teaches. It may teach for good or for ill but it always teaches.”
Héctor and Carlos Azar
A few months ago I got my hands on More Chaplin and Less Plato [title in Spanish: Más Chaplin y Menos Platón], Luis Miguel Diaz’ latest book in which he lays out a new way for one to learn how to manage conflicts—one’s own conflicts as well as other people’s. His writing kept me enthralled for days because on each page I found a new take on a subject that I thought I had been studying for some years already: conflict management.
Indeed, this book gives the reader an innovative vision on handling disputes—a skill that is inherent in humans but one that each of us finds so difficult to master. The book’s method grabs the reader from the first chapter. Rather than using theories that require complex elaboration and that sometimes may be hard to apply in practice, the book falls back on artistic references that are known to all of us: film and song. Yes, the author picks certain film sequences and Beatles songs to make us discover—or, rather, rediscover—techniques and methods for dealing with conflicts between individuals. The book is a toolbox with film clips and song lyrics serving as tools that one may use and enjoy in analyzing the conflicts one encounters, as well as the consequences the conflicts have in one’s life.
Luis Miguel Diaz dedicates this book to “all of us who need help and knowledge that is useful for resolving problems in our relationships and it is not addressed solely to professionals who deal with conflict management.” That is, any of us can benefit from the lessons in a book like More Chaplin and Less Plato. Because its technique is accessible and highly interesting, it provokes a number of reflections, which I shall endeavor to set out below.
I. Conflict in the Life of a Person
This caption may appear wordy or tautological, since speaking of conflict and life is almost redundant. Life necessarily involves conflict and confrontations, but what distinguishes one life from another is the way in which each individual faces and deals with obstacles to life. There is no life without coexistence and there is no coexistence without confrontation.
That almost instinctive characteristic of human beings has generated a great number of analyses and studies. For example, authors like Morton Deutsch and Meter T. Coleman explain that one can face conflicts with either a competitive or a cooperative attitude. The former carries with it struggle and the use of force, whereas the latter connotes agreements and solutions. It is important, these authors explain, to understand the nature of cooperation as well as that of competition because all disputes contain cooperative and competitive elements. Among the positive characteristics that cooperative relationships afford, one can cite effective communication, coordination of efforts, apportioning of tasks, belief in the existence of similarity of beliefs and values, and redefining conflicts as a mutual problem that must be solved by means of collaborative efforts.
The forms for dealing with conflict allow us to develop skills for coexistence and survival. If we fight in face of a problem, we generate certain equally controversial reactions; if, however, in face of adversity we negotiate, then we create new forms of coexistence and, therefore, of survival. For that reason, seen in a certain way, conflict is creative; it can generate new life situations and conditions. On this point, authors such as Howard Raiffa declare that they are in favor of conflict, arguing that progress frequently is reached by involving individuals in a cause, and that creating tension and conflicts can be an attractive organizational strategy. This author deals with conflict resolution from a scientific and artistic point of view; he says that negotiation is a science and an art. The art aspect of this idea is of particular interest for purposes of this review as it is better documented. Raiffa explains that the artistic side of negotiation refers to interpersonal qualities, the ability to persuade and to be persuaded, the ability to use a basket full of settlement techniques and the wisdom of knowing when and how to use them. It is necessary then to learn to develop to those techniques and to know how to use them. Luis Miguel Diaz’ book offers a way to do that, this being its greatest appeal.
Consequently, conflict is no more than the confrontation of two or more stances in a given situation, stances that reflect different ways of looking at life, of conducting themselves in life, and of demonstrating what each individual has learned during his or her development. The difference lies in how to deal with such a conflict, how to generate the techniques necessary to handle it and to extract from it agreements that may generate new conditions for the human relationship. I will make some comments on this point in the section that follows.
