In praise of conflict

Conflict is a good thing. This is, in essence, the message of Conflicted, a new book by Ian Leslie. Conflict can draw us together, make us smarter, and inspire us to be more creative. It can “force people to consider other perspectives, think more deeply about what they’re trying to accomplish, and fertilise new ideas.” Leslie is an evangelist for what he calls this “crucial component of life”:

Disagreement is a way of thinking, perhaps the best one we have, critical to the health of any shared enterprise, from marriage to business to democracy.

If there is increasing evidence that conflict can have positive effects on workplaces, avoiding it can be harmful—leading, for example, to groupthink and bad decisions. For Leslie, the political polarization found today in countries like the UK and the US is the result not of too much argument but rather too little.

Leslie traces a long tradition of interactive thinking founded on conflict. Socrates, the father of modern philosophy, preferred to talk with people who disagreed with him, believing that “the best way to dispel illusions and identify fallacies was through the exchange of arguments.” According to Agnes Callard, a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, Socrates proposed that

truth can be reached more reliably and quickly if, instead of one person weighing up both sides of an argument, two or more parties are involved, each assigned a distinct role. Callard calls this method the ‘adversarial division of epistemic labour’. One party’s job is to throw up hypotheses, the other’s is to knock them down. People can co-operatively disagree in order to get to the truth – just as, in a modern courtroom, prosecutor and defender co-operate in a quest for justice by ripping each other’s arguments apart.

The Socratic method has a long and distinguished history:

In medieval Europe, Christian scholars incorporated the rules laid down by the Greeks into the practice of ‘disputation’: a method of debate, developed first in the monasteries and later in early universities, designed to teach and uncover truths in theology and science. Disputations took place both privately, between master and student, and publicly, in front of the university community. Every disputation followed a similar format. A question is asked. Arguments in favour of one answer to the question are sought and examined. Next, arguments in favour of an opposing answer are considered. The arguments are then weighed against each other, before one or other answer is chosen, or a third one is found. Disputation was competitive; the goal was to convince each other, or an audience. But it was also believed that by examining a problem from different angles, new truths could emerge. The practice was essentially Socratic dialogue, formalised and scaled up. Historians of the period talk of the ‘institutionalisation of conflict’.

More recently, some psychologists have valorized a “division of cognitive labour”:

In the ideal discussion, each individual focuses mainly on the search for reasons for their preferred solution, while the rest of the group critically evaluates those reasons. Everyone throws up their own hypotheses, which are then tested by everyone else. That’s a much more efficient process than having each individual trying to come up with and evaluate all the different arguments on both sides of the issue and it’s likely to lead to better decisions.

Leslie has plenty to say about the arts, too, and specifically music. Some of the greatest rock groups have thrived on disagreement. “Conflict seems to be a crucial element of any creative collaboration. You might even say that innovation and creativity themselves arise from arguments with the world.” He looks to Ernest Bormann, a pioneering scholar of small group communication, who argued that creative groups oscillated around their tolerance threshold like a sine wave, “alternating frequent episodes of conflict with calmer periods of agreement. Conflict is needed, said Bormann, to clarify goals, illuminate differences, stimulate curiosity, and release pent-up frustration.”

In sum, “open, passionate disagreement blows away the cobwebs […]. Disagreement throws open windows and pulls up carpets, dragging whatever we’ve chosen to hide under there into the light. It flushes out crucial information and insights that will otherwise lie inaccessible or dormant inside our brains. It fulfils the creative potential of diversity.”


In a paper on socially oriented arts education in Colombia, Miñana, Ariza, and Arango (2006) take a similar line. They propose that conflict should not be regarded negatively; rather, it plays an important role in social cohesion, and resolution should not be confused with elimination. They cite an earlier study on war by Estanislao Zuleta, who argued that conflict and hostility are constitutive elements of social connection:

The eradication of conflicts and their dissolution into warm coexistence is neither an achievable nor a desirable goal […]. On the contrary, it is necessary to construct a social and legal space in which conflicts can reveal and develop themselves, without opposition to another leading to suppression of that other—killing them, reducing them to impotence, or silencing them.

These Colombian authors critique the equation of peace with the absence of conflict as an elementary and conservative position that provides a weak foundation for social projects. In reality, “educating for peace implies educating for conflict.” They argue for retaining a conception of conflict “as a kind of commonplace social relation, something that is part of everyone’s life,” and also “as a catalyst of new relations.”

