Conflict Intervention in a Divided Nation

(An online conversation with Gail Bingham and Bernie Mayer)

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ADRHub is pleased to introduce a new online dialogue featuring two of the most experienced mediators in our field, Gail Bingham and Bernie Mayer.  Follow the conversation – and feel welcome to join in.

Gail Bingham is President Emeritus of RESOLVE and currently serves as Chair of the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee and as convener of the Lead Service Line Replacement Collaborative. 

Bernie Mayer is Professor of Conflict Studies at the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program at Creighton University and a Founding Partner at CDR Associates. 

Together, Bernie and Gail have over 80 years experience in working with environmental, public policy and other types of conflicts.

Gail and Bernie will be continuing a discussion with each other that they began in a webinar last May on the appropriate role of conflict specialists in these polarized times. 

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A note from Gail and Bernie

 In May 2017, the two of us participated in a webinar on the role of conflict specialists in the “Age of Trump” sponsored by the Environmental and Public Policy Sector of the Association of Conflict resolution and ably facilitated by Larry Schooler and Dana Goodson.  We discussed ways to contribute to constructive conflict engagement in this extremely polarized environment.  While we agreed on a lot (for example, that conflict specialists have an important role to play in challenging stereotypes that people have of one another), we also had some very different perspectives (for example, how important is it to stay neutral). 

We both felt that the challenges – even threats – of polarization will have a huge effect on public issues for years to come.  So, we thought it would be valuable to keep the conversation going. We have been friends and colleagues (and sometimes, competitors) for many years, and we look forward to this opportunity to continue to collaborate.  We hope many of you will join us in this discussion.

We have no set format or frequency planned—instead we will follow where the dialogue takes us. Please join in and make this a rich conversation.

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Thanks Gail,

A quick reply to your quick reply.  I completely agree with your fifth goal.  My favorite bumper sticker is "don't believe everything you think." Also, I would not romanticize Ralph Nader either--for lots of reasons although I think he put some very important issues on the table.  Critical thinking  requires that we listen carefully to those who thoughtfully criticize us .  And I think we need to push the boundaries of who we talk to, listen to, and convey our own thinking too as well.  But the question I am struggling with relates to what is our primary task as conflict specialists now.  After the election there there was a lot of hand wringing among many liberals and conflict professionals about the failure of progressives to listen to the concerns of the white working class in mid America.    As I have suggested--while there needs are legitimate, this analysis and prescription struck me as too easy a response and missed an important point.  To reach out to others you often have to start by examining your own thinking and consider how to articulate your own values and beliefs while opening yourself to others..  This is something you and I have seen in many negotiations--if their is dysfunctionality within a stakeholder group, reaching out to other groups become more difficult. 

And I also thought that it was by no means liberals alone or especially who had to attend to this challenge.In fact, the biggest challenge along these lines  at the moment may be facing traditional conservatives within the Republican Party.  I know you like David Brooks.  His column in today's NY Times describes this challenge (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/29/opinion/trump-identity-politics....).

 One way of thinking about this is that while we need to expand our bubbles and join some of these bubbles together,  if we focus on a bubble that is too far afield when we are not clear about our own message, interests, values, and ideas we will not be effective.

For example, I think there is a great deal to be gained right now for environmentalists and those who are concerned that we have gone too far in imposing regulations that hamper local economies to communicate.  I don't think there is much to be gained by focusing on dialogues (yet) between environmentalists and extreme deniers of climate change.

A quick reply to Bernie’s quick reply.

I agree with your point that a lot of the media coverage after the election over-emphasized urban progressives’ failure to appreciate the perspectives of rural conservatives.  Some of this perspective is reflected in criticism of Hillary Clinton for losing the election, as if it was obvious that she ignored or was indifferent to rural blue-collar workers.  From my recollection, that’s not an accurate depiction of her views or campaign.  Presumably, she didn’t campaign more in the Midwest states where Trump narrowly won because all the forecasts predicted that she would win those states.  So it probably was not indifference but rather an understandable political calculation.  And we should always remember that she did actually win the popular election by about 3 million votes.  I believe that there are problematic attitudes within the progressive community that deserve careful self-reflection and correction, but that’s not the whole – or even majority of the – story, in my view.

Part of the narrative that Bernie appropriately criticizes – or lack of narrative – is about the attitudes of people in the rural conservative “bubble.”  I believe that within that group, there also is a lot of indifference and hostility to the concerns of people in other groups, as described in my Indisputably posts and ACResolution article.

We could try to weigh whose attitudes were worse (and I have my own views about that), but I think that would be counter-productive.  At this point, I think that it would be more productive to try to bring closer together the vast majority of the public who are generally well-intentioned and willing to listen seriously to others.  Part of this effort involves principled advocacy.

