The Practice of Peace

By Ruth Morris and Colleen Heffren | 1986-12-01 12:00:00

What is "peace"?

At a minimum, it's refraining from using violence in disputes. But times when people are not killing or maiming each other are not necessarily "peace. "Sometimes no war is going on because one group is dominating another so successfully that no self-defence is possible. Such injustice can hardly be called "peace." Peace-with-justice is the only goal worth pursuing.

But peace is not just a goal. It is also a means. Pacifists such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. remind us that when our goals are attained, we often regret them. Better to pay attention to the ethics of the means we use. The long-run effects of our goals may be uncertain, but we do usually know whether our means are harmful. Violent means are unsuitable for pursuing the cause of justice and peace.

Peace is a means of fighting for justice and truth--a non-destructive means of struggle.

As a goal, peace is something to aim toward; like beauty or goodness, it is fortunately always beyond reach. Peace, as absence of conflict, is pleasant for a weekend holiday, but would be boring as daily life.

Conflict will always be with us, thank goodness. The only creative breakthroughs in human affairs result from struggling over problems. Without conflict there would be no growth and little excitement. Our challenge is to learn to fight respectfully, so that both sides learn from the experience.

There are numerous nonviolent ways of minimizing conflict. The most common is avoidance. (Stay apart. Get a divorce. Change jobs.) Legislation and law-enforcement are another means of preventing and resolving disputes. (Lobby your M.P. Call the cops. Draw up a contract. Sue the bastard.) Negotiation is yet another means. (Make a deal.)

These civilized methods of resolving fights do not necessarily aim toward reconciliation with the adversary. More ambitious peacemaking, on the other

hand, works toward resolving the conflict in a manner that leaves both disputants satisfied and friendly toward one another. Such an outcome is real peace. It is not the most common outcome of conflicts, but there are some techniques of addressing disputes that frequently yield this happy result. Most such methods of conflict management require the assistance of a "third party"-- a person who takes neither side. It is easier for both parties to explain their concerns to a mediator than to their opponent.

Some specialists in group dynamics can teach us something about resolving conflicts creatively. There are workshops that bring, say, Zionists and Palestinians together in a search for common ground. The same skills can reduce conflicts both on jobs and between governments. In your hometown, there may be mediation services that teach creative conflict management. Here is a report on one such Toronto organization, by two of its conciliators.

S t . Stephen's Conflict Resolution Service was developed by the Program Director, Ruth Morris, who is a lifelong prison abolitionist and a devout Quaker. Ruth was profoundly impressed by the San Francisco Community Boards program, an institution developed ten years ago by Ray Shonholtz, a San Francisco lawyer who saw that most court cases could be settled out of court more effectively. What was needed, Shonholtz decided, was simply the input of trained members of the community who cared about the outcome and would reduce the damage done to the people caught in conflicts.

Ruth admired the humanizing effects of this process--as well as by the San Francisco program's 90 percent success rate in resolving disputes. Over a year ago she set up a similar program in Toronto.

One example of the work that goes on at St. Stephens is the case of "David," one of the big challenges of the first year of our community conflict resolution service. A religious service organization approached us about their problem with one of their volunteers--David, a man who had served a long time in Penetanguishene, an institution for the criminally insane. Although David had made tremendous progress in recent years, his very deprived childhood, beginning in orphanages and institutions, had left him with many problems. His relationship with the "TYM" service group meant a lot to him and to them alike.

However, a large sum of money had been inadequately secured, and had disappeared. Although David angrily denied taking it, a number of factors, including his suddenly spending more money, convinced the group that he had taken it. With his record, if he were charged and convicted he would undoubtedly get a substantial prison sentence. TYM believed this would destroy much of his remarkable progress.

Yet their only other usual option would be to do virtually nothing. Trying to talk it out with David themselves produced only defensive anger and denials. When they heard of Conflict Resolution, they were delighted. This approach would not set Out to punish, but to solve a problem between parties, who might both grow by coming to under-stand what had happened.