Within the field of music education, some practitioner-researchers have taken this kind of approach. For example, Cobo Dorado’s (2015) study of group music pedagogy underlines the importance of carefully managed conflict and constructive controversy for cognitive development. Accordingly, she argues that teachers should promote particular kinds of conflict in order to problematize knowledge and foster collaboration between peers. Similarly, Henley’s (2019) work with the prison program Good Vibrations is founded on the view that conflict plays an important part in pedagogy; the facilitators thus strive to create a safe environment, allow conflict to play out, and reflect on it afterwards.

It would seem, then, that conflict—learning to argue well and disagree better—ought to have pride of place in socially oriented music programs, particularly ones that seek to foster peace or coexistence. Yet at the heart of Social Action Through Music (SATM) lies a very different vision. El Sistema’s founder, José Antonio Abreu, described its central tool, the orchestra, as “the only group that comes together with the sole purpose of agreement.” He claimed that an orchestra is “a model society […] whose essence is concertación; because to orchestrate is precisely concertar.” Concertar/concertación has a dual meaning—to agree/agreement, but also to harmonize/harmonization. El Sistema’s philosophy thus embodies the very opposite of Leslie’s vision.

As Fink (2016) argues, the problem here is not so much harmony per se, but rather a conception of harmony that has no place for dissonance or disagreement. This conception is evident in the exhortation by Chefi Borzacchini (2010), Abreu’s close confidant and the nearest thing to an official historian of his program, that in El Sistema, “everyone needs to be fully in tune in order to achieve unison,” and her imagining of a future Venezuela that is “perfectly in tune, with all its citizens joined in a single direction.” The creative potential of disagreement and diversity is nowhere to be seen.

If harmony is to be a productive metaphor for SATM, it ought to denote exploring and resolving dissonance, not singing in unison. Harmony has often had a coercive streak throughout history (Baker 2008; 2010; 2014), and Abreu’s philosophy is no exception. In reality, El Sistema’s process rarely constitutes “agreement.” Much more often, an orchestral conductor imposes his will upon young musicians. As a member of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra told a journalist: “It’s like American football — to be on a team, you have to have extreme discipline. The coach doesn’t say please and thank you.” This approach is a problematic one, both educationally and socially. Responding to societal violence by enforcing consonance may be counter-productive, as it does not allow participants to reimagine conflict as a productive force and to learn how to deal with it constructively. It may simply lead to the reproduction of violence in other forms.


Abreu was infamous for his abhorrence of divergent thinking and dissent. The Venezuelan classical music sector (or rather, diaspora) is littered with individuals who were “cancelled” by Abreu (fired, blacklisted, silenced, or persecuted), as well as others who were paid off. His attitude permeated El Sistema, turning it into an institution with a strong party line—a monument to groupthink.

The Red de Escuelas de Música de Medellín (the Network of Music Schools of Medellín), the subject of my new book, is quite different. In this SATM program, as I observed during a year of fieldwork, tensions, debates, and even resistance flourished. They made the Red feel more chaotic, inefficient, and fractious than El Sistema; yet it also seemed like a healthier, more honest, and more democratic environment, in which groupthink did not dominate, employees were willing to be critical, and differences of opinion could be expressed publicly.

The Red was not a harmonious institution, yet my positive view of its dissonances is supported by Leslie: “Different parts of an organisation should be in tension with one another and staff should discuss those tensions openly, rather than silently pursuing their own priorities. A culture that tacitly prohibits disagreement makes the organisation more vulnerable to petty office politics, errors of judgement and abuses of power.” In other words, my more positive perception of the Red in comparison with El Sistema was not despite its obvious internal conflicts but rather because of them. They made life harder in some ways, but they also kept the program in motion. Conflict converted the Red into a living, changing organism, one that has steadily diverged over the years from the more static, univocal Venezuelan program.


An important example of the way that Abreu’s intolerance of criticism has shaped not just El Sistema but also the wider SATM field concerns the relationship between practice and critical research. Those who have followed El Sistema debates over the last decade might well think of this relationship as conflictive, but a closer look suggests that, as with Leslie’s argument about politics, the real problem has been not too much argument but rather too little. How much Socratic dialogue or disputation has there really been, even in print, let alone face to face? How often have critical arguments been subjected to point-by-point contestation? When Tom Service invited El Sistema’s executive director, Eduardo Méndez, to debate the main arguments of my 2014 book with me on BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters, Méndez refused: he would only talk to Service. Many of Abreu’s followers have taken the line of The Maestro himself: excommunicate anyone who disagrees with you, and banish or ignore their arguments. This problem even manifests itself within the research sphere. In much SATM writing, conflicting opinions are ignored, dismissed or skated over rather than properly disputed.

