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Conflict and Movements for Social Change: The Politics of Mediation and the Mediation of Politics

Movements for social change are products, producers and resolvers of conflict.  By joining together to bring about change, their members affirm the positive, creative role that conflict can play in calling attention to injustices, applying pressure to support needed social changes, reinforcing progressive values, halting censorship and retaliation, and resolving the chronic, systemic sources of social conflict.  Yet these same movements are often plagued with their own internal conflicts, which are routinely handled in negative and socially regressive ways. 

Internal conflicts in social movements are commonly resolved using a range of highly destructive methods, including avoidance, apathy, accommodation, screaming, suppression, enforced silence, personal insults, mass resignations, gossip, ostracism, unnecessary splitting, sectarian behaviors, angry denunciations and public humiliation, none of which maintain unity, encourage principled opposition, or demonstrate an ability to solve larger social problems.

The emotions that occur naturally in the course of these conflicts are frequently repressed — partly in deference to a higher goal, political ideal or principle, or immediate practical priorities; partly out of disrespect for subjective weakness, which can be seen as a form of political vacillation; and partly out of a fear of cooptation and capitulation. 

Personal needs are then equated with selfishness and self-indulgence; or a lack of commitment, or identification with opposing political interests, so that toughness and insensitivity can come to be regarded as positive attributes, and essential accommodations to the rough-and-tumble of political activity. 

Why Movements Experience Conflict

Internal conflicts are endemic and natural to progressive political and social movements, in part because it is difficult to agree on how to define and change highly complex, volatile and evolving social problems.  As a result, over time, different definitions of the problem and perceptions about the nature of those who defend and represent it result in radically different notions about what needs to be done to change it. 

Moreover, these alternately reinforcing and contradictory definitions and ideas are not fixed in time, but fluctuate dramatically with events, shifting perspectives, hardening or softening commitments, and an evolving, uneven understanding about the kind of organizational structures and decision making processes needed to overcome the obstacles that are periodically placed in the way. 

For this reason, debates over means vs. ends and goals vs. process are a part of the history of all social movements, which are simultaneously fixed on achieving specific goals or demands, and at the same time searching for principled ways of achieving them that do not replicate the worst of what unjust and alienated social practices have created.

At the same time, maintaining unity in the face of an organized and repressive opposition is of paramount importance.  In decisive moments, everyone understands that nothing is achievable in the absence of unity, and that everything is possible with it. 

Varieties of Unity

Internal conflicts, if handled incorrectly, unnecessarily undermine this unity.  But how, exactly, is unity formed?  One type of unity derives from having a common purpose, goal, vision, idea, or source of inspirational energy.  We can think of this as a unity of substance or content   A second type of unity emerges from affection, community, struggling together against great odds, friendship, or empathy. We can think of this as a unity of relationship.  There is also a third type of unity, which we can think of this as a unity of process, that emerges from open and honest communication, dialogue, circles, and other collaborative processes. 

Unities of content are fleeting, limited, conscious, intellectual, future-oriented, and externally directed.  Unities of relationship are enduring, unlimited, subconscious, emotional, past-oriented, and internally motivated.  Unities of process are situational, transformative, largely unconscious, intuitive, present-oriented, and group inspired.  Each of these impacts the others, and is able, even in tiny, unnoticeable ways, to strengthen or weaken them. 

In any movement or organization that seeks to strengthen its internal unity and capacity for common action, it is critical to build all three, and move, wherever possible, from the first, which is widely acknowledged, to the second and third, which are largely ignored.  In political movements, it is especially important to rescue the principles of human affection and collaborative process from the demands of political expediency and abstract content. 

There is a historic tendency among political groups to dismiss concerns with relationship building and collaborative process as unnecessary and time consuming, or as diversions from political substance, or “touchy-feelie” and bourgeois in nature.  Each of these judgments could be accurate, depending on the circumstances.  Yet to regard relationships and processes in general as secondary or unworthy of concern is to ignore their extraordinary impact and transformative power.

Process encodes relationships and recapitulates content.  The process of bowing to a monarch or saluting a superior officer reveals and reinforces their hierarchical content.   Whenever people stand in line or sit in rows before a speaker, or dance on tabletops, relationships are created through process that reinforce relational and political content.  Similarly, if ideas are expressed using mathematical proofs, footnoted pages, oil painting, ballet, or rhymed poetry, different kinds of content will emerge from each form. 

