By way of background, last fall, after the ACR Conference in Sacramento, I wrote this first article commenting on the propensity for many of us in the conflict management field to be conflict avoidant. And, as ironic as that may be, how evident that avoidance is in operation and functioning of our only national professional organization, the Association for Conflict Resolution. The publication was at the time intentionally limited by ACR staff and management to the ACR Family Sector’s Family Mediation News, (“Peripheral Visions” Fall, 2004, pages 8-10, December, 2004) and was presented with what was, in my opinion, a non-substantive response by Larry Fong, President of the Association for Conflict Resolution (available at http://www.acrnet.org/pdfs/fmn-fall04.pdf ).
Now, a year later, I have seen little change in the closed, non-responsive operation of the Board. I am not the only one; over the last year, the discussion of ACR regularly is met with a frustrated shake of the head and little sense of how to gain any traction to change the course of the organization. The level of disaffection is palpable especially among “old timers’ who are long time members and have been loyal supporters of the organization. Many have not come to the Annual Conference in several years. I suspect it is as a result of more than mere natural attrition and life changes.
I am republishing this article on the eve of the 2005 ACR Conference in Minneapolis, because it speaks to some of the reasons for my concern and to involve a broader ring people in this important discussion that has heretofore been limited to outside corridors. I submit it must be a direct and immediate part of the Conference discussion at the 2005 Annual ACR Conference.
Peter Adler’s letter to the Board of Directors, the next article in the series, begins to identify the issues. He questions if the original mission of ACR is still viable and considers some of the options. Whatever is ultimately decided, my first hope would be that no decision be made by default, that is, for failure to grapple with the difficult situation.
We, as members, ought to have the opportunity to discuss the matter openly and directly. This should not be left to the Board. We are at a crossroads and just as we very well may have the government we deserve, so too, perhaps, do we have the professional organization we deserve. We cannot shy away from this issue, much as we might be inclined to do so. We need to confront our “little secrets.”)
Here is the originally published article:
"Dirty Little Secrets: The “Girly Man” Non-Controversy"
I wasn’t excited about going to Sacramento, California for the Annual Conference of the Association for Conflict Resolution. The place seemed remote and not particularly “sexy”-- certainly not compared to San Francisco or L.A. The truth be known, after 24 years of conferences, I find myself less and less excited by ACR Conferences. I find myself spending a fair amount of time talking with people outside in the corridors, discussing the stuff that isn’t or can’t be said in the workshops or plenaries. Some of that is to be expected at a professional conference, but there are too many boring, talking-head panels where any controversy appears to be carefully sidestepped. Any differences of opinion are drowned out in a bath of generic superficiality that invariably ends with “we all agree people should be reasonable, cooperative and trusting.” There is an unwritten policy of obeisance to the appearance of civility--not a little ironic at conferences of professional conflict managers. It was a deadly combination: a boring place and standard conference fare. I thought that this conference desperately needed a double dose of Viagra.
So, one of my suggestions to some of the members on the Conference Committee, (I have since discovered others had made similar suggestions), was that since we are going to be in Sacramento, why not invite the recently elected Honorable Governor of the State of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Regardless of his politics, he has proven himself to be an effective negotiator who has thrived by putting deals together between stubborn Democrats and irascible Republicans, in the unruly State of California. That was a good piece of mediation work. (In retrospect, I was clearly mistaken, especially in light of recent events, but for the reasons mentioned below, I am less concerned about not choosing him than I am about the reasoning used but kept secret.)(Ironically, I found out he resides in the Hyatt, the ACR conference hotel, when he is in Sacramento---what could be more convenient? I figured that we, as professional dealmakers, might learn a thing or two from this character, even if he did not belong to ACR. An outsider, who does much the same kind of stuff we do, in a different context might spark some good energy provocative discussion.
But this isn’t just about Arnold. As a profession, if we want to make a difference in how conflict is managed in the world, we can’t do it by endlessly talking to ourselves. As they say, “you can’t hunt bear from the bar; you have to get out in the woods.” We need to deal with the real world and real conflicts, beginning with our own.
