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The Principle of Cooperation

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According to the Oxford Dictionary, to cooperate is to work or act together (294). Often, official competitions in differing fields are typified by a combination of cooperation and competition. In organized contests, while opponents are often friendly and respectful towards one another, competitions are often based upon conflict or a state of opposition (279).

By placing greater value on cooperation, educational debate stresses the importance of learning, learning to work together, competing fairly, and upholding a fair competition, through a genuine respect for one's opponents. Outside of the world of debate, the Olympic games are one major example of highly prestigious international competitions based upon a principle of cooperation and respect. Unfortunately, the prestige or success of oneself or one's team has lead some participants to use illegal means of enhancing athletic abilities. Despite the principle of fair cooperation amongst teams, amateur sports face the problem of various individuals and organizations around the world that use unfair means during competition.

As the difficulties with the Olympic games illustrate, since competitions are meant to be fair contests, the value of honest cooperation and transparency are very important. Cooperation is also an important concept in the area of conflict managment (or conflict resolution). While conflict resolution originally dealt with two conflicting parties often in highly charged political (two warring groups or vehemently opposed parties) or personal situations (a couple in a bitter divorce battle), there has been a recent move towards the value of cooperation in conflict education.


Conflict Education

In The Handbook of Conflict Management essay, "Conflict Resolution Education," Kathy Bickmore declares: "Disagreements, debates, differing perspectives, clashing ideologies, and justice struggles are inevitable in a pluralistic and unequal society. Thus, education about how to understand and handle conflict is an essential ingredient of democracy, as well as essential for safe and healthy personal and community lives. To supplement or challenge what children inevitably learn informally by living in a conflictual world, conflict education increasingly is seen as a responsibility of schools" (3). By extenstion, conflict education is especially important within the international arena, where a clash of cultures, customs, opinions, and values can lead to unnecessary tension and even serious conflict.


Conflict as a Naturalized Value

Conflict is a central part of many areas of many cultures for many reasons. But, one interesting role of conflict is evident in (fictional and non-fictional) storytelling, which is often based upon conflict. By definition, a story or drama often centres upon a conflict between two opposing forces, such as a protagonist versus an antagonist, a hero verus a villain, or a good-guy versus a bad-guy. Even in non-fictional modes of discourse, such as history and journalism, conflict is often a privileged if not a central part of delivering information. In other words, whether in fiction or non-fiction, we often share stories or make them more interesting by emphasizing conflict, competition, and opposition.

In the world of stories, drama, and the movies, we may enjoy a narrative that involves more conflict than one that has little or no conflict, but when we carry over such an oppositional way of organizing information to our life experiences, we may distort the facts, downplay the complexity of life, or cause further conflict instead of settling it.

The basic types of conflict in fiction include: a person versus himself or herself, a person verus another person, or a person versus nature or society. Such parameters for storytelling are not limited to fictions. In fact, we may shape or real-world memories and experiences through such a dominant means of organizing ideas and relationships. In this way, conflict is a naturalized value, something that is so prevalent and longstanding in various cultures, that we come to think of the world, one another, and ourselves through the simple binary opposition of conflict. That is, we may organize life experience in terms of conflicting opposites, but such experience may be much less divided than the principle of conflict has us believe.


The Complexity of Life

In fact, life may be more complex than any one story, drama, or movie may be able to depict. Lived experience may be impossible to fully capture through autobiography, history, or journalism. Unlike how even the most complex fictional narratives or the most researched journalistic reports may claim to demonstrate, human experience is not always easily understood or communicated.

We often have conflicting motivations, changing moods, and varying perspectives. If one were to describe all of the emotions he or she felt during every moment of a single day, then one may see how we are not as single-minded as many fictional characters. If one were to record every single event during his or her day, then one may notice how life is full of routine, habit, and boring moments. Hence, there is a huge gap between lived (emotions and) experiences and the way we tell a story or record factual life. Whether in fiction or non-fiction then, our thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and experiences, are not necessarily as straightforward as we may depict them.

Certainly, conflict exists in life, but life may not always be as oppositional or extreme as a fictional narrative needs to be or as some nationalistic, political, religious, or ethnic attitudes have been during times of serious and violent conflict.


The Value of Cooperation

So, cooperation has arisen as a peaceful and non-violent means of dealing with tension and conflict in the real world. For instance, let us assume an individual, Person A, has a bad experience with another individual, Person B. Person A may be so frustrated with Person B, that, following a pattern of conflict thinking, Person A seeks revenge on Person B. Person A spreadx gossip or speaks negatively about Person B. In time, such gossip may turn into stereotypes about all those associated with Person B. Conversely, Person B may do the same. The problem may escalate to the point where both Person A and Person B go to war with one another, leading to even further conflicts.

