Getting Past the Pain

How to Handle Conflict Resolution in the Family | Family MattersBy Frank Blechman

“Gentlemen may cry ‘peace, peace’ but there is no peace.…”
–Patrick Henry, Second Virginia Convention,
St. John’s Church, Richmond, March 23, 1775

Patrick Henry was known for his powerful oratory more than for his effective leadership. The well-known quote above comes from his famous ‘liberty or death’ speech, which propelled him into the office of Virginia’s first elected governor (1776-1779). Although he was a strident ideologue, a ruthless politician, and a failed businessman, he was often correct in his assessments of which way the political winds were blowing.

I cite this quote not to raise Patrick Henry as an exemplar for our times, but simply to note that when there is deep social division, crying “peace” does very little to make it so. If there is to be “peace” or even productive co-existence, each faction must acknowledge the positive as well as negative actions of others, and its own sins and virtues.

If there is to be “peace” or even productive co-existence, each faction must acknowledge the positive as well as negative actions of others, and its own sins and virtues.

None of that is easy to do at the height of conflict. Over the last two weeks, commentators in the media, members of Congress, even the President (trying to backpedal from his inflammatory words) have called for “peace,” with little or no positive effect.

During this same time, I have spoken with colleagues in the international ‘peacekeeping/peacemaking’ world, including folks associated with both international nongovernmental organizations (such as humanitarian relief agencies) and international governmental bodies (such as the United Nations). They have reminded me that when they step into the middle of a conflict, they never call for peace or reconciliation as a first step. First, they work with all parties on immediate infrastructure needs, such as shelter, food, health care, and management of displaced persons/groups. Often, all groups suffer from the same traumas and dislocations, even if their analyses of why and how that happened differ greatly. Only after the immediate situation has been physically stabilized can discussion begin of demobilizing arms camps, building long-term relationships, or permanent refugee return and resettlement.

I remember one much less violent case here in Virginia where I was asked to intervene between factions fighting over zoning and historic preservation issues in their community. Meeting with the parties separately, all said that they did not trust the others and would not see any value in entering into any conversations with them. This fight was about the survival of their concept for their town, which they loved dearly. Under no circumstances would they accept me as a mediator. They were prepared to fight legally and politically, and wanted nothing to do with collaborative problem-solving. I agreed to their wishes.

I proposed that I would facilitate a two-day “training” about conflict resolution at a remote location. I promised that I would not talk about the current differences or ask anyone to negotiate anything. Reluctantly, they agreed. I designed the agenda in a particular format, using short sessions and long breaks in-between. For most of the first day, the groups retreated from the sessions using the breaks to caucus with their own kind. I constantly reminded everyone that this was an educational event, and that they had not been brought together to address their differences. By the second day, however, an interesting thing happened: Conversations in the hallways began between individuals from different factions–often people who were neighbors, or who had known each other for a long time before their current division. By the end of the second day, with no intervention from me, they reached a procedural agreement on how they would all move forward to resolve the pressing land-use issues. A few grumbled that they had been ‘tricked’ into agreeing, but most recognized that in the end, it would be much better to work out a plan, rather than have lawyers and judges do it for them.

The current chasm between the far ends of the political spectrum will not be bridged by goodwill or governmental actions, no matter how much we might wish for that. Healing the damage and forging national unity will take many years.

My point is that the current chasm between the far ends of the political spectrum will not be bridged by goodwill or governmental actions, no matter how much we might wish for that. Healing the damage and forging national unity will take many years, and/or an intervening foreign threat. Certainly, prosecution and punishment of those who have engaged in violence and destruction should proceed. New laws clarifying the constitutionally protected rights to ‘peaceably assemble to petition their government for address of grievances’ will be needed to guide those aggrieved, now and in the future. It may take a generation before the aging leaders on various sides can sit down with one another to ask, “What were we thinking? How did we imagine that vitriol would end well?”

In the meantime, we can redress the broken social infrastructure to benefit everyone caught in the current storm: health care, jobs, schools, transportation, energy. There is quite enough of that work to do to keep us busy for at least a presidential term or two. 

 



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