2013-05-08 – I spent nearly 10 years as a volunteer community mediator. These were “minor” neighborhood disputes that had gotten out of hand. Many came to us because one of the parties had taken a swing at the other and was arrested. Sometimes both parties were arrested and charged with something like misdemeanor battery. The court referred their cases to mediation to settle the dispute, which was usually larger than the misdemeanor charge could handle.
In describing this to you, I used the word “party” to describe the participants in the dispute. This, of course, is a technical way of referring to participants in legal disputes. But I also want you to think about participants in other kinds of disputes: say, political parties. And finally, I want you to think about the word party as descriptive of a social gathering, as in: cocktail party, birthday party, or fishing party.
In some parts of America, fighting is just one big party. It’s what we do. It’s what we’re good at.
So, the other day on the train I was listening to a group of people discuss child rearing practices. One was complaining that parents today are too lenient. Another went off on a tirade about people preaching “come to Jesus” and then abusing their children . . .
End of discussion. The “come to Jesus” was a conversation stopper. And the speaker knew it. It was a move to escalate the debate beyond rationale discourse.
As a mediator, I was trained to see this. In fact, it was a big part of my job to deescalate the “fighting party” that could result from these kinds of moves. Moves designed to create distance and animosity.
We see it all around us. And the media loves it.
Gun control advocates love the splashy “mass murder” events (I hate to say that Sarah Palin is right about this). It puts them in fighting mode, but they somehow can’t make any headway based on the daily carnage and the suicides, which are problem that dwarfs the mass events. Of course, the other side has its own fighting words. The rare self-defense event is always blown way out of proportion, not to mention talk about the need to defend ourselves against our own government. (Too bad Sarah Palin only sees the fighting words coming from her opponents and not those coming from her own team.)
Monday, I tweeted a story from Slate on a documentary about sex-selection abortions in India and China. The astounding thing about this movie (supposedly) is that it is loved by pro-choice groups but it was made by a director who worked for a pro-life ministry.
Why should that be astounding?
The reason is that we love our fighting parties. Even the names: “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are designed to stop discussion. They are fighting words. They exclude the possibility that someone could be both pro-choice and pro-life. Someone like me, for example. And I suspect that many people in both camps share both beliefs.
But we’re not about settling disputes. We are about prolonging disputes. It’s what we do. It’s what we’re good at.
The key task of a mediator is to get people to listen to one another. You explain the rules and the people nod their heads in agreement. They understand how important listening is to the process of settling their dispute, so they say. And so you let one of them begin to speak, which he does, often beginning with the words . . .
And they expect someone will listen? I don’t think so.