In the real world, conflict in the name of demonstrating the intelligence or might of one person or type of person over another had led to some of recent history's greatest travesties, including slavery, colonial rule, world wars, genocide, and concentration camps. An underlying element of thinking from a conflict perspective is self-serving power. That is, one person or a group of people desires power over another person or group of people. In history, the quest for power has often been a quest for more money, land, influence, and prestige. Worse, this quest for self-serving power has come at the expense of another group, which is often depicted as a scapegoat or as a source of conflict and trouble, such as indigenous people, the Roma, the Jews, visible minorities, and so on.

In The Art of Managing Everday Conflict, Erik A. Fisher and Steven W. Sharp explore the differing psychologies behind the hierarchical and the equity model of power: "A hierarchical tends to cause people to fear those with higher levels of power. Fearing power and respecting it have little to do with respecting the person who holds it. By this, I mean that we know, for example, that we are supposed to respect our boss, yet we often try to look for flaws that undermine his/her human qualities. By noticing these flaws, we may feel that we have reduced their power, but are still supposed to respect his status as boss. In an equity system, individuals learn to respect themselves and in turn, they will respect others. There is no need to look for flaws in others, because there is no need to demean them" (25).

Rather than pursuing an agenda of revenge, undermining one's opponents, or continually attacking one's opponents, conflict education values the importance of cooperation and peace. To compare, conflict thinking is more negatively-motivated and short-sighted than cooperation. For instance, an individual from a minority group may feel a great deal of heartache and anger against those people, who throughout history, treated his or her ancestors poorly, because of a difference in terms of skin colour, religion, and so on. While this individual my feel emotionally motivated to seek violent retribution, through an attitude of conflict education and cooperation, this individual may seek a more positive means to deal with past injustices. In effect, the individual may help alter present-day prejudices and thus improve the situation for future generations.

Hence, cooperation strategies stress alternatives to patterns of conflict, of demeaning or ridiculing an opponent, in order to champion one's own cause or position. As an alternative, cooperation stresses such methods as constructive criticism and education through a language of respect. One may disagree with another person, but one may also communicate that disagreement in a manner that values the differing opinion.

While conflict thinking views things in divisive ways, stressing a winner-take-all attitude, cooperative thinking changes the perspective to teamwork, stressing that there is enough resources for everyone to share and enjoy. Moreover, from a cooperative perspective, the prestigious end result (of a gold medal or championship trophy) becomes less important than the process of fair play (and, on the personal level, the learning and joy) involved in the pursuit of such results.

Success, progress, and prestige can be shared by both parties, rather than being the territory of only one dominant force. Even though conflict and competition are an acknowledged part of life experience and understanding various modes of narrative and various real-world situations, by valuing the principle of cooperation, peaceful, non-violent (physical, emotional, and verbal) coexistence becomes a plausible alternative to a conflictive way of thinking, behaving, and living.

This is not to say that one cannot enjoy competition or taking on extreme positions in certain circumstances. For instance, in debate, by definition, one is called upon to take one an extreme and oppositional position from his or her opponent. Also, some styles of debate may be more aggressive than others. In some mock debates, opponents often demean and ridicule one another, but in jest. Through the lens of cooperative thinking, debate is a valuable exercise in viewing an issue from opposing viewpoints. Competition can be a healthy means of learning not only how to compete, how to handle aggression, or how to take jokes (in mock debates), but debate competitions can also be a means to learning how to responsibly handle victory and defeat.

So, the principle of cooperation does not cancel out or totally negate conflict and competition in life, in sport, or even in debate. Rather, in a world where conflict has led to and often continues to lead to serious damage to the lives of many people, the principle of cooperation and conflict education are valuable reminders of the importance of equity, fair play, and peaceful coexistence. The principle of cooperation stresses the value of critical thinking, especially when used with the principle of charity and for the delivery of constructive criticism. By becoming aware of how attitudes of conflict may shape our perspectives of one another, conflict education can open up alternative means of working with others and understanding ourselves. Indeed, empathy and a sensitivy to our fellow human beings is an important part of upholding the principle of cooperation. Since debate allows one to view an issue from opposing perspective and because debate may force us to argue a position we do not personally believe in, a debater may learn to see the world from varying points of view and such mental flexibility is a valuable cognitive skill. Also, debaters may get a taste of how powerful rhetoric can be, realizing that effective persuasive skills can be used as a means to varying ends, some more destructive than others. Through practicing debate, but valuing cooperation and peace, debaters can understand the importance of using their powerful skills in a socially responsible and culturally sensitive manner. In other words, the principle of cooperation urges awareness when handling conflict situations, whether real or constructed, as in athletic and debate competitions. Hence, the principle of cooperation nuances our understanding of the importance of conflict, by offering an alternative manner of coping with the negative effects of conflict-dominant attitudes and behaviour.


"Works Cited"

The Concise Oxford Dictionary, ed. Della Thompson. Ninth Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

Fisher, Erik A and Steven W. Sharp. The Art of Managing Everday Conflict: Understanding Emotions and Power Struggles. Westport: Praeger, 2004.

Killian, Jerri, and William J. Pammer Jr., eds. Handbook of Conflict Management. New York: Marcel Dekker, 2003.

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