Around the Holidays and the New Year, we wish each other peace. We wish for peace on earth and a peaceful new year. Now with Martin Luther King Day upon us, talk of peace escalates once again.
But like the weather, everyone talks about peace but no one does anything about it. Or, more accurately, few people do anything about it.
Domestically, we take great pride in our political institutions and the non-violent forms of change—change in policies and changes in leadership. We do not resolve our disagreements by violence, but we go to Court to have the judges decide and—once they have decided—we accept their verdict. We are solidly committed to peaceful resolution of our disagreements.
That is the story we tell ourselves and the world. It is a true story but it leaves out an important part of what we do. When a court has settled a disagreement, the judges issue an order. Citizens who do not want to accept that order will soon be confronted by police, by the sheriff, by armed soldiers. Yes, we turn to judges to resolve our conflicts. But their judgment is backed up by the clear threat of violence. The weapon of the policeman who serves papers on us, makes it very clear that the decisions of our Courts are backed by the threat of violence. The peaceful resolution of conflicts works because the court ordered decision are backed by credible threats of prison and other punishments.
Our dedication to peaceful conflict resolution is very limited.
At the same time there are alternative forms of conflict resolution which have made considerable progress in the last so many years. These go by different names, and follow somewhat different procedures. But they all begin with an agreement by parties in conflict to try as hard as they can to settle their disagreement, to work out a settlement freely accepted by all parties and make a major effort to make that settlement work. Here there is no appeal to a judge. No one tells the parties what they should do. No one gives orders. No one issues threats. There is no dependence on armed policemen. It is a genuine effort to settle conflict peacefully, to stay away from violence and even the threat of it.
In this alternative method for settling disagreements and conflicts, the parties tell their stories to one or more mediators, each in turn. In a series of meetings, they work out a mutually acceptable solution which they can own, take responsibility for, and execute. The mediator—in most cases—makes no suggestions. Mediators do not tell the parties what to do but try to create an atmosphere of careful listening, of responsible conversation, where issues can be clarified and perhaps reframed and solution hammered out by the parties in disagreement.
Today many colleges and universities offered mediation to their students when conflicts arise between students or between students and faculty. Most major institutions of higher learning offer one-or-two years degree programs in mediation.
Mediation is regularly used in international conflicts, but has proved less successful there. Today, mediation (in whatever form) is not a panacea, a ready made solution for the ubiquitous violence in the world. But the only available alternative—war with its mass killings of civilians as well as of combatants and vast destruction of cities, roads, schools, hospitals and homes. The Vietnam vet begging on the street corner should be a daily reminder for us of the unacceptably high cost of war.
Violence will remain the means to settle conflicts as long as we run to lawyers and courthouses with our conflicts. Lovers of peace can actually work for peace by learning about mediation and using it when needed.