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Mediators as Peacemakers: The Revenge Effect

This is a revised version of an article that was previously published in “Peripheral Visions,” Mediation News, Vol.18, No.32, Summer 1999. Academy of Family Mediators.

The recent events in Littleton, Colorado are chilling, disturbing in the extreme, incomprehensible…there aren’t the words to describe the shock of the event, let alone begin to understand it. Our understandable human response to such catastrophic events, especially in our techno-rationalist culture, is the need we have to rationally understand-to establish the cause and place responsibility. Sometimes those efforts to understand are laced with our moral and political beliefs, and deteriorate into blame-setting (thinly disguised as rational deliberation). In any event, what underlies the pursuit is the well-intentioned desire to assure that such an event never happens again. In our culture we have a need to believe that with sufficient analysis and planning, risk can be reduced to zero.

The belief in rational analysis is frequently coupled with a preference for action over inaction. Feeling at a loss to help, we want to do something in a crisis, even if we don’t know quite what. The adages: “don’t just sit there, do something”; and, “if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem,” suggest our commitment to direct, aggressive, action-oriented problem solving. The hardest thing to do is nothing. Thus, the professionals and other commentators all have explanations ready; most remarks start with, “Here’s what I’ve been saying for years, this happened because….” Suggestions include: Parents don’t take responsibility for their children; divorce and drugs have corrupted our value system; the school does not maintain enough discipline; gangs and cults seize children’s minds; the relativist thinking of the 60’s has corrupted our thinking; God has been taken out of the schools; there is too much violence in the media; and so on.

With the causes fixed in mind, remedies, cures and preventive measures abound: Enforce “zero tolerance” policies in schools; ban cliques, cults and gangs; use psychological profiling to identify and treat “at risk” children; install more security gates and metal detectors; pass parental responsibility and gun control laws; censor violent movies, books, television programs and the internet; keep all potential conflicts under tight control in the schools; and teach children anger management and mediation. Each of the suggestions has a certain rational appeal that is hard to argue with, and working toward the implementation of one or all of them allows us to feel we are doing something constructive.

Our faith in science and technology encourages us to believe the problem can be eradicated. We may not really believe that, but we act as though we do. Perhaps the belief is only a “noble lie”-one worthy of belief even if it is not really true. What could be wrong with that? At least we are doing something.

Professionals, steeped in the study and analysis of child development, education, and conflict management, feel especially obligated to offer their services-in the past weeks there has been a steady stream of recommendations for programs, policies and laws to thwart school violence. In all likelihood, the money will be out there in the coming months and it will be hard to resist the urge to seek it. Proposals for everything from psychological testing, grief counseling, and security guards, to anger control and conflict management programs, will be offered.

Certainly it is laudable and rational to want a peaceful, non-violent, safe community. Yet, what is often not discussed is the prospect that all of our rational efforts often make matters worse. For every action, law, policy and program adopted to solve conflict, no matter how well intended, there is the very real risk of unintended consequences-the “revenge effect.” The revenge effect is not merely a side effect or trade off. Edward Tenner suggests: “Revenge effects happen because new structures, devices, and organisms react with real people in real situations in ways we could not foresee.” (Why Things Bite Back: Technology And The Revenge of Unintended Consequences). Our society is a complex, tightly interlocked system-components have multiple links that can affect each other unexpectedly, complexity makes it impossible to fully understand how the system might act, and the tight coupling can quickly spread the problem.

Thus, efforts to make things safer may result in making them more dangerous. Specifically, programs and procedures designed to protect students and teachers, can encourage a false sense of security. In addition, if programs, policies and laws are designed or, in result, act to suppress and squelch the expression of conflict, then even more intense and explosive situations may develop. Determined efforts to insure safety may backfire-rules and policies designed to contain conflict may exacerbate the problem. Those seemingly rational solutions undermine our reliance on our own common sense. Columbine High School had security guards, a “zero tolerance” for violence rule and a mediation program already in place; maybe more rules, policies and programs will work-then again….

The revenge effect holds special potency and poignancy for mediators. If a mediator presumes to teach nonviolence and purports to seek peace, then if peace and nonviolence do not come about, the result may be an intensified sense of despair and more conflict. The point is not that mediators should stay out of schools, but rather, it is the importance of remembering a mediator’s function and that words create reality. For the mediator to present what he or she does in the terms “peace” and “conflict resolution” is likely to set up unrealistic expectations that cannot be fulfilled. That failure can make the situation worse. It is not the mediator’s function to make schools, or for that matter, the world, more peaceful and to resolve conflict; their purpose is more circumspect and limited-to manage conflict and allow parties to survive. As mediators, we need to be careful what we promise-mediation cannot and should not be oversold and even inadvertently allowed to be understood as a panacea. We offer choices, not guarantees.

In our rationalist culture there is an underlying belief that every problem has a solution. That can too easily lead to the utopian notion that there can be peace, nonviolence and justice in the world-“that the lion will lie down with the lamb.” Those notions are seductive and risky, especially for mediators. While a mediator’s work can be helpful in managing difficult conflicts, if allowed to work freely, he or she cannot afford the luxury or risk of such utopian visions.

Tragic events like those in Littleton, have happened before and will happen again. That is not to suggest nothing can or should be done differently. However, if mediators are to be effective at all, then they have a higher responsibility to recognize the limits of rationality; to understand that there are no clear answers to preventing those events. Mediators have a duty to remain available to manage conflict and not to succumb to the lure of seeking solutions. Ironically, if our society is to be transformed at all, it will not be because mediators have joined in an endgame pursuit of a peaceful, nonviolent and just society. It will be because we have remained available to moderate and manage the conflicts that will inevitably continue to arise while others pursue their belief in rational planning and right answers.


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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