“Our trust in the future has lost its innocence. We know now that anything can happen from one minute to the next. Politics, religion, economics, and the institutions of family and community all have become abruptly unsure.”
“We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal on the fare,
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love…”
William Butler Yeats
“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.”
“The scales of Justice weigh out gain
to those who’ve learned from pain…”
Biden and Harris won the election, but what exactly did they win? What was lost in the process? And, as mediators and citizens, what do we do next?
This was obviously an important victory for Democrats, but it has come at a significant cost, both for democracy and dispute resolution. These costs can be seen in widespread refusals to accept the outcome, unwillingness to cooperate in transferring power, open support for the undemocratic principle of minority rule, armed threats to voting, opposition to even counting ballots, removal of polling stations in minority communities, intentional obstruction of the U.S. postal service, selective disenfranchisement of minority voters, bizarre gerrymandering, obstructive voter ID requirements, efforts to manipulate the Electoral College, knowingly false claims of electoral victory and voter fraud, and widespread efforts to undermine democratic principles. And all of it supported, at least tacitly, by a near majority of voters.
Over the last four years, we have witnessed a steady undermining of democratic rights and legal protections, and the creation and consolidation of an infrastructure and scaffolding that permit, excuse, and fan the flames of tyranny, despotism, autocracy, dictatorship, dishonesty, and yes, fascism. The fact that none of these were able to emerge full-blown in this election does not mean they could not have, or that they will not in some future election.
The perception that democracy and majority rule inevitably lead to the loss of power, wealth, and status by a previously dominant minority inexorably pushes their effort to regain dominance into ever more extreme, adversarial positions. Holding on to political power against the wishes of a majority requires the use of authoritarianism, demagoguery, hatred, lying, prejudice, militarism, moral corruption, bullying, environmental destruction, and dehumanizing violence. These tools are needed to suppress democratic values, constitutional protections, civil rights, rule of law, and the freedoms of speech, assembly, religion, and the press – and with them, the possibility of political dialogue, collaborative negotiation, problem solving, consensus building, restorative justice, mediation, and the whole of conflict resolution. While these may seem like abstract and distant ideals, they impact the daily lives of all of us around the world.
These events are taking place in a context of chronic, unresolved national and international conflicts that deeply divide us, and threaten democracy both in the U.S. and abroad. These include conflicts over the economic impact and response to Covid 19 infections; nuclear threats and warlike “big stick” diplomacy against global competitors; openly prejudicial statements and hostility toward historically despised minorities; threats of violence and retaliation by armed ultra-right and neo-Nazi militias; growing poverty; and the expanding pace of global warming, environmental devastation, and species extinction – none of which have been adequately acknowledged, let alone discussed or addressed.
Each of these important and compelling issues takes the form of conflicts that require cross-cultural communication, joint problem solving, and collaboration between political adversaries; which, in turn, require higher order skills in non-violent communication, consensus building, dialogue facilitation, collaborative negotiation, impasse resolution, mediation, and similar interest-based processes. Yet these skills are nearly impossible to practice when the mere idea that there could be a middle ground is regarded as treasonous; when science is considered a conspiracy; and when dialogue, collaboration, and respect for legal rights are viewed as weaknesses that can legitimately be bypassed, outmaneuvered, or silenced though the use of force and violence.
As mediators, it is important to recognize that these losses and setbacks in the arena of politics are simultaneously losses and setbacks for the entire project of conflict resolution; for jointly tackling and solving our common problems; for democracy as a defense against bias, tyranny, and the silencing of political dissent; and for resolving the complex social, economic, political, healthcare, and ecological conflicts and crises that increasingly threaten our global survival.
What, then, can we do? As a first step, we can acknowledge that addressing these issues requires, not just periodic elections and topical applications of political pressure, but a complete rethinking, redesign, and reorganization of political discourse, political decision-making, and the ways political conflicts are addressed and resolved.
If we view politics a social problem solving, and conflict resolution process, we can redesign it in ways that strengthen our ability to use collaborative, participatory, interest-based, consensus building, non-adversarial forms of political discourse and decision-making. This means acknowledging that complex, multi-faceted political issues concern alternative possible futures, and thus, always have more that one correct answer. Successful political problem solving therefore requires us to evolve beyond simplistic, one-sided, adversarial, winner-take-all processes and relationships; learn how to turn dissent and disagreement into improved outcomes; and remember that the richest and most important conversations always take place beneath the relatively superficial arguments people are having.
These insights suggest that we can use conflict resolution systems design principles to explore and implement a wide range of participatory methodologies and procedures, such as citizen’s assemblies, focus groups, citizen’s juries, town hall meetings, deliberative democracy, alternative forms of voting, community dialogues, sortation (used in ancient Athens), public policy and environmental mediation, large group consensus building processes, and similar efforts that broaden problem solving, deepen decision-making, and turn diversity in a less adversarial and more collaborative and democratic direction.
