Our country, and the world in general, is divided. There are many lines of division and the fragmentation is becoming more and more pronounced. One of the most visible lines of division is the split between those who accept the importance of vaccination and those who are unwilling to follow the instructions of public health professionals and refuse to be vaccinated. There are many reasons and justifications by proponents and opponents who are for and against. Some of them are based on different ideological leanings, some of them are based on moral grounds. Whichever way people go about arguing and justifying their decision to get or to refuse vaccination, a major conflict is a result of deep disagreements and actions some individuals take and others refuse to take. It feels as if we are losing any common ground and desperation coupled with anger, rage, and occasional violence is upon us. This desperation is an expression of discontents, anxieties, fears, and distrust among us. Inability or unwillingness to talk about this matter directly becomes a major obstacle. Families, friends, colleagues, strangers are avoiding this and many other topics during their personal encounters. Often, they are avoiding each other. Communication breakdown becomes a regular occurrence. Many claims include the vocabulary of rights, sovereignty of decision-making (self-determination), personal and collective responsibility (that is, responsibility for oneself and others). Specifically, having rights to do or not to do something is confused with what is the right or the wrong thing to do. Today, the emphasis is so much on having rights, that the concepts of duty and obligation to others often disappear from the public discourse. Tension between individual prerogatives and concern for others shows itself as a paradox between individual (autonomy) (1) and community. It is a decisive factor which contributes to the fragmentation of social life (tribalism) and the fragmentations of values (2) and it weakens a potential for co-existence.
Mediation is a practice, which tries to find some form of common ground and to mitigate disagreements. It is a conversational enterprise with a noble goal. To enable and enhance coexistence among diverse individuals and collectives. Coexistence necessitates communication. So, there is another vocabulary, we need to be concerned with. Before I will propose how to conduct a conversation between proponents and opponents of vaccination and provide a template or an example, I want to focus the spotlight on different terms, which might be helpful.
I called mediation practice a conversational enterprise and I have some good reason to choose such description. Nevertheless, there are many other words and their uses which we often apply interchangeably and occasionally, we differentiate. Here are some of them (3).
There are certain characteristics, which are specific to these terms and there might be a need for mediators to pay attention to them.
The first important aspect we need to consider is the difference between ‘public’ and ‘private’ character of communication exchanges. We sometimes speak about public discourses and private discussions. Privacy is intimately connected with confidentiality and discretion. It often excludes audience. Public discourse invites transparency and a variety of audiences. Just as private discussions, public discourses allow for the possibilities of gamesmanship, manipulation, or even deception. Nevertheless, what is presented in public or to the public can be challenged more openly, than those encounters which are conducted behind the close door and allow for certain level of secrecy, protected by a certain degree of confidentiality and must be conducted by mediators with tact, subtlety, and discretion. In the other words, transparency is a tricky proposition.
The second important aspect is the difference between ‘cooperative/collaborative’ and ‘competitive/strategic’ purpose of communication. Debates are predominantly competitive, dialogues are more collaborative.
Next, ‘formal’ and informal’ descriptions need to be applied. Debates might be highly structured, when specific protocols and rules are part of a design. Dialogues can be quite free-floating, lose in their structure, and open-ended in their nature. Talk is much more informal than debates.
Finally, the forth important aspect is the difference between ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ communication. The presence of the third party, which either represents participants in dispute or conflict (speaks for another person or group) or facilitates a communication between parties (mediator, negotiator, intermediary) suggests a possibility for both, direct and indirect approach. Caucus and join session are arrangements, which separately accommodate both distinctive types. Note, that mediators are engaged in direct, face-to-face (screen-to-screen or phone-to-phone) communication with the parties on all occasions, with the exception that a party might be deaf or blind.
For the purpose of mediation, the term conversation has a good use. It can be structured but also fairly lose. It has features of an informal talk, but also incorporates rules and protocols. Often, it is collaborative but also strategic, when for example, a mediator tries to persuade or encourage parties to cooperate with each other, who themselves use a variety of strategic, competitive moves, while dealing with their opponents and occasionally with mediators. Conversations can be public, but also private, they can be deeply intimate and personal, but also impersonal in their character.
