In high school, I was trained in conflict resolution and became a certified peer mediator in an experiment in alternative discipline. I only got to participate in one peer mediation session, and I’m not sure if I was really bad at it or if the school just didn’t refer many conflicts to the program, but it was very meaningful to me personally to learn the strategies for de-escalating conflicts and learning how to disagree fairly. Some key points of the methodology have stuck with me ever since, which I’ll paraphrase as:
- Establish mutual respect and ensure both (or all) parties have a safe space to communicate honestly without judgment.
- Encourage empathy and understanding of underlying motivations or concerns in working toward compromise. (Understand the Conflict)
- Find common ground and shared interests to achieve a mutually satisfactory compromise or positive outcome.
(You can of course find a more organized explanation of the steps for conflict resolution in a lot of places online.)
It seems to me that conflict resolution and compromise are maybe more important life skills than any others I learned in school (certainly more useful than the semester we spent learning ClarisWorks) and I wish it were a formal unit in the national curriculum. The past two or three years of hot-tempered political discourse have shown that, more than any other deficit in our culture, we lack the ability to disagree fairly, and this inability to communicate respectfully about conflict seems to be deteriorating the very fabric of our society.
There is a tendency – or maybe I should call it an impulse – that we all share to write people off completely when we discover something we don’t like about them. Maybe they say something racially insensitive (or outright racist) or they admit that they are okay with policies that hurt other people as long as they personally benefit. Maybe they dismiss a heartfelt concern as “nutty right-wing propaganda” and tell family members to stop being brainwashed by Fox News or exploited by the GOP. Maybe they call someone a bigot because that person needs a bit of time to understand nonbinary pronouns or gets confused about why the rights of trans people are being debated again. I think we are all guilty at times of being repugnant in our stubbornness or sanctimonious sureness that we are just so right that we forget to treat others as humans who deserve respect. And it is incredibly hard to stay calm when someone raises your hackles with the very arguments you’ve been battling in your mind, who feels as certain that they are right as you feel certain they are wrong.
Meet You Where You Are, 2018, 9″x12″, permanent marker on paper.
I have seen (and been guilty of) an increasing shift towards sentiments like, “I don’t have room in my life for someone like that,” “I can’t look at them the same way now that I know their politics,” and, “Why should I have to educate you if you can’t even bother to educate your hateful / judgmental self?” I read so many think pieces after the 2016 election about how the right and people in Middle America felt ignored or dismissed, and I will admit, my instinctive response was unkind. I live in one of the poorest congressional districts in the United States, but it is also the most Democratic, so it is hard for me to accept the arguments that people can’t afford to worry about other people when they are experiencing economic struggles. But I also see that people on the other side don’t actually know my reality or what my neighbors’ lives are like because none of us will deign to tell them. We assume they won’t listen – just like I often don’t – or that if they do, they are too racist or bigoted or uncaring to change their minds. We leave each other in voids of ignorance and diminish each others’ concerns, and we wind up even further divided and angry at each other, instead of working together to find and demand solutions that benefit us all.
I won’t be so cynical as to suggest that has been the strategy all along to consolidate power and keep us busy squabbling among ourselves while a tiny sect of special interests robs the country blind (yes I will, and it is), but I will say it is the very opposite of the methodology and goals of peer mediation and conflict resolution, and we are all hurting because of it. By setting up our beliefs as diametrically opposed and fighting or condemning the other side instead of seeking compromise and common ground, we are missing out on so many opportunities to improve life for all.
For me personally, environmentalism is at the forefront of all concerns, not just because I love nature and would like to be able to continue going outside in twenty years, but also because I see how climate change and damage to the environment by industry is dramatically impacting quality of life all over the planet. From increasing poverty and stagnating economies to catastrophic weather events and even droughts helping in ISIS recruitment, our energy dependence on oil and the financial interests keeping us dependent on fossil fuels are the single most harmful force in the world right now. Whether you agree with me on this point or not is actually not important (and this isn’t just me being smug, I promise) because the other thing I see in the research I’ve been doing on climate change and sustainable development are amazing opportunities to address other problems through green initiatives.
Earlier this week, I attended two different events on art and activism. The first was a panel discussion hosted by the New York Public Library, with three brilliant authors moderated by an activist / advocate, looking at the role art and writing plays in social justice activism and the connections between activist and creative work. I was frustrated that most of the Q&A focused on self-care (would the same questions be asked of male authors?) but it was incredibly inspiring to see the ways these women engage their communities, the emphasis they placed on listening and working to meet other communities where they are, and the spirit of collaboration and cooperation that seemed to inhabit all of their words and actions (I encourage you to check out their work!). I believe strongly in the power of art to change hearts through a visceral experience of empathy, which leads to changing minds, and it was encouraging to observe the power of art coupled with activist action and goals to really bring it all home for a cause. So much of the battle in social justice is making the case that people should be seen and respected just as human beings. It hurts my heart that this argument still needs to be made because egalitarianism is one of my core values, but this is the world we live in, and the work needs to be done.
