Taking Risks, Being Notorious
Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be notorious. —Rumi
The only interesting answers are those that destroy the question. —Susan Sontag
There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in. —Desmond Tutu
Let’s begin our journey together by recognizing a few very simple, yet widely ignored, profound, far-reaching and consequential truths that together form a logical chain.
First, every conflict takes place not only between individuals, but in a context, culture and environment; surrounded by social, economic and political forces; inside a family, neighborhood, group or organization; impacted by systems and structures; within a diverse community of people; at a particular moment in time and history, in a specific location in space and geography; on a stage; against a backdrop; in a setting or milieu.
Second, none of these elements is conflict-neutral. Each contributes, often in veiled and unspoken yet profound ways, to the nature, intensity, duration, impact and meaning of our conflicts, which follows a geodesic across the curved, internal space of caring. And each, depending on circumstances, can play a determining role in the success of the conversations, processes, interventions and methods we use to prevent, resolve, transform and transcend them.
Third, almost any complex social, economic or political issue can trigger or aggravate interpersonal conflicts. Indeed, social dysfunctions, economic disparities and political incongruities are nearly always experienced as personal conflicts, leaving the systems that regularly produce them in the shadows, unnoticed and unresolved. Moreover, we are all capable of taking even the most abstract, conceptual differences personally, and as a result, become less able to listen, communicate effectively, transform and learn from them.
Fourth, most social, economic and political systems, by reason of their internal antagonisms, embattled histories and win/lose orientations, generate repeated, chronic conflicts, and with them, cultures of conflict avoidance or aggression. These contribute to the rise of a set of adversarial attitudes and defensive behaviors regarding common social, economic, political and environmental problems that limit the ability of individuals, families, organizations and nations to work collaboratively and democratically, even in small ways, to resolve and transform their differences, or to prevent and transcend them.
Fifth, every conflict possesses elements and characteristics that are fractally organized, or self-similar on all scales, so that common sets of attitudes, emotions, ideas and behaviors connect what appear to be purely internal conflicts with those that regularly occur in relationships, families, communities, organizations, societies, economies and polities and are applicable both to children on playgrounds and the heads of nation-states. This self-similarity on all scales allows us to identify ways of adapting techniques that have proven effective in resolving disputes on one level to those on an entirely different level.
Sixth, nearly all conflicts, no matter how petty or personal, possess veiled social, economic and political elements that inform their evolution and eventual outcome. These include, for example, social stereotyping, discrimination and prejudice, which are reflected in our attitudes toward our opponents; economic selfishness, callousness and greed, which are reflected in our unwillingness to compromise or collaborate over financial issues; and political hierarchy, bureaucracy and autocracy, which are reflected in the divisive ways we make decisions, even in the smallest conflicts.
Even in entirely interpersonal conflicts within marriages and families, it is apparent that people can respond negatively to social, economic or political differences, develop biases and stereotypes regarding each other, interact based on unspoken social assumptions and expectations and be negatively influenced by differences in status, wealth and power.
Thus, they may quarrel over money, compete for scarce resources or disagree over the way decisions are being made. They may support or resist future changes, celebrate or denigrate their prior history, critique or defend the status quo, behave bureaucratically or anarchically regarding rules and exercise whatever power they may have democratically or autocratically. Each of these potential sources of interpersonal discord conceals what can be regarded as a subtle social, economic or political element that leaves their conflict less open to resolution and can shift it either in the direction of impasse and chronic repetition or of resolution and prevention.
Seventh, except when social, economic and political issues are explicitly addressed in conflict conversations, it is rare that these contextual and systemic elements are openly identified, acknowledged, discussed or resolved, either by the parties or their mediators. Instead, they linger in the background, generating distortions and misunderstandings that merely make matters worse; or they remain hidden, and as a result, become blockages and sources of resistance that appear intractable because we do not know how to address them skillfully.
Yet when these same hidden aspects of conflict are identified, analyzed and addressed, they can be transformed into fertile sources of technique for preventing future disputes, reaching successful resolutions, transforming communications and relationships and transcending chronic conflicts at their social, economic and political sources through learning, collaborative design and systemic improvement. As a result, nearly all conflicts can initiate revolutionary changes in individuals, families, organizations and institutions.
What Are Chronic Conflicts?
