Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Mediation Reflection

The practice of mediation is considered one of the central tools for peacebuilders. Mediation, along with negotiation and facilitation, form the backbone of CJP’s conflict transformation ethos, due in part to the plethora of faculty members who have been involved with the Mennonite Central Committee. But mediation, like negotiation, is also a common skill, albeit an unrefined one; as James Joyce would have it, mediation is a chaosmos, an order which is unsettled by the disorder it seeks to direct. We often facilitate conflict between family members or friends, acting as middlemen (or women) relaying messages and summarizing underlying needs. The trick is to unearth this unrecognized daily practice and recognize its distinctive methods. Mediation is the structured emergence of difference that creates space for potential convergence.

Unfortunately, I have been somewhat skeptical of mediation. I never doubted the vital importance of it in certain circumstances but I wondered how applicable it was in many situations, especially when it became extremely specialized and professionalized. In my limited view, mediators whitewashed severe inequities and power imbalances by claiming neutrality, leading some to boast they could mediate anything, presumably even racial or economic conflicts. Major nations send mediators like George Mitchell to facilitate the (laughably named) Middle East peace process, who inevitably fail because they enter assuming, or pretending, that two equal parties sit at the table. And when Palestinians refuse to concede on certain issues, the mediators complain that they aren’t giving up enough ground. But how do you give ground when you don’t have much to give? How do you give ground when you believe that most of your ground was taken by the party with whom you’re supposed to be negotiating?

I worked with a reconciliation group based in Jerusalem. Musalaha does important work, including mediation work. In the vein of narrative mediation, Musalaha recognizes the vitality of storytelling in which an encounter with the other is unavoidable. That important work, however, is endlessly challenging and frustrating because they are handcuffed by a desire to appease exceedingly conflicting groups. In the midst of my frustration I recognized that Musalaha attempts to walk a string-thin line. They are in an extremely volatile situation as a non-profit organization funded mostly by Evangelical Christians, many of whom still ardently sympathize with Israel but also want to help “Arab Christians.” The director, an Israeli Palestinian, says he has “an itch for justice” and is ready for Musalaha to speak more boldly. But if Palestinian participants cry justice for their beloved country too loudly, most Israelis won’t come. However, if Musalaha continues a more neutral stance on political issues, Palestinians will consider that stance as normalizing the occupation and they may not come much longer either. In this case, the process of mediation transforms some individual lives, which cannot be underestimated, but those individual lives return to extreme societal and structural disparities separated by a dividing wall of hostility and concrete.

During this time, once or twice a week several friends of mine and I slept in the home of a nonviolent protest leader outside of Bethlehem because of the regular occurrence of IDF night raids. Apparently, they came to the village regularly, and came while we slept there but never came to the house. Not until we missed a night. Our friend was later taken into a back room at a checkpoint crossing and was beaten for ten or fifteen minutes before being released. Israeli soldiers had the protest leader’s cellphone number, calling him regularly to request visits in his front yard to work things out over tea. The protest leader said that by inviting them for tea he would be accepting the present power inequality in which they could come at will and armed to his home. When the wall fell and the occupation ended, then he would invite them.

Coworkers in the reconciliation group were skeptical of my involvement with nonviolent intervention, direct action, and journalistic advocacy. An activist friend angrily reprimanded me for working with a reconciliation group, all of which she claimed hide behind neutrality and historical amnesia; this friend reprimanded me for this as we drove out to the village to sleep in the protest leader’s home. These experiences, as well as daily crossing through the checkpoints in the separation wall, convinced me that direct action and mediation are both needed. But they manifest themselves in different contexts in which one practice may be inappropriate. Activists sometimes forget that conversation is a desired result of direct action; the table is made more accessible for all. Mediators sometimes forget that makers of peace must often be disturbers of peace. Governments idolize King and Gandhi now that they are dead, but they were vilified as troublemakers and verbally and physically attacked when alive. Mediation has an important place, but cannot be the only core of peacebuilding. It is a backup when negotiation fails because of entrenched ideologies, and nonviolent direct action replaces failed mediation processes. Both channel energy and turn up unheard voices. As Ched Myers and Elaine Enns have said, the two are estranged relatives.