The same idea extends to political organizations and their approaches to resolving conflict.  It makes an enormous difference whether a group acts in lockstep with the will of its leader, or by majority vote, or by consensus.  And it matters equally whether internal disputes are handled by silencing dissent, mass expulsions, power struggles, avoidance, acrimonious debates, mediation, or open dialogue. 

Progressive organizations have a particular interest in encouraging the use of collaborative, relationally constructive methods of resolving internal disputes that do not recreate the same negative, adversarial techniques that characterize the unjust, internally divided societies they seek to improve.  Once it becomes permissible to treat allies and internal members in the same ways we treat external opponents, the movement has taken a huge step backward and diminished what it will be able to achieve. 

To succeed in creating more just societies, we need to begin with ourselves, and encourage not only substantive unity regarding core ideas and political principles, but the caring relationships and collaborative processes that are needed to support them over the long term, by improving the levels of skill and understanding in these areas.

The Politics of Conflict

Every conflict takes place not only between individuals, but within a context, culture, and environment; surrounded by social, economic, and political forces; inside an organizational system, structure, and technological setting; among a diverse community of people; at a particular moment in time and history; on a stage, milieu, or backdrop; within a relationship. 

None of these elements is conflict-neutral.   Each contributes – often in veiled, unspoken, yet significant ways to the nature, intensity, duration, impact, and meaning of our conflicts.  And each element, depending on circumstances, can play a determining role in the conversations, interventions, and methods required to settle, resolve, transform, or transcend it. 

Every conflict, no matter how petty, therefore possesses hidden social, economic, and political elements that inform and influence its evolution and outcome.  More critically, social inequality, economic inequity and political polarization raise the intensity of even the least significant interpersonal conflicts, and these forces are experienced personally as conflict.  Nonetheless, it is rare that any of these systemic background elements are noticed, analyzed, discussed, or subjected to problem solving, negotiation, or conflict resolution by those whose daily activities bring them into existence. 

In addition, social, economic, and political dysfunctions trigger or aggravate interpersonal and organizational conflicts, and these conflicts contribute to the maintenance of oppressive, social, economic and political systems, in part by generating chronic conflicts, and with them, a culture of avoidance and aggression, and a set of adversarial attitudes and behaviors that limit the ability of individuals and groups to work together to improve their lives.  

We can identify a number of sources of chronic conflict throughout history, and among these are social inequality, economic inequity, political autocracy and environmental change.  Therefore, every effort to end or ameliorate these sources of conflict by individuals or movements for social change can be regarded as a form of conflict resolution.

What Can Be Done?

These observations lead us to three threshold questions: 

First, can we become more skillful in preventing, resolving, transforming, and transcending conflicts in social movements by addressing the systemic, contextual and organizational influences that trigger or aggravate them? 

Second, is it possible to apply conflict resolution principles to the inequalities, inequities and dysfunctions that fuel chronic social, economic, political and environmental conflicts? 

And third, can we learn to interact with each other socially, economically, politically and environmentally in more humane, compassionate and collaborative ways, while uniting to bring about social change? 

These questions suggest deeper ones: 

  • What is our responsibility for the conflicts that are taking place within our own movements? 
  • Are we not implicitly responsible for learning better ways to address and resolve them? 
  • Is it possible for us to use our knowledge and experience in conflict resolution to do a better job of preventing, resolving, transforming and transcending chronic conflicts inside and outside our organizations? 
  • How could we redesign the organizational processes, relationships, cultures and systems that routinely and globally give rise to them?

The Politics of Mediation

Mediation, like every process, has a political content.  It is voluntary and radically democratic, since it uses consensus rather than coercion, and therefore produces a maximum of unity and a minimum loss in energy, time, commitment and resources within organizations.  These same characteristics allow mediation to also be seen as a model for social interactions and a goal for more just future societies.

Mediation encourages empowerment in both substance and process.  When successful, it allows conflicting parties to reach settlements that are satisfactory to both sides, while creating more effective communication and identifying what can be done to improve ongoing relationships.

In mediation, there is no hierarchy or power elite dictating results, encouraging non-adversarial forms of negotiation and creative informal problem-solving.  Empathy and mutual understanding are supported, as are the purposes or goals that the parties share.