So what are chronic conflicts? I believe they can be defined as those that individuals, families, neighbors, schools, organizations, societies, economies and nation-states:
- Have not fully resolved
- Need to resolve in order to grow and evolve
- Are capable of resolving
- Can only resolve by abandoning old approaches and adopting new ones
- Are resistant to resolving because they are frightened, dissatisfied, insecure, uncertain, angry or unwilling to change
Chronic conflicts can normally be distinguished, in part, by their high rates of repetition and low levels of resolution; by their tolerance for disrespectful and adversarial behaviors and seeming irrationality; by an incongruity between high levels of emotion and the apparent triviality of the issues over which people are fighting. They are commonly mistaken for accidental misunderstandings, interpersonal miscommunications and personality clashes, and while they appear to be based on idiosyncratic causes and circumstances, which characterize every conflict, their underlying similarities suggest that they are not substantively unique, but patterned responses to underlying systemic causes.
Over the course of centuries, we can identify a number of “meta-sources” of chronic social, economic and political conflict. Here is my list of the top 10:
- Social inequality
- Economic inequity
- Political autocracy
- Environmental disregard and ecological destructiveness
- Stereotyping, prejudice, bias and discrimination
- Hyper-competitive organizations and economic greed
- Hierarchy, bureaucracy, graft and corruption
- Power and rights based systems, processes and relationships
- Aggressive, win/lose approaches to problem-solving, negotiation and conflict resolution, and avoidant or aggressive conflict cultures
- Exclusive, one-sided and unilateral approaches to problem solving, decision-making and change
None of these is unavoidable or inexorable in human affairs. Each can be reduced, resolved and prevented, once we understand their apparent necessity and underlying rationale. While there are others, these 10 are rarely discussed in conflict resolution circles, partly because they are difficult to address, partly because the problems we are now facing around the world require fresh solutions in each of these areas, and partly because a fundamental, far-reaching transformation in the ways we respond to conflict is actually possible in all these areas, and within our power to promote.
In order to discover fresh approaches to these chronic sources of conflict and reveal successful ways of preventing and resolving social, economic and political conflicts, there are three important, somewhat rhetorical, threshold questions for conflict resolvers to answer for ourselves and for others:
- Is it possible to become more skillful and successful in preventing, resolving, transforming and transcending interpersonal conflicts by addressing the larger systemic, contextual, social, cultural and environmental influences that may be triggering or aggravating them?
- Is it possible to identify fractal, scale-free conflict resolution principles and use them to proactively reduce the social inequalities, economic inequities, political autocracies and environmental conditions that generate chronic, systemic conflicts in diverse communities around the world?
- Is it possible to use conflict resolution systems design principles to prevent and resolve chronic conflicts at their source; to invent more effective, less costly and more satisfying and sustainable social, economic and political processes, communications, interactions and relationships and to encourage more humane, compassionate and collaborative outcomes?
These questions lead to still deeper ones. What is our responsibility as global citizens, mediators and conflict resolvers for the conflicts that are raging around us? Are we not implicitly responsible for using the skills and knowledge we already possess to assist in preventing and resolving them? What would be required to redesign the social, economic and political systems that chronically fuel them? And, is it possible for us as a species to learn how to live together, collaborate more successfully and prevent and resolve environmental and global conflicts more effectively?
Is There a Better Way?
Mediation, informal problem-solving, group facilitation, collaborative negotiation, public dialogue, prejudice reduction and analogous conflict resolution techniques have amply demonstrated in countless conflicts over the last several decades that there is a better outcome than winning and losing, a more successful process than accusing and blaming, and a deeper relationship than exercising power over and against others.
These better outcomes are achieved when both sides win and no one loses, when former adversaries participate in meaningful dialogue and reach satisfying agreements and when power is exercised with and for others by jointly solving common problems. This is not wishful thinking, but the regular and repeated result of applying conflict resolution techniques to a wide variety of disputes in diverse communities around the world.
The highest outcomes occur when people genuinely recognize that opportunities for improvement flow precisely from their differences; when they overcome defensiveness and selfishness to reach consensus and negotiate collaborative solutions; when they forgive each other and themselves; and when they open their hearts to each other, empathize with their opponents, learn from their conflicts and seek to reconcile and repair their relationships.
These higher outcomes are deepened and made more lasting when they move beyond resolution and begin to collaboratively redesign the dysfunctional communications, processes and relational systems; the contexts, cultures and environments that created or aggravated their disputes; when they deepen their conflict resolution skills; and when they proactively search for ways of preventing similar difficulties from arising in the future. These higher order outcomes can be achieved not only by individuals, couples, families and nextdoor neighbors, but by diverse cultures, workplaces and organizations; by entire societies, complex economies and nation-states; and by global political institutions.
