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Groundhog Day Release

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The publicity team for the release of the book Just Conflict is preparing for a large campaign to begin next Tuesday. As it happens, that is Groundhog Day. While the timing was not coordinated with this odd holiday by design, it has a kind of synchronicity which connects with the 1993 film by Harold Ramis starring Bill Murray.


In the film "Groundhog Day" Murray plays Phil Connors, a weatherman for a Pittsburg TV station, who once again is on assignment in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for the February 2 festivities. He is not pleased. Indeed, very little seems to please Connors. He is a smart and funny but shallow and narcissistic loner who manages to alienate everyone he relates to.

Without explanation Connors has predicted that a big snow storm heading across the mid-west will miss mid-Pennsylvania. He is wrong. The blizzard hits and strands him and his team in Punxsutawney for a second day. Except it is the same day. He wakes up on what ought to be February 3, but it is Groundhog Day all over again. At least it is for Connors. For everyone else it is the first time they have had this day.

Gender Justice Roots for Just Conflict

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What might it mean for women and men to have deeply intimate and just relationships when, for so much of human history, relationships between men and women have been shaped by dominance, gender inequality, and violence? 

This question arose for me out of thirty years of work in the domestic violence intervention community starting with my role as a volunteer on the staff of one of the first programs in the country to do intervention with men who batter.  This program is RAVEN in St. Louis.  I was the coordinator of counseling services there for over eight years in the 1980's.

The Obama Doctrine

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I have read and reread President Obama's lecture to the Nobel Prize committee and distinguished guests upon his award of the Peace Prize.  I find it to be a powerful and important statement, not just of American foreign policy under this President, but of how we as humans might learn to address and resolve conflicts.

I have been working on an essay about the principles of nonviolence Martin Luther King used in his efforts on behalf of civil rights in America so I was especially sensitive to Obama's references. To have a President, especially one who is increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan, cite King (and Gandhi) as models to follow and to do so in a way that is coherent and carefully considered illuminates the reasons Obama got the award. That he received it saying so many things that so many of his liberal supporters find disagreeable makes it only more remarkable.

I myself didn't agree with everything he had to say. But my disagreement has mostly to do with his use of the term nonviolence in ways that, while consistent with popular usage, limits the meaning to "a set of tactics appropriate to actions taken by oppressed persons addressing grievances against an authority which is morally sensitive."  If we limit the term in that way then he is right, it wouldn't have worked against the Nazis and it won't work with al Qaeda.

But if we are looking not so much at the tactics as at the philosophy that undergirds it, and think more creatively about how conflicts can be resolved, then we discover some important principles that unite Nonviolence and the Obama Doctrine. Among them:

  • We are all connected in a great web of care and concern. What affects one of us affects all of us.
  • Passivity or patience in the face of oppression is not only an abandonment of our moral responsibility but is also an invitation to greater violence.
  • The road to peace is through a process of relationship building with those with whom we disagree.
  • Justice is not simply about the rule of law but is also about the equitable distribution of rights and resources, but such equity is not possible without the rule of law.
  • We cannot allow the fact that others abandon righteous behavior to allow us to depart from the values we hold.

These are all examples of the kinds of principles which I hope to celebrate and promote through the promulgation of Creative Conflict Resolution and through Just Conflict.  I welcome your comments.

In January of 2008 I taught a class on conflict in faith communities at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. The Class included the principles of Creative Conflict Resolution and also introduced Marshall Rosenberg's Non-violent Communication. We were privileged to have Jeff Brown, a certified trainer in NVC conduct a portion of the class.

Following the training in NVC and the introduction of the notion of growth through development and especially the growth of our own identity through the Orders of Self, a conflict arose between one of the students and me about the efficacy of nonviolence as a tool for transformation in systems that are dominated by a powerful evil. The consideration centered around the question:

"Whether an organized nonviolent resistance to the National Socialist Party in Germany in the 30's would have shortened the war and reduced the carnage, particularly to Jews, gypsies, and gays."

Of course, we cannot actually know the answer to this question. Time only moves in one direction. But a careful consideration of such circumstances does allow us to clarify our cognitive maps such that we can act more effectively in the future.

There are several aspects of our map that we can refine with this exploration. The ones that rise to the surface for me include:

  • What is evil?
  • What does it mean for a strategy to work? What are we using to gauge effectiveness? and
  • What characterizes nonviolence generally and nonviolent resistance particularly?

Conflict around the issue of abortion rights

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In the spring of 2009, an organization based in St. Louis which supports a woman's right to make reproductive choices and which does so on the basis of religious convictions, held its annual banquet and awards dinner at a local banquet facility. The event was picketed by people who oppose the legal option of abortion. Two weeks after the banquet, the director of the organization notified attendees of the banquet by letter that the picketers had prevailed in their campaign limit the group's use of that banquet center. They had flooded the owner of the banquet hall with email and postal mail urging him to bar the organization in the future.

