How Can We Help in Major Social Conflicts, if at All?

I have gotten emails from dispute resolution colleagues asking what we, in Missouri’s dispute resolution center, might do (or might have done) to help manage the conflict at our university more constructively.

For years, some folks in our DR community have noted despairingly that we aren’t engaged in major conflicts like the one that has been unfolding here.  Sure, we are called to handle relatively small matters, but the feeling is that people don’t recognize us as competent, relevant, likely to be helpful etc. in these major conflicts.

Of course, some of us are involved in managing major conflicts – especially those who do that for a living – but, as a field, probably not as much as we might.  I think particularly of the US Community Relations Service, which takes the initiative to intervene in conflicts like these.  Those of us in academia, however, may not have the skills, experience, or time to intervene directly.

We could provide training, certainly after a crisis like ours and perhaps even ahead of time.  If so, what should we teach? Transformational mediators and Bernie Mayer argue that we are too focused on resolution rather than constructive engagement.  Or is a focus on problem-solving necessary when there are intense social conflicts with a lot at stake?

The University of Missouri has had a Difficult Dialogues Program, which my colleague, Paul Ladehoff, has been part of.  If the events we have experienced occurred at your school, community, business etc., do you think a program like that is likely to make a difference?

What do you think we could do that realistically might make a difference?  And that would be wanted by the parties?  What could and should we do?

At base, this raises the question of whether our field is relevant for conflicts like these and, if not, is that a problem?

5 thoughts on “How Can We Help in Major Social Conflicts, if at All?”

  1. The events that are occurring on the University of Missouri’s campus are unfortunately all too familiar to many other places in the country. Due to the racial tensions involved as well as what is at stake, it is necessary that there is a community relations body in each major city throughout the country that is dedicated to help guide the people and communities involved in these racial conflicts by giving each party a voice and attempting to problem –solve in order to navigate to find an appropriate solution, if that is possible. If not, the formalized process and ability of community relations boards to be well-versed and trained in dispute resolution conflicts will be a great benefit to all parties involved. Often times reaching a final solution that appeases all sides of the equation is not feasible, especially when heavily charged emotional issues, such as race, can quickly divide parties involved.
    However, I would urge those involved that while this is the goal, the process should be focused on developing and implementing a formalized system that is conducive to taking into account all perspectives. Providing a forum that enables and empowers representatives of each party to engage in a series of conversations where they can work to find common grounds with the focus on conflict resolution is crucial. It is important to include representatives of the general public or influential community committees and city and state officials, student body, activist groups, leaders of volunteer organizations, police department, etc.. Additionally, due to the systemic racial tensions that seem to continue to divide this country, communities should organize and elect leaders to a committee that is comprised of influential individuals, of all races to be proactive and take effective measures and attempt to eliminate racism throughout the city.
    Programs like the Difficult Dialogues Program can only help. However, the degree of effectiveness they realize will truly depend on how dedicated people are to creating and implementing a process that empowers all groups that are affected and have an interest in these racial issues. Additionally, members of the community need to know that these groups exist and understand their importance and how to get involved to make a difference.
    The dispute resolution field is definitely equipped with the tools and is relevant with respect to addressing racial conflicts like the one unfolding at the University of Missouri. The challenge is developing a system where community leaders, state and city officials, and lawmaking bodies can give a voice to citizens. Empowering people of the community and enabling them to create volunteer organizations that are potentially funded by the city would be beneficial, but the next step is to make sure that they have a voice in important decisions. This also will provide increased transparency for citizens and allow them to better understand the processes that the city/state takes to handle troubling and emotionally-charged issues.
    However, I do recognize that regardless of the formal dispute resolution processes that we have in place to help mitigate the aftermath and chaos of these unfortunate events, there will still be unanticipated circumstances that present new challenged that might not have been recognized or considered prior to the most recent event. This is why we must have patience and continue to tweak the system in order to accommodate and anticipate future problems. However, this can only be accomplished with the help of all voices involved in the process-this is the key.

  2. I think the answer to your question as to whether the field of alternative dispute resolution is relevant for major social conflicts is a resounding “yes.” As another comment identified, one of the common themes that seems to be present in the social unrest that ultimately leads to devastating riotous acts is the feeling that those in power (e.g. university administration, city government, etc.) are not listening to those over which the powerful exert their influence. Another shared sentiment by those leading social movements is the perceived lack of transparency that characterizes official governmental or administrative action. What better way to resolve, or at least mitigate, these issues than to bring the interested parties together as part of some ADR program, such as mediation. Instituting such a program could foster effective communication between the parties, create an environment in which each party gains an understanding of their counterpart, and breakdown preexisting stereotypes. While such a program may not produce a resolution in the typical sense, it could not do any further damage to an already antagonistic and highly emotional situation.

