Conflict Resolution: A Pacifist Agenda?

Those of us in the conflict resolution field like to think of our work as apolitical. Trying to keep dialogue constructive, trying to help disputants work toward mutually acceptable solutions -- these tasks don't seem readily categorizable as liberal or conservative. In fact, an inordinate amount of effort is focused upon the concepts of "neutrality" and "impartiality" in my field. If disputants don't trust us to be impartial, the wisdom goes, we have no legitimacy to offer to assist them in their attempts to find a resolution.

Recently, however, there has been more politicization of conflict resolution. Perhaps because this is a time of war, there is now much more talk about the "pacifist agenda" and the threat it offers the American Spirit. Most criticisms seem to focus on education, both higher and elementary. If anything, these kinds of critiques have become more common as of late. But in my view they are off the mark.There was a time when conflict resolution was supported by "both sides of the aisle," as they say. The heyday of conflict resolution in the federal government was the late 80s and early 90s, when it was praised as a way to improve the efficiency of agencies and society as a whole. Al Gore made the promotion of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) a core tenet of his Reinventing Government initiative. On the other side, Dan Quayle made several speeches praising ADR during the first Bush administration, perhaps because it was seen as a way of weakening the powerful Bar Associations and taking money away from lawyers. Unfortunately it appears that delicate straddling of the two sides has come to an end.

It seems to me that many of the arguments being made against conflict resolution are extensions of the "therapism" critique, best articulated in the book One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance by Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel (link). The book argues that a new ethic has emerged in our society, one "that views Americans as emotionally underdeveloped, psychically frail, and requiring the ministrations of mental health professionals to cope with life's vicissitudes." Left unchecked, this ethic is "degrading our native ability to cope with life's challenges." Through this lens, conflict resolution is viewed as an attempt to inculcate vulnerability and moral relativism into individuals so that they will no longer have the strength of conviction or moral fiber required to fight for what's right. I think this vision of conflict resolution is far too cartoonish and simplistic, and that's why it's so easy to criticise.

Now I do think that it must be admitted that in my experience most people drawn into the conflict resolution field have a predominantly liberal worldview. At the recent Association for Conflict Resolution conference the keynote speaker was Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, and the Friday night activity was a visit to a rehearsal for A Prairie Home Companion, a popular show on National Public Radio. (And in the interest of full disclosure: I have a liberal worldview, I've read and enjoyed Diet for a Small Planet, and I like Garrison Keillor.) I joked to my friends at the conference that there might as well be a banner on the front of the convention center saying "Welcome Democrats."

But I do not agree that conflict resolution is synonymous with liberal politics. The stereotype that dispute resolution is all singing "kumbaya" and hugging is highly inaccurate, in my experience. The spectrum of conflict resolution can stretch from softer, therapeutic approaches to more hard-edged, interest-based, ruthlessly strategic processes. Those of us with liberal worldviews may be drawn to conflict resolution because it meshes well with our value systems, but the practice of conflict resolution transcends any individual political persuasion or allegiance.

Trust me, when federal mediators attempt to negotiate a settlement to a two week old longshoreman work stoppage, where bad blood between labor and management is a given and violence is always on the cusp of breaking out, there's no kumbaya being sung. But that is definitely conflict resolution. When hostages are taken in a standoff with law enforcement, and a professional crisis negotiator is brought in to end the situation without innocent blood being shed, there are no hugs waiting at the end of the negotiation. But that is also unquestionably conflict resolution.

Conflict resolution happens every day, in the halls of congress, in corporate boardrooms, even on the battlefield. King and Ghandi, the heroes of non-violence, were conflict resolvers, but so were Eisenhower and Lao Tzu. I'd wager that most police officers and soldiers come to hold more and more of a conflict management perspective the more time they spend on their job. Conflict is inevitable, and those who work with it and in it come to learn more about the art and science involved in its management.

Conflict is part of the human experience, and managing it so that it will not become destructive has always been and will always be one of humanity's greatest challenges. In that sense, the work we do in the conflict resolution field transcends any red/blue, left/right, liberal/conservative categorization. In this era of increasing division let's hope that this field, at least, will remain above the fray.

Add new comment