If you try to reconcile everyone, you will satisfy no one

Artists: Darina Alster, Hubert Czerepok, Ania Grzymała, Elżbieta Jabłońska, Ada Karczmarczyk, Jerzy Kosałka, Łukasz Murzyn, Adam Niklewicz, Daniel Rycharski, Olia Sosnovskaya & A.Z.H, Zbigniew Warpechowski

Curator: Łukasz Kropiowski

  • vernissage: 6.10. 6p.m.
  • exhibition open untli 26.11.2023

This somewhat sententious title of the exhibition was borrowed from the writings of Władysław Tatarkiewicz, who used these words to describe the case of Leibniz. The scientist, trying to reconcile the extreme philosophical currents of his time, was regarded in conservative circles as a dangerous free-thinker, while in scientific circles as a suspicious irrationalist. The title, therefore, expresses moderate pessimism and a certain amount of fear associated with addressing the subject of social conflict which stems from growing social polarisation, radicalised opinions, growing prejudices, negative emotions of conflicting sides defined by dislike and hatred, as well as political attitudes dominated by arrogance and contempt. The exhibition appears to raise seemingly obvious (perhaps even naïve) questions: is a mediating orientation which seeks understanding through open dialogue feasible in a situation where mutual antipathies have built up? Is public debate aimed at forging compromises and building a community possible in the face of well-established patterns of argumentation offered by politicians and the often-biased mass media that are based largely on simplification, over-interpretation, manipulation, selective treatment of the credibility of sources and general ill-will? The very talk of conflict, especially at a time of agitation and widespread public irritation before the elections resembles walking on thin ice. If it is not merely civil, it inevitably leads to the raising of the most sensitive issues and, very likely, can become the cause of a concrete brawl. Attempts at mediation, on the other hand, can be seen as a fearful attitude or defending the status quo.

The notion of schismogenesis, which was coined by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, denotes the stubborn tendency of individuals to define themselves in relation to others. Bateson’s theory assumes that when two people, with reasonably similar and quite moderate views, start arguing about a minor, say political, issue, they may soon find themselves adopting attitudes “so tenacious that they find themselves on opposite sides of the ideological barricade – adopting extreme positions that they would never take under normal circumstances, just to show how much they reject the views of the other”. It is therefore easy to imagine the consequences of a dispute between parties with radically different positions... In fact, it is not necessary to imagine anything, it is enough to observe in the daily news services the aggression associated with the mechanisms of building group bonds in contrast to opponents or the internal integration of political circles on the basis of identifying a common enemy.

Further complications arise from the clear ambivalence revealed when addressing the issue of conflict – the difficulty of clearly defining the boundary between a socially valuable (or even desirable) process and a destructive phenomenon. As a mechanism of social regulation, conflict plays an important role in balancing power – it prevents the domination of some communities while excluding others, exposes inequalities, authoritarian practices or ossified systems, and is one of the tools for bringing about political change . However, when the struggle for certain values turns into a struggle against the opponents of those values, the conflict leads to acrimony, escalation of verbal and physical violence, and in extreme cases into war . A dangerous psychological phenomenon inevitably accompanying social life, i.e. the collective functioning of many communities, is infra-humanisation – the unconscious reduction of the humanity of others and favouring one’s own community – which, in a situation of open conflict, can take the form of suspending the applicable moral standards while dealing with the “enemy”. Moreover, the way of valuing can be reversed – a behaviour that is unacceptable within one’s own community can be considered praiseworthy in relation to antagonists . Double standards and the temptation to grant one’s own group the exclusive right to set standards arise almost “naturally”.

However, the trait noted by Bateson of defining oneself in relation to others can also be taken at face value, considered as a certain innate human “dialogicity” – the need to establish contact and to communicate constantly (contrary to Peter Sloterdijk’s sarcastic maxim: “more communication means more conflict”). In the search for means of mitigating conflict and for techniques of constructive dialogue, one encounters a number of recommendations, all of which share a certain “obviousness”. From philosophical, to media studies, to cybernetic approaches, we encounter similar conditions for successful communication: a balanced relationship, manoeuvrability, “acceptance of otherness”, respect for differences, exchanges that do not lead to “one-sided assimilation”, the creation of a subjective relationship (“I-Thou”), elimination of misinformation, guided by rationale and logical argumentation, a willingness to acknowledge irrefutable evidence regardless of its conformity with our emotions. With all this, there is a need to use “sensitive language”, the opposite of the “language of hostility” that is in widespread use, or so-called “mean speech” . By analysing the anti-conflict mechanisms generated in society, sociology addresses the similarly “intuitive” issues of more or less formalised behavioural norms practised in everyday human interactions (while stipulating that social order, on the one hand, prevents conflicts from arising, and on the other hand, it generates conflicts ). Elements of the normative system, functioning as “protective techniques”, include, for example, a code of “good manners”, creating a friendly atmosphere in contacts, a culture of coexistence including kindness, respect, politeness. The so-called golden rule – “do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – is a universal model of behaviour – and Kant’s categorical imperative: “act according to only such a principle as you might wish to make a universal law”. Both of these ethical precepts proclaim a simple truth called the “imperative of presence” — One’s conduct should take into account the presence of other people.