Just curious to find out what became of the Arnold suggestion, people’s answers and reasons became “curiouser and curiouser”. I confirmed that the ACR Conference Committee did submit Arnold’s name to the Board of Directors for their approval only to have it rejected. More surprising, the details of the Board’s deliberations were veiled in secrecy. Initially thwarted in finding out what happened, my prurient and voyeuristic nature was aroused. After talking with a number of people, I found four sources who were willing to talk on condition that they remain anonymous and they all corroborated this sordid tale of Board Intrigue. Invigorated to be part of the ‘Watergate Era journalistic tradition, I pledged to maintain the confidentiality of my ‘deep throats’, at great personal peril and under the cloud of the Patriot Act. It appears the Board and/or staff of our professional organization is being influenced by Bush-Cheney-Rove penchant for media control and disinformation.
I know, dear reader, you want to know the reason for the rejection. If you can’t stand the suspense, jump to the paragraph below. For others, I feel compelled to preface my disclosure with the note that the dis-choice of Arnold should not in the slightest reflect on the quality and excellence of the chosen keynote speaker, John Paul Lederach, who is of the field. He has presented many times at our conferences, and his work is without question, inspiring, and valuable. At the same time, the question that goes begging for us as conflict management professionals is when do we reach out beyond ourselves to pull in people, or points of view, that may be less comforting and more difficult ?
From this perspective, the reason for the rejection of Schwarzenegger is especially troubling. It was because of his “girly man” remark, widely reported in the news media and repeated at the Republican National Convention. Viewed as insensitive and, I have to assume, sufficiently politically incorrect, the Board felt it necessary to take a stand on principle and to act to protect the membership of the premier professional conflict resolution organization from a real or perceived controversy. No little bit of irony there.
Apparently, the Board of ACR believes the exposure to someone who would utter such a second-tier sexist comment that elliptically associated women with weak and wimpish behavior presents a real threat to us and that we, the members, could not withstand the controversy his presence might stir. Seemingly, we are not sufficiently skilled to entertain the prospect that Arnold’s aberrant attitudes could be constructively engaged and discussed out in the open at our conference. The Board’s action suggests to me a lack faith in our professional purposes and competency.
Inviting such a controversy into our conference planning might not only be a valuable experience for us personally and professionally, but also good for ACR. Beyond the focused dispute contexts of divorce, workplace, the environment, and a few other specific areas in which most of us operate, ACR is not on the map as a viable, engaged, and serious organization of professionals who are able to deal with the broader issues and conflicts loose in the world at large. Modeling our skills in addressing those matters might prove to be the best marketing and advertisement we could ever hope to produce. We could demonstrate the critical importance of fostering and managing, a constructive dialogue between people holding different views, opinions and values that are embedded in strong emotions. To get to that place, however, we need to confront the dirty little secret we keep to ourselves. We, who profess to manage other peoples’ conflicts, don’t deal particularly well with our own. It is not without considerable irony that many people drawn to the conflict management field appear to be those who are most anxious, and avoid, deny and suppress conflict and is reflected in how we conduct ourselves in our own professional organization. While conflict avoidance is a natural human response, our reluctance as conflict management practitioners is an ominous sign.
We should engage hard dialogues, not shy away from them. The Conference Committee should be asked to design sessions that encourage active discussion of difficult issues in the field and for the organization. A plenary could periodically showcase how emotional, and controversial issues, with antagonistic parties might be approached with a mediated dialogue. Thus, if Arnold’s ‘sexist remarks’ are so upsetting, we should directly engage the gender controversy at next year’s conference moderated by two mediators of the Conference Committees choice. We might have even had a responding panel engage and probe Arnold about his offending remarks---that would make for good learning and even better press. The list of similarly difficult issues is endless: abortion, Gay and Lesbian marriage, or even the war in Iraq. Likewise, our publications should be encouraged to publish more articles, interviews or dialogues between practitioners with opposing views and rigorous critiques of our work. If this field is to be successful, we need to profile what we claim as our unique ability to constructively approach and manage conflict.
Left unacknowledged, our tendency as conflict management practitioners to avoid conflict will cripple us, and we run a serious risk of marginalizing ourselves out of existence. Dealing with hard issues, especially our own, is difficult, sometimes unpleasant and often a dirty business, but if we can show ourselves to be capable of effectively and creatively dealing with those conflicts, then our stock and credibility goes up immeasurably. Then, and only then, we have the potential to forge a place in the community of professions and bring our skills more directly to bear on the difficult issues we face as a society.