Even where fundamental political disagreements separate conflicting parties, these can be clarified and discussed honestly, respectfully and openly through dialogue that supports the frank and honest discussion of disagreements.  A rich array of problem solving techniques can identify creative solutions that seek to satisfy both sets of interests. 

Through mediation, dialogue and other collaborative processes, progressive movements can also model methods for resolving deeper social conflicts and an acceptance of diverse races, genders, nationalities, sexual orientations, communities, and political perspectives, which is a part of their reason for existence. 

The Mediation of Politics

The goals of peace, equality, democracy, and justice require collaboration, respect, honesty, fairness, and empathy – not only in abstract political theory, but as integral parts of practical problem-solving, negotiation and conflict resolution that allow diverse communities to unite and co-exist. 

Mediation, together with dialogue and other collaborative processes, should therefore, be a long-term goal of progressive movements, for at least the following reasons:

1. Mediation is the modern version of an ancient tradition invoking wisdom and fairness to heal the repairable rifts that divide people. Indigenous tribal elders, representing forgiveness and regeneration, empathy and wisdom, are represented today by mediators. 

2. Mediation is the reconciliation principle, and a means of social repair for people whose disagreements are beyond their ability to resolve.

3. Mediation is the most democratic method of conflict resolution possible, as the parties control both the process and the outcomes.

4. Mediation encourages responsibility for one’s actions.  It is problem solving without hierarchy, power without autocracy, structure without bureaucracy, and justice without the state.

5. Mediation is the transformation of external into internal constraints.  It is individual and group self-determination in practice. 

6. Unresolved conflicts are costly to any society, whether they be social conflicts that arise from inequality and empire; economic conflicts that arise from scarcity and a hierarchical division of labor; or political conflicts arising from autocracy, graft and the corruption of elites. Mediation, dialogue and conflict resolution systems design offer ways of discussing, addressing, and resolving all of these.

7. Pretending that there is no conflict or that it will resolve itself is like ignoring an illness and hoping it will go away.  Mediation is the ounce of prevention that is worth a pound of cure. 

9. Mediation is entirely without coercion.  It is the “withered-away” judicial state, and the judicial future of civil society.

10. Principles of political and social democracy as a whole can benefit substantially from large and small scale peer mediation programs that use elected volunteers from neighborhoods, work units, schools and communities to settle disputes voluntarily, quickly, and confidentially. 

11. The obstacle is the path.  By resolving conflicts at their chronic sources, we make it possible for individuals, groups and societies to evolve to higher levels of conflict and more advanced techniques for resolution. 

12. By affirming and creatively combining complex, contradictory, paradoxical truths, we make it possible to identify complex, higher order, synergistic solutions.

A living organism like a social movement cannot exempt itself from the cumulative effects of its decisions regarding process, and sooner or later these effects begin to show themselves in burnout, fatigue, in-fighting, destructive relationships, apathy, cynicism, and a loss of effectiveness and unity.  Valuable contributions in time and effort then predictably decline as money is not donated and a cycle of blame and recrimination begins, ending in a hardened, adversarial exterior for those who remain, and bitterness and enmity against their former comrades for those who leave.

Much of this is avoidable.  Through mediation, conflicts can be surfaced, discussed and acknowledged, and in most cases amicably resolved.  Communication can be improved and working relationships strengthened, preferably before they become dysfunctional.

While there are clear limits on the mediation process, and while it can be misused to suppress genuine political differences, a positive attitude toward conflict, disagreement and diversity is more common to the mediation process and its outcomes are consistent with the democratic aims of progressive movements, as well as with social equality and community empowerment.

For these reasons, mediation allows conflict to be seen as positive and a source of change, rather than as something to be feared and avoided.  Conflicts then become opportunities, challenges, learning experiences, useful adjuncts to the political change process, and sources of unity within the movement and society as a whole.


Kenneth Cloke

Kenneth Cloke is Director of the Center for Dispute Resolution and a mediator, arbitrator, consultant and trainer, specializing in resolving complex multi-party conflicts internationally and in designing conflict resolution systems for organizations. Ken is a nationally recognized speaker and leader in the field of conflict resolution, and a published author… MORE >

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