Sunday, June 06, 2010

Roots to East and West, North and South

"As a defined field of study, conflict resolution started in the late 1950s and 1960s."
--Ramsbotham, Oliver, Woodhouse, Tom, and Miall, Hugh (2005). Contemporary conflict resolution(2nd ed.). Malden, MA: Polity Press. p. 3

The first academic journal to focus on this field was the Journal of Conflict Resolution, launched in 1957. However, along with the study of the latent and actual power of nonviolent civil society, the field of conflict resolution was first seriously hinted at by Mohandas Gandhi.
His special initial contribution was to reject his trained and educated role as an adversarial barrister (at which he sucked, to use a most academic term). Instead, against all mores of the law, he called in the contending parties and mediated an agreement. His account:
"But both were happy over the result, and both rose in the public estimation. My joy was boundless. I had learnt the true practice of law. I had learnt to find out the better side of human nature and to enter men's hearts. I realized that the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder. The lesson was so indelibly burnt into me that a large part of my time during the twenty years of my practice as a lawyer was occupied in bringing about private compromises of hundreds of cases. I lost nothing thereby - not even money, certainly not my soul."
Thus Gandhi was the father of what we now call Alternative Dispute Resolution, that is, the practice of a lawyer or lawyers working to produce an out-of-court settlement. Gandhi did so from an aversion to the adversarial stance and lawyers now do ADR for a variety of motives, but the result is that the costs to all decrease and the relationships at least have a better chance of repair. Lawyers who are better mediators than zero-sum fighters make a good living doing this.
This is counterintuitive in our war culture, of course, as we perceive our victory as inversely related to that of our enemy's. To the extent he loses, I win. God forbid he wins anything because that means I lose.
Placed into an accurate cost-benefit analysis, however, the net benefits to all parties are almost always much greater from a mediated agreement than from an all-out court battle. The potential winnings in civil court are great, but the costs of the lawyers are so prohibitive to all but the richest clients that the gamble is usually a poor one.
What Gandhi focused on was relational dignity or facework. To the extent he could convince the parties that they were going to gain in stature by their participation in such a process rather than potentially become humiliated in court, he succeeded in convincing them to talk. When the expressed grievance is money, that is often about image ("If he doesn't pay me what he owes me, I am humiliated."). People who can find the money to do so often spend more on a lawyer than they are owed by the other party. Yes, it is true that a civil ruling may order the loser to pay the legal costs of both parties, but this is by no means certain. If it goes to court or even to arbitration, the parties lose control over shaping the outcome. In mediation, no agreement is produced nor is binding unless all parties agree and sign that they commit to it. The parties retain all control.
So our related fields of conflict resolution, alternative dispute resolution and nonviolent civil society liberation studies are all related back to the taproot of Gandhi, whose own roots were global South and North, East and West. He was influenced by his spiritual mother, whose religion mixed elements of Jainism, Hinduism and Islam. His education was both Indian and British. His readings were Indian, Russian, British, and American. He conducted campaigns in the global South, in South Africa and India. He credited Ruskin, Burritt, the Bhagavad Gita, the Q'ran, Tolstoy, Thoreau and others with influencing him.
John Ruskin helped Gandhi think about swadeshi--local self reliance.
Elihu Burritt helped Gandhi think about hartal, mass nonviolent power of the boycott.
The Bhagavad Gita helped Gandhi think and feel about the inner jihad, the courage to sacrifice for others.
The Q'ran helped Gandhi love Muslims and love justice.
Leo Tolstoy helped Gandhi think about the 1905 Russian revolution that was ultimately lost only when the Bolsheviks started practicing violence.
Henry David Thoreau helped Gandhi think about the power of conscience.
Gandhi synthesized these influences and many more to produce his approach to conflict, to justice, and to methods that helped everyone move through the conflicts great and small without losing face. This is how and why conflict resolution often moves faster than adversarial methods and why the results of usually more sustained and sustainable. Gandhi removed almost all reason for revenge with his evolved method and he called upon us all to continue to experiment with these paths. That call is still out to us all.

(Oliver Ramsbotham is Professor of Conflict Resolution at the Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford)

Ramsbotham, Oliver, Woodhouse, Tom, and Miall, Hugh (2005). Contemporary conflict resolution (2nd ed.). Malden, MA: Polity Press.

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