The question I would have liked to have asked (if I weren’t too shy) is about engaging people who fundamentally disagree, the ones who aren’t going to read a book by a woman of color, or someone who refuses – or can’t – empathize with characters who aren’t just like them. Is the best approach to focus in on the deeply personal, or to broaden the scope to the universal? Do people need to care and get invested in specific characters or figures who happen to embody a different experience in life to develop empathy that they can then apply to real-life, everyday people, or do they need to see the ways that all people are similar, have common interests, or are ultimately the same as them in so many ways? I suspect all approaches are needed, engaging people on both personal and universal terms (as it suits the work) to generate a tidal shift in thinking and feeling, but I struggle with how to use art in support of social change when it’s already so hard to get people to even look at or value art itself.
Installation view of the 2018 Creative Climate Awards exhibition presented by the Human Impacts Institute at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO), New York, NY. September 17-October 12, 2018.
One of the greatest professional experiences I’ve had so far was being included in a recent exhibition and nominated in the 2018 Creative Climate Awards, which showcased the work of 36 artists creating climate-inspired art intended to raise awareness and incite action. Sales of the art benefitted the extraordinary work of the Human Impacts Institute, and being part of the exhibit gave me the opportunity to meet and talk with fellow artists about their work (I promise, I will talk all about this exhibit either here or on the studio blog very, very soon).
In general everyone at the opening reception seemed to be on the same page about the urgency of taking immediate actions to fight climate change, and I found myself feeling at home discussing projects and ideas with like-minded environmentalists. There was one visitor who was a climate change denier (maybe “skeptic” is a fairer description). He argued with several artists about why they were spreading false information about climate science and grilled them about who paid them to make their work. He didn’t talk with me (my pieces in this show were mostly about marine plastics pollution, and it’s hard to argue that that’s a good thing) but he also didn’t seem as hostile or unreasonable as I expected. I realized that he is exactly the type of person we should want to come to that type of an exhibit, and that instead of avoiding him as “the heckler,” we needed to engage him respectfully, hear his differing views, and try to find some common ground or compromise. From what I understand the artists who did talk with him presented their work thoughtfully and respectfully and ultimately had productive – or at least not totally disagreeable – conversations. On hindsight, I wish I had sought him out and done the same. Even if he initially came to be adversarial, he came, and he stayed a long time, talking and listening, looking critically at the art, and maybe questioning his beliefs or changing his mind. I’ve thought about him a lot since then, and I keep asking myself when I last listened to someone whose beliefs I’m inclined to just dismiss out of hand.
The second event I attended this week was the New York / Arab World Culture Forum: Art for Sustainable Futures, hosted by the Asia Society and Edge of Arabia, in partnership with UNESCO. You may feel as overwhelmed by the amount of organizations and ideas in that sentence as I did at first, but essentially it was a panel discussion of three artists moderated by the founder of an organization that bridges Western and Arab worlds through art and shared culture, bookended by speeches by UNESCO and UN representatives, focusing on how art can be used to promote and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the UN.
You can view the event here (jump to about 20:40 to start), and I again strongly encourage you to check out the amazing work being done by these artists, the many excellent events and exhibitions of the yearlong New York-Arab World Arts and Education Initiative, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals themselves.
One of the strongest themes I saw throughout the forum was the ways that unsustainable development (which is to say environmentally harmful and socially irresponsible practices that put profit over people and the Earth) contributes not only to major global problems like poverty, famine, war, epidemics of disease, catastrophic weather events etc., but also to the loss of traditional culture, artisanship, and the commonality of understanding that comes with cross-cultural communications. It felt like the global version of what I had seen on a personal scale at the previous night’s NYPL panel: that we need to listen, cooperate, and collaborate across nations and cultures if we are going to tackle the almost unfathomably vast problems humanity currently faces.
It is hard to wrap our minds around something as huge as the entire Earth’s climate or the economy of a whole country, let alone the whole world, and it is even harder to incite true, actionable concern when most people are focused on surviving and the day-to-day problems right in front of them. We can recognize the tragedy of one individual polar bear starving to death, but we become paralyzed and helpless in the face of unprecedented millions of children starving to death in Yemen, where we are complicit (read this New Yorker article by Jane Ferguson if you never want to sleep again).