VACCINATE OR NOT TO VACCINATE, THAT IS THE QUESTION (FOR HAVING A CONVERSATION)
Let’s assume that after many months of dealing with the Covid-19 epidemic, we can conclude, that being vaccinated is a beneficial way to approach this global, enormous public health crisis. Yet, there are many among us, who for a variety of reasons believe the opposite or are at least skeptical about such remedial approach. That being said, we simply cannot dismiss their opinions, beliefs, and consequentially their actions, because just as we, they are sovereign citizens with certain rights which they are free to exercise and are also protected by. So as a country and the world, we are engaged in public discourse and private discussions. We can get easily exasperated and angry with our family members, friends, and fellow citizens, or even strangers in faraway lands. Yet, our mutual exasperation rarely leads to agreement regarding this controversial matter, which consequentially and mostly negatively, impacts all of us. Putting aside ideological and political struggles utilizing means, which are often motivated by personal gain, selfish disregard for others, and by acquisition of power, many of us consider conversations on this subject with others as the exercise in futility, which do not go anywhere. Fear of being attacked (here polemic as the form of a verbal attack comes to mind) and the potential to increase (escalate) conflict, prompts many of us to withdraw and to look for the refuge among like-minded people. The troubling question, we are struggling with can be formulated as follows.
Is this controversial matter beyond a possible mutual consent, or is it the way how we go about our conversations, which prevents any consent?
Instead of giving up, let’s ask another question. Can mediating between opposing camps enhance a possibility and probability of any agreement and mutual understanding? I do not want to set the bar too high. I am looking for any enhancement, which would bring the opponents and the proponents closer, rather than avoiding each other and being angry with each other. I am not claiming that any controversial matter has a solution and can be resolved to the smaller or greater satisfaction of individuals and collectives on both sides of a divide. Yet, I am hoping that this particular matter can be improved on. A necessary condition must be satisfied. Both camps must be willing to engage in conversation, with or without help of the third party.
Following is the proposed, mediated conversation with an individual who refuses to be vaccinated.
M(ediator)/Facilitator: I appreciate that you were willing to take part in this conversation. I am assuming there must be some reasons why you are hesitant to be vaccinated, yet at the same time you wish to share your reasons with other people who might not agree with you. It takes courage and also it shows your willingness to be challenged. Why don’t you say why are you not comfortable with vaccination? Your opinion and reasons must be respected.
P(arty): Provides his/her reasons.
M: Thanks. From everything I heard, we can at least agree, that epidemic is a serious matter and regardless what actions we take or do not take, it has been having an impact on many people around the world. If nothing else, our willingness and urge to talk about it is the proof that we feel that impact one way or another. You want to defend your stance and I am here to listen and respond. Would you be ok with that?
P: Yes, I am.
M: So, let me say a few things I believe are important. First, your opinion matters, because you are a sovereign citizen, just as many other individuals, including me, who have the right to express themselves, to act certain way, or to refuse certain actions, if those action do not agree with your believes. I assume that you would grant similar right to others. Am I correct?
P: Sure, I don’t have a problem with that.
M: That’s great. That pretty much allows anyone to become a participant in our discussion, regardless if we agree or disagree. So, once we open the conversation to anyone, what do you think the purpose of this conversation should be?
P: Offers some ideas, what the purpose should be.
(Note: Here are some possible purposes.
I want to make sure that my opinion is heard and is acknowledged.
I am tired of being ridiculed and diminished, just because I disagree with the majority.
I have my rights, and I don’t want anyone to take them away, or infringe on them.
I know that I am right and others are wrong. And I am going to prove it.
I want to see, if there is any way we can agree on at least something.
I am interested what others think.
I cannot believe some of those idiotic things, I hear from the people who have no clue. I need to set the record straight.
I want to learn how to talk to people without getting angry. I have a lot of issues with my family members and it is not good for anyone.
There are three types of purposes, which can be distinguished and which correlate to some extent. The first one is to assert autonomy and claim certain individual rights. The second one is to learn about other persons views and improve the ability to communicate, possibly finding some common ground and solution. The third one is, to be validated and acknowledged by others and/or prove them wrong.)
M: I am glad that you explained why this is important to you. So, let me make sure that I understood you correctly.
(Mediator repeats and clarifies what was said by an interlocutor, till he or she acknowledges mediator’s interpretation and the understanding of what a party to conversation tried to convey. We could describe it as the process of mutual validation or cross-validation.)
P: Yes, you got it.
M: Good. Now, that I understand, what makes you refuse to be vaccinated and why you are here talking with me, is it ok if I ask you a couple of questions?
P: Sure, go ahead.