I took my role as a mediator seriously during role-playing sessions and I tried to practice the discussed skills. I have acted as a sort of mediator for friends in dispute, but surveying the field provided a more stable framework in which to work. Part of the beauty of mediation is the interpretability of methods that allows for diverse engagement with the process, whether that is traditional, transformative, narrative, victim-offender, or community mediation. The word chaosmos came to mind several times during the process of mediating and being mediated: a mediator must extensively plan and organize, but must also be open to the unpredictability of human encounter. The mediation process may shed light on unexpected emotions and details that could never have been predicted, even in a role-play situation. This highlighted the fact that mediators do not control the process but instead facilitate it, direct it. In a way, mediators conduct the flux toward an acceptable rhythm. One observer commented that mediators play the role of encourager by soliciting generative ideas from participants. The ownership belongs to the participants and the mediator, in a way, plays stupid so that participants are forced to constantly reshape and reform experiences and emotions. Instead of being the all-knowing third party, the mediator elicits different aspects of repeated stories by assuming ignorance. This forces the participants to continually clarify desires and perspectives. And, unlike negotiation, a third party is able to rephrase previously entrenched views that might make listening and understanding more possible.

My valuation of mediation rose during the class role-playing sessions. I hope to complete the required hours at the Fairfield Center and explore community and narrative mediation in more depth. Conflict will inevitably arise and the skill to stimulate discussion, facilitate listening, and to construct more collaborative environments is critical. And to do all of this without controlling and manipulating the process or the people involved. Mediation is the art of asking the right questions and the art of shared storytelling. In many ways, these are lost arts that must be restored.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Cosmopolitanism and Bioregionalism: Reflection on Contemporary Conflict Resolution

Hugh Miall, Oliver Ramsbotham, and Tom Woodhouse have produced a remarkable and thorough resource for reflective practitioners. Contemporary Conflict Resolution is an ambitious attempt to explore the history, practices, and critiques of the field. I felt compelled to read beyond the assigned chapters because of the multiplicity of important topics. Indeed, the volume is so broad and expansive that the task of reflecting on it is extremely daunting. Too many possible trails diverge in this dense wood.

Cosmopolitan conflict resolution is the central theme of the massive book (Ramsbotham, 2011, p. 265), the deepest level of which is conflict transformation (ibid, pp. 31-32). This well-articulated approach is based on cooperation (ibid, p. 20). However, the current global economic and political structures engender extreme competition, centralization, and stratification. Interestingly, the authors adamantly praise the United Nations as the pinnacle of cosmopolitan conflict resolution (ibid, pp. 273-4), which depends on the aforementioned structures (ibid, p. 272). The authors defend the United Nations from detractors throughout the book (ibid, p. 291), which is indeed admirable and appropriate at times. But they do so by propagating global citizenship in a world community (ibid, p. 396). This appears reasonable, but becomes problematic when cosmopolitanism remains comfortable with mere reform of the state system (ibid, p. 399).

Reform is certainly not a four-letter word, and is absolutely necessary at times, but many historians claim that state-making has served, not to protect people from violence as Hobbes would contend (ibid, pp. 95-96), but to organize for the purpose of war (Alexis-Baker, 2011). Rather than paving the way for the world community, nation-states disintegrated communities (ibid). Indeed, European peasants staged major rebellions, causing some of the most tumultuous periods in European history (Ramsbotham, 2011, p. 275), during the infancy of the nation-state when leaders introduced uniform language and currency over huge territories (Alexis-Baker, 2011).

The Occupy Wall Street movement is resisting similar trends within liberal democracy, in effect agreeing with the authors’ critique of the internal democratic peace theory (Ramsbotham, 2011, p. 280). Liberal democracies bifurcated the political and economic systems, in which the supposed equality of the former actually supports structural inequality in the latter (Myers, 1994, p. 294). Many Americans, even poor Americans, seem to have accepted this division and forfeited economic or political transformation because Horatio Algers’ bootstrap tales are still so prevalent.