When the prevailing instinct is to say, “That’s a shame, but what am I supposed to do about it?” or worse, to dismiss everyone affected by genocide in a region as “would-be terrorists” or “the next generation of ISIS” and celebrate their demise, how do we even begin to bring about meaningful, substantive change? Warlords and dictators since time immemorial have learned the easiest way to get people to commit unconscionable acts of cruelty against their neighbors is the practice of “othering,” of dividing people along fairly small differences in religion, morality, language, or culture, to justify what is always at heart a dispute over territory and resources. They stay calm and exploit the natural divisions between former rivals, or they deliberately stoke misunderstandings and frustrations to profit from a divided populace. And if you think we are immune to this practice, think about the times you may have recently sneered about a liberal or rolled your eyes and said you just can’t understand those MAGA whackos at the rallies. We are not resisting these divisions, but reinforcing them, and we are giving outsized influence to the voices that say, “This is too big for you to understand” or, “Don’t you have enough to worry about in your own life without bringing Yemen into it?”
Wise Little River, 2018, 9″x12″, permanent marker on paper. On view through October 28 in “Escapades” at the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition in Red Hook (BWAC).
The challenge we face begins with establishing a general, global concern for all people and the environment, and I believe this will be the primary challenge of humanity for all time. I don’t see the personal appeals working. We may find images of displaced Syrian children covered in rubble from bombings upsetting, but we refuse to acknowledge how our dependence on gasoline for our cars is keeping us invested in prolonging their suffering and cultural destruction. We may donate once in a while to assuage guilt over children starving in Yemen (and here I will say, please support the crucial work of the International Rescue Committee!) but when it comes time to vote, we’re focusing on our own income tax or the gas tax in New Jersey or ideological hot-button issues like reproductive rights versus the “rights of the unborn,” and we aren’t even asking candidates what they plan to do about humanitarian crises or existential threats to the environment.
So maybe it is time for selfish, universal appeals. If we can’t stir up concern for all of humanity, maybe we need to focus on individual dangers, like losing your own home to hurricane flooding or losing your own job when your company moves overseas – but instead of scapegoating or fear-mongering (as our most cynical politicians do) we need to pinpoint the actual responsible parties and hold them accountable. I think we need to get into a proverbial room together, establish mutual respect (yes, even if that asks a really, really lot of us), and start working together to show people how they benefit personally from everyone doing the right thing (which we need to agree on together too).
I recently read an article shared by the March for Science about the most important science policy issue in every state, which was both utterly fascinating and immensely frustrating. As I read, I kept seeing so many opportunities for new businesses and jobs growth, a potentially huge boost to the economy, and improved quality of lives of people by investing in green initiatives. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is one of several candidates I know calling for a Green New Deal for exactly this type of infrastructure-level projects and policy changes that will result in more well-paying, secure jobs and sustainable economic development. I get so frustrated wondering why our current administration isn’t doing anything for green development and instead fighting for environmentally-disastrous, backwards policies, and then I remember their biggest donors are the owners of oil companies, coal and natural gas concerns, and weapons manufacturers. These donors are making extraordinary profits by keeping us dependent on oil and fighting unfunded wars for it, and we are letting our government act in their interests instead of ours.
I’m not sure if the project of turning things around is one of education, organization, traditional activism, community outreach and communication, or all of the above, but I am committed to figuring out how art and culture works toward it. I know that everything political I’ve said in this post will be summarily dismissed by those who disagree with “all liberals,” and I fear they are the ones who most need to see the ways they are being lied to and manipulated… but they would probably say the same about me. So where do we start? Do I make works of art they won’t look at? Do I write 3000-word essays they won’t read? Do I follow them around Facebook giving meticulously-sourced fact corrections for every opinion they blurt out? Or do I do exactly what we’ve been accused of doing all along, in gathering a momentum that excludes them and dragging them kicking and screaming along toward a progressive future that will ultimately benefit them too?
The Seat of Hope, 2018, 4″x6″, colored pencil on paper.
In my one conflict resolution session, I breached protocol at one point and said, “The other option is to just agree you don’t want to be friends anymore, go your separate ways, and we quit wasting everyone’s time trying to find compromise if you just plain hate each other.” I said it out of exasperation and annoyance that the process wasn’t working, but it landed like a slap in the face to both parties. Both got tears in their eyes, and one said quietly, “I don’t hate you.” The other agreed, and they dropped the self-righteous anger that had been fueling a long session of intransigent bickering, instead expressing hurt and getting to the heart of their conflict so they could resolve it.
To hate someone you don’t know personally or to express cruel indifference (“I don’t care if you lose your home because you are a bigot who supported a hateful pig for president” / “I don’t care if children are kept in cages or deported because their criminal parents shouldn’t have come here illegally to leech off taxpayers”) we can only see people in the abstract. I don’t know anyone who can say – and truly mean – the rhetorical things we spew online or the mean-spirited dismissals we make among likeminded peers to someone’s face. If we are forced to really look, one to one, to see individual people just like we want to be seen – and to examine how our mistreatment of them contributes to our own misfortunes – maybe there is some hope for finding common ground and reaching sustainable compromise. We don’t have the option to abandon large swathes of humanity, and it’s foolish to try to move on without them. I think, as hard as it is, now is the most important time for mutual respect, meaningful communication, and above all, listening, learning from each other, and remembering we are all in this together.