By learning to prevent, resolve, transform and transcend conflicts in the relatively constrained context of interpersonal disputes, we can discern a larger truth: that it is possible to produce a higher social order than one that is based on domination and inequality, a higher economic order than one that is mired in greed and short-term advantage and a higher political order than one that relies on power plays and petty personal attacks.
More profoundly, through mediation practice we are able to discover that we cannot fully comprehend conflict in general or completely overcome any particular dispute, no matter how trivial, without also addressing the subtle social (relational), economic (equitable) and political (power- or rights-based) influences that directly and indirectly shape the ways conflicted parties and their mediators understand their discord and respond to it.
As we develop more skillful and effective methods for resolving individual and interpersonal conflicts, we discover that, with a little tweaking, it is possible to apply them successfully to organizations and institutions, workplaces, schools and communities. From there, it is not difficult to imagine how we might apply similarly scaled-up methods to global social, economic and political conflicts.
Doing so demands not only that we take a collaborative, non-violent and appreciative approach to dissent and diversity, and thus to conflict, by seeking out the sources of chronic hostility and antagonism; but that we recognize that every conflict experience and opposing perspective contains some truth that can be reconfigured or reframed in ways that allow it to be understood by our opponents, and contribute to improved, synergistic solutions.
More profoundly and consequentially, it means that, on a large enough scale, with a deep enough empathy and a clear enough understanding, we can move beyond “Us versus Them” based conflicts, simply by realizing, finally, that there is no “Them,” there is only “Us.” The “Them” we have created is simply the flip side of our pain and disappointment, our alienation from wholeness and our loss of capacity for empathy.
These understandings encourage us to imagine how we might fundamentally redesign and revolutionize the systems, processes and relationships; the groups, institutions and organizations; the cultures, contexts and values; even the syntax, narratives and language we use to interact socially, economically and politically, by shifting from adversarial power- and rights-based assumptions to collaborative interest-based ones.
Some Limits to What It Is Possible to Achieve
If we are to avoid merely fantasizing idly about what is possible, we need to clarify the most limits on what it is possible to achieve. As individuals, groups and societies, we fight, evolve and make up, and do so universally and repeatedly. In order to gain insight into how we might do so more effectively in the future, we need to acknowledge a number of intrinsic constraints on our ability to alter our experience of conflict. Here is my list of the top 10:
- The fundamental nature of mediation and all other forms of conflict resolution is determined, in the first place, by the nature of the conflicts it seeks to resolve. Therefore, we cannot imagine a future for mediation, or invent alternative forms of resolution that do not flow and take their shape from the nature of conflict.
- Conflict and resolution are dual, opposing, dialectically interacting processes like light and dark, good and evil, positive and negative, in which one side can never entirely prevail over its opposite, unless both disappear. Instead, they interact and evolve together into ever more complex, higher order relationships with fresh, emergent, higher order characteristics that cannot be imagined from lower order perspectives. For this reason alone, resolution can never vanquish conflict, nor should it, as conflict is generative and a necessary byproduct of change.
- There are many more ways of dividing people and creating conflict than there are ways of bringing them together and creating resolution. Consequently, there is a social second law of thermodynamics, a “relational entropy” that allows for resolution only at the cost of increased effort, resulting in a net gain for disorganization over time, exactly as described by the laws of physics.
- Conflict is classically chaotic, meaning “sensitively dependent on initial conditions,” and therefore unpredictable in the long run, allowing small shifts in seemingly trivial parameters to result in vastly different outcomes. This gives rise to a “mediation butterfly effect,” in which miniscule actions in one area can give rise to huge effects elsewhere.
- Most human conflicts are not occasional, unique and accidental, but chronic, common and systemic, and thus potentially susceptible to large-scale collaborative, systemic and strategic interventions.
- As Steven Pinker has demonstrated, the number and severity of human conflicts has declined significantly over the last several millennia, with signs of increasing vulnerability to mediative interventions. There is no reason to imagine that this trend will decrease and every reason to believe it will continue at a faster rate as we learn how to impact it.
- At the same time, as human populations increase and global economic activity expands, greater pressures will be placed on scarce resources that are required for environmental sustainability and survival, predictably increasing the amount, severity and cost of conflict, and with it, but inevitably lagging behind, the necessity and importance of efforts at resolution.
