Appreciation of Serial

In a recent post, I mentioned that as a DR person, I particularly like the Serial podcast, and Erin Archerd asked why.

I really love the way that the program seeks to learn and portray the complex realities of the stories it covers.  It looks at them from many angles so that listeners get a rich, multi-dimensional understanding of the situations.  It provides conflicting views from different individuals in the stories as well different frames for looking at the cases.  Its website includes source materials to provide an even-deeper understanding.  It not only provides extensive portraits of the cases, but it also opens windows into many worlds that intersect in the stories.

In the first season, about the prosecution of a high school student charged with killing his former girlfriend, the program analyzes the facts of the case, the world of high school students in that era, perspectives of first-generation Americans and their parents, competency of the defense counsel, analysis from the perspective of innocence projects, and possible effect of anti-Muslim sentiment, among other things.  It is like a very good real-life law enforcement or journalistic investigation with careful analysis of evidence, which is so very different from what our news and entertainment media typically provide.

The second season deals with the case of Bowe Bergdahl, the army sergeant who left his post in Afghanistan and, after about five years in captivity by the Taliban, was released in exchange for five prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay.  We hear extended excerpts of an interview with Bergdahl, which is fascinating in itself.  We learn about his history leading up to his deployment, including interviews of childhood friends as well as psychiatric evaluations of him.  We also hear from other soldiers and officers about their experience and perspectives.  Accounts of the search for Bergdahl were particularly gripping and help explain reactions of his fellow soldiers.  We learn about how Bergdahl’s deployment fit into the war generally.  Remarkably, we learn about the Taliban itself, which rarely is covered in our media.  We learn about the complex history of negotiations to release Bergdahl and how this case fits into national and international politics.

I particularly appreciate the approach of Sarah Koenig, the host and co-producer.  She is a good listener and seems to treat everyone respectfully and fairly as she tries to see the world through their eyes.  When she presses people with what we would call “reality-testing questions,” I think that she does it well.  She is open about her perspective, questions, doubts, and uncertainties.  Rather than trying to prove a particular theory, she seems open to following the story wherever the evidence leads her.  Indeed, she routinely tries to test theories by seeking contradictory evidence.  Although she clearly is sympathetic to the protagonists of both stories, she is prepared to make judgments adverse to their positions.  Rather than telling simple stories of villains and heroes, she much more realistically describes a world of full of complexity and ambiguity.  In sum, I think that she displays great intellectual integrity and openness, which enables listeners to get the benefit of her extensive analysis and then judge for themselves.

This all relates to DR because understanding reality is an important and difficult part of dispute resolution.  I think that we can learn a lot of valuable lessons from the way that Serial approaches its stories.

In many disputes, especially complex ones like those described in Serial, I think that there is no single truth but rather multiple realities to be understood and respected.  It is often tempting for DR professionals (including lawyer-advocates) to essentially tell parties that the truth doesn’t matter, only pragmatic resolution in a risky system.  Of course, sometimes it is counterproductive to devote a lot of energy to present and vindicate one’s version of the truth.  Even in these situations, however, I think it generally is important to respectfully acknowledge people’s view of reality even if one doesn’t accept it.  This isn’t a novel idea but I suspect that many professionals don’t honor it.

In addition to all this, the Serial producers are great storytellers.  I started listening over the winter break and I binged until I heard all the episodes that had been released by that time.  Now, I can’t wait for each new episode.

This conversation got started by a comment about the session at the ABA conference, Heard Not Seen: Internet Radio for the ADR-Minded Free Resources to Enlighten, Entertain, and Educate with a Dispute Resolution Emphasis, on Friday at 3:15, which Erin will be on.  I will be interested to learn about resources in that session – and anything you might mention in a comment.

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