“I think the environmental community needs to beware of getting totally wrought up with the immediate crisis — although it does need to deal with the immediate challenge — but it also really needs to learn how to sustain itself over the next 10 years in a way that people continue their work, continue to stay engaged, and continue to feel supported so that they don’t fall into despair,” he says.
Q: You’re coming to campus to discuss conflict at a time when it feels like the entire nation is defined by polarization. What are the principles you typically apply to resolving conflict in general?
BERNIE MAYER: We have to start out by understanding the essential motivations driving everyone in the conflict — and that includes ourselves. What’s really going on for us? Answering that is often harder than we realize. But we also have to understand what’s going on for people who might be in different places in the conflict. And that starts out by understanding what are not just our central interests — which people often talk about — but what’s going on in terms of our sense of who we are, of our identity, and of our fear of how vulnerable we are — including how much our very sense of our fundamental security is at stake. Those are often at the root of what’s going on.
Also, when we’re looking at people we disagree with, or especially when we are considering what is behind behavior that we abhor, it’s easy to dismiss what’s going on by using what I think of as the three “explanatory crutches”: that people are crazy, stupid, or evil. I think we have to get beyond that. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t crazy, stupid, or evil things going on. It just means that it doesn’t help us understand how to respond to what’s going on in an effective way.
Q: That of course is more difficult when the conflict is about a person’s fundamental values.
MAYER: Well, again we have to start by understanding what our values are. I think we assume that we know what we believe. But it helps to say it. And it helps to say what we believe in using positive terms. In other words, what we believe in and not what we believe against. Because that actually opens a lot of doors.
And when we listen to others who are espousing things we are repulsed by — which a lot of us are hearing right now — it’s helpful to understand that, from their own point of view, they don’t think they’re evil. So what are their values? And how might we understand and articulate those values from their perspective? That doesn’t mean we agree with them. But it’s a question we have to ask. Then in fact we are in a much better position to engage in the conflict powerfully. And not just operate based on our own stereotypes.
From my own experience, I think the Holocaust is the strongest example of that. I was incredibly, what’s the right word, put out that [the Trump Administration] argued that their Holocaust Remembrance Day announcement didn’t mention Jews because a lot of other people were hurt during the Holocaust. I thought to myself, “Well, yeah, that’s like not mentioning African-Americans when you talk about slavery because there were other people enslaved as well.” The Holocaust represents for many of us the most horrible, evil things that happened in the 20th century. I’m the child of Holocaust survivors, and the grandchild of Holocaust victims. And so, it’s really easy to look at the Holocaust and say, “That was just crazy, evil.” And it was, but that doesn’t explain it. If you can’t get inside the head of the people who are promoting that, then you are not very well-armed to engage in a conflict effectively. If that’s true for that level of conflict, it’s certainly true of what we’ve been dealing with recently.
Q: It seems sometimes compromise is not the outcome you want. Sometimes an impasse is inevitable and perfectly OK.
MAYER: Resolution sometimes isn’t the outcome you want. At least not immediately. Because if you’re so focused on resolution, you are inevitably looking at an immediate manifestation of what is often a long-term issue. And although there are times when you want to attain an immediately available resolution to that manifestation, what is often more important than resolution is building the structures in both power and communication and public awareness to carry on what’s going to be a long-term effort.
If we look at the civil rights movement, there were always short-term victories that people were looking for, such as the outcome of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But the important thing was work that was done to frame the issue in a powerful way and to build the understanding and the structures and the power base and the communication channels to carry on the conflict on a sustainable basis. And I think that being too focused on what victories or what resolutions we can get immediately — if they were not connected to the long-term vision of what needs to happen — can be self-defeating.
Q: In this community, environmental and public health issues are a fundamental concern, so it is critical to work with policymakers and lawmakers who are going to make major decisions. But some of them fundamentally don’t accept the relevance of, say, science. Particularly when it comes to climate change. Or even the need for environmental regulations in the first place. How do you bridge such wide gaps in worldview? Where do people go in addressing these conflicts?
MAYER:If I could give you a specific answer to where everyone can go I would be very happy. But I don’t think any of us know the answer to that — yet. My general sense is that there are three different directions you can go in. One is, internally, you make sure you are clear about where you stand and the best understanding of the key message that you want to convey. And in doing so to avoid getting distracted by side shows. And to be frank, it can be very easy to get trapped into a statement of over-certainty in order to counter the people saying, “well there is uncertainty.” It’s important to be clear about what we know and what levels we really know it.
A second is working with potential allies who wouldn’t necessarily say [the environment] is their biggest focus — including people who want to promote a more sound and reasonable approach to policymaking more generally. They can be allies. And it’s not just the role of science but the role of social science. Economists are struggling with the same thing, for example.
And the third is looking at the range of views of those who want to dismiss the validity or value of science. And we need to build multiple different approaches to communicating with them. There are many different people who have varied views but don’t dismiss science out of hand, but do question whether science has become too politicized.
So these are three directions, but the question is always how. A general rule of conflict is the importance of building multiple channels and approaches of communicating with those we are in conflict with. We know that as conflict escalates the channels of communication become narrower and narrower and narrower, and therefore become more and more brittle and vulnerable. One approach is to focus on building multiple channels of communication — to the public, within our own organizations or allies, and to people elsewhere — rather than focusing only on what you communicate. And just try to keep finding them.
Communication is central to all of it, but it doesn’t always start with what you say, or even to whom you say it. You often have to start by asking, “How can I build durable, multiple sustainable channels of communication?” And in this day and age there are so many media to do it. The temptation often is to rely mainly on social media, which is a really important channel. But we also have to ask how do we create more synchronous, personal, and in-person means of communicating with people.
Look at what had to happen in Northern Ireland. It’s certainly not like we’re out of the woods there, but what had to happen there was for people talking to start talking to each other in many ways and at multiple different levels: on a community level, in prisons, in governmental agencies, in NGOs, about a multiplicity of issues — some of which were only tangentially related to the main source of conflict. And this is all separate from what happened at the policy level. But the other thing that happened was that the world’s peacemaking community took those potential peacemakers on either side in Northern Ireland out of Northern Ireland, to retreat centers. Mostly in the Republic of Ireland, but not only. And there they gave them the time to have some R&R, to help sustain them, and to remind them they’re not alone. And to give them time to have important conversations, as well.
I think we need to learn how to sustain ourselves. I think the environmental community needs to beware of getting totally wrought up with the immediate crisis — although it does need to deal with the immediate challenge — but it also really needs to learn how to sustain itself over the next 10 years in a way that people continue their work, continue to stay engaged, and continue to feel supported so that they don’t fall into despair or feel like if they don’t win this particular battle — for instance, if they don’t win the battle over the Keystone pipeline — that civilization as we know it will end. Because I think that’s how people feel. And yet it doesn’t help sustain people for what the future demands of us.