- Human responses to conflict are shaped, in large part, by neurophysiological structures and processes that are hardwired in the brain. These processes flow primarily along two pathways, each mediated by a different neurotransmitter and resulting in different behaviors: the adversarial “fight or flight” pathway mediated by adrenalin resulting in fear and anger; and the collaborative “tend and befriend” pathway mediated by oxytocin resulting in trust and caring. While these are given, neuroscience to some extent allows us to influence which pathway we choose.
- As mentioned above, conflicts are fractally organized and “self-similar on all scales,” so that the smallest human conflicts share features with the largest; the most unique and particular with the most common and general. This allows all techniques, methods and styles of dispute resolution to contribute to others and to the process as a whole. Every common practice, approach and style works in some conflicts, but none work always, for everyone, in all circumstances, all the time.
- We evolve, not only as individuals, but as couples, families, groups, organizations, societies, economies and polities, both in the nature of our conflicts and in our approaches to resolution, moving from simple to more complex, nuanced and skillful forms. But in order to evolve, it is necessary for us not merely to settle or resolve the particular conflict we are facing, but also its hidden coda, essential nature or binding principle, by learning the secret lesson it took place in order to teach us.
The essence of these limitations begins not in the future, but in the present, where we are faced with great difficulties and challenges and where our individual choices begin to create openings and alternative futures.
Our overall challenge, therefore, is to connect the microscopic, emotionally entangled quantum-like lessons we are able to derive and distill from resolving individual, interpersonal and organizational conflicts with the macroscopic, discrete, systemically relativistic-like lessons we are able to derive from a mediative understanding of the chronic sources of social, economic and political conflicts.
Doing so will allow us to identify a number of unique, creative solutions to global conflicts; initiate an innovative, revolutionary redesign of our social, economic and political communications, processes, relationships and cultures; and build intricate collaborative mechanisms into the processes, relationships and daily operations of our institutions and organizations, locally and globally.
It will also assist us in learning how to be more effective in preventing, resolving, transforming and transcending conflicts at their chronic, systemic sources, whether they be individual, interpersonal, couple and family conflicts; neighborhood, organizational and workplace disputes; social, economic and political disagreements; and an expanding number of global environmental skirmishes on which our survival increasingly depends.
The mere idea that conflict resolution principles could make our social institutions less adversarial, ameliorate the chronic sources of economic conflict, reduce the costs of competitive, adversarial political disputes and encourage deeper, cheaper, longer lasting resolutions are reasons enough for us to focus our energies and attention in this direction. More broadly, the ideas discussed here pose a number of unique and profound additional challenges and opportunities for those who wish to turn them to practical use.
Our first challenge is to discover how we might use conflict resolution theories and practices to gain fresh insights into the reasons social, economic and political disputes become so adversarial and intractable. This will allow us to develop a richer set of options for preventing and resolving these conflicts and become more effective in halting the disheartening and senseless destruction of communities, brutalization of life, loss of pleasure and enjoyment and wasteful human misery that are experienced in violent conflicts every day around the world.
The second challenge is to discover whether we can use social, economic and political principles to clarify the systemic factors that contribute to impasse in what appear to be purely interpersonal conflicts. This will allow us to plumb a wide array of sociological methods, economic analyses and political theories for innovative ways of deepening and sustaining the dispute resolution process in a variety of conflicts.
A third challenge is to discover whether we can apply conflict resolution systems design principles to the root causes of chronic social, economic and political conflicts, and design from first principles an interacting set of communications, processes and relationships for organizations and institutions that will be more successful in preventing, resolving, transforming and transcending and overcoming them. This will allow us to include greater choices in our social, economic and political lives and evolve to higher orders of conflict and resolution than, in our current state, we believe are even possible.
Our fourth and significantly deeper challenge is to clarify the human, heart-based values that inform our profoundest understandings of conflict resolution and elucidate the techniques responsible for its most far-reaching successes. This will lead us to the deepest heartfelt desires that inform all collaborative, interest-based processes; anchor them at the center of our social, economic and political lives; and invent more humane ways of solving environmental and international problems across the borders and boundaries that divide us.
A fifth challenge is to meet all of these challenges both locally and globally and initiate practical international partnerships that seek to assist our brothers and sisters in neighboring countries in doing the same. This will allow us to realize that conflicts have no borders and can easily spread across those we imagine to impact all of us. We may then work more actively and conscientiously to increase conflict resolution capacity internationally and work more collaboratively beyond these imaginary separations to solve our common problems.