II. Art as a Tool in Developing Conflict Resolution Techniques
For the great majority of us the best known teaching method resembles a feudal system under a ruling “Lord” who possesses the necessary authority to order what and how to learn. One experiences learning from a passive perspective in which one person lays out theories and facts and the other memorizes them. Within this construct, the word creativity is synonymous with a lack of discipline. This apparently has worked in many cultures at various moments in human development. Fortunately, other innovative trends exist today, however, with respect to the use of art as a learning tool, for example. In education a full-fledged tendency has developed to trust the utility of art as a creative and educative process, as an “ideas builder”. This is precisely what More Chaplin and Less Plato achieves: it builds ideas, techniques, and tools based on artistic expressions in order to create a method that allows one to resolve conflicts or to meet them head on or both.
The techniques the author presents in this book provide tools that can prove useful to people from different cultures, traditions, educational levels, visions, ideas, ways to look at life, since art facilitates understanding of situations that we all face and he gives us with the weapons to handle them. On this point, Luis Miguel Diaz asserts that “the educational strength of the arts has the character of greater universality, since it can express in a way that is analogous to experiences that are common to us all.”
The book the subject of this review gives to the reader a series of dynamics, each exploring a specific subject that is illustrated through film clips or song lyrics, or both, concluding by proposing discussion topics through which one may arrive at concrete conclusions and applications on the subject. It is an interesting system and its effectiveness can be seen easily. In order to illustrate this, I cite as an example Chapter 9 on Word Games in conflict resolution, which touches a principal issue of conflict theory. In this section Luis Miguel Diaz demonstrates the importance of the use of language in handling disputes; he lays out the beliefs that intrude on the individual and the effect they have on his or her words, and asserts that, in his opinion one must unlearn these beliefs. Authors like Remo F. Entelman explain that sometimes it is not possible for one to let go of the terms one uses and free oneself from their effect in expressing an idea. So, one is asked whether “it is possible to bust open the language of conflict with a new expression so as to automatically break current habits of language usage.” Entelman responds in the negative and he explains that "each word carries out a different role in each word game. … [E]ach word game is the product of repeated uses of an expression with a given meaning, and one gets into the habit of using and interpreting the word with that meaning. To change a habit, whether good or bad, beneficial or pernicious, there is a process that involves time and the authority, in a broad sense, that proposes the change.”
Luis Miguel Diaz might differ with this view in a way—and I would agree with him—for in More Chaplin and Less Plato he asserts that, language being the most important tool of a negotiator (or any person who simply is interested in peaceful coexistence and resolution of conflicts), one must view the meaning of words as being entirely malleable. Language is personal; it varies and depends on the context, the circumstances, and even one’s mood can determine the meaning or the intensity of a word. Thus, as Luis Miguel Diaz asserts, “interpersonal conflicts are the result of not understanding that the words we use can have more than one meaning, and the meaning that we are ascribing to each word depends on the singularity of each individual’s experiences, expectations, or beliefs.” This, of course, acquires greater importance in cross-cultural conflicts.
As mentioned, once Luis Miguel Diaz has described his subject and theoretical vision, he uses film passages to illustrate his point. In his chapter on language, he discusses the documentary about Wittgenstein, an Austrian philosopher of language, and the feature film Il Postino. Making reference to various scenes and points from these films, Luis Miguel arrives at a series of questions that invite the reader to reflect on them. In this way, the author puts together a highly effective and supportable methodology.
I comment below on a few of the topics whose treatment in the book seemed particularly interesting to me.
Culture is a way of life, I often heard my father tell me. Culture is not going to museums or reading lots of books. Culture is relying on a set of values and experiences that determine the way we behave and understand life. This would seem to indicate that disputes arise precisely when people of different cultures encounter each other and conflicts arise out of the difference that exists in their way of behaving and understanding life. Indeed, this is the way disputes generally arise. But the purpose of More Chaplin and Less Plato is for us to discover that people who apparently belong to the same culture can find themselves immersed in conflicts because of distinctions in the most minuscule of matters, such as the tone of voice used in a discussion, terminology, or temperament—i.e., fine points that are more a function of the individual than any group. By the same token, people of differing cultures may find bases for connection that will encourage them to experiment with the creative process of negotiating.
On this point, anthropologists Kevin Avruch and Peter Black offer an explanation: “One’s own culture provides the ‘lens’ through which we view the world; the ‘logic’ [...] by which we order it; the ‘grammar’ [...] by which it makes sense.” That is to say, culture is central to determining what we see, what meaning we give to what we see, and how we express ourselves about what we see.
