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The Mediator as Moralist Bully

This article originally appeared in edited form in ‘Peripheral Vision’, a regular appearing column in Family Mediation News, the Family Section Newsletter of the Association For Conflict Resolution, in Winter, 2005, p 13-15.

As a presenter, I’d always wondered when I would be found out—maybe this audience would discover That I was living a lie: when I was a child I had been a bully. That’s not all. There are times I could qualify for being ‘abusive,’ certainly ‘passive-aggressive,’ and even that new descriptor that effortlessly rolls off the tongues of so many of my colleagues, the “Narcissistic Personal Disorder.” That fit me too.

Would they see it? Did they whisper their diagnosis of me to each other behind my back in the hallways during breaks? They seemed clear that from their special training “they knew one when they saw one.” Do you think they could know from looking at me that I had teased and “beaten-up” my younger brother countless times, because….well… because he was just there and aggravated me. There was other stuff too. I got in fights at school; I knew the school principal and guidance counselor on a first name basis at every school I ever attended. My mother’s greatest joy was that for the first time in my educational career, at my graduation, the Chancellor did not know me personally. Although graduating had been in doubt, it was of mere secondary interest to her.

Not surprisingly, what goes around comes around and I was also the frequent victim of a fair amount of abuse. Johnny C., the big fat kid, (abusers are usually named Bobby or Johnny—scientific study has proven it’s the “y” at the end of their names that makes them so mean), regularly beat me up and took my lunch money in third grade. I was always the last chosen for softball at recess. I usually found out about my classmates’ birthday parties that had been held the previous weekend at school on Monday. And, the last straw, in fifth grade, not one kid in my class gave me a valentine, even though you were supposed to make them for everyone in your class—not one of those jerks. I’ve gotten over it now, but I’ll bet my brain scan would reveal emotional scarring from all that abuse.

I would have been immobilized from continuing my presentation but for my “arrogance.” So, albeit pretentiously and in spite of my various pathologies, I presumed once again, to facilitate a discussion on “power balance” in an advanced training in negotiation, mediation and conflict management.

Looking back, my years as a troublemaker have served me well. While I learned a lot about conflict growing up, I had little to show for it. Now as a mediator, I get paid for being in the middle of trouble. I figure I know about as much about conflict from the inside out as anyone. My situation is not unlike that of Frank Abernathy, the real life con-artist portrayed in the movie, Catch Me If You Can (2003), who ultimately became a security adviser to the police department. I have survived; not as flawed as some but probably a bit more than others. So far, I have eluded jail, but I do have some years to go yet.

I survived despite much of the considerable professional help that was foisted upon me. Lots of meeting with teachers and vice principals, and of course, therapy sessions. Years later, I surreptitiously obtained a copy of my diagnosis. It is revealing that the counseling agency would not give it to me directly out of ‘concern for my welfare.’ I remain proud of my label; I was good at something: I was a damn good trouble maker. But the most value of that experience along with all the advice I was given, was useful only to the extent that I had something to fight against. Like many kids, what I had to do was make sense of things in my own terms. The more time I had to spend fighting them and what they said they were doing “for my own good,” the less time I had to figure stuff out for myself. I have no doubt many of those counselors meant well. But in retrospect, what remains most clear to me about all that professional help is that I was never hurt as much by those who intentionally meant to hurt me as I have been by those who claimed they were there to help me.

My personal experience has been an enduring source of my attraction to the practice of conflict mediation. This field, more so than other professional disciplines, appeared less pre-occupied with helping or fixing people as it is dedicated to allowing them to make sense of their own situations and keep a measure of control over their own lives. I see this work as being outside the grip of the traditional professionals; people in mediation are less compelled to accept the advice and direction of lawyers, counselors, courts or other lurking experts who presume to know best for others. While few of those professionals will easily admit to being so directive and regularly pay homage to client self-determination, their observed practices, albeit well-intentioned, leaves much to be desired. Many still have difficulty resisting the temptation to be “fixers,” and problem solvers, and what is worse, some even see themselves to be spiritual guides. We professionals have a strong need to be needed.

Even mediators are susceptible to these urges to be helpful. Despite the early purposes of mediation to provide a haven where people might escape undue professional intrusion, we often appear to regress into the patterns of practice of the traditional professions. (Benjamin, R.D., “Mediation as a Subversive Activity,”, 1998) Mediators confuse their role with that of being peacemakers. Many go beyond the basic sufficiency of aiding parties in making hard decisions for themselves, and take on the responsibility of making the world a “safer” and more peaceful place. Those goals, while noble and well intentioned, are not pursued without cost, not the least of which may be the very soul and integrity of what mediation was intended to be.

The conflict management field appears to be veering toward becoming the same over-professionalized kind of discipline that my early experience warned me away from. We mediators seem to want to be more like the lawyers and counselors from whom we originally sought to distinguish ourselves. We borrow their language, diagnostic divinations, approaches, strategies and techniques for managing conflict. There are two great pressures on the field of professional mediation practice. Clearly, there is the effort to “legalize” the field so that in some quarters the mediation process is indistinguishable from a pre-trial case settlement conference, and to treat mediation a merely another form of legal practice. (see R.D. Benjamin, “The Uniform Mediation Act: Is it a Trojan Horse?”, 2000). But secondly, and the immediate concern here, is this strong pull for mediation practice to be closely allied with therapeutic intervention. It may be an over reaction to the legalization pressures, or just an ingrained and too familiar pattern of professional practice. Whatever the cause, it is most apparent in the penchant for diagnostic labeling.

