Thursday, May 31, 2012

Justice, dialogue and negotiation

There is so much in the news over the last week that has to do with rights and justice that it has been hard to keep up. The ongoing violence in Syria shows no signs of slowing, and the question is being raised by many as to what responsibilities the international community has with regards to the rights of Syrian citizens brutalized by their own government. Then, and one can cannot but see this as a pointed threat to leaders like Assad, an international tribunal has just sentenced former leader of Liberia Charles Taylor to 50 years in prison for his role in promoting violence in nearby Sierra Leone.

Meanwhile the student protests in Montreal continue with anger now not only over the proposed tuition hikes but also over Quebec bill 78, which is seen as a threat to the rights of people who are protesting. Legal challenges to that bill are already coming forward. And in Ontario, a different fight is shaping up over rights and education: this time, between the government's anti-bullying bill 13 (the "Accepting Schools" act) and the Catholic School Board who does not wish to support the bill in its present form or allow students in Catholic schools to form clubs that deal specifically with bullying of LGBTQ students.

The issues that are being raised and played out both in the legal courts and the "court" of public opinion will have a profound effect on the shape of the world and the particular societies with which each of these issues is concerned. The situation in Syria is affecting countless lives, and having ripple effects across the globe. The spread of violence into neighbouring areas is a real threat, and the massacres being perpetrated not only result in astounding loss of life, but also leave deep wounds that fester to breed new violence. More and more a growing section of the international community is learning from history and realizing that atrocities like this have a real political and social cost, even outside of the area in which the violence actually takes place. The debate now is what to do--how can rights be met and justice done in the present situation? The sentencing of Charles Taylor offers one example of a retributive response that comes after the violence. But what about during? How does one resolve the current stalemate about what response to have to the Syrian government's actions among the members of the UN body who are at such odds over the issue?

Likewise, whatever outcome there is to the Montreal student protests, it will have the potential to change the way Quebec itself is shaped, and possibly open wider Canadian debates on issues such as educational rights and accessibility of education in a harsh economic climate, as well as bringing laws aimed at protesters, such as bill 78, to the forefront of discussion. And the outcome of the debate over the "Accepting Schools" act here will have repercussions for all students--whether they are gay, lesbian, straight, bi, trans, queer, or anything else. It will also shape how much leeway religious authorities (not just Catholic, but more widely as well) in charge of publicly funded schooling are granted to shape their school policies in response to government legislation.

There is unfortunately no societal or global consensus on any of these issues. Often there is consensus that "something" needs to be done. But what the details of that "something" should be are where already contentious issues get even more contentious. Nevertheless, part of the process of being a healthy society is being able to talk about things we don't agree about, and to be able to chart an equitable way forward, whether we resolve those differences or not. Our inability to move forward, whether by consensus or some other equitable means, magnifies human suffering in palpable and quantifiable ways. The Syrian massacres and ongoing violence there are at least in part an outcome of a breakdown in social dialogue and negotiation. Negotiation is going on right now in Quebec and Ontario, but whether a socially just outcome will happen--whether we move forward equitably--remains to be seen. Dialogue and negotiation does not guarantee that justice will be done, but it seems a whole lot more likely to happen if real dialogue is allowed. At least that is the thesis I want to pose this week for discussion here. It seems to me there is a link between the process of dialogue and negotiation on the one hand and justice on the other. Where dialogue and negotiation get shut down, injustice is much more likely. And yet so often the greater the issue, the less the two or more sides want to talk with each other. Is it perhaps true that in order to learn how to work greater justice in this world, we need to learn better how to talk and listen with each other, even in cases where we just don't agree?


  1. Your thesis is a tempting one for all of us who feel that our lives have been enriched immeasurably by our emersion in a world of language, speech and writing. Surely we are infinitely better people, so much better prepared to envision and advocate for a greater human flourishing via language, speech and writing than we would be otherwise. Oddly, it does not always work that way in practice. Early in my married life my in-laws faced a family crisis. The family farm had to be sold. The likely candidate to take over the farm who really wanted to do so could not really afford to do so. If the farm had been sold at the price he could afford the family matriarch would have had to get a job to avoid exhausting her income early in her old age. A second child came forward and bought the farm. Feelings ran high. My wife and I tried to get people to talk to each other, to face one another and reconcile. But such negotiation involved habits that few in the family were terribly practiced in. The result was even higher feelings, more polarization and side-taking and we were roundly blamed for meddling ineptly. Much as it pains me to say, it may well be that our accusers had a point. Sometimes, talking only makes things worse; an original situation becomes more complicated and destructive not less. Don't get me wrong. I too know in my bones that a life given over to language, speech and writing has been a part of my salvation. Whatever contribution I have to make to our common good will result from that facility and its concomitant excellences. But it could also be that this facility and its excellences are not goods per se or absolutely. I suspect you see that possibility for you offer your thesis with a verbal hitch as if to acknowledge it has its limits. So the question becomes: when is negotiation via speech and writing etc. the way to go? When are these things, for example, attached to justice? And when is the way to justice one that demands other skills and habits?

