One of the problems I face as a peacemaker is that my standard philosophical map often runs contrary to the maps employed by others. As a result, my peacemaking assignments involve re-educating people about values that are lost in the pressures of daily life.

In regards to conflict, many people operate on a philosophical map based on two assumptions. The first assumption is that disputants are adversaries. If Jane and Elizabeth are in conflict, they must be adversarial. This assumption implies a winner and a loser in the conflict. This adversarial assumption comes from certain cultural values. First, we value independence, liberty, freedom, and individuality. These are natural rights and infringing on them trigger indignation and injustice. Second, we value competition as a means of establishing social hierarchy. Who gets the best job, the most wealth, and the nicest home is, at root, determined by who is the best competitor. Competition is both a measure of and a justification for success.

Consider how these two values lead to the view that conflict is inherently adversarial. Conflict occurs when a person feels that his or her goals, feelings or objectives are being thwarted. Culturally, conflict represents an affront to our identities, expressed in terms of liberty and independence. Conflict also represents a competitive engagement--who will survive? Consequently, people tend to see conflict as adversarial, which means that the only conceivable outcome requires a winner and a loser.

The philosophical map is based on a second assumption: Disputes and conflicts must be resolved through application, by a third party, of some general rule of law, custom, or behavior. People marshal extensive arguments supporting a winning resolution of a conflict. The appearance of justice or fairness is preserved when people can assert that a rule has been broken or that conduct is violation of some standard. Since people are referring to an ostensibly impartial, objective measure, their partiality, although obvious, cannot be an issue in the resolution. As a result, people like to argue that rules, standards, or laws measure how a conflict should be resolved. Of course, they may freely choose those rules that lead to the best personal result.

Compare this philosophical map to that of a peacemaker. From a peacemaker’s perspective, conflict is not adversarial. Instead, it presents an opportunity for all parties to benefit from a creative solution to which all agree. Conflicts are not competitions, but are shared problems to be solved jointly. Peacemaking is thus faced with the challenge of turning the perspective of conflict as competition to that of cooperation.

The peacemaker also sees each conflict as unique and therefore not be governed by any general principal except to the extent that parties accept it. Fairness and justice are measured not only objectively, but also by the parties’ experiences. All of the disputants must feel that the solution is just and reasonable for everyone. Options are created not based on outside norms, but on the basis of what will work for everyone in the dispute. Peacemaking’s second challenge is to broaden the issues and avoid formulaic approaches to disputes.

The two assumptions underlying the common philosophical map tend to exclude peacemaking as a first method of conflict resolution. Worse, these assumptions can blind people to the possibilities of peacemaking. If a quick agreement cannot be reached, parties’ may resort to higher authority, such as a parent, a teacher, a supervisor or a court of law, to resolve the dispute for them. When a higher authority is not available, people manage the conflict by denying its existence or avoiding it. In either situation, the conflict is not really resolved; rather, a decision has been made about the conflict. Finally, the assumptions seem to deafen people to common sense. Embued with a win-at-any-cost attitude and armed with stack of rules and regulations, people are entrapped in the conflict itself and are unable to see solutions that seem sensible to outsiders.

I do not mean to imply that every person sees conflict displayed on this philosophical map. However, many people do tend to react towards many conflicts as if conflict were an adversary process subject to adjudication based on outside rules. On the other hand, many people do exhibit strong peacemaking behaviors. My point is to simply expose a cultural bias that exacerbates conflict. Aware of this bias, we can be more conscious of which approaches seem appropriate to the disputes we face.

The Way of the Peacemaker: Conflict is not competitive or adversarial; it is a problem jointly shared by all disputants.

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By Doug Noll

Douglas E. Noll is a lawyer turned peacemaker, professional mediator, and author of Elusive Peace: How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Could Better Resolve World Conflicts (Prometheus Books, 2011). He can be reached at doug@nollassociates.com.