Mediation was the light at the end of the tunnel of my law studies. I had grown increasingly disillusioned by the adversarialism of many lawyers and was not interested in playing tactical games with people’s lives and money. The collaborative principle of mediation made much more sense to me, matched my personality and gave me a profession I truly enjoy. As I think about the future of mediation, however, I face my old foe – adversarialism.
To me, adversarialism is an attitude to conflict that presupposes victory at the expense of your opponent. Dominate or be dominated. Show no weakness. Kill or be killed. It is the mistaken belief that ‘survival of the fittest’ means ‘survival of the most aggressive’ and the extinction of the weak. Nature has shown otherwise – those who cooperate best are the ones who survive. Other benefits of mediation aside, it is not surprising to see more and more people turning to collaborative methods to resolve their conflicts.
People have started to recognise that the adversarialism of the legal profession is rarely conducive to efficient, effective and satisfying outcomes. What surprises me now is how another example of adversarialism has been virtually unnoticed and accepted all this time. I’m talking about politics.
Many years ago I was disgusted and turned off politics after watching Australian parliamentary debates on TV. I could not understand how representatives of my society, who should be intelligent and honourable people, could bicker and squabble like children, pointing fingers, yelling, interrupting each other and doing very little to solve actual problems. Sadly, not much has changed and I have now discovered such politics in many other countries, including the US. I cannot understand how a country can function when it’s practically divided into two opposing camps whose main purpose is to undermine the other thereby gaining support for itself. I think something has gone horribly wrong with the idea of healthy opposition.
As well as domestic politics, I’m extending my criticism to international adversarialism. For all the progress we humans have made, I still see the geopolitical power struggles of medieval times causing horrific destruction and lasting suffering around the world today, especially to those who have nothing to do with the power struggles. The great chess games continue and people are sacrificed like pawns.
Peace mediation has emerged to provide an alternative to war but I am very skeptical of applying this term to the various well-intentioned ‘peace talks’. These processes have all the hallmarks of adversarial power negotiations than collaborative problem-solving. We hear all about opposing positions and little about underlying interests. This is not surprising, considering the entrenched rhetoric in our media that gives politicians little room to maneuvre beyond macho posturing.
I want to propose a new direction for mediation: Alternative Political Resolution (APR). Just as it has provided alternative pathways for adversarial litigants, mediation can give our politicians opportunities to work together for once to set aside their differences and to resolve the problems facing our societies. The benefit of confidentiality will protect their reputations and the collaborative problem-solving will, surely, result in much more efficient and effective policy-making. This can be trialled at local levels of governance but eventually I would love to see APR utilised in state and federal politics. Our ultimate goal is to shift international relations from adversarial power politics and tough negotiations to collaborative problem-solving, addressing our individual and common, global interests.
Mediation has proven to me that adversarial litigation is an archaic way to resolve many of our conflicts. I think it’s logical that we now try APR to resolve the political deadlocks that are plaguing our societies, transforming democracy from the divisive popularity contest that it has become to the participatory civic engagement that so many have fought for. We need to remind our politicians that cooperation, rather than domination, is the more successful survival strategy, if we are thinking long-term about the survival of us all.
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