The virtue of proximity?

At the Law&Society annual conference this past weekend, I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel with Nancy Welsh (Penn State), Cynthia Alkon (Texas Wesleyan), Danya Reda (NYU), Amy Cohen (Ohio State), and Hiro Aragaki (Loyola LA) — along with honorary panelists and commenters extraordinaire Art Hinshaw (ASU) and Kelly Browe Olson (Arkansas).

The topic was “ADR and Compromise,” the inspiration was Gutmann and Thompson’s new book The Spirit of Compromise, and the context was the modern-day U.S. Congress with special focus on the divisive political rhetoric that appears to make legislative progress impossible.

The book argues that mutual respect is necessary for principled compromises, and that such mutual respect is more difficult to come by when the members of Congress live (and work, really) so separately from one another. To address this, the authors present “veteran Congressional observer” Norm Ornstein’s suggestion that the members of Congress be compelled to live three weeks of every month in what sound like dorms, or perhaps Melrose Place:

During the three-week period, Congress would be in session from nine-to five, Monday through Friday. Ornstein would have the government provide….at-cost rental apartments in two newly constructed buildings near the Capitol…Members living closer together might not find common legislative ground, but they would be more likely to better understand their disagreements and moderate the mistrust that blocks consideration of compromise. (169-170)

Cynthia brought up this quote in her remarks and noted that proximity alone is unlikely to foster the kind of attitudinal shift required for building productive working relationships. She mentioned the movie No Man’s Land, a film about two soldiers who find themselves trapped together in a foxhole. One soldier is a Bosniak and the other is a Bosnian Serb. As Cynthia pointed out, these two did not learn to appreciate the other’s humanity while living in such close quarters; instead, they steadily hate each other throughout the entire experience.

I thought this was one of the most interesting observations of our panel. There is potential value, of course, in being close by, encountering one another, and so on. (Certainly there are problems in not having contact with those who are different.) However, Cynthia’s comments made me reconsider the blithe application of this principle. Proximity alone is not enough, especially when relationships are not good. As Cynthia put it, the Congressional dorm is likely to devolve into high school at its worst.

And here’s another movie to consider: Devil, a 2010 thriller about people stuck in an elevator. As it turns out, one of the people in the elevator is actually the devil. Every now and then the elevator lights flicker out and after they flicker back on someone has been horribly murdered. The survivors are desperately trying to figure out which of them is the devil, and as such are unable to create any relationships of the sort you would imagine in your typical stuck-in-an-elevator movie. There turns out to be a method to the madness and a sort of morality in the end but the basic premise — that maybe there are some people and some situations that close proximity will not help — is the same as No Man’s Land.

Which one’s the devil?

Not that it’s all grim news. Obviously the presence of a facilitator or mediator or other structure/activity may help improve the relationship, and proximity may be a necessary condition for that improvement to take place. It’s just not, as Cynthia pointed out, sufficient.