  3. I feel as though there are numerous issues that may only be solved through Dispute Resolution within a community.

    Many of these issues confronted within communities (Ferguson, University of Missouri, Yale University) are two-pronged. First, the issue affects people directly impacted by the situation. These are people who will (most likely) be staying within the community (unless something dramatic occurs that makes things untenable, or through taking a job somewhere else). For them, having an issue that becomes a looping problem is something they rarely desire. They want a solution that is beneficial not only in the short-term, but also in the long-term relationship (10-20 years or longer). Using negotiation or mediation may help flush out the underlying issues related to the tension within the community. The actual trigger to the problem may only be a symptom and not the actual root cause of the overall issue that is confronted.

    Furthermore, with the use of social media and a rapid news cycle, something that happens in New York can start a chain reaction nationwide. Much of that information is either not fully truthful of what is going on in that community or plainly misconstrued and is shaped (by both liberal and conservative media) to whatever national narrative they desire to push in their respective agendas.

    By bringing the leaders of these movements together along with the individual community leaders (and possibly third-party neutrals who can help work through issues), the idea is to start an ongoing dialogue throughout the country. Yet, it seems that having this discussion quickly turns away from what each side desires it to be into slandering the other side. What the neutral party would hopefully do is cut through the misinformation and politicking by focusing, and eventually, evolving the discussion to issues that matter to all parties.

    It’s not an issue that will be done at one time, but rather an ongoing talk that provides flexibility to the parties to discuss issues that nationally need to be discussed as well as individual communities that struggle with unique issues. Discussions in Ferguson and Missouri will be much different than in Alabama, which is different than New York or Los Angeles.

  4. In viewing the institutional oppression movement as a whole, there can be no doubt that certain institutions ignore or overlook the effects their actions have upon minorities. The students at the University of Missouri have shown a legitimate claim to the injustices they have felt. However, I find that this social movement shows how overly sensitive our generation has is and how protests like these are a fad. For example, students at Ithaca College in New York protested by staging walk-outs and die-ins to have their president step down due to racism on campus. These students saw the power the movement at University of Missouri had by effectively forcing the school’s president to resign within two days of protesting for it. Now students at Ithaca College have all of a sudden become emboldened and inspired to do the same. Stories covering the movement at Ithaca College stated the main reason for the protests surrounded a statement made by the school’ president. The president, in responding to an offensive remark made by a speaker on campus, stated that colleges could not prevent the use of hurtful language on campus and could not promise that it would host a speaker that might say something offensive. Student’s found an immediate apology with the qualifier that students may be offended at some in the future and that can’t be totally prevented as a reason for why the president must be fired or resign.

    That entire situation seems ridiculous to me. President Obama has stated that our generation does not need to be coddled and protected from other points of view. Getting offended by one thing a person says and then blowing it out of proportion by starting protest shows how privileged our generation is. Every little statement now goes under a microscope where it may be impossible to speak your mind without it coming under fire. The political correctness standard perpetrating college campuses prevents any real original or substantive ideas because students are afraid that they may be vilified for making their true beliefs known. While people need to be conscious of other people’s feelings and worldviews, this should not restrict one’s ability to express themselves freely without them being deemed offensive or racist.

    Maybe there is a way to combat the racial tensions that are currently being felt at the University of Missouri. However, the students are driving the protests and conversation should not be the ones doing so because they do not have a clear idea of what they are attempting to accomplish. Yes, they have general idea of what their goals are, but no real substance underlies those objectives. What does exist rather is an aggressive and utopian worldview. While this particular viewpoint does resonate with a certain portion of the population, it means nothing because no endgame exists and nothing ultimately gets fixed. But this is what culture and society has become. Students, like at Ithaca College, bang their drums real loud to drum up a cause that sounds good and gains tractions with its followers. What these movements accomplish instead is uglier and uglier protests that rarely have an organized plan to achieve the results they desire. This leads to protests receiving attention for their cause no matter how valid or ambiguous the situation is.

    I believe what should be done is to create a forum or outlet for students to have their voice heard. What fuels movements on college campuses is that student’s feel they are not being heard. Without first addressing that problem, I believe any attempt by administrators or intervening dispute practitioners to control the situation will fail.