The sixth challenge is to bring about these genuinely revolutionary changes without triggering additional conflicts by our use of power- or right-based processes of change, thereby hardening resistance to what most needs improving. Doing so will require us to find new ways of improving highly complex entrenched global systems, while recognizing the validity of Gandhi’s deep insight that we need to be the change we want to see in the world. As writer Michael Ventura pointed out, “The future lives in our individual, often lonely, and certainly unprofitable acts of integrity, or it doesn’t live at all.”
Our seventh and perhaps deepest challenge is to be audacious enough to become global citizens and “conflict revolutionists;” to have the courage to take on the world and imagine how it might be made better, and at the same time to be humble enough to recognize our imperfections, appreciate the danger of meddling with what we don’t fully understand, and realize that, in the end, it is we who create our conflicts and ourselves who most need changing.
This realization raises a final challenge that leads back to ourselves and our capacity to create an integrated, heartfelt sense of Self and Other internally, while simultaneously recognizing and celebrating their diversity, complexity and right to independent self-determination. This future is brought into existence within each of us every day, in every conflict, in the moment-by-moment choices we make as mediators. As the eminent historian Howard Zinn recognized,
We don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
The Importance of Being Audacious and Humble
It is obviously audacious for anyone to propose solutions for global problems, let alone someone whose chief experience lies in resolving interpersonal conflicts; or for any of us to think we can resolve centuries-old political disputes that no one has been able to resolve before. It is even more audacious to suggest that the entire system of social, economic and political relationships might be revolutionized based on conflict resolution principles, and that we can fashion sustainable forms of problem solving that are less prone to enmity and bloodshed than the ones we currently practice.
Yet it is precisely audacity that is central to genuine democracy and all social improvement. Without daring and a willingness to accept the possibility of failure, nothing changes. There are three great fears that accompany audacious proposals for social, economic and political change:
- The fear that we will fail, or be wrong or be found to have been mistaken
- The far more devastating fear that, in the withering words of physicist Wolfgang Pauli, our ideas are “not even wrong”
- Worst of all, the fear that we will remain silent because of these fears and unwilling to advance even a wrong idea that could, through dialogue, lead to a better one
The most effective remedy for audacity is humility, and it is critical that we begin by acknowledging that, while we know a few things about conflict, we do not have all the answers. Most importantly, we need to recognize that dispute resolvers are not immune from the ills that flow from our social, economic and political systems. In the 1920s, the brilliant Mary Parker Follett, one of the founders of modern mediation, perceptively wrote, “Humility needs to be defined: it is merely never claiming any more than belongs to me in any way whatever; it rests on the ability to see clearly what does belong to me. Thus do we maintain our integrity.”
What belongs to each of us is our responsibility as individuals, mediators, global citizens and aspiring “conflict revolutionists” to advance our ideas and advocate passionately and energetically for what we know and believe works. What does not belong to us is the right to force or impose our ideas on others. Most mediators are accustomed to affirming these principles within the mediation process, but can become frightened of the aggressiveness of political discourse, or assume that both sides are equally right in a political debate, or that they are right and the parties are wrong, or that no one is right, when one side may actually be more right than another about a particular issue. Thus, in historic conflicts over slavery, we may legitimately ask: Whose opinions regarding the inhumanity of slavery are most likely to be accurate, enduring and useful in improving human conditions, those of the slave or those of the master?
Additionally, mediators are often inclined to support “good” conflict behaviors over “bad” ones and can be unduly influenced by what upsets them, or diverts the conflict resolution process, rather than appreciating the complexity, power and utility of intense argument and passionate disagreement in revealing new options and stimulating transformational change. As the writer C. S. Lewis reminds us, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”
Conflict resolvers are trained to resist forming personal judgments about disputing parties for very sound reasons. Yet they may, as a result, be inclined to surrender valuable critical insights, moderate their own passion for truth and justice or downplay their personal social, economic and political convictions.
As a result, many conflict resolvers are frightened of passionate social, economic and political criticism and beliefs and prefer the calmer, safer, more “civilized” conversations that sideline heated and dangerous, yet authentic, emotional engagements. As a result, they are sometimes reluctant to encourage vigorous disagreements over substantive outcomes, or embolden dissenters to rebel, or put their arguments forward more energetically. They may resist engaging in political dialogue or discourse because they are afraid of becoming too engaged, or do not know how to assist without slipping into pointless polarized debates and a downward spiral of adversarial responses.
