In Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky says, “Conflict is the essential core of a free and open society.” At first, this seemed to me like a strange sentiment. In conflict, people get hurt. But then I realised that “conflict” is a class of activity, an umbrella term containing acts of varying degrees of intensity. Sure, conflict can be a fist to the jaw. But conflict can also be a verbal challenge, the open statement of doubt, a determination to see proof of the absence of harm or a demand for evidence of concrete benefit. However, I don’t think Alinsky went far enough. He states that conflict is an essential good for the collective, for society and culture at large. It’s more than that. Conflict is the essential core of a free and open mind.
All the people that I, one, know, and two, admire, either via intimate acquaintance or vicarious experience of their thought, share a trait—they are conflicted. Their minds are gore-stained battlefields on which ideas, perspectives and emotions fight for glory or to avoid death. “Conflicted”, for them, is not a temporary status, but a perpetual one.
Further, consider that the primary mission of the worst kinds of societies—dictatorships and tyrannies—and the worst kinds of minds—the closed and the certain—is to maintain control via the suppression of dissent and disorder. Conflicts with the ruling authority, however small or large, are met with severe and disproportionate retribution. For example, the assassination of Enrst vom Rath, a Third Reich diplomat, by Herschel Grynszpan, a seventeen year-old Jew, in Paris was cause for Nazi authorities to green light Kristallnacht—a citizen led and government encouraged pogrom against Jews living in Germany in 1938. The death of one Nazi was met with the death of hundreds of Jews.
Conflict, within society and within the minds of society’s inhabitants, is like a fire. On the largest scale—that of state-versus-state warfare—it burns and maims and consumes, sometimes irreversibly. But at lesser levels it is not so much the harbinger of destruction as a reliable source of heat and light for all in the vicinity.