Here, too, the Red provides an illuminating contrast. As part of a major change of direction in 2005, the program created a psychosocial team, part of whose remit was internal research. The team’s reports were often quite critical of the program, and they generated tensions within the Red, even at leadership level—and yet, fifteen years later, the team is still there. Rather than excommunicating critical voices and shunning their ideas, the Red created a space for them and maintained that space—sometimes of dialogue, sometimes of dispute—through thick and thin.

The Red has not run away from the tension or conflict between critical research and practice; rather, it has treated that tension as something productive, a catalyst for positive change, and therefore something to be managed rather than eliminated. Bringing critical voices into the fold has not entailed blunting their critiques. And change has indeed resulted from this approach, to a much greater extent than in the “harmonious” El Sistema, as I explore in my new book.

I believe that the Red models a possible future for the SATM field, one in which the relationship between practice and critical research is rethought to centre disputation rather than excommunication. Tension and conflict are reframed as productive and therefore to be encouraged and harnessed rather than avoided or eliminated. Abreu’s zero-tolerance attitude to criticism led to the demonization of conflicting opinions, but the Red points to another way for SATM. If the field were to look at critical researchers as people with whom to exchange arguments, to engage in disputation, bringing conflict on board as a productive force, the dynamics around practice and critical research that have dominated since 2014 would be transformed.

Leslie writes: “Imagine a culture […] where argument is viewed as a dance: a collaborative performance.” Why not imagine such a dance within SATM, with divergent views brought together rather than kept apart?

SATM would benefit from more conflict at several levels. For students, learning how to deal with conflict should be part of their training; pace Abreu, disagreement is a better educational focus than agreement. Miñana, Ariza, and Arango’s argument is much more coherent: “educating for peace implies educating for conflict.” Among adults, conflict between different perspectives within SATM programs should be regarded as a potential strength rather than a weakness—as generative of new ideas and practices. Abreu’s removal of dissenters is precisely the wrong approach for a large organization. The same is true of tensions between the views of practitioners and critical researchers. There could be much more emphasis on bringing conflicting visions together, rather than keeping challenging ideas at arm’s length. Both the practice and research arms of SATM would benefit from more disputation and “institutionalization of conflict.”

It is time for SATM to put Abreu-esque groupthink and demonization of divergent views firmly behind it and recognize the value of conflict.


Baker, Geoffrey. 2008. Imposing Harmony: Music and Society in Colonial Cuzco. Durham: Duke University Press.

———. 2010. “The Resounding City.” In Music and Urban Society in Colonial Latin America, edited by Geoffrey Baker and Tess Knighton, 1–20. Cambridge University Press.

———. 2014. El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth. New York: Oxford University Press.

———. 2021. Rethinking Social Action Through Music: The Search for Coexistence and Citizenship in Medellín’s Music Schools. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers.

Borzacchini, Chefi. 2010. Venezuela En El Cielo de Los Escenarios. Caracas: Fundación Bancaribe.

Cobo Dorado, Karina. 2015. La Pédagogie de Groupe Dans Les Cours d’instruments de Musique. Paris: L’Harmattan.

Fink, Robert. 2016. “Resurrection Symphony: El Sistema as Ideology in Venezuela and Los Angeles.” Action, Criticism, and Theory for Music Education 15 (1): 33–57.

Henley, Jennie. 2019. “Pedagogy & Inclusion: A Critique of Outcomes-Based Research and Evaluation.” Paper delivered at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Leslie, Ian. 2021. Conflicted: Why Arguments Are Tearing Us Apart and How They Can Bring Us Together. Faber.

Miñana, Carlos, Alejandra Ariza, and Carolina Arango. 2006. “Formación artística y cultural: ¿arte para la convivencia?”

One Comment on “In praise of conflict

  1. Thanks, Geoff. This is such an important conversation. I have been thinking about how embracing conflict and disagreement also means resisting what Martin Jay refers to as the “urge toward certainty”. In reaching for certainty, Jay argues, we privilege some perspectives and banish others. In music, too often we respond to the discomfort/uncertainty of conflict and disagreement by embracing the compensatory urge to reach toward the certainty of our own experiences and knowledge. (I suspect this is a very deep-rooted and understandable human urge). But, in doing so, we shut out the possibility of reaching, instead, for new understandings, perspectives or ways of thinking/being. To institutionalise conflict we need to develop a mindset that makes us able to sit with the discomfort of uncertainty.

    Jay, Martin. 2005. Songs of Experience: Modern American and European Variations on a Universal Theme. CA: University of California Press.


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