Beyond these difficulties, it is not easy for anyone to develop a clear understanding of the collaborative underpinnings of social systems, economic forces and political practices. This is especially difficult when what we regard as politics has become so grossly distorted by sensationalist media, self-aggrandizing political parties and corrupt or deceitful campaign practices that its core ideas and principles can hardly be recognized.
These distortions have led to the constriction of substantive social, economic and political discourse to a narrow range of what is possible, defined largely by what has been done in the past and by what is considered acceptable and safe to a small coterie of wealthy individuals and corporations, competitive think-tanks and pundits, paid lobbyists and political consultants, ambitious office seekers and self-interested campaign contributors. Moreover, many mediators have not looked broadly at the world through conflict resolution-colored glasses; or taken time to conduct a careful analysis of the chronic sources of social, economic and political conflicts; or explicitly critiqued the destructive consequences of adversarial conflict generating practices; or considered the possibility of radically redesigning the way they work from a conflict resolution point of view.
It is also true that many conflict resolvers have not thought much about developing coherent, mediative approaches to social, economic and political issues, or to studying the philosophy of non-violent transformational change, or perhaps have done so under relatively calm, unchallenging circumstances that do not always hold up under pressure, when violence erupts, or during periods of escalating crisis and confrontation. Nor have many conflict resolvers consciously integrated their social, economic and political beliefs with the meta-values and techniques that inform their conflict resolution practices.
Nonetheless, while most conflict resolvers are prepared to acknowledge the importance of humility, they are significantly less prepared to recognize the immense value of audacity, of passion, outspokenness, dissent, struggle and commitment to ideas; or to social, economic or political principles as inseparable aspects of citizenship and conflict resolution. In a democracy, there is no responsible alternative to developing a social, economic and political point of view. Being a citizen necessarily means clarifying values, analyzing problems, distinguishing options, choosing between them, presenting ideas and arguments for others to accept or reject, registering disagreements, negotiating differences and striving, sometimes for prolonged periods of time, for changes that will make their ideals real. In conflict, the same methods are essential to the resolution process, if it is to seek genuine resolution and not simply stop and settle for compromise.
Finally, while no one is immune from succumbing to hostile, aggressive political attitudes and behaviors, those who have been trained in mediation and spent a great deal of time practicing conflict resolution skills in adversarial circumstances may be slightly more prepared to manage and respond to them. It is this slight difference, plus a healthy dose of humility and honesty about ourselves, that justifies the audacity of assuming we could contribute something useful to improving our ability to resolve chronic social, economic and political conflicts.
In this sense, democracy requires what might be regarded as the height of audacity, which is to become a “global citizen” and “conflict revolutionist,” by which I mean, someone who is willing to spend time and effort increasing our collective personal capacity for resolving large-scale social, economic and political conflicts. While the French revolutionist Danton was certainly correct in encouraging “audacity, more audacity, audacity forever,” the danger of being audacious without also being humble is that our beliefs, rather than promoting democracy and collaboration and expanding dialogue, can easily turn into justifications for their wholesale suppression.
For me, at this moment, audacity has a very specific and concrete meaning: it means advancing the proposition that social, economic and political systems can be significantly improved by identifying the systemic sources of chronic conflict within them, sources that render them both oppressive and ineffective, and being willing to think out loud about redesigning them from a mediative point of view. Humility also has a specific meaning for me: it means committing to changing the way we change, even at a small, subtle level, by shifting from power- and rights-based forms of communication, processes, relationships and strategies to interest-based ones. What this means concretely will be discussed throughout the book.
Taking Risks, Being Notorious
In the pages that follow, I set forth my views on a number of controversial, potentially divisive topics, as well as on difficult issues of evil, war, injustice, terrorism and other topics. I have done so knowing in advance that it is impossible to discuss social, economic or political conflicts without disappointing or infuriating someone. I realize that many readers may disagree with my views and that any discussion of these contentious issues will risk alienating potential allies, fomenting dissension and reducing the likelihood of reaching agreement on ways we can help improve our lives.
Nonetheless, I have chosen, in Rumi’s opening words, to “forget safety,” live where I fear to live and risk destroying my reputation. I do so because omitting or suppressing the discussion of difficult social, economic and political issues out of a fear of upsetting others or instigating conflict flows more from cowardice than a genuine desire for improvement and resolution. I do so because, as with all conflict, we learn far more from airing our differences, discussing our disagreements and engaging in dialogue with dissenting opinions, even when it results in contentiousness and discord, than we do from silence, conformity, cowardice, repressive civility and apathetic tolerance.