I am concerned about your reference to “our primary task” as if there should be a single or pre-eminent task for conflict and collaboration specialists.  I know that you plan to address this issue and I look forward to hearing what you will say.

A correction:  Obviously, the reference to "primary task" does not mean that it would be the only task.

I haven't had time to frame some of the ideas this exchange brings up for me, but again as a quick note, I totally agree that it would be counter-productive to weigh whose attitudes are worse.  In fact, don't conflict specialists urge those we work with to speak for one's self and not attribute views to others?  This is feeling like a slippery slope to me, and I will check myself to be sure I'm not doing it either. 

I think I entered a bit of a slippery slope myself with the use of the term "primary task"..  That is really for each of us to decide for ourselves and depends greatly on our particular situations, opportunities, capacities, and outlook.  Maybe a better way for me to say this is that  I think  it is essential for all of us  to think about  how to find better ways to help the groups we are working with to both listen to others and articulate their own beliefs in a powerful way--and that part of our responsibility is to the do the same ourselves. 

I don't think this is a time when large scale efforts to engage in dialogue between those at the opposite ends of the political spectrum (in widely different bubbles) are likely to be fruitful.  But along the way, we may find a lot of small opportunities to encourage some conversations of that nature.  My sense, however, is that we are at  a time when the greatest that challenge that those who feel politically marginalize or disempowered  face is to find a way to have a more powerful and effective voice.  Some of this is taking action (as against racism or climate denial) but it also requires doing the internal work to assess what is going on, to work with allies and potential allies (even those who seem like the opposition at the moment) and to figure out to do the complicated work of speaking powerfully and listening carefully at the same time.  This is where conflict specialists may have a particularly useful role to play right now.

When I was working in the Balkans after the disintegrationl of the USSR and Yugoslavia, I saw over and over again how people from very antagonistic groups (e.g. Muslims and Serbs in Bosnia, Romas and others in Bulgaria) could work together quite well on issues of common interest but not on than their basic conflict. For example, they could cooperate on issuses such as about municipal services or  education, and interact around sports or music.  Along the way they could come to know each other better and break down some stereotypes.  I think some of this may be happening right now in Houston and surrounding areas as people struggle to deal with the effects of Hurricane Harvey.   Over time we may be able to promote more of this interaction about areas of common concern as Gail is doing with the Missouri River Compact.  But on a macro level, if we don't start by helping groups who feel disempowered now to understand what is happening, to articulate their most important concerns and to think about how they might address the legitimate concerns of others then I don't think we will get very far with encouraging "bubble bursting."

I completely agree with your post, Bernie.

Your first paragraph reflects my view about how people in our field should consider what roles and actions make most sense for them individually.

I also agree that inclusive conversations generally make more sense at the local rather than national level now.  Periodically, people have called for “national conversations” about various subjects and I have never had the sense that these conversations really took place or helped very much.

Regarding the Confederate monuments, for example, it might make sense for people in particular communities who have different views about what to do about monuments in their communities to have well-planned and conducted conversations.  I can imagine that this could bring people together to gain a more complete and shared understanding of events in their local history.  This could be a valuable opportunity for people supporting the Equal Justice Initiative’s efforts to educate their communities about horrible local events during the Jim Crow era.

Although I have perpetuated the “bubble” metaphor in my posts and article, I don’t like the term, so I plan to (mostly) stop using it.

Here’s an interesting indicator of how polarized US society is these days. A Fox News poll found that 68% of Republicans think that President Trump is “drawing the country together” compared with 59% of independents and 93% of Democrats, who think that he is “tearing the country apart.”

In many polls these days, there are wide partisan gaps on most substantive issues, which isn’t surprising. But this difference in assessment of the social and political relationships does seem surprising.

The increasing polarization seems so obvious to me. I would assume that this would also be evident from the news sources that Republicans rely on. Perhaps their responses to this survey question shouldn’t be interpreted literally and really are just indications of support for the president.

Interesting that we are polarized about whether we are polarized.  Part of this is no doubt an effort or Republicans (and perhaps Democrats)  to reduce cognitive dissonance.  But thee is a power dimension as well--those in a privileged or powerful position  do not tend to realize their privilege whereas those out of power tend to be acutely aware of their position.  I think we might have seen some of this in reverse reverse during the Obama years. 

Having said that, it is amazing to me that anyone can see Trump as havimg brought the country together--if you see the country as being a multi-racial, multi-ethnic community.

I had the same reaction, Bernie, about how people might think that President Trump has brought people together.

Perhaps Republicans’ responses in the survey reflect a belief that the country is being torn apart – but they don’t attribute this to Trump.  His supporters may blame Democrats and/or focus on his efforts to bring people together within his “base.”  Perhaps some of them believe that he is gaining support from outside his base despite (what they may believe to be “fake news”) polling results to the contrary.

