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					Conflict Resolution in an Era of Political Conflict
By Colin Rule


We live in an age filled with social conflict. Anyone who picks up a newspaper in the United
States, listens to the radio, or watches television these days can see it almost immediately. We
live in a society marked by partisanship and divisive rhetoric, not only among politicians but also
among neighbors and co-workers. Recent Gallup polls indicate that the country is currently
witnessing the most dramatic gap in recent history between Republican and Democratic opinions.

Some level of social conflict is inevitable and even healthy. However, by many objective
measures, American society is now in the midst of a deeper and more destructive social conflict
than it has experienced in the last 50 years. This breakdown in our national dialogue is
demonstrated most obviously in the media. Discussions on television, radio and the internet
dwell incessantly on the back and forth insults and accusations between the leaders of the two
political parties, focusing attention primarily on whether the most egregious comments come from
the voices on the right or the voices on the left.

As most of us in the conflict resolution field know, this type of insult exchange is not a meaningful
or productive conversation; it can go on forever with no closure and only serves to deepen the
divide between the two sides. The exchange may feel temporarily satisfying, for example, when
we read a blog or listen to a talk radio program that forcefully affirms one's positions and slams
the other side as idiotic or immoral, but in the long run it achieves very little in the way of progress
toward solutions. In fact, over time such exchanges almost certainly harm the overall discourse
and deepen our social fragmentation.

Aaron Brown, the thoughtful former anchor of CNN's NewsNight, noted in a recent article in the
Palm Beach Daily News that he’s shocked "by how unkind our world has become" (1/26/06). E-
mail and talk radio appear to have given people the license to say anything, regardless of how
cruel or false it may be, he said. Many Americans on the left and the right aren't interested in the
truth, but simply want news that confirms their viewpoints. "You'd think that it's no more complex
than good vs. evil," he wrote.

There is an immense gravitational pull into this social conflict. For example, Jean Schmidt, a
Republican Member of the House of Representatives from the Second District of Ohio, offered
some well-considered comments upon her swearing in to office in 2005: "Honorable people can
certainly agree to disagree. However, here today I accept a second oath. I pledge to walk in the
shoes of my colleagues and refrain from name-calling or the questioning of character. It is easy to
quickly sink to the lowest form of political debate. Harsh words often lead to headlines, but
walking this path is not a victimless crime. This great House pays the price." Of course, just a
few months after saying these words, Ms. Schmidt gained notoriety for slighting prominent
Democrat (and decorated war veteran) John Murtha as being a "coward." Very few individuals
can resist joining the fray, especially in a heated environment like the U.S. Congress.

This extreme partisanship has tainted civil institutions that in the past were regarded as largely
apolitical. For example, the judiciary, once revered as impartial and scrupulously devoted to legal
rationality, has been accused of bias from both the right ("activist judges" "legislating from the
bench") and the left (the Supreme Court's involvement in the 2000 election). To wit, a judge in a
prominent political trial was removed because he donated to Democratic causes and then his
replacement was removed because he donated to Republican causes. In this manner, the voices
of moderation are undercut, almost everyone in the country can be divided into one camp or the
other, and every action can be called into suspicion. We all are being pressured, in one way or
another, to take a side.
Many people suspect that the evolution of this social conflict did not occur purely by accident and
that it has been engineered by those who feel protracted partisanship is in their interest. But
regardless of its origins, this divisiveness has now spun out of control in such a way that it is
damaging the underlying cohesiveness of our country. And it is becoming increasingly clear that
a growing segment of American society is looking for a way out.

Whence the Conflict Resolution Field?

If we are living in a time of extreme social conflict, it only makes sense that those of us in the
conflict resolution field should be front and center. We are a field with expertise in working with
conflict and helping to resolve protracted disagreements, so our phones should be ringing off the
hook as politicians, civic leaders and the media attempt to find answers to our nation’s social
challenges. Now is our time to lead.

Unfortunately, as we all know, that’s not happening. As Bernie Mayer wrote in his seminal and
important book Beyond Neutrality, we are largely being left out of those conversations. As he
puts it, “Conflict resolution professionals are not significantly involved in the major conflicts of our
times… {there is an} almost total absence of members of our profession from any public
discussion of these {contentious social} issues. There seems to be a nonstop series of
discussions, commentaries, panels, interviews and debates in the media about these topics.
Diplomats, politicians, journalists, military experts, area experts, political analysts, pollsters, legal
experts, and an assortment of other media favorites are repeatedly consulted, but not a conflict
resolution practitioner is in sight in these discussions...” (Mayer, Bernie, “Resistance to Conflict
Resolution,” Beyond Neutrality (Jossey-Bass, 2004), p. 4).