As a second step, we can strengthen our skills and capacities in using a rich, robust, and diverse array of processes, techniques, methods, and approaches to addressing political differences, such as reaching agreements on shared values, guiding principles, and ground rules; asking questions that do not have a single correct answer; paradoxical forms of problem solving; creatively overcoming impasses; and using experimental approaches to implementation, such as pilot projects, charettes, rubrics, negotiated criteria, 360 degree evaluations, constructive feedback, and continuous improvement.
As a third step, we can recognize that political arguments, which seem hard-boiled, factual, and ideological on the surface, are actually deeply emotional, intimate, and heartfelt topics that have become over-heated and highly polarized, partly because they are framed as “either/or” alternatives that require one side to win and the other to lose; and partly because both sides care so deeply about issues that matter to them, and concern outcomes they care about.
Resolving political conflicts therefore requires higher order skills, not only in emotional intelligence, active and responsive listening, empathy building, non-violent communication, and appreciative inquiry; but in creative problem solving, group facilitation, conflict coaching, and opening heart-to-heart conversations between distrustful and passionate antagonists. While mediators and conflict resolvers practice these skills every day, we are not nearly as adept or skillful as we need to be in working with highly polarized political opponents.
What we have not yet done is figure out how to talk about these issues in ways that allow them to be resolved at a deeper level, and thereby become less divisive. The remedy is not to meet somehow in the “middle,” for example, between slavery and freedom, or disenfranchisement and the right to vote, or dictatorship and democracy; but to see that these are manifestations of deeper, underlying dysfunctions in our conflict-promoting political systems, which unnecessarily position one person’s gain as another person’s loss, pitting us against each other, sometimes simply as a way of motivating voters to vote for otherwise lackluster candidates who promise to favor them over others.
The remedy is clear. It is to shift our political center of gravity from debates to dialogues, from bullying and epithets to open and honest communications, from closed-hearted to open-hearted conversations, from power- and rights- to interest-based forms of problem solving, from retributive to restorative justice, from lying and enduring enmity to truth and reconciliation.
The means, here, are the end, the process is the content, and the goal is the way we go about trying to achieve it. Our first challenge lies in learning how to coalesce into political language, into conversations, sentences, and words, a deep empathy for the person with a passionate commitment to solving the problem; an unconditional affirmation of respect and inclusion with an unconditional affirmation of dissent and difference of opinion; a desire for unity in facing problems with an acknowledgement of the value of diversity in our approaches to solving them, and willingness to disagree in pursuit of a deeper truth.
Here is a very small but powerful example of how to do this, revealed in what mediator Laura O’Neal wrote to her next-door neighbors before Election Day:
Several of us have political signs in our yards. Me included. Some of you do not but may still have strong opinions about how this election should go. After this very heated and tumultuous election we are all still going to be right here. In our houses, on this block and in our community.
When the votes come in there will be those of us who might be mad, feel slighted, or even despondent or might feel exuberant, relieved, happy.
Regardless of how you voted, I want you to know that even though I feel very intensely about my choices and feel great concern about our country, I know that each family on this block is my country too. Just as I am multifaceted and not JUST my vote, the same is true for you.
I care more about each of you than to put this election between us. It has taken me a long time to come to this. It feels like it has been a hot mess, but somehow, I have gotten here. Perhaps we can have conversations after the election to find areas where we agree.
I challenge each of us to do one kind thing for someone on this block by the end of the year. It might be a smile, a batch of cookies or a homemade card of appreciation. You may not get a thank you. You may not get recognition, but I guarantee you will make a difference.
I’m glad to be a part of [our neighborhood].
There are countless opportunities for each of us to do something similar, in countless settings and situations. As the Sufi poet Rumi wrote, "Let the Beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground."
The law of entropy guarantees that there will always many more ways of undermining and destroying relationships than of building or advancing them, yet we have always progressed as a species more by working with, than against one another, and as our technological power and capacity for destructiveness continue to grow at an increasing pace, our challenge will be to strengthen communicative skills and capacity for collaboration at an equal or greater pace, if we are to avoid descending into barbarism and a war of each against all.
In conflicts and crises, our options ultimately boil down to two: go it alone, or face it together. We make these choices every day, as individuals, partners, and neighbors; but we also make them as organizations, societies, and nations. With the development of mediation, dialogue facilitation, collaborative negotiation, consensus building, and similar skills, we are now able to face our problems together and collaboratively solve them. All that is required is the decision, determination, and collective effort to make it happen.
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