Narrative Conflict Resolution, IV: Joint Mediation as Theatre and Stagecraft

October 28, 2015

The three acts of cultural conflict. 


The cycle of wrongful act, suffering endured and dénouement of justice served is reflected in many of the earlier stories recounted in the Torah and the Quran. Conflicts that emerging cultures are engaged in are both physical and metaphysical with implications for failure that transcends mortality. Like the passion play, emerging cultural conflict is laden with meta-messages that presage the coming spectacle. Where the immediate image of the passion play is the bloody cross, the immediate image of emerging culture conflict is laden with symbols and meta- messages that inform participants and viewers what to think and calls them into position long before they even hear the storyline.
 
The type of violence that characterizes emerging culture conflict aims at destroying the outward manifestation of each other’s cultural expression of inte- rior identity. It murders the public face of the enemy (Adelman, 1997: 1-28). The rage that creates and sustains this murderous intent can only arise from shared discourses, or else betrayal, alienation, rejection and scorn would not be possible. This is why the story’s underlying discourse that in turn undergirds the historical narrative that carries the psychological identity of the group must be grappled with the same way desperate writers anguish over the plots and verbiage of a play. The passion play of suffering and redemption, justice and revenge must not only be reimagined and rewritten, but the changed discourse must then be re- enacted to achieve redemption and justice and alleviate the cycle of revenge. It is in this re-enactment that mediation becomes theatre, albeit with the spectre of physical violence and loss replacing tomatoes and catcalls from a disbelieving audience (Benjamin, 2002). The new restoryed discourses must be written in each camp; sometimes alone and other times in mutual writing forums where select groups from both conflict parties join together to imagine new dialogue and test out new meanings of past pain and suffering.
 
I. The theatre of joint mediation.
These new, restoryed discourses are as yet untested prior to the dénouement of the joint mediation sessions. The new mate- rial must be played out on the theatrical stage of the mediation process where protagonist and antagonist face off and reread their old discourse that was rewritten in single sessions and joint sessions by members of each conflict party. The audience to the theatre consists of heads of families – victims as they are to suffering and loss – and elders terrified that the new material will eliminate the memory of their long dead loved ones or maybe even themselves once they die. The audience participants are not mere spectators; they are the judges of process and product even as the drama unfolds. They provide input through emotive rejection or support that their spokesmen are attuned to from a lifetime of high context communication. Without release of pain and emotion, psychological  space for forgiveness of themselves and each other is not created. Without some degree of containment of that pain and emotion, chaos erupts into a primal scream of anguish and revenge

The outcomes of the theatre do not have to be logical or intellectually sensible to the conflict mediator; they do have to be emotionally and psychologically fulfilling, with clear senses of believability equal to the existing narrative story that remains after the restorying. The audience participates vicariously through their respective spokesmen elders, reliving and releasing emotion as their speaker tastes the new and untested discourse and watches the faces of the ‘other’ for reaction; acceptance or rejection on a visceral, emotional level of belief. The emotion of the unfolding drama, once started, is no longer solely in the control of the mediator, the parties or even the audience. It becomes a phenomenon with a life of its own as it is fed by and reflected back to the collective people assembled in mediation.
 
II. The stagecraft of joint mediation. 
Prior to the conflict party leaders meeting each other in an open session, the mediator team must plan for all contingencies. These include the security of weapons and fighters in zones of violent conflict, the mental and emotional states of the participants to the drama and the physical structure that the drama occurs in. Emerging culture mediation is often conducted while the violence is occurring, even during the moments and hours spent in dialogue with the conflict parties. Violence may also punctuate that mediation session as multiple larger events that occur before, during or after individual mediation sessions. There is often no police force or army present to provide security for the mediation team outside of whatever internal security they brought in.
 
The final joint mediation session may never occur in an individual mediator’s cycle of involvement, but all the work is meant to lead to such an event. In some cases, the finale is nearly ceremonial, as inked agreements and hundreds of sub- mediation events (single party and joint) have already brought the conflict from armed combat to one of political accommodation. But the body politic always seeks visible, emotional conclusions as part of the meaning-making process. As the stages of the mediation cycle progress from discovery of the conflict story to its deconstruction, externalization and restorying, the joint mediation sessions increase in number and duration as gains are made and violence decreases.
 
III. Implementation
I have come to realize that the conflict story rarely erupts into violence as a sudden event. Instead, I invariably back-traced the conflict story lines generationally to the meanings and motives given to events as they unfolded. Just as the conflict story of every community that is caught up in violence as perpetrator, victim or bystander is unique, so too must be my implementation of a model of narrative mediation. I begin with the certainty that the conflict can be mediated and the larger narrative can be preserved for future generations. All that matters is my ability to understand and differentiate the conflict story from the historical narrative and begin a search for ways to deconstruct, re-evaluate, rewrite and restage the narrative and its conflict component (Volkan, 2005).
 