The banquet hall is owned by a family which has determined that because of its position on the legal option of abortion--they oppose it--organizations which support abortion rights will not be able to use their facilities in the future. This decision was communicated separately to the pro-life organization and to the pro-choice organization. The director of the banned organization urged its supporters to contact the owner of the banquet hall to express disappointment and to promise to boycott his establishment and to make an example of him so that other businesses would not follow suit.

The core conflict is over the presence in our community of legal and medically provided options for a woman to end an unwanted pregnancy. There are many perspectives on this option and very strong feelings about it. Thus there is a high intensity of conflict. It is not likely that any of the parties involved are going to stop caring so much. Similarly, it is not likely that any of the parties, especially those organizations which claim concern about this issue as a major reason for being, are going to change their perspective. So this appears to be an intractable conflict. One of the few things that the opposing perspectives agree on is that they see no reason to talk to each other.

The mediator to the conflict then becomes anyone who tries to relate to both parties, even if the context has nothing to do with the issue. In this case the family which owns the banquet hall is trying to do business and thus trying to maintain a good image in the community. Since the parties in conflict won't talk to each other, they both try to exert influence on the mediator...the business owner.

The parties make it clear to the owner that he must make a choice, "It is either them or us."

With this binary choice we can be assured that one of the parties will win by making the other lose and it is the owner who gets to decide the winner. When the pro-life people won this round, the pro-choice people determined to pressure the business owner for fear that others might follow suit if they thought they could do so without losing business.

So we have an issue which is a rich source of conflict between parties who have agreed not to address the issues directly with each other but to appeal to others to join their side and thus gain greater power over others. When they are forced to engage, they do so indirectly by making someone else into a mediator and lobby the mediator to make the other lose.

This is not a particularly mature way of addressing conflict. This is much like a couple of kids fighting over a toy and insisting that mom settle things for them.

President Obama has consistently responded to questions put to him about access to abortion that, while he supports a woman's right to choose, he would prefer that the debate move to things we mostly agree on as related problems; like the incidence of un-wanted pregnancies. He points out that if we could all work together on reducing unwanted pregnancies we would be supporting the goals of both parties.

As this is one of those conflicts which I often hear people assert are impossible to resolve, let's look at some of what it would take for us to begin to name, address, and resolve some aspects of this issue.

In order to do this we would have to shift several things in the relationship of pro-choice and pro-life camps. Assuming that representatives of both parties became convinced that some form of resolution was desirable, what would it take to begin to even have the conversation?

· Each party would have to be able to respect the integrity of the other position.

· Both parties would have to come to clarity about what the issue is that they are both concerned about.

· Each party would have to be able to speak about the issue from a place of consideration of the core values and qualities each holds to and to be able to hear as valid for them the values and qualities expressed by the other.

There are some other things the process would require, but these three seem to me to be the big ones. Let me say just a bit more about each of them.

Respecting the integrity of the other: Constructing a conversation between the parties which is direct and constructive would have to start with the recognition that there is already a conversation going on. It is just one which is indirect and destructive. We don't talk to each other, and we communicate by trying to make each other lose.

Remember that there are many ways we can complain about others. We can express a concern about some quality which is arising in our relationship with the other. We can express a criticism of some particular choice the other is making. We can express contempt for who the other is. Or we can attempt to express control over what the other does because their integrity has no value for us. As the level of conflict intensity grows and the maturity each party recedes we tend to see the language of complaint go from concern to criticism to contempt to control. This is certainly what we are seeing in this conflict over the use of the banquet facilities. Each is trying to exert control over the use of the banquet facilities by lobbying the owner.

For us to even have this conversation, both parties would have to be willing to engage each other from at least the level of criticism or concern. Neither contempt nor control will be constructive.

Clarity about the issue: For us to address an issue constructively, we have to be addressing the same issue. That means we have to name the issue in a manner that the other party recognizes it as the issue they are also addressing. For each party to be able to do this they will each have to know the difference between what is happening and what it means to them that this is happening. This is our second crucial distinction; what happens from what it means to me when this happens.

This is a central barrier to resolution of this conflict. Each side frames the issue from a perspective which the other denies. We can see an example of this in a description of the banquet in the blog "Saint Louis Catholic."

The banquet was organized by pro-abortion activists to "honor" representatives from Planned Parenthood and current and former legislators for their support of the abortion industry.

Those organizing the banquet would point out that they are not pro-abortion but pro-choice, they are not representing Planned Parenthood but an affiliated group, and the "honor" is not for support of the abortion industry, but for a woman's right to choose. They are not each speaking about the same events; rather they are each speaking about what each makes the events mean. They are not starting on the same page.

