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.

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