Why aren’t we part of these conversations? Well, in large part, it is by choice. Too often many of
us in the conflict resolution field have eschewed getting involved in political conflicts. We have
built a very cozy field for ourselves, where we talk to each other and cite each other’s publications,
but we do not feel the need to engage in broader social debates. With some significant
exceptions (such as the groundbreaking Public Conversations Project) we have become
something of a cloistered order, with our own language and cherished practices, unwilling to take
on social controversies that could disrupt our practice. The difficult truth may be that many, if not
most, of the people drawn to our field are fundamentally conflict avoiders, and the prospect of
engaging some of these difficult and divisive subjects is quite threatening. It is much easier to
stay focused on individual and personalized conflicts, where there is a clearer delineation
between the disputants and the third party, and a much more easily navigable power dynamic.

Increasingly, however, our field is being defined by the conflicts we are avoiding. The
partisanship that is spreading throughout society represents a defining challenge for all of us
working in conflict resolution. We are a young field, at a very vulnerable stage of our
development. We have long asserted that we offer a perspective on conflict that transcends the
narrow interest-based, distributive, me versus you, good versus evil orientation, but now we as a
field are being categorized into just that type of simplistic framework. I believe that how we
respond to this challenge will be a defining act at a crucial juncture in our development.

Our Challenge: Non-Partisanship vs. Choosing Sides

Those of us in the conflict resolution field like to think of our work as apolitical. Trying to keep
dialogue constructive, trying to help disputants work toward mutually acceptable solutions – these
tasks don't seem readily categorized as liberal or conservative. In fact, we devote an inordinate
amount of effort to the concepts of "neutrality" and "impartiality" in the work that we do. We
believe that if disputants don't trust us to be impartial, we have no legitimacy to offer to assist
them in their attempts to find a resolution.
There was a time when conflict resolution was supported by "both sides of the aisle". Conflict
resolution rose in prominence in the federal sector during the late 1980s and early ‘90s, when it
was praised as a way to improve the efficiency of agencies and society as a whole. Al Gore made
the promotion of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) a core tenet of his Reinventing
Government initiative. On the other side, Dan Quayle made several speeches praising ADR
during the first Bush administration. That non-partisan perspective on the work that we do
coincided with a rapid growth in the ADR field.

 I do not believe that conflict resolution is synonymous with “liberal” politics and anathema to
“conservative” politics. The stereotype that dispute resolution is all about singing "kumbaya" and
hugging is inaccurate, and in fact quite destructive to the objectives of our field. The spectrum of
conflict resolution can stretch from softer, therapeutic approaches to more hard-edged, interest-
based, ruthlessly strategic processes. The practice of conflict resolution transcends any individual
political persuasion or allegiance. Individuals with “liberal” worldviews can be drawn into conflict
resolution by their values, but so can individuals with “conservative” worldviews. Our field must
be big enough for both paradigms and it must transcend narrow political labels.

When federal mediators attempt to negotiate a settlement to a two-week-old longshoreman work
stoppage, where bad blood between labor and management is a given, there's no kumbaya being
sung. But that is definitely conflict resolution. When hostages are taken in a standoff with law
enforcement, and a professional crisis negotiator is brought in to end the situation without
innocent blood being shed, there are no hugs waiting at the end of the negotiation. But that is
also unquestionably conflict resolution.

Conflict resolution happens every day, in the halls of Congress, in corporate boardrooms, even
on the battlefield. King and Gandhi, the heroes of non-violence, were conflict resolvers, but so
were Eisenhower and Lao Tzu. I'd wager that most police officers and soldiers hold more of a
conflict management perspective the more time they spend on their job. They must be welcomed
into our field in the same way we welcome social workers and therapists. For example, it must be
acknowledged that in some situations war is a legitimate and necessary form of conflict resolution,
whether or not we personally agree with it or not. Any absolute rejection of that contention serves
to marginalize our field by demonstrating how out of touch with reality we are and to alienate
those who see its validity.

What Is the “Conflict Resolution Agenda”?

Perhaps as a result of the need in our modern political climate to sort everything into liberal or
conservative buckets, or perhaps because this is a time of war, the conflict resolution field itself is
increasingly being pigeonholed and stereotyped. There is now more talk about the "pacifist
agenda" and the threat it offers the “American Spirit.” Syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin
criticized peer mediation by asserting that “…beneath all the fuzzy-wuzzy, touchy-feely jargon is a
clear pacifist agenda” (Kansas City Star, 7/1/05). Her column read, in part: "The left-wing
Kumbaya crowd is quietly grooming a generation of pushovers in the public schools. At a time of
war, when young Americans should be educated about this nation's resilience and steely resolve,
educators are indoctrinating students with saccharine-sticky lessons on ‘non-violent conflict
resolution" and "promoting constructive dialogues.’ Peaceniks are covering our kids from head to
toe in emotional bubble wrap. They are creating a nation of namby-pambies."

