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Necessary Conflicts

Why does conflict persist? This is like asking: ‘Where does love go?’ It touches the human condition near the core, a place where great thinkers give gloomy answers. ‘Life is suffering,’ is the first noble truth of Buddha, who lived about the same time as Heraclitus (ca. 500 BCE): ‘War is the father and ruler of all things.’ St. Matthew at 24:6 (ca. 100 CE) agrees: ‘Ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars’ and Hobbes (1651) sums up: ‘The life of man – solitary, poor, nasty, brutal and short.’ Personal and historical experience tells us that conflict does indeed persist.

Mediation however partakes of the sunny 18th century optimism of the Declaration of Independence’s affirmation of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ Does mediation believe in the possibility of permanent freedom from strife, or must it acknowledge something inevitable about conflict, something inherent in us, something we cannot do without?

Questioning our persistent tendency to beat up on each other, two qualities stand out as integral – entanglement and identity. We live entangled lives, yet we strive for personal identity. Our entanglements threaten our sense of ourselves. Conflicts are about entanglements gone wrong. Richard thinks violence will free him: ‘From this torment will I free myself, or hew my way out with the bloody ax,’ but fails and gets his throat cut. Macbeth knows better: ‘I am in blood stepped in so far, that should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.’ The movie Kramer v Kramer is about threatened identity; Mrs. Kramer (Meryl Streep) feels compelled to desert her child because: ‘I’ve always been someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, someone’s mother.’ She flees to California to find out who she really is and finds out she really is a mother, so returns to get re-entangled with the child, but then…

We are born entangled in the umbilical cord and our connections bind us to life; Death carries a scythe to cut the cords. Even our genes express themselves in a double helix, an elegant entanglement. The intricacies of love and conflict occupy most of the space of our artistic heritage. What is curious is to discover exactly the same point made in quantum mechanics. ‘Entanglement is not one, but rather the characteristic trait of quantum mechanics.’ (Schrödinger, 1932) Yet seeking explanation we find another Nobel laureate, Richard Feynman saying: ‘I think it is safe to say that no one understands quantum mechanics. You see my physics students don’t understand it … that is because I don’t understand it. Nobody does.’

Feynman does offer some interpretation, from which it might appear that the entanglements of the quantum realm are not so different from our human experience: ‘I believe that all things are made of little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.’ (Feynman, 1966) That pretty much sums up we all live – moving around each other in perpetual motion, attracted and repelled, wanting each other yet jealous of our personal space, mingling and separating, alternating between lust and disgust, intimacy and estrangement.

Without closeness which is the product of attraction, there can be no conflict which is the product of repulsion. Eskimos don’t get in fights with Papuans because they are too far apart to get attracted in the first place. Marriage is hard work because it oscillates between attraction and repulsion. Violent crimes mostly happen between people who know each other, and the commonest violence occurs within the family, which is one great big entanglement. Yet un-entangled people tend to be lonely and unhappy. Psychopaths are not entangled; where they seek closeness they achieve only violation – anyone ‘loved’ by a psychopath is supremely threatened. The most un-entangled humans are dead. The not-yet-born wait to embrace the entanglements of living. Physical attraction is the most entangling, for ‘how the devil could we exist, if our parents had never kissed?’ (Barker, 1950)

T. S. Eliot sees the close connection between love and conflict: ‘Who then devised the torment, Love? Love is the unfamiliar Name behind the hands that wove the intolerable shirt of flame, which human power cannot remove.’ (Little Gidding, 1942) Steiner agrees: ‘In essence, the constants of conflict and positive intimacy are the same.’ (Antigones, 1984) Whatever ties may bind sub-atomic particles – string, according to quantum theory – the ties that bind humans are made of love and when it falters ‘things fall apart, the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’ (Yeats, 1921)

The issue exercised the dramatists of classical Greece, which was a civilization in perpetual conflict. They regarded certain conflicts as necessary and inescapable. Such conflicts are seen as ‘non-negotiable, whatever the many shades of accommodation between them, because together they constitute the means to self-knowledge. To arrive at oneself – the primordial journey – is to come up, polemically, against ‘the other’.’ (Steiner, ibid)

For anyone who might want to mediate it, here is the brief by Sophocles in a certain family conflict, set out in the form of a play. Polyneices, son of Oedipus, attacks the city of Thebes. His brother Eteocles, defending the city, meets Polyneices in battle and both die. Thebes is saved and Creon, successor to Oedipus as king of Thebes, decrees the traitor be denied burial rites. Antigone, daughter of Oedipus and sister of the slain brothers, defies the decree. She buries her brother Polyneices to save his soul from endless torment. Creon sentences her to death for disobeying the law.

Why can’t these two members of the royal family just get along? Why don’t they work out a deal? Surely a mediator could help them – give a little, take a little, no need to hug just sign on the dotted line. But they don’t work out a deal. Antigone is confined in a living tomb and commits suicide, as does Creon’s wife Eurydice and his son Haemon, who was Antigone’s lover. Creon is as good as dead. The royals are hopelessly entangled and passionately, persuasively and fatally stubborn. All five orders of conflict are implicated, which for Sophocles are as follows: between men and women, age and youth, the individual and the group, the living and the dead, and between mortals and god(s).