The authors of this textbook have internalized another tale which believes that international law and human rights can be normalized in a convergence of state interests that will ultimately transform the current systems (Ramsbotham, 2011, p. 280). This strikes me as “an admittedly overoptimistic ‘long history of the state’ in terms of the development of international norms” (ibid, p. 275) and an extremely positivist view of historical progress (ibid, p. 267, 269), a view which has caused inestimable violence to the indigenous people of the West, to non-Westerners, and to women of all races (Caputo, 2006, p. 38). The UN did not prevent the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor have they ever effectively constrained Israel, who easily ignores UN resolutions without any fear of repercussion. Israel is an example of a rejection of the liberal cosmopolitan values and principles which the authors religiously endorse (ibid, p. 411), but the authors main example of rejection is Wahhabist Muslims who cannot accept liberal democracy because majority opinion might outvote the will of Allah (ibid, p. 411). The authors fear this rejection of cosmopolitanism, but is it fundamentally different from Israel’s stance or even from American conscientious objectors? Even if the majority votes for war, which they do through tax dollars and presidential votes, conscientious objectors reject majority opinion within a liberal democracy. The authors’ viewpoint thus orients them back to military force in order to impose liberal democratic cosmopolitan values (ibid, p. 327), even though just war criteria have never prevented any war. Is the role of the peacebuilder ultimately to control the flow of history? Could there be a difference between controlling and leavening?

Liberal human rights and international law are incredibly important references and tools, but they often seem shallow when compared to deep cultural reservoirs of human folly and wisdom (discussed in chapter fifteen). Certainly these reservoirs can be dangerous because of their endless interpretability. However, this is no less the case for the text of human rights, whose staunchest advocates think such rights are universal. But nothing cultural is really universal, which is why people spend so much time arguing for human rights, or rather evangelizing for them. I am not necessarily against ‘evangelism’ for justice and peacemaking, but I tend to think that interpretability is what gives texts their life, and I tend to think that universality emerges from the plurality of particularity, not from an indistinct uniformity. Part of the irony is that many peacebuilders insist on abstract formulations like “the family of nations” or “the world community” (ibid, p. 266, 396) and then also posit human rights as the basis for all relationships. But healthy families and communities are not centered on rights; they are centered on responsibility to other members. In a way, solely rights-based approaches can devalue communal interdependence by operating on individualistic assumptions: instead of active and responsible participation, we get de-personalized laws of non-infringement. Some have argued that such laws were actually designed to dismantle social groups into more manageable individuals (Alexis-Baker, 2011). Again, I am certainly not rejecting the significant tool of human rights, and they may be transitionally necessary in a world of global economics and nation-states. But I am suggesting that they may not be all-sufficient. In the end, stories are all we have.

No system will ever be perfect, but are we able to even imagine alternatives such as bioregionalism? Bioregionalism is a political, economic, and cultural way of life defined by ecological boundaries such as watersheds and soil types, rather than arbitrary state lines. We are members of specific communities within specific ecosystems, not of some amorphous world community. However, these specific communities are irrevocably connected to other specific communities and require participation and cooperation and therefore preventing devolution into tiny isolate enclaves. Bioregionalism thus takes very seriously “post-structural concerns for local participation and human diversity” (Ramsbotham, 2011, p. 267).

What might a cosmopolitan bioregionalism look like? The textbook authors are rightly committed to pluralism (ibid, p. 396-399), but for some reason think that global governance can deliver locally defined welfare for the most marginalized (ibid, p. 397). While perhaps possible, the authors don’t adequately explain how global governance, presumably under UN administration, would prevent homogenization and “top-down forces of militarist, market-driven, materialist globalization” (ibid, p. 398). The earth itself is capable of cultivating pluralism, witnessed in natural biodiversity, but it is also able to limit and ground it (Myers, 1994, p. 364). Theoretically, placing economics under the control of bioregional knowledge would foster cooperation because everyone would be dependent on resource stewardship of that place; however, abolishing centralized authority (whether the nation-state government or the UN), does not automatically instigate inter-regional warfare over territory. The textbook authors note that real commons did not predominantly end in tragedy because people mostly cooperated by regulating competition and restricting freedom (Ramsbotham, 2011, pp. 294-295). Bioregional governance requires a networked confederation of local groups to plan, cooperate, trade, mediate, and share knowledge (Myers, 1994, p. 366).

