Words of Encouragement for These Complex and Confusing Times

We are living in a world of protests against COVID restrictions, “freedom convoys”, imminent war over Ukraine, and protests about many serious issues including climate change, social injustice, racism, residential schools…the list could go on an on. Humankind is facing complex challenges and our response is increasingly to divide into factions, engage in “othering” and escalate conflict. I often don’t want to listen to the news or open my news app for fear of hearing about yet another form of deep cultural and structural divide.

I’m a seeker of peace. As a staunch advocate of effective conflict management techniques and design, I recognize that these tools alone seem incapable of resolving intractable conflict. I’m also a seeker of justice. As a retired lawyer who continues to advocate for system change, I support the need for disruption to achieve social justice but acknowledge that these approaches can increase and deepen conflict. Am I hopelessly naive to hold these two seemingly contrary views? Or is there a way to hold these in tension?

There is hope.

Three new resources from some of my heroes in the conflict management field provide insightful analysis and guidance for how we can achieve sustainable social change in the face of complex problems. While they use different language, their messages are similar:

Bernie Mayer and Jacqueline N. Font- Guzmán

In his new book, “The Neutrality Trap”, Bernie Mayer and Jacqueline N. Font-Guzmán advocate for both connection and strategic disruption. They state:

“..the wisest and ultimately most effective way to deal with our most profound problems is to avoid the lure of easy solutions or premature peace. We need to reach out across our differences but we also need to disrupt the forces that sustain the exploitation of people and the environment. Holding the tension between connecting and disrupting is crucial if we are to confront the social issues we face. We need to engage and talk with one another, but for real change to happen, we also need the wake-up calls of disruption and disorder.”

The book is full of stories from both authors that bring these concepts alive. The National Self-Represented Litigants Project’s Dialogue event in 2013 is offered an example of a constructive engagement process combined with intentional efforts to disrupt and change the justice system (chapter 4).

Carrie Menkel-Meadow and Jean R. Sternlight

In her recent article, “Carrie Menkel-Meadow: Leading Us Towards Justice AND Peace”, Professor Jean R. Sternlight provides a tribute to Professor Carrie Menkel-Meadow. She highlights how, throughout her impressive life and career, Professor Mendel-Meadow has supported both the path of peace (dialogue) and the path of justice (activism).

In the 1960s, as today, and likely in all eras, there has been a tension and often debate regarding how best to work towards social change. From a big picture standpoint, can there be justice without peace, and can there be peace without justice? From a more individual perspective, is change best achieved through activism or even violence, or is change best achieved through communication, empathy and understanding? Or, if both approaches can sometimes be appropriate, how do we decide which choice is best in a given situation?

…Menkel-Meadow has examined this tension between activism and conflict resolution in her own work – explaining how she has “reconciled [her]self, a committed political activist and poverty and civil rights lawyer, to the mediation canons of neutrality, confidentiality, and self-determination of the parties.”

(She) has highlighted the path of “And” – showing and explaining that it is not only possible but also desirable to seek justice as well as peace, to be both activist and neutral.”

Adam Kahane

Adam Kahane has spent a lot of time exploring the dance between power, love and justice. He was influenced by the famous words of Martin Luther King Jr.[1] which he interprets as the need for power (self-realisation), love (connection) and justice to work together.

In his book “Facilitating Breakthrough”, Adam Kahane explains how to use what he calls “transformative facilitation” to support participants to remove obstacles to achieve breakthrough in intractable conflicts. The facilitator is supportive and committed to helping people bring about change which requires unblocking power to drive self-realization, unblocking love to drive reunification and bringing about liberating justice (power, love AND justice).

None of this is easy. Humans are not easy.

I’m grateful for these amazing thought leaders. And I am encouraged. I hope you will be too.


[1] “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

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