Although David was willing to come, we considered it a severe challenge. Conflict resolution is not a detective service. Where the truth is in dispute, we cannot force people to be honest. The success of the method depends solely on creating an atmosphere so safe that the parties will be able to share truthfully.

In setting up the evening, we arranged for support people to be with David, so he would not feel isolated, even though the three TYM people who were coming were also supportive. What happened that evening was wonderfully moving. The tone was set by the warmth of Tanya, a TYM volunteer who had spent some of her wedding gift money replacing some of the missing money. She spoke about the history of her relationship with David. David himself spoke about what the support of people in that room, including TYM people, had meant to him.

Finally at one point David turned to Frank, the Director of TYM and said, "If I tell the truth, am I going to go to prison?" Frank raised his arms in relief and joy and exclaimed, "Hallelujah, No!"

David's admission opened the way for all persons in the room to express their respect for his honesty. It was followed by a series of solutions in which everyone almost vied with the others to give more. It included clauses such as David's getting a retroactive birthday cake, baked by a TYM person who had always given him one, but who had felt unable to do so this year. David's difficulties were not over, of course. A follow-up session helped him find a way to carry out some of the conditions of the agreement, but since then, he has been making restitution.

Perhaps more important in the long run is the impact on all those who participated. Several of the TYM people have taken further training in Conflict Resolution and one of the participants persuaded a group of audiovisual students to make a film on this topic.

What really counts is the effect for David and for society of the choice that was made there. Instead of his being sent to prison, and losing the potential for growth, David has continued his correspondence courses, become an active volunteer with our program, taken some training with the program, and recently held a temporary job for a week-- the first such experience in many years. Conflict Resolution provided the setting in which caring people could work through a problem with a fellow human being instead of harming him.

This case is not particularly typical; there are many different types of conflicts that find mediation at St. Stephens--those involving neighborhoods, families, businesses, intercultural groups, and in such common controversies as noise, pets, and parking.

The methods that we use are not unique; others can learn them. When someone comes with a problem, we listen and then, if we are asked to do so, call on the other persons in the conflict situation and offer to set up a "panel" for airing their dispute.

The panel process involves four phases: (a) positive listening, (b) validating, (c) clarifying, and (d) summarizing. Validating is so important that we may set aside a time for the participants to say what they do appreciate about each other--not just their negative feelings. The stages defuse anger, recognize feelings, separate assumptions from facts, and set out the needs of each disputant.

The ground rules are: (1) no interrupting, and (2) showing mutual respect for one another. The process empowers individuals to understand their opponents' situation and to empathize with their actions. The conciliation process humanizes the attitudes of the participants toward each other and enables future situations to be approached with more compassion. Once the two (or more) parties get this chance to speak, and once they feel they have been heard and understood, they will usually move mountains to reach resolutions, in which neither party feels compromised.

How successful is the St. Stephens program? The Toronto program is over a year old and has consulted in 35 cases and brought 19 to panel, with 18 successfully resolved. A York University student analyzing its effectiveness found that the conciliation service gave people skills to handle conflict more humanely.

The second mandate of the program is to offer training. This is free to potential volunteers in our program. A reasonable fee is requested of those who participate as a sponsored "Staff Development Trainee" for their professional occupation. Our panels are diversified to serve the Chinese, Portuguese and Spanish-speaking communities.

So far, the Toronto program has operated on a fairly modest scale, but we hope for a budget that will enable us to expand our training programs across the nation and into the schools. Conflict Resolution is a peaceful (non-injurious) means of working toward peaceful goals--justice and harmony). Of all human capabilities, it is the one most worth cultivating, the one most needed for our joint future. a

Contact the St. Stephens office at 357 College Street West, Second Floor, Toronto. Phone 964-8594.

Peace Magazine Dec 1986-Jan 1987

Peace Magazine Dec 1986-Jan 1987, page 33. Some rights reserved.

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