Tuesday, October 15, 2013

People are Not Programs

Hal Pepinsky, pepinsky@indiana.edu, “peacemaking” at pepinsky.blogspot.com
October 15, 2013

                This post is a reaction to an introduction to “peacemaking” as I understand it, that I offered for discussion last night at the bi-weekly meeting of Central Ohioans for Peace.  I was stimulated by the array of views and perspectives on social control that I heard.  With many thanks to the group for inviting me there (which I intend to visit for their next meeting), I’m asking COFP chair Melonie Buller to forward these further thoughts of mine to the COFP membership.
                From victim-offender mediation trainings and practice, I learned that regardless of formal structure and training, people will apply their underlying habits and perspective as mediators to doing “restorative justice.”  Many advocates and practitioners of this model of responding to conflict in practice share my observation that in practice, many mediators concentrate on following the detailed letter of what to say and do, as they have been instructed to do, and in so doing, acts more like judges or arbitrators who interpret and implicitly tell parties what is what, what they need to do, and have a fixed notion going into mediation as to terms of an appropriate agreement.  One prime example is requiring “offenders” explicitly to apologize to “victims.”  Another example, one that has even formally been introduced into some theories and practices of “restoration,” is the belief that “offenders” must be “shamed” into overt remorse for their actions, and that a good agreement requires that “offenders” somehow “right the wrongs” they have done, both for their sakes, and for the sake of “repairing the harm” to meet “victims’” needs.  While I am prepared to ask those identified as offenders to open mediation by “telling [the ‘victims’ by name] what you did [having settled at intake that by consenting to mediation they have done something that has triggered the mediation], why you did it, and please add anything else you would like to say to [the ‘victims’].”  (This happens to run counter to some training I have had that parties should first be asked to talk to the mediator, before they are weaned into talking directly to each other.)  I am a minimalist in that I try to keep my prompts as open and non-directive as I can imagine, to allow parties to create their own substance and issues among themselves.  I hope in effect to make myself disappear from the conversation as it takes its own course, ensuring only that everyone in the room, such as family members and co-mediators, have their turns as entering and re-entering the discussion.  I would begin that process by asking “victims” to describe their own experience to “victims,” to say whatever else they wanted, and to ask any questions they had to those who had spoken before them.  While parties to mediation are not required to reach any written agreement, they invariably did in my experience.  As often as not, parties started discussing what they wanted to do and ask of one another without my having to suggest that they begin doing so.  Parties generally ended up literally dictating their own terms of agreement.  On rare occasions, I or a co-mediator might propose a term.  One instance comes to mind:  where a volunteer at an animal shelter had taken a pit bull puppy to mate and breed with his own puppy, I proposed that he might have his pets spayed/neutered; the shelter director ended up offering to pay for the service, and the owner agreed.  Above all, I wanted parties to feel and see that they, not others for them, had invented their own settlement.  My favorite settlements were those whose terms no one, myself included, had foreseen going into mediation.
                To me, the differences in mediators’ style boiled down to what any of us who came in believing was necessary to maintain our own sense of “control” in the situation.  You can see the same differences in how people act in formally constituted control structures.  Thus, many attempts at forming “cooperatives” turn into contention for doing what “I know” needs to be done—a competition for setting terms of how things get done.  Or in formal bureaucratic structures, as in policing, many are those who bend the rules to accommodate the interests and concerns of parties to conflict in the situation at hand.  Thus, while in his 1968 book Justice Without Trial: Law Enforcement in Democratic Society (4th edn. 1994), Jerome Skolnick distinguishes three styles of policing: those concentrating on enforcing the letter of the law, those who in “watchman” style impose order, and those who see themselves as in service to the populace, individual officers within forces run the range of these styles as individuals, regardless of whether the force is located in an urban “high-crime” area or a supposedly quiet and largely peaceful upper-middle-class suburb.  For instance, in 1971 when I was gathering data for my dissertation on how police decided whether to report offenses, I rode with officers who were proud that they had never had to resort to arrest in moments of public disorder, while others saw themselves as riding into battle, prepared for combat and often finding the need for it.  You can impose an organizational structure on people, but you cannot make them change the cultural frame within which they apply or bend the rules to gain control of their relations there.
                At a national level, in her acclaimed book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarderation in the Age of Colorblindedness (2010/2012), Michelle Alexander joins others in finding that the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution did not end slavery during post-Civil War Reconstruction.  Instead, former slaves and their children became the dangerous class that were enslaved by convict leasing and other forms of imprisonment that today have about one in four young black men in the country under some form of custody (jail, prison, probation, parole) on any given day, in a system that employs many prisoners in for-profit enterprises, and helps fill beds in for-profit private prisons, which an abolitionist group, Critical Resistance, has termed “the prison-industrial complex.”  And with the refreshing exception of the recent agreement to destroy chemical weapons in Syria, the U.S. government has consistently refused to have its power and prerogatives limited by the United Nations Charter, by international criminal tribunals, or granting foreign nations jurisdiction to enforce their laws against U.S. military personnel…this from a government that presumes to be the world’s chief guarantor of the rule of law.