While this description is definitely over the top (and as such, it serves as another example of our
fragmented national dialogue) the underlying sentiment it represents is not difficult to find
throughout our society. Through this lens, conflict resolution is viewed as an attempt to inculcate
vulnerability and moral relativism into individuals so that they will no longer have the strength of
conviction or moral fiber required to fight for what's right. Though this portrayal of conflict
resolution is cartoonish and simplistic, it is not uncommon among many Americans.
There is much to be learned from the critics of our field. In even the harshest criticism, there
almost always exists a grain of truth. Our challenge is to embrace the constructive components
of these criticisms and to push our field onward, while staying true to our core values. I believe
that how we respond to these challenges will be a defining moment.

What Should We Do as a Field?

One of the first lessons I learned in conflict resolution was that in a protracted conflict, odds are,
both sides are “right.” No one party or perspective has a monopoly on truth. While people may
want reality to be as simple as “good vs. evil,” reality is almost never that clear cut. We should
continue to articulate this more nuanced perspective, and test statements that may be cognitively
appealing but are divorced from the more complex reality. As an extension of that responsibility,
we must resist the temptation to “pick a side” as a field, because that highlights our own inability
to walk the walk.

Those of us who work with conflict know that people can fight for a long time without getting any
closer to resolution. Fighting in and of itself is not progress. In fact, some fighting may pull
participants further away from a solution. That seems to be what's happening in our social
dialogue right now; aggressive debate is being mistaken for progress, when in fact it is moving us
farther away from solutions. We must work to reframe the issues and statements being
expressed in this debate to aid effective communication between people of different perspectives,
so as to move our national dialogues toward solutions.

There's no question that the core of our current social conflict resides in serious disagreements
about complex issues: the future of our country and the world, human nature, religion, morality,
sexuality, safety, etc. However, we're not talking about these underlying topics in most of our
discussions, we're instead debating positions, which are zero-sum, often irreconcilable and
constantly in flux. We need to work harder to keep the dialogue in our society productive, civil and
focused on the underlying issues and values that reside at the heart of our disagreements. Those
who undermine the dialogue with insults and demonization of the other side, both on the right and
on the left, should be marginalized. Our role should be to clarify the underlying issues we are
confronting, and to focus attention on voices that have solutions and honest communication as
their goal.

The realization that excessive partisanship is a bridge to nowhere is beginning to sink in around
the country. People are deciding that enough is enough, and it’s time to rebuild our civil
consensus around a less divisive model. This is opening a huge window of opportunity for us in
the conflict resolution field, as our expertise and tenets can offer a path out of this morass. But
we have to decide to seize this opportunity and to speak up aggressively if we are to contribute to
this social change. And our contributions will only be respected if we can successfully navigate
the minefield of challenges that confront us without undercutting our message.

Conclusion

In a piece titled “Understanding the Truth (and Lies) About Liberals and Conservatives” on
BeliefNet, Stephen Waldman summed up our challenge perfectly:

"On both sides, discourse now moves swiftly from disagreement into demonizing, from contrast to
caricature. The worst motives are always assumed. Both camps have polemicists who win
popularity, ratings, and book sales by devising ever more clever ways of ripping the eyelids off
their opponents. We all know the visceral satisfactions of hanging out with our home-team blogs
and watching the TV or radio stations that fit our worldview. Our politicians and pundits happily
supply us with the voodoo dolls and the pins. But we'd be smarter not to use them. I’m not saying
the conflicting values aren’t profound and important. But I am saying that if we choose to find the
legitimate underpinnings of our ideological opponents' arguments, we can. It may not be as much
fun, but it is more patriotic."

It is in that message, that understanding and honest communication is patriotic, that we can best
frame the value of our perspectives in resolving the current social conflict. Our leaders must be
conflict resolvers, and if they are not, we should find new leaders. Spreading that message
seems to me to be the most appropriate, timely and necessary role for our field to play.

Conflict is part of the human experience, and managing it so that it will not become destructive
has always been and will always be one of humanity's greatest challenges. In that sense, the
work we do in the conflict resolution field transcends any red/blue, left/right, liberal/conservative
categorization. In this era of increasing division, let's aspire to keep our field above the fray.

Colin Rule is the Director of Online Dispute Resolution at eBay and PayPal. His blog on conflict
resolution and politics is available at http://cyberlaw.stanford.edu/blogs/rule/

				
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