connect or separate

It’s our choice: Are we agents of connecting and reuniting or separating and dividing?

Michael Zeytoonian Dispute Resolution Resources

In the past few months, a recurring idea has kept surfacing, either in the news or in my life experiences as a mediator and lawyer. It’s the tendency toward division, of focusing and acting more on our differences than on what we have in common. Our lives today are influenced more by partisan and separatist views than the spirit of unity and connectedness. It seems we’ve lost the desire to sit down together and exchange differences of opinion respectfully, with an eye toward understanding another point of view and a willingness to accept a different opinion, maybe even adjust our thinking. Here are some examples:

Recently there was a news story about a shop owner who initiated a policy of not allowing anyone who supported President Trump to come into his store. He even put a sign up in his window stating it. Decades ago, shop owners similarly posted signs not allowing certain races or ethnic groups. We look at those episodes in our past with embarrassment while we are repeating that history.

A state representative in Minnesota was recently upset by an action taken by an actor playing a bachelor on the TV show The Bachelor. It seems the bachelor proposed engagement to a female contestant and then decided he was not going to marry her. The state representative tweeted that if he received enough supportive “retweets”, he would introduce a bill seeking to ban the actor for coming into Minnesota. In a very short time, he received over 10,000 retweets.

President Trump may have some good ideas. One that I strongly agree with are term limits for Congressmen, something that is long overdue and something that reflects the intention of the Founding Fathers. But generally, his statements and written comments may be perceived by some as divisive and intent on dividing people into an “us vs. them” mentality. In this way, his statements can sometimes do more harm than good and result in some of his better ideas going unnoticed. His stated goal of “making America great” is a good goal; making America hate is not.

When a Senate majority leader takes a position of voting against things because of who or which side proposed them – even while admitting that those same things would be good for the nation – he is not only committing treason, he is urging that being partisan and divided is more important than the well-being and interests of those who elected him (too many times) to serve them. BTW, the House minority leader is no different and no better. They both, along with their party partisans, promote this counter-productive mentality of “if they proposed it, we’re against it.”

As mediators and lawyers, we sadly see this same spirit of division in people who come to us to help them resolve disputes. We are agents of restoring order, peace, stability and agreement to a situation. But we are operating in a society that is steadily moving in the opposite direction, sucked in by the temptress that feeds the desire to beat the other side at all costs rather than solve the problem.

Why is dividing into opposing sides and drawing battle lines so attractive and appealing to us in this country? Why is focusing on our differences and acting on them – to the overall detriment of the whole – so prevalent today? Is it just easier, more entertaining, or more appealing to our emotions to focus on the negative, divide and fight with each other? What has happened to the ideal and goal of working together to become our highest and best selves? To the brotherhood of all men (and women)? To the notion that my collaborative lawyer colleagues from Texas promote – that a rising tide helps all the boats.

I don’t know the answer to these questions. But I do know, as we all know in our collective and individual heart of hearts, that our societal movement in the direction of divide and separate is wrong. The longer it goes on, the worse off we all are. The more divided we get, the weaker we all become. If we pursue the goal of fighting to determine who is right and who is wrong, rather than collaborate and seek together what is best, we have already lost.

So what can we do about it? We can vote out politicians who promote division and separation. That is a start, but that only treats a symptom; it doesn’t cure the illness. And to a degree, it’s perpetuating the same spirit – vote against people with whom we disagree. But that doesn’t help to start building bridges between us, connecting people again, finding that which unites us and focusing in on those fundamental changes in our minds and hearts.

Nelson Mandela proposed a path for making connection: “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

Abraham Lincoln, as a trial lawyer, discouraged litigation and urged people to settle their differences, and modeled this approach: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him.”

I’ll suggest this adjustment in the field of conflict resolution: Let’s start by seeing our disputes and conflicts as opportunities to improve the situation, to turn enemies into partners by getting to know them better, with a goal of achieving solutions that reflect our best and highest good. Si ascensus et descensus simul. We rise and fall together.

Photo credit: photo remixed from photos by miguelsantaeulalia and Robert Young under creative commons license