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« Etiquette for Today’s Rat Race and Racers | Main | The Bench and the Bull Pen »


Kids love escalators.  They treat them like amusement park rides.  I’ve seen them run up the down escalator and down the up escalator, laughing and daring one another to do something even wilder.  They perch on the handrails for an extra thrill.  They annoy adults and tempt fate by their dangerous antics.  It’s great fun. 

Escalation, however, pre-dated moving stairways.  In human interaction, a variance in opinion, a disagreement, an expression of perturbation has triggered a response unwarranted by the predicate.  Many insignificant incidents have grown into major conflicts—even world wars—when the parties involved fanned the flames of a minor difference. 

The War of the Stray Dog

“In one of the most bizarre conflicts of the 20th century, a dog inadvertently triggered an international crisis. The incident was the culmination of a long period of hostility between Greece and Bulgaria, which had been at odds since the Second Balkan War in the 1910s. Tensions finally boiled over in October 1925, when a Greek soldier was shot after allegedly crossing the border into Bulgaria while chasing after his runaway dog. 

The shooting became a rallying cry for the Greeks, who soon after invaded Bulgaria and occupied several villages. They were even set to commence shelling the city of Petrich when the League of Nations finally intervened and condemned the attack. An international committee later negotiated a ceasefire between the two nations, but not before the misunderstanding had resulted in the deaths of some 50 people.”  (

We could indulge ourselves in complex and scholarly analysis of conflict resolution, but let’s keep it as simple as possible.  We can break it down into six steps or stages of escalation:

  • Disagreement
  • Context for Aggression
  • Skirmish
  • Bi-Lateral Response
  • Calculated Escalation
  • Ultimatum

Disagreement.  An issue surfaces that both parties see differently.  It could be a piece of disputed property, a perceived insult or a misunderstanding.  Whatever it is, it could be easily resolved before it gets any worse.  No punches have been thrown, no threats have been launched, no shots have been fired.  Now is the time to preserve the peace.

In marital conflicts, the issue could be something as simple as rolling one’s eyeballs, pursing one’s lips, breathing a sigh of irritation, a forgotten appointment or procrastinating a chore.  Many times, married couples cannot remember what caused the fight in the first place.  But, because they had no plan in place to immediately address the problem, it either precipitated a bigger fight or it was filed away as ammunition for a future battle.

Context for Aggression.  “An SDS radical once wrote, ‘the issue is never the issue. The issue is always the revolution.’  In other words, the cause-whether inner city blacks or women—is never the real cause, but only an occasion to advance the real cause, which is the accumulation of power to make the revolution.”  -David Horowitz.  When two parties meet to resolve an issue, both bring baggage to the table.  They don’t see the problem as a simple, singular misdeed or mistake.  They see it as an indication of something much larger, like prejudice, superiority, desire to dominate, deception, greed, hatred, class warfare, generational grievances or entrenched philosophical views.  Context is everything.  Opposing parties see reconciliation as sweeping the bigger problems under the rug; to forgive and forget is to dishonor their families, their pride and their worldview.  Resolution risks incurring the wrath of their people or undermining their culture.  Thus, they are stuck in an intractable position.

Conflicts in marriage, tensions in the workplace, bickering among family members or fights with neighbors almost always happen under the influence of a dozen or more back stories.  “I’m sick and tired of you always doing this …”  “I haven’t trusted you for a long time.”  “You never take care of your (property, house, kids, etc.).”  Suddenly, the small issue takes on huge proportions, and it seems as though no solution exists that can truly resolve the problem.  Divorce, terminations and lawsuits often happen because the factions refuse to isolate and resolve a small problem on its own terms.   

Skirmish.  Without reconciliation, the pressure mounts to escalate the conflict.  A minor act of aggression takes place.  Somebody gets punched, a missile is fired, a boundary is breached, or a war of words breaks out.  It causes little or no damage at first.  Each side hopes that the other side will back down as a result.  Most of the time, one party engages in a skirmish to test the defense or measure the propensity for a response from the opponent.  Some have called it “rattling the saber.”  This is a “flamboyant display of military power as an implied threat that it might be used (idiomatic, figuratively).  Any threat, such as one company threatening another with a lawsuit.”  -Wiktionary.   It sends the message that “we are serious about standing up against your aggression.”  The problem need not escalate beyond this point.  Diplomatic avenues remain open for cooler temperatures to prevail and to negotiate an end to the skirmish.