Your comments about perceptions by powerful people are apt. Of course, some people may not feel powerful – and, indeed, feel oppressed – even though they appear powerful to others.

In any case, we seem quite polarized, at least as reflected by many public opinion polls.  Perhaps this does not accurately reflect how people feel about and interact with others in real life, however.  I wonder how much of a gulf most people actually experience in their daily lives, reflected in self-segregation and/or hostility towards the “other side.”  Is this different from prior periods of polarization?

In any case, how does the nature and extent of the current polarization affect the way that conflict and collaboration specialists should work these days?

Bernie,

I'd like to ask you more about your thinking about scale and strategy.  (More later about collaboration or negotiation on more 'concrete' issues at whatever scale, and your characterization that seems to limit those to issues of common concern.) 

First, let me know if I'm putting two points you've made together in the way you intend.  In paragraph 2 above (and in earlier posts) you've said you don't think that "large scale efforts to engage in dialogue between those at the opposite ends of the political spectrum... are likely to be fruitful."  So, is it right to understand that what you ARE inclined toward is using the skills of conflict specialists to help those you agree with (climate advocates?) or those who feel marginalized (by racism?) to "assess what is going on, work with allies and potential allies..." to articulate their values and interests (and perhaps strategies?) more clearly to help them "have a more powerful and effective voice?" 

My second question is how would you approach that "on a macro level?"

Hi Gail et al., 

I am jumping in the conversation late, but I was directed here via twitter by Noam Ebner (my professor at Creighton) after I posted a question about promoting non-divisive dialogue within our communities. Not only is this discussion you have here exactly what I wanted to engage in, but I am happy to see that it is current and up to date! 

I suppose I should allow Bernie to respond to Gail's summary of Bernie's points, but if you don't mind I would like to jump in at this point in time and reflect on the macro level engagement and my opinions....

First let me give you some context as to why I posed the question on twitter in the first place; I live and work in the Midwest and like many places in the country there is an aggressive polarization surrounding the current administration. President Trump, I believe, has sifted out our current imperfections as communicators. With my training as a Conflict Engagement Specialist and the lenses I wear when viewing interpersonal communication and systems of communication, I see how deeply wounded we are as communicative beings. With that being said I still need to move forward; I, nay we, still have to strap up our boots and get to, and through, work and life with our fellow lousy-communicators. It is painful at times and can really affect our mental well being. It is difficult to see people so enraged, apathetic, foaming-at-the-mouth, depressed, etc. about so much that is happening; as if the ball of yarn has unraveled and we are burning it from both sides. 

So I posed the question because I think there is another way. I believe we, as Conflict Specialists, can engage and change dialogue during the course of our daily lives that promote non-divisive dialogue and then hopefully it becomes infectious. 

I believe that we have to get more creative though. I think this can actually create change on a macro level. For example, I am surrounded by technology at work and I have seen the pros and cons to digital technologies. One project I have worked on is a digital capacity building workshop for students in rural Senegal. It was sponsored by a grant to assist in the fight against radicalized thought and the recruitment of youth in West Africa. I worked to empower adolescent boys and girls with digital audio/visual equipment as a means to tell and share their own narratives. The workshop included a social media and leadership component and having the students think about how they presented themselves online, while also being aware of the messages they were being exposed to. Instead of people telling the world about these kids and their lives, they now have the capabilities to share their own narratives. People don't speak for them, they speak for themselves. What makes this more important is that they live in areas that border other West African countries and some fear that these kids are more susceptible to radicalized thought. One of the ways these fundamentalist groups recruit kids is through new technologies and social media. The idea of the project is to empower the kids to counter these strategies. Moreover, to share their narratives with the world and open people's minds.

The main reason I share this project here is that I would like to personally see more creativity in how we promote non-divisive dialogue. For this project, instead of tackling fundamentalism head on, we taught new skills to our youth, which hopefully will decrease the numbers of recruits to fundamentalist organizations. So we took a side door but arrived at the goal. 

I have been thinking alot about how can I find and use the side door to create healthy dialogue with friends and family members. How can I creatively change the way I talk with my friends; then how they talk with their friends; then how their friends talk with their friends; then how we all talk with our 'enemies'? Perhaps you all have some ways that I and we can do this? I do honestly believe in the power of narratives in the ADR world and think that they are an essential asset to promoting healthy dialogue too.

Michael M.Green 

Hi Michael... such a lovely post.  We welcome people joining the conversation at any time.  You offer several important ideas, both the notion of woundedness (that might not be a word!) and of coming at the issue of divisiveness through a "side door" or indirectly.  The latter idea and your story remind me of the work of Search for Common Ground.  You may know of them because they are so active in Africa, or have been.  Before going further, though, could you please share the question you posed on twitter?  You mention it, but I'm not seeing what the question actually was.  thanks!  Gail

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