How to stay ahead of the angry brigade

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Most people dislike confrontation, and, given time, an aggressive minority will find itself alienated. Meet the reasonable demands, and appear to treat the unreasonable ones with seriousness; always engage in discussion, however futile.

Like most hapless passengers, you may be wondering what the British Airways dispute is actually about. Neither airline nor union seems able to explain the areas of disagreement.

I doubt many readers of the Financial Times are interested in doctrinal differences between parties of the extreme left, few of which have very many adherents. But bear with me. The demonstrators who broke up the settlement talks at the weekend came from the Socialist Workers party. This group distinguishes itself from rivals by insisting revolution is the only acceptable route to the ill-specified change it seeks.

“Only through the experience of revolution,” the party explains, “can the powerless begin to experience their own capacities, test and expand their own strengths, and actually become self-consciously capable of running a new world.” If this verbiage is familiar, it probably reminds you of the claims made by corporate change consultants.

For the consultants, or for the Socialist Workers, the objective is the process of change. And this is not so unusual. In the unlikely event that the US became an Islamic fundamentalist society, al-Qaeda would doubtless continue jihad. It would simply take the view that the US was the wrong kind of Islamic fundamentalist society, the view it currently takes of Saudi Arabia. The confrontation is the end itself. That is why you cannot negotiate with al-Qaeda and the Socialist Workers, and they are vague about what they want because their worst nightmare is that they might be given it.

Between normal, pragmatic people oriented towards results and those who seek dispute for its own sake, there is a gulf of incomprehension. That is why Neville Chamberlain, by background a businessman from Birmingham, was ill-equipped to deal with Adolf Hitler.

There is a personality type – it seems mostly male – that enjoys conflict. Some become football hooligans, others philosophers. Many societies find room for aggressive individuals in armies or police forces but few commercial operations can accommodate them. Trading operations are exceptions, which is why they are often dysfunctional as organisations. They cannot maintain the rigid discipline that provides the means through which military hierarchies prevent internal conflict.

Academic life is also a haven for people who find ordinary social interaction difficult. There you find individuals whose confrontational style is verbal not physical, by whom everything that is proposed is instinctively opposed. Indeed, elements of such an approach are necessary to scholarly debate but the consequence is that universities are impossible to run.

If dispute is inevitable, it is tempting to save time by triggering it right away, and to go in with literal or metaphorical guns blazing. This is usually a mistake. Those who take pleasure in continued conflict are a small minority, and to confront them too intransigently or strongly allows them to attract well-meaning sympathisers. The war on terror, for example, has damaged al-Qaeda but taken as a whole has probably done more damage than good to the cause that the war promotes.

One approach is to direct conflict into harmless channels. Football crowds provide an outlet for aggression that might otherwise be released in more damaging ways. Academic and political life offer opportunities to engage in dispute on matters of no importance. The skilled chairman learns to let participants in a meeting dissipate energy on trivial issues while ensuring that significant items are dealt with elsewhere.

Most people dislike confrontation, and, given time, an aggressive minority will find itself alienated. Meet the reasonable demands, and appear to treat the unreasonable ones with seriousness; always engage in discussion, however futile. The defeat of Arthur Scargill, the British miners’ leader, took more than a decade, the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland took twice as long. Any successful strategy demands patience. That is why you are still waiting in the departure lounge at Heathrow’s Terminal 5.

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