    Also, a problem that exacerbates these conflicts is that Universities move very slowly to try and deal with the problem at hand. This may be understandable because schools have rarely, until recently, had to deal with such conflicts, so no guidelines or precedent exists for them to rely upon. Therefore, the speed of getting the parties together is crucial. The more time that elapses before steps are taken to resolve the situation increases the risk that the movement will gain momentum to a point where nothing can be done without taking drastic action. It becomes very difficult to try and resolve conflicts with hundreds of people instead of a few.
    That is why it is imperative to bring in third party dispute resolution practitioners quickly. With the help of professionals in dispute resolution, a process must be set up or be in place so that both sides can quickly come together to get to the heart of the problem. Initially, this may prove to be difficult because students may see this as a halfhearted attempt or tactic by the school to stop their voices from being heard. With that in mind, a combination of approaches will likely be most effective depending on the circumstances. No single focus or approach can solve these social movements because of their complexity.
    What perhaps may be more difficult is determining what the appropriate solution should be. Protestors currently expect a solution immediately or a promise that such oppression and feelings of injustice will never be felt again. However, these protestors fail to understand, or must be made aware of, that any injustice they have felt will not be cured overnight, that week, month or even year. Changes to problems like these take time and it cannot be realistically expected that everything will be fixed immediately. If any intervention were to be made by dispute practitioners, they must communicate that such changes are not realistic and time will be needed.

  5. John,

    The best I have seen on this is Francesco Alberoni’s Movement and Institution. He describes the process by which an individual experiences “depressive overload” and comes to an idea in something he calls the nascent state. The person seeks affinity with others around the idea and as more people are attracted to the idea a movement arises. The movement comes up against the institutions of society and those institutions tend to respond in some mix of four ways: 1) repression, 2) making the actors feel they are living an illusion, 3) extinction – literally killing the movement members and/or 4) cooptation.

    If we take that point from before someone experiences depressive overload through to the point where the movement is coming up against the institutional pressures, it seems to me that the central task of dispute resolution practitioners is to understand/acknowledge the agency of the person’s that have coalesced into a movement. The years of oppression experienced by the black students there has been overlooked or ignored for so long by the channels of power that the kind of actions that are occurring have been the natural result of people who feel they have less to lose from protesting then from continuing to suffer in silence. One thing that could be done is to look systemically at the process of identifying oppressive behaviors as experienced by minority students, identifying paths by which those experiences can be heard by the powers that be, and identifying rapid means by which such problems on the campus can be addressed in a meaningful manner. Clearly there are problems with these systems and one can see in the pictures a real unwillingness to hear our black history by those persons chanting “Move On.”

    There is no reason for black Americans to deny the awfulness of our history just to assuage those who would prefer it be forgotten. That would be an insult to the struggle of those ancestors to survive in periods when profound evil was countenanced, celebrated, and rewarded socially. For centuries.

    One must understand that these moments for me are akin to a very old old wound over which a finger is lightly rubbed and that brings back a deep and old pain.

    I write this from Paris where the relations with my French friends who are white do not bear such a heaviness as do race relations in the United States. We in the US are all prisoners of a profoundly evil history that shapes our every day, but that we do not dare connect with or even acknowledge.

    These types of events are the Sparks of that contradiction where we once again are confronted by profoundly racist behavior as a means to repress black people. I await with sadness the murder of black people there by self-appointed protectors of the white race as has happened throughout our long history. And those doing that may be police in uniform who I am learning are infiltrated by members of hate groups with a long pedigree of domestic terrorism against blacks such as the KKK.

    It has happened so many times before and so I will not be surprised if it happens again.

    DR professionals should not make the oppression more tolerable but should move to address the racial and social justice needs of the situation through helping develop paths to resolution of concerns about oppression.

    Yet, even in doing that, you should recognize that your campus is located in America and that at so many levels the institutions of our country fail to address the experience of ordinary Americans in myriad ways of the kind of direct and indirect racial discrimination addressed in the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and its recent periodic review of the United States. But, one reason it is not addressed is because people make money off of the oppression (see the real estate industry for one in the segregated neighborhood strategies), people gain power from exploiting the oppression for electoral gain, and the history sits there reminding us of how perverse we are capable of being. That perversion is at such a level of degradation of human dignity that like staring into Nietzsche’s abyss, we are changed by just looking at it.

    So hooray for the diplomats who seek to dialogue, but beware of those who merely would seek to paper over.

    Hope that helps. Just sayin’


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