Indeed, a willingness to face conflicts openly, directly and honestly is, I believe, the principal method by which individuals, couples, families, organizations, communities and nations grow, evolve and learn to transcend their differences. As psychologist Victor Frankl concluded following his concentration camp experiences in World War II, “What is to give light must endure burning.”
My Crucible Experiences
I am also acutely aware, having spent decades working both in conflict resolution and conflict-riddled political activity starting in the 1960s, that no one can be entirely neutral in the presence of conflict or politics. As Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth, “Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious, loyal and neutral in a moment? No man.”
This does not mean that everyone is biased and beyond convincing, but that it is important to be open and honest about one’s own formative experiences, deeply held values, philosophical beliefs, core ideas and natural predilections, and explicit regarding the crucible experiences that forged and defined one’s perspectives on conflict and politics. Pretending that we don’t have them is one of the masks of bias.
My own crucible experiences in conflict took shape of course as a child in my family, but took political shape growing up in the 1960s. I was a deeply committed participant in the civil rights movement, both in the North and the South, working with the Congress of Racial Equality in Berkeley and Los Angeles; with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Law Students Civil Rights Research Council principally in Selma, Montgomery and Greensboro County, Alabama, and in Albany, Americus and Baker County, Georgia; and with the Ad Hoc Committee Against Discrimination in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco, among others.
I was active in the student movement throughout the 1960s, and was chairman of SLATE, a campus political party at the University of California at Berkeley, and a SLATE representative on student government. I participated in a wide variety of campus political organizations, culminating in the Free Speech Movement, in which I was also active. I spoke and helped encourage student political activity as a full-time student organizer at campuses across the country and later at Columbia University during its strike, at Tokyo University through a similar strike, in Paris in May of 1968, and in dozens of other locations for Students for a Democratic Society.
I was an organizer for the National Lawyers Guild for several years, as its law student director, then executive director, and coordinated legal defense for the principal national mobilizations against the Vietnam War in New York City, the District of Columbia and Chicago. I helped countless young men avoid the draft and supported numerous civilian and GI efforts to end the war in Vietnam, among others, through Support Our Soldiers, the GI Coffeehouse Movement, Winter Soldier Investigation, the “FTA Show” and Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I represented anti-war soldiers who refused military service in courts martial, helped organize anti-war GIs in the U.S., England, the Philippines, Japan and Europe and wrote popular manuals and articles on draft and military law for those who were seeking to end the war.
In short, I was a committed activist working energetically for more than a decade and a half with countless individuals, social movements and political organizations internationally and at home in an effort to increase political conflicts rather than end them — albeit in the hope of bringing about a much deeper, more far-reaching resolution.
In reflection, I find these social justice, political organizing and peacemaking activities largely compatible with my current commitment to the core values and principles of conflict resolution. At the same time, while I passionately agreed with most of the aims of the organizations and movements I worked with to varying degrees, and was a leader and spokesperson in nearly all of them, I found myself unable to totally accept or completely agree with all their underpinings, positions, actions and philosophical leanings.
The reasons for this lack of acceptance, in retrospect, are important to the subject of this book, and concern what I view as the predominantly power- and rights-based nature of most social, economic and political communications, processes and relationships, especially those that concern the change process itself. This book is therefore, for me, the completion of a circle, in which, as T. S. Eliot eloquently explained:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Other Times, Other Crucibles
Other entirely different crucible experiences followed this period of intense political activity in the 1960s, and also influenced the ideas advanced in this book. The most important of these, chronologically, were:
- Working in two Legal Aid offices defending the rights of impoverished, disempowered and destitute people
- Teaching law full time for several years and discovering its inherent limitations
- Becoming a father and discovering the pain and beauty of unconditional love
- Being an arbitrator and a judge, and searching, not always successfully, for just outcomes
- Teaching history, politics, sociology, economic and assorted topics at a number of colleges and universities
- Reading and researching the historical reasons for significant conflicts conducted while earning a Ph.D. in history
- Investigating the philosophical and juridical contributions to various theories of justice while working on an LLM degree in law
- Experiencing first-hand a litigated divorce and learning to overcome the seduction of victimization and the futility of revenge
- Discovering conflict resolution, becoming a full-time mediator and increasingly skilled in resolving disputes of all kinds, from family and divorce to workplace and restorative justice
- Working to improve my ability to be a loving partner and husband
- Traveling, mediating and building conflict resolution capacity in more than 20 countries
- Consulting, coaching, team building and facilitating strategic planning and similar organizational change efforts for dozens of large public and private sector organizations
- Traveling twice a year for 17 years to Cuba to work with the top leadership of the country to build a less centralized, more democratic and strategically integrated system of management
- Striving throughout this time to become a better father, partner, friend and human being
- Learning mindfulness through a daily meditation practice and discovering the practical meaning of heart and spirit
- Becoming a grandfather of six and experiencing the special love that crosses generations
Most importantly, over the last 35 years, I have helped conflicted parties resolve thousands of complex multiparty conflicts, including prenuptial, marital, divorce, family, relational, neighborhood, community, commercial, workplace, organizational, environmental, grievance and workplace disputes. I have mediated collective bargaining negotiations, inter-organizational and school conflicts, sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuits and difficult public policy disputes, including conflicts within and between committed activists, social justice and political advocacy organizations. I have conducted dozens of victim-offender and restorative justice mediations, trained thousands of people in conflict resolution and designed preventative dispute resolution systems for couples, nonprofits, family businesses and Fortune 100 corporations.