Bioregionalism is one imaginable alternative that can even be planted within the shell of existing structures. The chapter on environmental conflict resolution (Ramsbotham, 2011, pp. 293-304) introduces extremely important issues such as climate change, peak oil, resource competition, and the survival of the marginalized (ibid, p. 293). The authors relate important examples such as a Californian water conflict (ibid, p. 295), but they would have benefited significantly from discussing the potential of permaculture as a form of peacebuilding. Rooted in ecological science and systems theory (Holmgren, 2004, p. 4) as well as community research, religious traditions, and native cultures of place (ibid, p. 6), permaculture is a form of land and cultural design and management that stems from three interrelated ethical maxims: “Care for the earth (husband soil, forests and water)”; “Care for people (look after self, kin and community)”; and “Fair share (set limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistribute surplus)” (ibid, p. 6). Furthermore, the word permaculture not only means permanent and sustainable agriculture but also permanent and sustainable culture (ibid, p. 1). A brief example is Bustan Qaraaqa, a community permaculture farm located in Beit Sahour, a village close to Bethlehem, Palestine. The farm addresses food insecurity and environmental degradation that result from infrastructural instability and a military occupation. Through education and demonstration, the farm models cheap and easy ways to live sustainably and produce food such as water conservation, aquaponics systems, tree planting, and will soon include waste management and fish farming.

On a final note, the authors could have strengthened their helpful survey (Ramsbotham, 2011, p. 294) by mentioning Cuba. The Caribbean country plummeted into economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union (Rosset & Bourque, 2005, p. 363). Fossil fuel availability drastically decreased, as well as food imports which dropped by more than fifty percent; Cuban agriculture lost seventy percent of available fertilizers and pesticides (ibid, p. 364). Daily caloric intake in the early 1990s dropped by thirty percent from the 1980s (ibid, p. 364). Remarkably, Cuba survived and thrived in the aftermath of their initial catastrophe by employing alternative technologies, returning to animal instead of mechanical traction, remembering older techniques (such as intercropping, crop rotations, and composting), and supplementing limited synthetic fertilizers with agroecological practices such as biopesticides and biofertilizers, natural enemies, earthworms, green manures and cover crops, and integration of grazing animals (ibid, p. 364).

The government simultaneously converted almost all state farms into worker-owned cooperatives, acknowledging that farm managers’ must be “intimately familiar with the ecological heterogeneity” of the land (ibid, p. 365). Individual farms (ibid, p. 364) and these worker-owned cooperatives represent a fascinating synthesis of capitalism and socialism. Urban farming played a central role in overcoming food insecurity (ibid, pp. 365-366), flipping conventional wisdom on its back by proving that small countries can feed themselves, even without copious synthetic fertilizers and corporate-scale farms (ibid, p. 366). Cuban practices such as agroecology, fair prices, land redistribution, local production, and urban farming are very applicable elsewhere (ibid, p. 367). Cuba emerges as a key example of an alternative paradigm that addresses extreme environmental and social challenges (Ramsbotham, 2011, p. 293) and is a paradigm, along with bioregionalism, that has definite resonances with the important insights of cosmopolitan conflict resolution (ibid, p. 32).


Alexis-Baker, A. (2011). The myth of state as savior and elections as a confession of faith. Retrieved November 9, 2011, from Jesus Radicals.
site: http://www.jesusradicals.com/the-myth-of-the-state-as-savior-and-elections-as-confession-of-faith/

Caputo, J. (2006). Philosophy and theology. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Holmgren, D. (2004). Essence of permaculture. Retrieved June 30, 2011, from Holmgren
Design Services Website: http://www.holmgren.com.au/

Myers. C. (1994). Who will roll away the stone?: Discipleship queries for first world christians. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Ramsbotham, O., Woodhouse, T., and Miall, H. (2011). Contemporary conflict resolution (3rd ed.). Malden: Polity Press.

Rosset, P, & Bourque, M. (2005). Lessons of Cuban resistance. In J. Pretty (ed.), The Earthscan reader in sustainable agriculture (pp. 362-367). Sterling: Earthscan.