As the client is group rather than individual, I have to be prepared to operate in nearly all of the stages simultaneously as different community leaders may take longer or shorter periods of time to transition between these elements of
 
mediation. Also, I have had to move back and forth through the elements of the model based on minute feedback from the conflict parties; rarely do we complete one element of the model without having to successively return based on the cog- nitive and emotional input from the clients. As in therapy, the conflict parties determine the pace and the outcomes of the mediation and only rarely in joint sessions between both sides. In Darfur, for instance, I found that deconstructing attitudes on race, slavery and ethnic prejudice within the Arab and African tribes had to begin within the hearts and minds of one side to the conflict at a time.  This occurred only when the conflict had reached some point of ripeness for resolution based on loss and pain from trauma and extended violence. The traumatized communities were suffering, with victim and perpetrator seeking validation for the loss of their family. Both sought justice and longed for relief from the end- less cycle of fighting they had been engaged in.
 
Past Performance
There is little successful past performance in resolving violent, communal conflict by the developed nations’ defense, diplomatic or humanitarian institutions. Most violent communal conflict is resolved by the use of physical force employed by the larger community against the weaker, as in the case of the Turkish response to their Kurdish insurgency or by the break-up of the Westphalian state, with the most recent example being the creation of South Sudan. As conflicts in Libya, Syria, Somalia, Mali, Yemen and now Iraq suggest, interventions to alleviate intra-state violence require more nuanced approaches than simple lethality. Over the past 20 years, I have used elements of narrative mediation as part of tribal engagement in conflict zones with the Fur, Zaghawa and Rizeigat tribes in Sudan; the Ogadin Somali clans and Oromo tribe in Ethiopia; the Sunni Arab tribes in Iraq; the Tamashek touchetts of Niger and the Pueblo tribes in the northern Amazon basin of Ecuador and Colombia.
 
The engagement of tribes caught up in violent conflict using this model became a powerful tool for understanding and reducing the rage and intensity of the confrontations (Christian, 2011). Through its use, we succeeded in the medi- ated prevention of individual family and village participation in attacks and relat- ed activities that would have contributed to the much larger cycle of communal violence. Section 2.2 above recounts an example of joint mediation that prevented one such attack in Darfur. Every individual engagement however, sought to discover the story elements that are in conflict, deconstruct the conflict story,  and externalize its elements as a basis for reimagining a new story. Daily, we focused their attention on the survival of their children, the security of livestock and crops that fed them and the positive non-violent interactions that directly fed the larger historical narrative.
 
In daily engagements with family and tribe, I did not often ask where their related militia was; I had other resources for that. Instead, questions involved how they would educate their children, how they would transmit language, culture and the identity that it expressed. In Caquetá and Putumayo, Colombia, this

involved mediating with communities to disarm, demobilize and resettle their abandoned villages in return for guarantees of indigenous language education  and road construction for Pueblo farmers to access nearby markets (Christian, 2007a). In Kabkabiya and Al-Genina, Sudan, the conflict stories we mediated involved land use between Arab pastoralists and African agrarian families who were killing each other over complex versions of identity and belonging (Chris- tian, 2006).
 
Some of the conflict story elements that we successfully mediated there in Darfur involved farmer versus herder, African versus Arab, black versus white, and slave versus freeman, with all of the emotion that those opposing positions entailed (Christian, 2013b). Again in eastern Ethiopia, the conflict stories between Oromo and Somali involved conflict stories about pastoralism versus agrarian identities in shared narratives. Most recently, in Niger and Mali, I worked to mediate conflict stories of identity and cultural expression between Tuareg, African and Arab tribes in the Sahel and Sahara desert. There, dimensions of identity and belonging took on added complexity with an existing farmer–pas- toralist–black–white–slave–freeman conflict story that was deepened by the addi- tion of green and red skin colours, which intensified the struggle over the larger historical narrative.
 
In summary, the support for my model is threefold. First, it is based on a rec- ognized and widely validated mediation approach to resolving family conflict developed by Winslade & Monk that itself is based on the psychological family therapy of Michael White. To their existing stages of deconstruction, externaliza- tion and restorying, I added stages of discovery and joint mediation to account for the cross-cultural and communal nature of the conflict parties. Finally, my use of this adapted model in more than 60 months of practical fieldwork in violent conflict zones has created a praxis of recognized value for engaging intra-state conflict by practitioners of military, diplomatic and humanitarian intervention.

The model of mediation described here adapts western family narrative mediation therapy to the survival needs of sociocentric communities that are unable to emerge from their nightmare story of conflict that is killing them and their existential historical narrative. Narrative mediation, like therapy, “is not about relieving suffering, it’s about repairing one’s relationship to reality” (Scheff and Retzinger, 1991: 100). This is why it works, because this model does not assume that the mediator has the answer to relieving their suffering or reversing their losses. Rather, the mediation exposes the fantasy world of the conflict story to  the reality of disintegrating historical narratives that contain sacred generational inheritances of individual and family identity. That is the real threat that the conflict story lies about; that without success in violent conflict, the identity of the family and the tribe will diminish or disappear and the only solution is to continue the fight. With mediator assistance, the conflict parties develop alternatives to the false conflict story that calls them to choose between immediate physical survival or future psychological annihilation and emotional death. The mediator  is the foil to this false story, offering a different way out of violence without surrendering their non-negotiable right to live and extend their existential identity across time and space. Within the mediated stories of the historical narrative, the conflict parties find more than just absence of violence. They find the resilience to stabilize their community against the siren calls of violent extremism. This is the promise and the fulfillment of narrative mediation in emerging culture conflict.

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