all about a different group of people based on what we’ve been told or seen in the media. A big problem with stereotypes is that they can stop us getting to know a person as an individual.

Living in a diverse society and meeting members from other cultures gives us the opportunity to stop ‘generalising’ about groups and start ‘thinking’ about individuals. This in turn can stimulate something called ‘cognitive flexibility’ which is important to open-mindedness, creative thinking and self-confidence.

Where a person’s judgment and behaviour continues to be guided by existing stereotypes without getting to know the individual, we often see misunderstandings, fear and unhealthy conflict. It also means that people are likely to give preferential treatment to members of their own groups because they feel they know them better and have more in common with them.

This could help explain results from a recent study that showed white bus drivers were more likely to let white passengers ride without a ticket compared to non-white passengers.

The researchers explained their findings as members of an ‘out group’ being considered less worthy of help compared to members of the bus drivers’ ‘in group’. However, some white nationalists claim:

‘This situation wouldn’t exist if there weren’t non-whites in the nation to discriminate against’ and talk about ‘conflict caused by diversity’.

In reality, it’s much more complicated than that.

Conflicts that are resolved peacefully are in fact good. And diversity itself doesn’t cause conflict. Diversity can actually help resolve conflict by encouraging people to develop ‘cognitive flexibility’ which in turn lets them think creatively and not rely on inconsistent stereotypes.

What are often the roots of conflict?

  • Relying on stereotypes, not making the effort to get to know individuals and missing the opportunity to learn and practise open-mindedness and ‘cognitive flexibility’.
  • Acting on potentially flawed assumptions based on misunderstandings that can be grounded in the history between two groups. We see this in conflict about more complex issues, such as limited resources and fighting for power. Diversity is not a factor because the fighting people can have the same race and speak the same language, as happened in the former Yugoslavia.