  2. In response to Bob's question, "when is negotiation via speech and writing the way to go" in terms of matters of justice, Aristotle and Cicero would, I think, have us begin with a reflection on the virtue of prudence (what has often analogously been identified as the process of discernment) in matters of justice. Prudence for Cicero involved three interrelated dynamics: memory, intelligence and foresight. But what was assumed as the underlying factor of these dynamics was a profoundly committed relationality, at least on the part of those discerning whether dialogue or some other practice of justice was most fitting. In Bob's account from his own experience, he and his wife were reflecting such a commitment. But as their experience also shows, such a commitment requires a dedication to knowing the situation and those involved as well as a dedication to discerning the best way to serve those persons and that situation.

  3. I think both your points, Bob and Jennifer, are well made. Bob, I did indeed have that verbal hitch in my thesis and ending question, because I too have had experiences similar to the one you spoke of; times when my sincere efforts to mediate have only, it seems, made the situation worse. Part of the answer may be just what Jennifer proposes via "prudence" when thought of in terms of the dynamics of committed relationality and memory, intelligence and foresight. That in and of itself would go a long way for making negotiation and mediation a more successful and justice-oriented tool. But I suspect given my experience and Bob's, that even the prudent use of prudence during mediation on my part will not necessarily be enough in all cases. Unfortunately all it seems to take to derail a process is for one party to disavow any attempt at prudence, or at reconciliation, and we are back at the same impasse as before, only now with more time and emotional effort invested, and with the stakes raised higher to match.

    This doesn't mean I'm giving up on prudence; it actually makes me want to work harder to inculcate it in myself, and as a communal goal for which to work. But it does mean that Bob's question "when is the way to justice one that demands other skills and habits" is a good and necessary one to consider. What are those other skills and habits? I was in a discussion with someone just this weekend about the issue of bullying, and he said with all conviction that the only way to stop a bully (whether of the school-yard or Nation-State variety) is to bully them back. Part of me rebels at what he is saying, but another part of me acknowledges that I have seen it work. Negotiation and mediation does not thus far solve everything. And sometimes returning in kind actually stops the cycle instead of repeating of. But there must be some other skill and habit to try--perhaps a "third person" coming in not to mediate, but to socialize; bringing the wounded or wounding parties together not in order to make them talk, but just to include them both in a larger celebration or "social situation" where they may begin to see each other in a new light through the eyes of others that aren't directly trying to reconcile them. Leave well enough alone while trying to develop the wider community in which those two parties are both participating, and healing may begin to take place on its own, perhaps finally culminating in creating the space for prudent mediation to eventually do its work? Is this one example of what such another skill or habit might look like, Bob? (And might it even be another way of being prudent, Jennifer?)

  4. Thanks Allyson. I owe further clarification concerning what I meant in highlighting the limits of discursive mediation among domestic conflicts in order to further reflect more deeply on your originating question concerning the feasibility of discursive mediation on national and international levels. I offered prudence as a point of reflection for its philosophical designation as the practical wisdom that can enable individuals and communities to discern the best path amidst conflicts. That path may at times require more rigorous attention to movements of dialogue, and those movements may vary between the dialogue constituted by an exchange of the formative narratives of those involved, and the dialogue constituted by the consequent reflections on those memorial narratives which yield propositions (themselves of many distinct types) for moving forward. The best path may also require more rigorous attention to movements of silence or, as you have expressed it, creating space. Furthermore, when prudence is understood as the practical wisdom that discerns the best path amidst conflicts, it still has its limitations because, as human beings, we are limited creatures. This is what I understood to be Bob’s point in terms of negotiating at the domestic level. My practice of prudence may be limited in two ways. First, it may be limited when I have not taken into account the full range of data that can be known by me in terms of those involved in the conflict at hand as well as the full range of data that can be known by me in terms of my own conscientious appropriation of how such a conflict should be engaged with integrity. Second, even if all such data has been taken into account, my practice of prudence can be limited by the field of data that is simply not known by me or by the community. But as Raymond G. Helmick has emphasized through his dedicated work for peace amidst conflicts in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, such limitations will never be overcome if we begin with a hermeneutics of suspicion. They must begin with what he identifies as an authentic readiness to discover and honor the good that the other or others seek. But as Helmick also insists, this journey requires facing not only distrust of others, but distrust of ourselves. This is why I find one of the best contemporary expressions of the dynamics of prudence to have been offered by the Canadian scholar Bernard Lonergan. He calls these dynamics transcendental precepts because they are ways of discerning in diverse situations the best path. These precepts, which require a dual commitment to self-knowledge and knowledge of others, are: Be attentive, be intelligent, be reasonable, be responsible.

