Is Liberal Humanism Holding Mediation Back?

In the early twentieth century there was a desire for critical analysis of fiction to somehow become more analytical.  The result was an explosion of literary theories and models of understanding how any given text worked.  Such theories were often resisted, contentious and rejected.  By way of illustration I share below my own exposure to these theories and how I opposed them.

There remains an argument within mediation circles on whether we need theory, its purpose and the concern of some commentators that training can be devoid of theory (See Lorraine Schaffer’s Still About Process; A Call For Reflection and Change http://mediationdigest.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=226:lorraine-schaffer&catid=8&Itemid=101) At the same time the debate for recognised standards of practice continues (see Gary Weiner A Call For Evidence Based Standards For Mediator Quality 2012 http://www.civiljustice.info/profstan/2/)  

One challenge of determining standards of practice is that there is as broad a range of practice as there is a range of works of fiction.

This article proposes that injecting theory into the analysis of mediation can lead to a more sophisticated, more analytical and structured discipline as has happened with literary theory throughout the 20th and now 21st century.  The first obstacle to overcome, now as it was then, will be to recognise where a theory aversion comes from and to frame the `Theory free’ stance of liberal practitioners as being a theory itself.  If this article stimulates debate and awareness in that sense then it is hoped that the gates will be opened and other theories will be more readily admitted and tested in the arena.

That, in turn, can lead to a far richer range of mediation practice, in the way that modern literary criticism has driven the explosion in style, impact, form and function that can be seen in modern literature. 

The goal? Excellent mediation practice anchored in theoretical rigour and discipline that lends itself to analysis, critique and ongoing improvement.

What is liberal humanism?

As a literature under-graduate I hit a steep learning curve, more like a wall, very early in term one, year one.  My tutors needed me to embrace literary theory in order to instil a discipline into my analysis of the texts we would be studying. 

The idea that my understanding of a novel or text required me to have an understanding of several literary theories was hard to accept.  Until now, studying literature had been, I assumed, devoid of theory.  In my experience a book was studied, enjoyed to varying degrees and I would then set about writing 2500 words or so on the merits of the text.

My considerations in carrying out that exercise, if I had ever been asked to write them down, would probably have looked like this;

  • Is it a good story or poem?
  • Does it have a coherent narrative that makes sense and progresses naturally?
  • Is it dramatic?
  • Is it poetic?
  • Is it well written?
  • Is it realistic, reflecting what we are familiar with or, in the instance of a genre piece such as fantasy, for example, working within the expectations of that genre?
  • Is it realistic in the way that its characters and events react with one another in ways that we might recognise?
  • Did it have a worthy message, purpose or some other lofty value?  Essentially, did this piece have a right to exist and to stand the test of time or was it merely disposable?
  • Did it have an emotional impact on me such as anxiety, arousal, sadness, indignation or any other?

I was convinced that we did not need theory to understand a story and submitted several cringingly naïve essays in those first few weeks as I ferociously clung onto my pre-existing methodology for critical analysis and evaluation. 

It was not a position I relinquished easily or with particularly good grace.

Reluctantly I learned that if I was going to be able to analyse why one text worked well and another did not then I did, indeed, require a broader palette to work with.  I slowly accepted that I would need to understand new theories; theories which to me felt unnecessary, difficult and which disrupted my otherwise passive enjoyment (or otherwise) of any particular text.  

The realisation that my firmly held theory free stance was a theory itself was revelation.    

I had an entirely conventional liberal humanist mind-set.  Of course, it wasn’t a theory to me; it was just the way things were.  You read a book or saw a film, you had an experience, some response to it and you wrote or talked about it.

Once I learned that this was a pattern of assumptions and beliefs then I was better able to start catching it at work.  Now I could choose whether or not to subscribe to that particular theory with regard to a text, or to experiment with another set of values and considerations.  As I did so, I became capable enough to pass my under-graduate exams and go on to law school.

The theory before theory

Peter Barry in his book Beginning Theory neatly calls liberal humanism “The theory before theory.”  That speaks to this notion that we must first recognise this default theory exists before we can go on to consider others.

Barry goes on to list ten tenets of liberal humanism.  We will look at seven of them below.  In doing so I have set up how those tenets shape how we engage in the analysis of a text.  I then go on to speculate how these same tenets might be at play, unknowingly, in shaping and limiting how we engage in mediation analysis.   

I confess to be a little nervous about this exercise. 

I expect it will arouse some very strident objections and resistance.  

Liberal humanism has a very neat self defence mechanism that leads us to deny its very existence.  If we do not accept that our mind set has a label then, after all, we cannot do anything about it.  It is able to remain invisible as nothing more troubling or complicated than “That is just the way things are.”  Once we have given something a name, however, then we are able to externalise it, consider it and work with it and upon it.

View the table and the rest of the article in the attached pdf.

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Neil Denny

Neil Denny is a collaborative lawyer, trainer and author. He is the author of Conversational Riffs and The Collaborative Law Companion. His third book, Grudgeology is currently being written. He is the Director of Learning and Development for allLD Ltd. Neil has dedicated his work to equipping people to understand… MORE >

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