STANDING TO MEDIATE
Hal Pepinsky, firstname.lastname@example.org, pepinsky.blogspot.com
July 25, 2012
Reading over a dissertation draft yesterday comparing “effectiveness” of International Criminal Courts’ to indigenous responses to international “crimes” sparked my awareness of what made the prisoner-guard mediation role play I facilitated in Trinidad morph into a serious, respectful exchange of issues in which all 25 or so prisoners, all but one of the fifteen or so guards, and the superintendent—plus two local mediators—spoke up before the workshop broke for refreshments and informal conversation (as described in “Letter to a Prisoner,” pepinsky.blogspot.com, June 18, 2012). As I look back on that event, I think it was two elements of preparation for the workshop that virtually guaranteed that workshop dialogue would become so lively and apparently refreshing to so many participants.
First was how the story of prisoner-guard conflict used in the role play was created. Led by one of their number who was a trained mediator himself, the guards constructed the incident and its background, which one of the local mediators slightly elaborated. On its face, the story seemed to me to remarkably slanted to make the guard who wanted the prisoner put in a punishment cell look bad and the prisoner look good. Perhaps the tone of the story reflected the fact that the prison was for prisoners about to be released with guards made to feel they were specially selected for their professionalism, but I also imagine that when I offered the guards the privilege of writing the story, I laid an implicit responsibility on them to show how fair to the prisoner’s side of the story they could be. Regardless, the fact that the story came from the group that normally makes the rules for the prisoners made the story real to all participants, each of whom came into the workshop with a copy of the story in hand. (In mediation training normally, trainers choose or make up role play stories.)
Second, and I think most crucial in any intergroup dialogue or mediation, the “opposing” groups got to pick their own leaders. I see in hindsight that everyone prisoners and guards paid close attention—then burst into follow-up, because they respected their own role players, and had a personal stake from the outset in how much their side got heard and respected. The experience drives home to me the importance of respecting indigenous leaders, rather than choosing who represents a group in conflict for the group. If in the workshop I had done the routine thing of asking for volunteers and my picking the role players, I’m confident from teaching experience that during the role play, many minds would have wandered, and discussion would have been strained.
In attempts to dampen intergroup conflict, there is a crucial distinction dictating who qualifies to represent a group (known in legalese as standing to be heard) and dealing with those whom group members themselves recognize as leaders. If groups have contending leaders, then mediation among intra-group leaders needs to precede negotiation or mediation as an entire group. For this criminologist, efforts to reduce gang violence come to mind. Gang summits are reported to ease violence, and I have heard the same to happen in a maximum security prison where the safe let indigenous black and white “gang” leaders come to their own terms of co-existence. Instead, gang leaders are locked away in isolation for life. If agents of the US state want groups it labels terrorist to hold their violence, it would do better to give safe passage to “enemy” leaders they are instead assassinating. The main obstacle to sensible transformation of violence is the belief the only way to get enemies to surrender is by chopping off their heads. That just inflames the violence.
At an individual level, ideally, anyone who has a complaint against anyone else ought to have standing to complain in his own terms. Granting standing to be heard abates violence in all its forms. Love and peace--hal