  5. Jennifer, I have always loved the Thomistic impulse, intellective and volitional, toward the good, the insistence that good, even in the midst of evil, is a point of connection and a place to stand together. If I hear you correctly, it is an implication of this impulse that it limits the proper sphere of any hermeneutics of suspicion. But here I find myself trembling before "a hard thing", for to look for the good in another, even another not particularly well disposed to me, accords with an understanding of generosity which I account an excellence beckoning as a perennial possibility within human living. But how does one go about undoing distrust of ourselves. The question is particularly acute for a Prostestant, for one could say that Protestantism emerged when a part of the assembly of the faithful learned to distrust "us" as the carriers and dispensors of God and God's gifts in the world, not only that part of "us" "we" learned to name "them", but that part of "us" in which "we" belong. And having learned to distrust ourselves, we have practiced self-distrust for a half millenium in ways that have transformed our culture and society. That distrust has had salutory effects. The insistence on limited government and on an inclusive political franchise are two such effects. The emancipation of individuals whether "Greek" or "Jew", "male or "female" and above all whether "slave" or "free" is a principle effect in the social sphere. But these effects have come at a fierce cost. Community becomes so much more difficult in the context of a general ethos of self-distrust. "Protestantitis" is one marker of just how difficult that can be; the soul-lessness of our suburban sprawls is perhaps another. There is a calculation of benefit and liability one can make, I suppose, though I am loathe to try. Let's say for the moment we all admit that the impulse toward the good in ourselves must be relearned, a kind of "second naivete" if you will? How does one learn to trust ourselves across the habituation developed over a half a millenium? It seems to me that we have been trying via the "mechanism" of entitlement--an extension of the principle of emancipation. Indeed, this is evident in contemporary thought and discourse around rights. There is a gain to be had for emancipation is no negligible good. However, it must also be admitted that many results have been anything but pretty. I have no answers to the challenge of these my observations and questions, sadly, but I am grateful for them nonetheless. Your latest remarks made me realize how important a distrust of self is in my own constitution, how I have used it as a "method" to keep myself open to what others are and have to say. And now I need to think far more about the costs of such "method".

  6. Bob, yes, truly, any responsible account of the human impulse to the good must be one that accounts for the evil that can and does take root in the human heart, thereby constituting the barriers to personal, cultural, social, political, and religious transformation through which human beings may flourish. And I find that any truly Thomistic account does in fact do this. I suppose my way of beginning to account for the 'healthy distrust,' if you will, that human beings should cultivate given our ignorance of ourselves and others, was by using the language of "limitation." By acknowledging ourselves as limited beings, we are acknowledging ourselves as fellow citizens in a shared world, citizens who participate in such a world not by dominative power but by cultivating intentional communities. The risk involved is, of course, great. It involves courageous individuals committed to seeking to the answers to these questions you have posed and committed to persevering through the myriad levels of misunderstandings that, if allowed to, can easily inhibit the entire endeavor.

  7. Placing an acknowledgement of limitation at the beginning of an account of being a fellow citizen is an excellent way to start that conversation--I couldn't agree more, Jennifer. But that presupposes the notion that we are trying to be fellow citizens, sharing a world. *I* think we should be fellow citizens in a shared world. (and by "we" I mean at least all humans.) I gather that you think so too. But Bob's earlier question drags us back to the grim reality you allude to as well, if I'm reading you right, when you talk about evil in the human heart: that not everyone feels the need to be a citizen in a shared world. Some humans are perfectly happy not sharing the world, and of that set, some are even willing to take steps to ensure they won't have to share the world. To use your language of limitation, it has been my experience that some humans have no interest in acknowledging themselves as limited beings.

    I think what you propose can guide the majority of human interactions. Given what I have seen of humans, I think it is possible for us to part ways from a hermeneutics of suspicion, perhaps not into a second naivete, (though I get what you're saying there, Bob) but into a new understanding of relational trust. In beginning from acknowledging our finitude, we leave room for people to make mistakes, so trust does not have to be an all-or-nothing lump sum, (which can have disastrous results) but is intentionally built over time. As we guide our actions by developing our capacities to act with the understanding of practical wisdom/phronesis, and cultivate intentional communities by putting the realization that we do (or should) share this world into practice, we can work our way through the misunderstandings, hurts and broken trust that happen. But still all this presupposes that we *want* to live together and share this world.