M: It is clear to me that you believe you have certain rights and you wish to exercise them to the fullest. Previously, you granted those rights to others. But we have a problem here. It is one thing to have rights, but if you want to refuse to take certain actions, and other by exercising their rights express to you that you should be vaccinated, it goes beyond those rights. We have a conflict here related to actions themselves. You do not want to be forced to do anything you do not wish to do and those people who ask you to be vaccinated believe that you are endangering others, including the people close to you, family members, colleagues, and even strangers. So, it seems that the exercise of these rights and being protected by them somehow collide. Here is a question. Do you think that next to the rights you have certain obligations and responsibilities to others, just as they have obligations to you?
P: I guess so. But I know what is more important. My rights are more important than my obligations and that’s it.
M: That’s quite interesting. Let me understand. You grant others the same right you have. You believe that they have obligation not to infringe on your rights, just as you have the same obligation to them. And yet, those obligation are not equally considered?
P: It is a bit confusing.
M: What I am trying to say is, that if you believe that you have obligations to your family and friends to protect them from the virus, you might have similar obligations to the members of your community and perhaps to all sovereign citizens of this or any other country. The rights and obligations go hand in hand and cannot be easily separated. Unless, of course, you do not care what happens to other people, or you do not believe there is an epidemic going on. In that case this conversation would not be very useful. Yet, you acknowledged that we have a Covid epidemic and it is difficult to believe, you do not care for anyone around you, except yourself.
P: I am not saying there is no epidemic going on, but I cannot see how you can be sure about the effect of this virus with any certainty. How do you know and how do I know that I would infect anyone? It could be someone else and I am not willing to be accused by you or anybody else, if you or they cannot prove it. Plus, there is a higher power, which is going to protect me anyway. And I am entitled to that kind of belief, period!
M: You are offering some good arguments and it seems to me, that you take pride in your ability to reason well.
P: You might say that.
M: Well then, if you are not certain that you can or cannot infect another person, would it not be a reasonable or prudent thing to do, to take some precautions and potentially prevent a possibility of endangering others? That, for sure, would show that you care and that you have some obligations to others after all.
P: I suppose. Let me think about it.
What kind of rights and obligations do we owe to each other? The work of Joel Feinberg, American political philosopher, who wrote about law and rights can be helpful (4). Feinberg distinguishes between three types of rights, legal, human, and moral rights. There are other categories of rights we sometimes refer to, civil, political, and natural rights. Finally, according to Feinberg, we need to distinguish between positive and negative rights. Next to classification, other themes related to rights can be explored. Our conversation touched on some of them. That is, relationship between rights and duties, between privileges and obligations, and between sense of entitlement and grievances. Finally, Feinberg offers us a food for thought when it comes to universal applicability and conflictability of rights.
It is not the purpose of this article to dwell deeper into these themes. Yet, it could be a starting point for anyone who wants to address any claim to those individuals who disagree with him or her. What rights we have to make such claims and what we need to offer to each other, once we engage in the conversation about any controversial topic, is a challenging question we need to ask ourselves and pose to others.
1. See, Bernard S. Mayer, THE CONFLICT PARADOX: Seven Dilemmas at the Core of Disputes (Jossey-Bass, 2015)
2. See, Thomas Nagel, MORTAL QUESTIONS, The Fragmentation of Value, (Essay 9, page 128), Cambridge University Press, Eighth printing, 2003
3. The term ‘discourse’ is used by Jurgen Habermas, German philosopher and social thinker in his work, MORAL CONSIOUSNESS AND COMMUNICATIVE ACTION, specifically, in the chapter called, Discourse Ethics (p.21), The MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, Second printing, 1991.
Canadian-American sociologist, Erwing Goffman, prefers the word ‘talk’. See his FORMS OF TALK, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1981.
Kenneth Cloke compares ‘dialogue’ and ‘debate’ in the chapter, Let’s talk politics of his book THE DANCE OF OPPOSITES: Exploration in Mediation, Dialogue and Conflict Resolution Systems design, GoodMedia Press, Dallas, Texas, 2013.
Finally, ‘discourse’ and ‘conversation’ analysis are the subjects of the branch of linguistics, called Pragmatics and can be found in Stephen Levinson’s book, PRAGMATICS, Cambridge University Press, 1983
4. Joel Feinberg, from Social Philosophy, in THE NATURE AND PROCESS OF LAW: An introduction to Legal Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 1993, edited by Patricia Smith