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Mediation And Moral Imperative

On October 21, 2008 I read a curious Reuters headline that stated “Taliban Seeking Mediator.” Immediately I puzzled over why the Taliban would want one of us…a peacemaker, a harmonizer, an ethical do-gooder. Since then I have pondered these thoughts and the moral underpinnings they belie.

How would you respond to the call from the Taliban? Or the Iranian government? Or the truth and reconciliation commission of some formerly war-torn developing country? Or the U. S. auto industry? Or the peanut corporation seeking bankruptcy protection in the aftermath of a massive tainted food recall? Or the divorcing couple? Or the small claims dispute between a landlord and tenant? And why have I somehow allowed the mistaken notion to creep into my thinking that we mediators are somehow managers of the moral climate?

There is much talk in the media of late about “finding middle ground.” Isn’t the concept of “middle ground” one of the core interest-based principles upon which most models of mediation and interest-based negotiation revolve? The U.S. State Department says they want to find middle ground in negotiations with North Korea. Those involved in negotiating the $786 billion financial stimulus package talked ad nauseum about middle ground……middle ground for this needy group or that one,. And yet the middle ground shared by these principals is so bleak and the resources so scarce.

So what would I do if the Taliban sought my services? What kind of middle ground would they be seeking? My thoughts turn to the judgmental, but why? Isn’t there much turmoil that needs resolution? Who am I to decide which disputes are worthy of mediation and which are not?

Several years ago I was doing some preliminary research on the idea that those who are fundamentalist in their thinking (or dualistic) would lack the capacity for compromise, and might, therefore, find it difficult to participate in processes that value compromise (like mediation). No matter how I Google-searched “Compromise” “Fundamentalism” “Dualistic Thinking” “Negotiation” “Mediation,” all my search yielded was thousands of hits like “will not compromise their values….” “will not negotiate away their beliefs,” etc. I was wondering what I might do as a mediator to engage such participants in mutual problem solving processes. Can someone for whom a dispute is about values or ideology find middle ground with someone of contrary belief or ideology? Perhaps at some other level, if not at the level of ideology.

This reminds me of a Norah Jones/Dolly Parton duet called “Creep On In,” the refrain of which goes:

Creep on in,
Creep on in,
And once it has begun,
Won’t stop until it is done
Sneaking in.

So where did this value laden notion regarding what is worthy of mediation and what is not creep in from? Probably the same place that such a value-laden notion crept into the mind of the divorcing mother who believes that mothers are nurturers and fathers are breadwinners. But for someone who prides herself on being open-minded and creative I am taken aback by my reaction to the Taliban seeking a mediator.

Once these thoughts “creep on in,” what can we do to get them to creep right back on out? I suppose desire plays a major role. Do I really want to limit myself with these narrow, dualistic thoughts? Ah…..does my client? Or is there something more complex and rich at play here that I might be able to facilitate a greater understanding of?

I remember once early in my career as a mediator facilitating a session in a divorce mediation in which the mother cried, “families do not eat in front of the television. Families eat together at the dinner table.” This was a judgment on the father because he had the audacity to allow the children to watch television and eat during his parenting time. So, who am I to say, “the Taliban can’t mediate. You can’t reach middle ground on things like human rights.” Maybe they aren’t mediating issues like human rights.; what do I really know.

All I do know now is that if the Taliban were to call and ask if I would mediate their dispute with Afghanistan or Pakistan or some other ‘stan, I would not immediately say no…….although I don’t think they’ll be calling any time soon.


Merri L. Hanson

Merri L. Hanson is the Director of Peninsula Mediation & ADR in Williamsburg and Hampton Virginia. Peninsula Mediation & ADR provides a comprehensive range of mediation services for family, workplace, EEO, ADA, business, and commercial disputes. Under Merri’s direction, Peninsula Mediation & ADR manages ADR contracts and service delivery throughout… MORE >

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