While not to be excused, the reality is that bullies, abusers, villains and evildoers of one sort or another inhabit every context of our lives. They are in the workplace, schools, families and every international conflict. In fact, in our culture, actions that might in one context be seen as abusive or bullying might be lauded and appreciated as strong and determined leadership in another setting. The current slew of “reality” television programs is a testament of sorts to our cultural values. Political leaders, CEO’s (think Trump), and other managers roam free and unfettered. Leadership may well require a mixture of collaborative, consensus building skills and single minded directive actions that are effectively indistinguishable from outright “bullyism.” In our “time is money,” “get the job done” culture, which prides itself on being pragmatic to a fault, the question may be whether aggressive “bully” behavior is the norm or the aberration? Regardless of the answer, however, it is often with people we think least capable of “good faith” negotiation with whom we must negotiate.

There are a number of examples of the field slouching into a form of therapeutic tyranny. One of many examples of the thinking is in the Fall 2004 issue of ACResolution magazine’s article titled, “Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones But Words Will Bruise My Brain,” authored by Roberta and Warren Heydenberk. This article is about the prevalence of bullies and violence in the schools. Bullyism, it would appear, has taken the place of spousal abuse as the concern de jour. The authors report on the neural damage of the brain of those who are emotionally abused by bullying. They offer statistics asserting that no less than “75-90 percent of adults report having suffered at the hands of a bully.” They cite an article in the authoritative Journal of the American Medical Association on the importance of ridding schools of the plague of “bullyism” and the fearful environment such behaviors breeds. Now, we have a fully “medicalized” and legitimated illness.

However, based on the Heydenberks’ article, it is just a question of time before “Bullyism” is appropriately included as a mental disorder in the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association. Once so ensconced, any diagnoses made are presumed to be reliable and valid. The DSM has achieved near biblical status, with few questions about its legitimacy. The DSM is a revealing cultural phenomenon, inextricably linked to our ‘techno-rational’ ethos and belief in the scientific method.

Many, who are skeptical, however, view the DSM as not so much as a book of science as claimed, but rather as a miracle of marketing. The fascinating political evolution of the DSM within the American Psychiatric Society into a veritable textbook, was driven by one scientist’s desire to professionalize psychiatric practice. In a comment particularly relevant for mediators, the notes that many studies suggest, that despite the DSM, “…clinicians diagnose most of their patients with one particular disorder… . They have a bias in reference to the disorder that they are especially interested in treating… .” (p.63) In other words, they use the DSM to bolster their bias. (Spiegel, Alix, “The Dictionary of Disorder”, The New Yorker, Jan. 3, 2005, 56-63).

As mediators, are we becoming prone to the same bias reinforcement? There appears to be regression back to the clinical training of our professions of origin and making diagnosis in an attempt to seek the kind of professional legitimacy the use of “scientistic” labels confers. As mediators, how does it help to call someone a bully or abuser? Are we really sure we know one when we see one? What is worse, how do we as mediators reconcile our use of labels while describing ourselves as open-minded, non-judgmental?

This penchant for labeling has a strong moral underpinning. The Old and New Testaments, the Koran, and most other religious texts are replete with judgments about who is good or bad. There is a measure of security in being able to grab hold of a label. Because in modern times moral judgments might appear small-minded, we have dressed up those judgments in the guise of scientific diagnosis.

There are two particular risks for mediators in characterizing everyday behaviors as abnormal. First, it leads to sloppy thinking and sloppy practice. If the mediator begins by accepting a judgment that a party is a bully or an abuser, it is that much harder to find validity in anything he or she might say. Without that validity, the trust and connection necessary to negotiate are placed into question.

Second, mediators’ use of labels is a form of therapeutic tyranny that itself may be a form of bullyism. Not only are the categories of dubious scientific validity or reliability, but also using what are essentially value-laden and thinly disguised moral judgments belie a self-righteous, moralistic tone. We as mediators become les petites moralists. How likely would one be to participate in mediation having been identified as an abuser or bully from the outset?

As mediators, our greatest strength remains our confusion about who is more right than whom, together with our enduring voyeurism—our fascination with how people construct their reality and engage each other and the world around them. If we lose that fascination and reduce ourselves to the same kind of linear, simplistic thinking that plagues most other professions, who will be left to help manage conflict? Ironically, our authenticity, the lifeblood of our work as mediators and which determines our ability to connect with people in conflict and gain a modicum of trust, is directly linked to our ability to function in the difficult, ambiguous terrain of real life without labels. (Benjamin, R.D., “Terry Waite: A Study in Authenticity”, 2002)

While others might call someone a bully, fanatic, abuser, madman, narcissist or evildoer, a mediator is obligated to find some measure of validity in that someone’s perspective—despite the label. It’s actually not that hard, at least in theory. Once we admit we are human and prone to doing some pretty stupid and mean things ourselves, it should be relatively easy to conjure some measure of strategic empathy with even the most obnoxious bully. Perhaps the stupidest thing we do is to forget how human we are and think we can actually fit other people into a set category that does not include us.


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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