Most of the above indications operate in the public consciousness and seem quite “natural”. Some even sound like truisms one does not wish to argue with. Why, then, does the reality of public dialogue resemble more a fierce childish argument than a reasonable conversation? Arguably, the best answers to this question are offered by psychological research which points to two distinct emotional processes influencing all social interactions and the production of value systems. “The first one is an automatic, affective process with a huge and uncontrollable range of largely irrational influence, and the second, a reflexive approach, leading to secondary emotions which are much more qualitatively diverse and subtle” . “Reflex” emotions, for which the first of these processes is responsible, are evolutionarily prior and, as the name suggests, largely subconscious. They arise spontaneously, much more quickly than the “secondary” emotions resulting from an analytical approach. Not only are these automatic strategies of the mind responsible for all sorts of biases and rigid knowledge patterns (stereotypes), leading to unconscious distortions and emotionally influencing the processing of information, but they also clearly inhibit competing reflective processes – “automatically acquired types of sympathy or antipathy can be stuck in the mind for a lifetime” . Thus, if favouring a particular worldview is to some extent a drive-based phenomenon, the reality of the search for understanding seems limited. As an opportunity to distance oneself from affect and subjective experience, the researchers recommend developing a reflective mind, allowing one to achieve “psychological decentralization”, a state of consciousness that allows one to find more than one point of view appealing . This involves developing critical thinking and self-reflective skills and acquiring knowledge to gain new criteria for evaluation. Unfortunately, “secondary” processes are characterised by complexity and the effort required, and they compete in the mind with the affective memory system - not only “reliable”, but also “effortless”. The “contact hypothesis” formulated by social psychology, according to which bringing about a face-to-face encounter with a different social group can reduce prejudice, provides a more optimistic outlook . Contact also enables the induction of “empathic automatism” . The human brain proves to be a specialised apparatus that processes social information at lightning speed. “We accurately decode even millisecond-long microexpressions displayed on people’s faces [...], and perceived signs of another person’s suffering, sadness or pain almost automatically generate arousal resulting in empathy” . Empathic effects can also be induced with mediated contact (e.g. film, photo). However, such “affective empathy” has a short-term effect, limited to the “here and now” .

In view of the problem of aggressive automaticity of response, which generates fixed thought patterns responsible for emotional acrimony and argumentative blindness, and the remedies of reflection and encounter, it seems that the creation of “contact spaces”, which have a positive effect on stimulating the analytical mind and enabling the exchange of ideas, is not an entirely meaningless activity. By turning a blind eye to limited participation, culture can function as one such space. The exhibition “If you want to reconcile everyone, you will satisfy no one” is also intended to provide such a space. The works presented analyse the flashpoints of social life and the absurdities and paradoxes of conflict situations (and, as is well known, paradox reveals the possibility of going beyond the simple dualisms that characterise a dispute). They also reveal the practices of effective departure from established worldview clichés. The artists prove that not only is it possible to respect different points of view, but it is also feasible to reconcile seemingly mutually exclusive positions, combining them in various configurations that are fascinating and give ideologists headaches. Although every attempt at ordering, even the most subtle and sophisticated one, inevitably creates further barriers, and acute conflict seems to be an unavoidable phenomenon of social life, it is worth undertaking activity aimed at ensuring that there is as little truth as possible in the statement: “it is not individuals who govern their behaviour in a conflict situation, but it is conflict that governs the behaviour of individuals” .

Łukasz Kropiowski

  • the author of the text quotes:

Andrzej Słaboń, Zapobieganie konfliktom społecznym. Aspekty teoretyczne i empiryczne, Warsaw 2021
Maria Jarymowicz, Anna Szuster, Uprzedzenia, wrogość czy harmonia społeczne, Sopot 2021