I have also worked as a mediator and trainer helping to resolve complex interpersonal conflicts, as well as social, economic, political and environmental disputes, not only in the U.S., but in the former Soviet Union, helping increase understanding, reduce stereotyping and resolve conflicts among Ukrainians, Georgians and Russians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis. I contributed to conflict resolution efforts in Nicaragua, Pakistan, India, Ireland; between Israelis and Palestinians; between Mexican ranchers and indigenous forest dwellers; and in racially divided communities in the U.S. I have trained people in conflict resolution techniques around the world and helped design, train and facilitate dialogues on immigration, violence, discrimination and other difficult and dangerous topics in Brazil, China, Greece, India, Puerto Rico, Spain, Thailand and Zimbabwe.
Through these widely varying experiences I learned that every conflict is a crucible and every moment a place where fundamental lessons can be learned; that every grand, sacred and profound idea is expressed through small, profane, seemingly trivial acts; that freedom, peace and equality consist first in how we think and act toward others, how we treat our opponents and how we speak and behave toward those whom we mistakenly regard as “beneath” us.
What is most important about these experiences, for the purposes of this book, and the reason I have described them at length, is that I am not unique in having had them. Thousands of my colleagues around the world have had similar experiences and are, as a result, increasingly conscious of the need to apply conflict resolution skills to social, economic and political disputes, and to do so both locally and globally. It is this fertile soil of broad experience that allows me to hope that the ideas in this book may some day become viable.
About this Book
My primary purpose in writing this book has been to discover whether it is possible to apply the remarkable insights and incalculable potential of conflict resolution to adversarial social, economic and political communications, processes and relationships. It has also been to learn whether our primary organizations and institutions can be transformed using conflict resolution systems design principles. Finally, it has been to explore these larger human systems — not merely as stages or backdrops, but as active, holistic, interwoven catalysts of resolution and reconciliation, of learning and improvement.
In the first three chapters, I describe the chronic sources of systemic social, economic and political conflict and offer some ideas about what could be done to resolve them. In the next three chapters, I look at some of the difficulties and obstacles encountered in seeking to resolve them. In the following three chapters, I suggest practical ways of redesigning social, economic and political institutions and organizations. In the last three chapters I consider ways of improving the ways we change and making change happen.
Thus, Chapters 1, 4 and 7 are concerned with social conflicts; 2, 5 and 8 address economic conflicts; and 3, 6 and 9 analyze political conflicts. The last three chapters discuss ways of “revolutionizing” the revolution, changing the way we change and implementing integrated solutions that address all forms of conflict.
My object throughout has been to combine research, ideas and experiences in sociology, economics and political science with lessons drawn from mediation, conflict resolution systems design, dialogue, collaborative negotiation and similar methodologies in an integrated approach to global conflicts. I have done so in hopes of stimulating greater dialogue and encouraging collaborative efforts to build a better world, one in which conflict genuinely leads to learning, more satisfying relationships and improved capacity to solve common problems.
Whether we will succeed in these efforts is an open question. But even if it could be conclusively demonstrated that change is impossible, or that it will be too little too late, we make our lives richer by taking on the world with all its difficulties and finding, even in darkness and despair, the hope and desire that opens our hearts and makes us more human. As blind, deaf Helen Keller beautifully expressed it, “To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.”