On Point: We can't solve problems with toxic rhetoric

By Steven I. Platt
The Daily Record Newswire

Headlines, blurbs, and pundits sometimes create issues and atmospherics intentionally and sometimes inadvertently.

The recent debate over whether the shrill political climate did or did not contribute to the senseless tragedy in Arizona misses the point completely. It clearly did not.

That said, it is unquestionably true that the toxic political atmosphere in our country is interfering with our capacity to solve pressing problems both in our country and state.

As former Arizona Court of Appeals Judge Bruce E. Meyerson — now, like this writer, a mediator, arbitrator and trainer — points out, “problem solving, which we do every day as Neutrals, is never made easier when those in dispute attack the motives, integrity, or character of others.”

These verbal attacks are described as “unproductive communication” by Christopher Moore in his classic text, “The Mediation Process.”

Inject this “unproductive communication” into the larger world of politics and we see the cause-and-effect relationship of over-the-top political rhetoric — commercials with references to “Second Amendment remedies” and websites that put the cross-hairs of a rifle over “targeted” congressional districts — on the impasses we have reached regarding so many challenges facing our country and state.

These messages preaching intolerance emanate from both the left and the right fringes of our politics. They bring credit to neither.

As former Iowa Republican Congressman James Leach, now chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities wrote recently, “Words matter! Stirring anger and playing on the irrational fears of citizens inflames hate. When coupled with character assassination, polarizing rhetoric can exacerbate intolerance without in any way facilitating problem-solving and respect for other points of view.”

The conflict resolution profession has some very valuable insight and lessons to offer in this environment. As retired Judge Meyerson said at a recent panel discussion at Emory University on civility in American politics, “skillful communication can turn information into power and conflict into opportunities-opportunities for greater understanding, more meaningful solutions and a stronger sense of community.”

Indeed it can. And for that reason, perhaps we ought to put those remarks on CDs and distribute them to the members of Congress and our state legislature with a training video on how to “skillfully communicate.”

There is however an interesting dissent to this viewpoint which is illustrated by a colleague and friend, F. Peter Phillips, a mediator and blogger in New Jersey. In his blog posted last Nov. 20, Phillips notes that at its core, the question is “can a public leader be a problem- solver while still leading?”

The answer is debatable, and may account for some of President Obama’s recent “political problems.”

The debate highlights the differences in role of a mediator and political leader.

A political leader advocates policy and seeks public support for it; a mediator (in theory) has no view as to what the outcome of a dispute ought to be.

Having been entrusted with power by being elected or appointed, a political leader advances policy in the face of opposition from other political factions; a mediator (in theory) treats disputing parties even-handedly and without regard to his or her own interests or point of view.

Finally a political leader in our representative democracy is empowered to advance certain articulated goals. A mediator (in theory) seeks only to help the disputants identify a mutually beneficial outcome to a conflict so they can return to more socially productive endeavors. The question, then asks Phillips, is do these distinctions compel the conclusion that political leadership necessitates belligerence?

Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency promising to rise above partisanship and become the person who would reconcile divided parties: internationally, the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Pakistanis and the Indians, and — closer to home — our very own Republicans and Democrats.

During his first two years he had some directional progress abroad, but little demonstrable success. At home he pointedly abandoned any pretense to being a mediator, probably as a result of a combination of necessity and frustration, to push legislation on healthcare, financial regulation and economic stimulus.

His inability to reconcile his two roles as political leader and mediator/reconciler (unifier) or explain his inability to play both roles may well have caused him — at least temporarily — to lose some electoral support among independents, who wanted him to be a mediator as well as portion of his base on the left who want him to be strictly a political leader.

Now, in the last two years of his term, he appears to be shifting back in the direction of being a mediator both for political and policy reasons. It remains to be seen whether it will be a strategically successful decision.

As F. Peter Phillips points out, the test of the success of a mediator is whether he or she achieves a “mutual level of dissatisfaction among the settling disputants. The very different test of a leader is whether he or she effects change.”

These two measures inevitably yield two helpful (if perhaps unwelcome) truths. The first is that the power of a leader achieves its highest social utility when it is exercised. The other is that you can’t effectively and credibly mediate a case, an issue, or a policy if you want it to come out in a certain way.

This in turn yields a universal lesson to both political leaders and mediators for very different reasons. It shouldn’t be about you, so get over yourself.

Steven I. Platt, a retired associate judge on the Prince George’s County Circuit Court in Maryland can be reached at info@apursuitofjustice.com.

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