    For those cases where individuals or communities have decided that sharing the world is not on the agenda, we face a much bigger problem. With what hermeneutics do we approach that problem? And, to rephrase Bob's earlier question, do we need more than hermeneutics--even more than situational understanding? That's the question I want to answer, but simply don't know how, or in what direction to go.

  8. Perhaps we face the bigger problem of disengaged individuals and communities through the same basic hermeneutical practices, practices that involve "a deep diplomacy made possible through religious and other organizations in civil society" ("Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Religion, Public Policy, and Conflict Transformation," ed. Raymond Helmick, xxiv). Through this approach, the crisis caused by non-communicative violent perpetrators leads surrounding groups of engaged (and also those initially non-engaged) citizens (at local, national and international levels) to form new bonds of friendships and can lead to redemptive insights and interventions that would not have formed had not those groups come together. And, what can even arise from such engagement, is that those perpetrators of conflict who once reflected a total aversion to the good, may even reveal a trace of desire for the good still awaiting such redemptive moments.

  9. A final brief note, Allyson. I'm crucially aware that even to acknowledge the possibility of a redemptive trace of goodness among individuals who have intentionally taken so many lives is at best a radical expression of hope. But that is what it is, an expression not of optimism, but of hope.

  10. I understand, and sometimes hope is the best we've got--the "little bird that perches in the soul/and sings a tune without the words/ and never stops at all." I'm not always optimistic, but I've never given up on hope either.

  11. If I understand hope aright it is not that little bird. It is a living in the promissory expectation that the right sorts of transformation are within our reach for we are not alone in the reaching; we are overshadowed and impregnated, you could say, with possibilities for good that are not ours strictly speaking but which enable our moving beyond ourselves when we are at our best, at our most gracious perhaps. And such expectation is not ungrounded; there is evidence to hand. Existence makes promises caught in a thousand anecdotes--we have but to listen "with ears that hear". Such stories do not add up to an inductive argument that sets our minds and hearts at rest, but they have a kind of weight. One needn't go fey in order to live in hope. The scopos and goal of hope is entirely plausible, for in concreto hopeful scenarios happen all the time. All of this I have come to from pondering the Showings of Julian of Norwich; all of this as I read her lies behind her "And all shall be well". It strikes me as a plausible and generous orientation to existence, one capable of sustaining the struggle for personal and societal transformation (if grounded in a disciplined ear [for the stories] and a receptivity to the help that is necessary for promises to be made good, for new possibilities to be born). Of course, one can read something similar in any number of medieval Christian wise-souls and perhaps within other sources of wisdom as well. I would guess that it is something like this hope that Jennifer was pointing us to. The perseverant bird of poetry, seems by contrast a bit ungrounded in its capacities to feel the trill of existence. Or rather its trilling response seems a bit mechanical however pleasant, or have I done your little bird the dishonour of a bad reading?

  12. My poor maligned little bird!

    In all seriousness, I think my reading of that little feathered bird's "song without the words" is precisely what you talk about: living in that promissory expectation that the sorts of transformation required are possible. It's the singing I keep coming back to, which word and concept ("singing") resonates for me with creational possibilities: as for example the account in Job where creation is sung into existence. I'm making an analogy here with the creational process described there for building a "new (possible) world". Hope for me is that voice that sings possibilities. The "without words" part speaks to me (no pun intended) because they are possibilities, and not something we can necessarily see from where we are standing--though perhaps some of them we do see. Hope is not confined to our words, and we may not have the words for what hope is trying to sing into existence yet. But it stubbornly perches there, it's little feet clinging to us in all its apparent fragility, and "never stops at all." (Have I mentioned that I too am little and stubborn, and have an appreciation for such things?)

    I suppose the last verse of Dickinson's poem could be interpreted as casting doubts on whether the small feathered thing called Hope is really about singing possibilities into existence (since it has never in extremity asked a crumb of her) but I read those words in a different way: that hope is something paradoxically bigger and stronger than us, even as it appears so tiny and fragile. It is a force that calls for us to respond, but whether we do so or not, that feathered creature will still be present even in the "chillest land and strangest sea" of extremity, singing out its song to us and attempting to coax us forward, while still keeping us "warm". It doesn't need whatever crumbs we might be willing to spare it, for this little bird hasn't come to us for help or in need: it knows we, collectively, are the ones who need it and it will keep stubbornly trying to help us shape what we need.

    With that in mind, do my little songbird and Wise Julian (whom I do much admire) sing in harmony, or are we listening to different things?



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