                In a middle ground are those who believe that the level of respect and dignity they and others deserve depends on the status and setting.  Thus, one who implicitly accepts that co-workers deserve the respect and dignity they expect for themselves, may believe that “his or her” children simply need to do and feel as they are told, considering the child who “talks back” to need to be put in his or her place, effectively operating in a world of “do as I say, not as I do.”  And so in the world in which they operate as peers, they also set boundaries on parts of themselves or their behavior are off limits to disclosure and evaluation.  This constraint on what concerns and sensibilities are “appropriate” in one setting versus others is encoded in legal rules of who has “standing” to be heard, and on what kinds of evidence are admissible and not contemptible.  (By contrast, my rules of procedure for mediation boil down to my determining the order in which participants enter the conversation, to abstaining from name calling and interruptions, and to my own commitment to stay with the conversation until everyone in the room has said whatever s/he feels needs to be said, prepared to schedule additional meetings if the parties are not finished—an example of why I call myself a “recovering lawyer.”)
                In sum, I do not think we can depend on formal structural change, on rules of right and wrong, to transform attempts to impose order by having those we recognize as the proper authorities and experts set miscreants straight—which only deepens human separation, antagonism, and resistance alongside compliance—by mutual accommodating feelings and sensibilities of those affected by our actions, first and foremost of those voices least heard in our conversations, letting go of attachment to agendas we bring into our conversations in moments of conflict and difference.   Time and again I have seen a single actor—judges for instance—catalyze such a transformation merely introducing their own inclination to share the formal power over others they formally enjoy.  And looking at the history of some nations—notably Norway where I have spent some deeply meaningful time—I have seen a transition from a culture of conquest and domination (the peak of Viking empire), to a culture of relative peace (no more combat troops sent abroad after 1821, transition from an incarceration rate in 1840 equal to that in the U.S. in 1960 to what remains one of the world’s lowest incarceration rates by the end of the 19th century), that I have found reflected through social contexts.  So in Norway, Independence Day is celebrated by children’s parades, schoolchildren call teachers by their first names and have medical/dental clinics in their schools, and at dinner parties children sit at the main table with adults and are quite purposely drawn into conversations there.  Business meetings are conventionally led by “word leaders” modeling themselves on those who coordinate crews moving ships.  In an academic seminar or department meeting, the word leader nods acknowledgment of those who signal they want to speak, calls them in order of volunteering to speak, and periodically summarizes what has been said.  People all over the world espouse “democracy,” but it seems to me that some groups of people have an near reflex of treating all their conversations as exercises in what I think of as “participatory democracy.”  Built on conquest by English immigrants who proclaimed themselves as men of property, the prevailing culture in my homeland is one of acquiring wealth and superiority over “others,” most of all foreign and domestic “enemies” who stand in the way of “our” prosperity.  Economically and militarily, the national quest for global superiority, the ethic of competing to succeed, that power over others, has peaked.  The decline of empire comes hard to those raised to have their personal identities rest on national superiority.  In this world, social progress is deeply felt and thought to rest on mobilizing to struggle and fight “wars” on social problems, whatever we define our most pressing problems to be.  It becomes moot who causes the state of war, and who deserves to win.  In that warmaking process, social divisions and mutual distrust and guardedness widen and deepen.
                When people ask me how I propose to “solve” problems of violence and social discord, I am at a loss to answer.  Problems in closed systems where things are true or false by definition can be solved; problems of human relations cannot.  But as we notice peacemaking enough examine what is happening in this or that course of human relations, and as we try and sometimes succeed in catalyzing that process, I believe that those of us frustrated by efforts to impose or fight to win games of power over and under others may by degrees internalize habits of balancing talking with listening, of letting go of attachments to outcomes, in which habits I call peacemaking become second nature, where performance and getting ahead lose their grip on human psyches.  Over generations, this change in balance of consciousness of what works, what increases trust, security and security at any and eventually all our relations, can, I believe, emerge and metastasize to become recognized and practiced as prevailing cultures.  The modesty of my faith in building cultures of peace rests on the depth of my conviction that there is no path but peacemaking to enduring personal and social security in all our relations.  As in our conversation last night with Central Ohioans for Peace, I recognize that among many people of good will who share my desire for redressing violence, peacemaking is too trivial to be practical.  May these conversations continue, our will to make peace as best we can figure out how to do remain strong.  Thanks again for including me.  Love and peace--hal

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