So much of our ineffectiveness in ‘conflict talk’ is reflected in the editorial pages, that it’s fascinating to do the analysis. Typically, there are two ‘opposing’ arguments on a single topic, presented as ‘pro’ and ‘con’ the issue in question. For a discussion of how this communication can replicate, and complicate, conflict, I’ll use the Calgary Herald editorial page of June 8, 2007, as an example, because the topic was non-lethal: a dress code. The conflict analysis would be similar, whether the contentious topic was gun ownership after a massacre, or parental supervision after a child goes missing.
The summary of the op-ed piece is that a pastor asked his Toronto congregation to dress more modestly so that worshippers (and he?) were not distracted. The Herald ran two columnists’ reactions to the pastor’s request. Naomi Lakritz agreed with the pastor’s position, recalling that her grandmother always dressed for synagogue. Ms. Lakritz’s theme was to dress appropriately for the occasion, no matter what it is. She took the position that clothing is one of the ways to demonstrate respect for people and place. Paula Arab disagreed with the pastor, citing individual responsibility for not being distracted by the external, in a situation that was supposed to be focused on internal qualities. Ms. Arab’s theme was that attending was more important than how someone looked, or dressed, to attend. To her, people show respect by being less judgmental about others, and more responsible for themselves. Both columnists left it for the reader to decide who gets to define the standard of “modest” or “immodest” dress.
Let’s start with the structure on the editorial page. These two opinions are physically placed in opposition to each other, staking out the range of responses, under the banner of the issue in question. In this case, the editor charged with writing such headlines labeled the controversial topic: “What is appropriate church attire?” However, the page layout is similar for perspectives on domestic nuclear policy, same sex marriage, or Middle East peace efforts. That’s how conflict talk is usually done: two positions are staked out at either end of the opinion range, and it’s called healthy debate. The extremes are framed in terms yielding responses in the nature of: yes/no, good/bad, right/wrong, either/or, and moral/immoral. The columnist on each side of the debate does not necessarily identify him or herself in terms of worldview, as left/right politically, or from what value base s/he takes that position, but it is often discernable from the content of her/his point of view. It’s usually clear that the author was selected for having that view, and to represent that end of the opinion spectrum.
In reaching her conclusion, Ms. Lakritz called those who object to a dress code “shallow and self-absorbed.” Ms. Arab, likewise, called those who object to individual fashion taste “sexist and judgmental.” We are expected to decide which opinion between the two is more correct, based on our own individual agreement with one view or the other. Readers are thus encouraged to be as polarized as the authors. Nuances of context, history, or situation go missing in this format.
I was also struck, as I often am in this style of commentary, not by whether the ‘right’ people authored those opposite articles, nor by which author is ‘correct, so much as with what information the authors were given when they staked out their respective editorial territory. In this case, there is some referencing back and forth between the two authors, suggesting that, if they didn’t read each other’s articles, they at least seemed to anticipate what the other would argue.
Reading these two opinions, or any of the two opinions that are published on almost any Editorial Page, through my lens as a conflict analyst, I see as much similarity as difference between the two columnists’ articles. Both columnists in this case advocate, among other attributes:
One columnist says that these principles can be accomplished by dressing conservatively to not offend. The other says that these can be accomplished by letting people dress as they wish, while not being offended. In other words, the point of difference between the two positions is where blame lies for being offended. Ms. Lakritz says it lies with those who dress immodestly; Ms. Arab says it lies with those who judge something as immodest dress. At another level, the difference of opinion revolves around locus of control: am I responsible if my clothing (or words, actions, presence – take your pick) offends others, or should they take responsibility for their own feelings?
While there is no one correct answer, the important conflict analysis principle at stake is the focus on similarities rather than differences, which is the mirror image of the editorial page principle. Conflict makes for better reading than consensus does. However, we live in a world with many people who can pick apart any argument, and fewer people who can put it back together again. Both columnists exemplify the lack of tolerance for other opinions (as demonstrated in the name-calling), yet integration of ideas is not one of the skills we are routinely taught, or practice. The newspaper doesn’t request the third columnist’s article that points out the interests or values that the other two columnists share. Reconciliation of ideas isn’t as much fun to read as contestation of ideas.
With analysis, it becomes easier to see how a typical style of presenting ideas generates, or perpetuates conflict. The points that any two columnists make in common are rarely identified. They are commissioned to write about their disagreements. However, this is also how we often speak to each other. If we accept the research that establishes that language does more than merely reflect reality, and actually creates reality, then our language skills should be of more concern to the mediator who is trying to build on the similarities in any conflict situation.
There may not be a resolution to the issue of dress code that satisfies everyone. But there is a way of discussing it, as there is of almost any contentious issue, which is integrative, and builds consensus. When seeking a way to use this conflict analysis, consider how to summarize or reframe the statements that parties make in mediations. Instead of using the editorial page method of, “he said, she said, which are different, and here’s what you disagree about”, integrate the statements, “you shared these ways of looking at your joint conflict.” This is the language that can potentially create the reality of peace. We can take the arguments apart, but it is more satisfying to the parties when we then put the arguments back together again.
© L. Deborah Sword?
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