Bi-Lateral Response.  This is “one-upmanship.”  Whatever one party does, the other party does something a little worse.  “If you hit me with a fist, I’ll hit you with a ball bat.  If you kill my dog, I’ll kill your horse.  If you burn down my barn, I’ll burn down your house.  If you shoot a rocket at us, we’ll send ten your way.”  At this point, a heated warfare calls for exchanges of artillery fire or other weapons of destruction.  Still, the response of each side is somewhat visceral, unorganized, and probative.  Opponents assess the damages incurred or inflicted and determine whether it is worth the price that escalating the conflict will cost. Yet, even though both parties have sustained damage, or, in military terms, “suffered degraded assets,” the wounds are superficial, not mortal.  Each can still recover if they cease hostilities and sue for peace.

In marriages, bi-lateral responses take the form of moving out, retaliatory actions like closing bank accounts, appealing to the sympathy of relatives and friends, destruction of property or even violence.  Partnerships are more tenuous than marriages, making responses devastating.  Former associates tear up agreements, engage another partner or file lawsuits.  If the need for togetherness is strong enough, however, (like the need for both brains and money, or both “know-how” and connections), then parties can reunite, both having learned a stiff lesson.

Marriages can get rocky without being “on the rocks.”  Aggrieved parties in partnerships, alliances, and good faith bonds can survive conflicts and get back to unity and productivity.  Peace as a choice remains an option, but only at the expense of vulnerability and forgiveness.

Calculated Escalation.  At this stage, both parties no longer see the possibility of reconciliation.  They commit themselves to war.  Peace, still an outside chance, would be considered a disappointing interruption to victory in battle.  Each side throws all their strength against the opponent.  Battle lines are drawn, forces are mobilized, strategies are implemented, and collective attitudes are set in stone.  The declaration of war signals a goal beyond a simple victory.  It galvanizes deep feelings of honor, pride, patriotism and self-respect.  A nation, a state, a family or an individual cannot easily retreat from a deliberate course of war without losing face.  

Husbands and wives who embark on a strategy of calculated escalation have two main goals: protect themselves from too much loss and inflict as much hurt on the other party as possible.  “You’ll regret you ever did this to me.”  “I’ll see to it that you never recover from this.”  Hatred crystallizes in their minds, ensuring that any thoughts of reconciliation are dead on arrival.  Friendships, partnerships, alliances that break apart and open hostilities often seek to ruin the reputation of the other party and destroy them financially. 

Ultimatum.  Although it may seem irrational, escalation can actually reach a stage that one would never envision.  It is possible to become so obsessed with winning and destroying the enemy, that if it means self-destruction to make that happen, then so be it.  “If I’m going down, you’re going down with me.”  “I don’t care what happens to me.  I just know that I will destroy you!”  This, in fact, described the mindset of Adolf Hitler when everyone knew that Germany was about to lose the war. 

“LAURENCE REES: How important also, in addition to all the factors you’ve just mentioned, was the memory of the way the First World War had ended in all this?

“SIR IAN KERSHAW: Well that was, of course, a critical component in Hitler’s own thinking, and of those who thought like him, which was that the First World War had ended in, from his point of view, this humiliation of the surrender. And Hitler had said repeatedly over and over again - this sort of 1918 syndrome was central to his mentality - there’d be no repeat of November 1918, and, as he said to his Luftwaffe adjutant in December 1944: ‘we can go down but we’ll take a world with us.’ Defeat with honour, as he saw it, fighting to the last bullet was imminently preferable to capitulation which was then the most humiliating form of ending this war and would bring about a new national humiliation as well.

So that was the thinking that was really behind a lot of Hitler’s actions, the mentality which kept him going right to the end. Most people didn’t think like that, but nonetheless because of their ties to Hitler—the fact that they couldn’t break with him, that only he could actually decide when the war was over from a German point of view—there was nothing really they could do to accelerate that end and bring about a negotiated settlement. And when they tried, as Himmler did at the end of April 1945, he was immediately ousted from all his offices by Hitler and would have been killed if they could have set hands on him.”

When the final card is played in the game of escalation, nobody wins.  One often sees the vast wasteland of divorce, separation, lawsuits, permanent estrangement and the other forms of the endgame of escalation and it’s not pretty.  Financial stress, poverty, dysfunctional families, wounded children, bitterness and individuals locked in strained relationships for the rest of their lives tell the real story of the failure to negotiate for peace. 

If you are involved in a conflict, you do not have to follow the dangerous pathway of escalation.  Stop.  Consider the potential damages.  Seek out a way to resolve the conflict.  If necessary, sacrifice your pride, your finances and your well-being to preserve the peace.  You say “that’s impossible!”  I say that’s the exception, not the rule.  There is almost always a way if you are willing to pay for it.

Matthew 5:9  Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

Luke 12:58 (NKJV) When you go with your adversary to the magistrate, make every effort along the way to settle with him, lest he drag you to the judge, the judge deliver you to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison.

2 Corinthians 5:18-21 (NKJV) Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.  Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.  For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

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