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September 29, 2010
American Socio-economic Fairness

Source: Cohort Zero at

I spent last weekend attending a course on mediation in the hopes of learning skills that might prove useful in crisis management and public engagement since these processes often become framed not just as failures but as conflicts as well. Although familiar with the field before taking the course, the two days of instruction and practical role play were a pleasant reminder that we always have alternatives to thinking and acting in the ways we usually do. At the same time, I was reminded that breaking old habits of mind is an acquired skill that requires lots of patience and practice.

Most of the alternatives to conventional conflict adjudication and resolution don’t just seem messy, time consuming and inefficient, they really are! Talking with one another and taking the time to appreciate others’ positions is terribly difficult, especially when we know we are right to begin with. But the sometimes “irrational” solutions that arise from alternative dispute resolution process often lead to genuine reconciliation, which in the end begs the question whether the adversarial win-lose approaches typical of other proceedings is not only irrational but unjust as well.

Something surprising often happens when we engage in open, honest and ongoing dialog with the objective of finding something of benefit to all parties, especially those experiencing differences with one another. We learn that other people face many of the same difficulties we do. And their bad decisions and actions, like our own, sometimes result from the best intentions, distractions or plain old poor execution. In other words, we are not the only people who have trouble dealing with uncertainty, time pressure, ill-informed or poorly articulated expectations and competing objectives. And we are not the only ones who have trouble accepting the consequences of our actions, especially when they fall short of what we want.

An effective mediator recognizes the importance of remaining neutral and letting the parties find their own ways to solutions that might otherwise never surface. Often this involves validating their feelings, expressing empathy for their position, clarifying their issues and interests and summarizing what they said. Taking the time to do these equally with each party also helps model for the participants the behaviors that will lead them to find a satisfying resolution of their own making.

The instructor for my course — a middle-aged Israeli woman who was drafted at 18 years of age to serve as combat nurse in both the Golan Heights and West Bank just before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War– seems particularly well-equipped to appreciate both the subtleties of these techniques and the genuine importance of their application to conflicts among people, whether they involve individuals, institutions or cultures. For the past 20 years, she has mediated a bewildering array of disputes ranging from the petty to the preposterous to the truly ponderous. In the process, she has acquired a deeper understanding not only of conflicts among human beings, but also of the conflicts within herself and by extension in each one of us.

As we talked throughout the two days, it became clear that she still holds very strong views about the conflicts in the Middle East. But she also made it clear that she is far more aware of the ways others see them too. As such, she is not one to advocate for, much less favor, quick fixes. I could not help but wonder how useful her input and that of others like her might be if they were given the mantle of resolving the dispute between Arabs and Israelis rather than relying on leaders whose vested interests in maintaining the power of the state and their own power often leads them to narrow conceptions of what’s workable.

As I contemplated the questions posed by Phil Palin on Sunday and thoughtfully debated by several of us over the past couple of days, I wondered what our discussions could achieve and whether similar efforts if engaged by a wider audience could actually create a more peaceful world. The course helped answer this question as well.

Change, whether from a state of conflict or chaos, to something more stable, even comfortable, requires participants to engage their heads, hearts and hands. Every conflict involves substantive issues. Often the absence of procedural fairness inhibits resolution, and adds to the frustration or fear of future consequences that brings people to impasse. It may be possible to resolve the issues at the center of a conflict without addressing the interests underlying the participants’ positions. But avoiding the hard work of examining participants’ emotions, biases and the values that inform them often leaves everyone wondering whether anything really changed. We all need answers to the why, what and how questions before committing ourselves to which direction we will go.

Some people cannot or will not participate in mediation. People who lack self-awareness or a capacity for empathy cannot engage mediation in any meaningful way. Yet that does not mean we, as their adversaries, lack alternatives, it just makes finding them, negotiating them and implementing them that much more difficult as we carry water for both (or all) sides.

During his campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama was widely criticized for suggesting we could and should engage those with whom we find ourselves in conflict. Those who struggled to accept his stance became all the more uncomfortable, if not incensed, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize for little more than suggesting we might make the world a more just and peaceful place by doing so consistently. Very soon afterward, the President was ridiculed by the right for suggesting that empathy was an essential quality in a supreme court justice.

Mediation is an intensely practical pursuit, not some sort of intellectual fantasy or philosophical exercise. It accepts that getting something better for each and every party often means one or more party must accept something less than that to which they might otherwise consider themselves entitled. Getting better results for all often involves accepting something less for ourselves rather than extracting something more from others.

Whether we want to see peace in the Middle East, improved employment prospects at home, an end to Congressional gridlock or a more equitable, efficient and accessible health care system for ourselves and our fellow citizens, we may have no better option than ending our obsession with and insistence upon justice. As we consider alternatives to the conflicts preoccupying us today, we would do well to talk with one another about how we might live if we were simply fair.

Further reading:

Dworkin, Ronald (2008). Is Democracy Possible Here? Principles for a New Political Debate. Princeton University Press.

Habermas, Jurgen (1984)The Theory of Communicative Action (Volume 1): Reason and the Rationalization of Society. Beacon Press.

Habermas, Jurgen (1987)The Theory of Communicative Action (Volume 2): Lifeworld and Systems: A Critique of Functionalist Reason. Beacon Press.

Rawls, John (1971)A Theory of Justice. Belknap Press.

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