Antigone is a woman; her defiance of Creon’s decree is intolerable to him: ‘So long as I am alive, no woman shall rule over me.’ Steiner writes of the relationship between a man and a woman: ‘They stand against each other as they stand close to each other…when they incur the perils of dialogue, men and women stand naked before each other…the immediacies and incommunicados of the words which they speak, whisper, hurl at each other, take us to the heart of our divided and polemic condition.’ (ibid) Homer’s much earlier epic opens with Helen’s elopement and closes Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon. One could view all of civilization as an attempt to control the anarchic energies between men and women. The forces of society are harnessed to control the fusion but fail; the fallout is devastating but creates the future. Then society musters itself once more, this time to respond to the question ‘where did love go?’ because the fission of separation is equally disastrous, as we see in divorce statistics. Zeus may rule the heavens but even he trembles before Aphrodite because her energies are unstoppable.

Secondly, Antigone is young and Creon is offended by her presumptuous challenge to one so much older; youth owes deference. In war, the old remain at home, the young are sent to die. Some have written that a person does not truly grow up until faced with the death of parents. One generation inflicts abuses on another. The old are pushed out to make way for the young. An entire society shortchanges the education of its young. The younger members of a family seek advantage of elderly relatives. Age is central in age discrimination and elder abuse situations. Lear is battered into recognizing: ‘I am a very foolish, fond old man.’

Thirdly, Antigone pits her personal conscience against Creon’s idea of the state. She is willing to honor her inner voice, and Creon is willing she should die for it. He knows what is best for Thebes; indeed, in decisions like these, he is Thebes. That theme echoes through history. ‘L’Etat, c’est moi.’ (Louis XIV, d. 1715)

Fourthly, she represents the claims of the dead which may conflict with the interests of the living. Whatever their role in life, the dead share in common the kingdom of death where different laws apply and must be respected. Antigone appeals to ‘…the unwritten and unfailing laws of heaven.’ She is resolved that Polyneices must receive the proper rites, no matter what, and ‘no matter what’ here means her death. Creon has no such delicacy of feeling for the departed. As far as he is concerned, his decrees are law and apply both to living and dead.

The fifth order of confrontation is between men and god(s) and for Steiner: ‘The dual between men and gods is the most aggressively amorous known to experience.’ Creon seeks a commercial relationship with Zeus; he offers reverence in expectation of reward. Antigone demands nothing, flinching from death even as she chooses it, but places her action squarely within the context of eternity, against which the temporalities of Creon can only splutter. We are not so comfortable talking of conflict between men and gods in a society either secular or monotheistic, but certainly recognize the tension between time and eternity, immanence and transcendence, the mundane imperatives of our daily lives contrasted with what we all come to in the end, which ‘comes equally to us all, and makes us all equal when it comes.’ (Donne, 1631)

The movie “Babel” is about miscommunication leading to unintended and dire consequences. Even if we think we speak the same language, we frequently use the same words quite differently and our disputes and antagonisms are based upon misinterpretations of what the other person said. The faculty of attentive listening is not so common. Most people most of the time have their attention solidly focused on themselves and not much attention is left over to listen closely to what the other person is saying. The possibilities for misunderstanding multiply. It becomes preferable not to speak at all. Picking a way through these ‘incommunicados’, or sometimes that perverse variation, words used as screens intended more to mislead than to inform, the mediator works to cobble together a truce adequate to be deemed an enforceable settlement, hardly noticing that even the words we use – ‘binding and enforceable’ – borrow directly from the language of coercion. Those who are pleased to style themselves ‘peacemakers,’ may miss the irony that this is also the nickname given to one of history’s most famous weapons.

Mediation does not usually directly involve such ‘necessary conflicts’ but more the adjustment of interests and the haggling of the market place, and is further constrained by the formalities of the setting. Just as abstract notions of justice rarely concern the lawyer in everyday practice, so the clash of ontological fundamentals may be only opaquely visible to the mediator. Yet to the extent that mediation is the glass jar in which we are privileged to observe even somewhat formal attempts to find accommodation between conflicting actors, we may sometimes notice, behind their dogged reluctance to take appropriate decisions in their own best interests, echoes of those necessary conflicts – the loving conflicts and conflicted loves – set forth by Sophocles in the fifth century BCE, and to paraphrase Schrödinger we might conclude: ‘Entanglement is not one, but rather the characteristic trait of human interaction.’


Charles B. Parselle

Admitted to practice law in California and England, Charles Parselle is a founding partner of Centers for Excellence in Dispute Resolution - CEDRS.COM - and a sought-after ADR professional. An experienced litigator, he enjoys the confidence of both plaintiff and defense bars as a gifted facilitator of dispute resolution. He… MORE >

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