Speaking to and hearing from the other: Assuming for the moment that representatives of both sides had such a strong commitment to working toward the resolution of this conflict that they were willing to respect each other enough to talk respectfully, and assuming they could frame the issues in such a way that they could agree that they were talking about the same things, then we would be in a place to do the really hard work of telling our own story and hearing the story of the other. This requires that representatives of both sides of the conflict be able to come together with each having sufficient measure of five core competencies. Each must know how they are affected by the issue, be able to talk about how they are affected, and find it safe to do so. They will have to be able to contain their own anxiety as they listen to a perspective very different from their own, and they will have to be able to reflect back to the other what the other's perspective is so well that each feels fully heard by the other. Again, let's explore these five around this issue.

Each is able to know how they are being affected: This is particularly hard to do because of the depth of feelings this issue evokes. For protection we tend to focus outside of ourselves rather than to speak personally about how we are protected. We talk about the effect on the fetus, on God, on women, on society, much more easily than we talk about how we are each affected ourselves. This capacity to go into our own experience is the ability to make the distinction I call the distinction between Cause and Effect and is one of the Five Crucial Distinctions. It is knowing that the external cause is not the same as the internal effect.

I have a close friend whose birth mother didn't know she was pregnant until she was past seven months. She wanted an abortion but it was too late. He knows that, had abortion an option for his mother, he would not have been born. His support for a woman's right to choose is thus in conflict with his wish to live. Being able to identify and address these internal conflicts is essential to understanding our own reasons for adopting any given perspective and to being able to articulate this perspective to another.

When a person who is pro-life holds to that position because "it is God's will," the questions remain as to how one knows the will of God, what pushes one to that particular interpretation of the will of God, and how that interpretation is reconciled with the fact that God has given us the freedom to make our own choices? As long as the focus is on the cause (because God said so) we don't get to the effect this cause has on the person holding the position.

Each is able to speak to how they are affected: Knowing how something affects one is not the same as being able to speak clearly about that effect. My friend whose mother wanted an abortion worked for many years to be able to find the words to talk about his feelings in a way that even made sense to him, much less to others. Talking about our innermost feelings is not something we do easily or often and thus we are not particularly good at it.

Each is safe expressing how they are affected: Knowing how I am affected and having a language for expressing the effect are for naught if I don't feel safe letting others know what is going on with me. We will have to be able to carefully construct the relationship so there is sufficient trust that we can let others know us without the fear that what we have told them about us will be used against us. We will have to trust that we know how to care for ourselves if we discover that we are not safe.

This is a huge issue in conversations between highly polarized parties. How can we make it safe enough to even talk to each other, much less to talk about things which are very personal to who we are? Instead we tend to talk about who we imagine the other to be in ways that the other doesn't see as accurate. The intensity of the conflict creates such a high level of anxiety that it becomes hard to bring our best selves to the table.

Each is able to modulate their own anxiety of while attending to the perspective of the other: When I am listening to someone speak about their perspective about something dear to me and their perspective is very different from my own, I will become anxious. If I am sufficiently anxious it will be very hard for me to continue to listen attentively and respectfully. We find ourselves interrupting and arguing with the other instead of remaining curious about their perspective and how the issues are affecting them.

This is the very thing we are most afraid of in a highly conflicted relationship. We are afraid of the other's reaction and we are afraid of our own. We have trouble trusting that we are each going to be able to maintain our equanimity in the face of someone who is espousing a position we find troubling at the very least. In this instance the polarized parties sometimes see each other as criminal and dangerous.

Each is able to reflect back the perspective and affects of the other such that the other feels fully heard: If we are able to remain calm and attentive then we may have been able to hear the other's truth with sufficient clarity that we can paraphrase back to them what they have given us such that they are then able to know that we know what their perspective is and why it is valid for them. It is not necessary that we take on the perspective, only that we be able to see why the perspective is valid for the other.

The difficulty of this step (some would say the impossibility of this step) is what often stops us from even beginning to work toward a resolution. Some conflicts appear as intractable because any acknowledgement that the other's position has any validity would be seen as traitorous to one's comrades in the fight. When the culture of the pro-life community holds that the opposition is made up of baby killers, or the culture of the pro-choice community holds that the opposition favors the subjugation of all women, then anyone who has any truck with the opposition can't possibly be trusted. Thus if anyone in leadership on either side tries to broker a peace, they will lose credibility with the troops.

So while it is possible to resolve the doesn't look likely that we will even try unless a significant portion of the base becomes convinced that such efforts are necessary and helpful. My advice to any leader who wants to begin to address this conflict in a way that might lead to a creative resolution is to get your base behind you first.

Link to the book

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Here is a link to the most recent version of the book in pdf format.  It will be updated from time to time [sometimes daily].  The date on the bottom of the title page will let you know when it was current.