Choosing Film Passages
What, then, does film have to offer us in the way of guiding our conduct within our cultural context and in our cross-cultural relationships? Film is an artistic expression in a form that permits a level of continuity, as distinct from theatre, which reflects the specific here and now of each performance. Given this quality of permanence, film becomes a readily accessible tool, a reliable resource. We are also aware that audiovisual media are better teaching tools than either visual or aural media alone. One can use film clips to reinforce teaching virtually any subject. On this point Luis Miguel Diaz says: “Film is quite effective for transmitting messages; it creates realities through cinematography and the characters’ actions, which may exaggerate or simplify our instincts, our intuitions, and our aptitude for handling conflicts.” Without question, our modern teaching methods rely more and more on audiovisual media.
I agree with the author that there is no band more appropriate than The Beatles for exemplifying a peaceful, conciliatory attitude for an age that is clearly fraught with conflict. Their songs, as the book shows so well, are replete with ideas, concepts, and messages of peace and harmony, which take on special meaning and demonstrate courage given the times in which they came out with the lyrics. In these lyrics we rediscover values of human behavior, such as teamwork (“All Together Now”), acceptance of another’s nature and the connection between people who are different from each other (“Let It Be”), curiosity (“Ask Me Why”), and the limits on every human being (“You Can’t Do That”), among others. The lyrics to each of these songs are familiar, but few of us grasp their true meaning. This is the interesting contribution the book makes.
Finally, Luis Miguel Diaz also makes use of passages from classic literature, such as the Segismundo’s soliloquy from Calderón de la Barca’s play Life is a Dream [titled in Spanish: La Vida Es Sueño]. The most famous monologue of Spanish drama, it reflects the main character’s thoughts on life and his fate. The text is a great example of the perception of reality that each person can have and how that perception turns out to be determinative of the person’s destiny and decision-making. Citing this text in the book is more proof of the number of views that artistic expression offers us for learning to make ourselves responsible for our existence.
I once read that “the paradoxical virtue of reading lies in distancing ourselves from the world so that we may make sense of it.” In reading More Chaplin and Less Plato I discovered the possibility of extending that observation by Daniel Pennac to artistic expressions generally: artistic expressions provide us the possibility of distancing ourselves from the world so that we may make sense of it. We can see ourselves in the film passages and The Beatles song lyrics, as the author highlights them, and so we can make sense of how we act as parties to a dispute—as interconnected beings.
III. Final Comments
I wish to stress the effectiveness of the learning (or unlearning) method the book puts forward; specifically: (1) its explanation of the subject, (2) its showing this through scenes and songs, and (3) through a series of elegant and astute questions, its invitation for discussion as a creative means for generating ideas. Without question, this method reflects the author’s vast knowledge of modern didactic methods and their effectiveness. It is up to the reader to take advantage of these tools and to use this book as an interactive medium for developing conflict management techniques that welcome us to coexistence and, I stress, to harmonious, creative, and fruitful thriving.
As a lawyer or, rather, as a person interested in the study and application of normative systems, I grant that in learning to effectively manage conflicts it is necessary to let go of many things that law curricula and practice teach us. Nevertheless, I trust that there are lawyers out there who, in spite of the traditional legal education they receive, are still capable of extracting from their education and practice useful principles that allow them to develop with style and vision a variety of conflict resolution techniques (including litigation, arbitration, mediation, and negotiation), that benefit those to whom they render their services with a wider range of services for dealing with, handling, and resolving their disputes. Success lies in versatility and the creativity in determining the suitable route in each case and, thereby, uncovering techniques that produce solutions. If a lawyer regards such a route as the only one that is proper for disposing of a dispute, that lawyer is condemned to handling battles rather than to resolving disputes.
For those interested in learning new techniques and expanding their vision of the conflict resolution this book is a valuable tool, which brings innovative perspectives, rediscovers human nature, and above all exalts artistic expression for a noble purpose: peaceful and constructive coexistence among people.