Alan Yarborough: Getting to Meaning

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Newsletter 101 — April 4, 2023


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by Alan Yarborough

April 4, 2023

The historical and cultural meaning that language collects over time leads to a plurality of meanings for many words and phrases. Failure to dig into this frequently derails conversation. Some words contain so many meanings, using them without context leaves the listener hearing whatever they want to hear. Meaning can also be shaped by the identities of those within an exchange, including a mediator. To better understand both others and even ourselves, we must dig deeper into the words and terms we use to ensure we are conveying precisely what we want to convey and nothing more.

This plurality of meanings is often used to seek public appeal while avoiding controversy that often emerges in details. Let’s look at “love.” People want more love—an agreeable premise. But without a definition of love, we cannot know what this means. I know someone excommunicated from their church community for being gay, and the church used “love” as their justification (they wanted to save him from hell). Some claim love as a justification for more open immigration policies to help those in need, others claim love as a justification for more restrictive immigration policies to protect people from bad actors. Preaching “love” without talking about how to love risks becoming a veneer, covers up a failure to seriously engage, and can even become a weapon to separate us from them. (The term “American” is another great example to dive into, but another time.)

This plurality also permits us to say more than what simple definitions allow while avoiding key terms. Take the orchestrated shift away from overtly racist terms in the 1960s onward toward the continued use of dog whistles and the like. Terms like “inner city” or referencing “Chicago and Detroit” when talking about crime carry a racist weight whether the speaker is fully aware of it or not. In their simple definitions, these are benign terms, but through repetition, narrative work, and historical developments, their definitions became augmented. Augmentations can also change depending on who is using the word (like two words that start with n and b).

Concepts and terms in the peacebuilding space, like civility or civil discourse, are not immune from these dynamics. We cannot present civility or civil discourse as evenly understood, for in reality, each has a different meaning for different audiences.

Where does this leave us? What is it that we as conflict resolution practitioners, bound by the forces of our own society and world, can do? Are we mediating two sides of a conflict as if we are not also involved? Are we championing civility to uphold negative peace when we really should be pursuing positive peace that requires healthy conflict many may view as “uncivil?” I want to share eight points for further consideration, as you refine your own answers to these questions.

First, following the idea of omni-partiality, we cannot deny our own experience or assessment of a given situation. The onus falls on the conflict practitioner to not only be aware of the dynamics of those seeking mediation, but also on their own engagement, and to “encourage empathy and dialogue over meaning,” thus seek clarifications at any moment where differences in understanding may occur. Yet doing this type of digging requires making assessments or judgements about people’s identities, which becomes complicated quickly.

Therefore, second, we must prepare to be wrong about our assessment of others. In mediation, facilitated dialogue, and the like, catering messages for an audience means first making an assessment of the audience. For some topics, like racism, this is quite difficult. We cannot make blanket assumptions that a Black person is liberal, that a white Democrat is anti-racist, and so on, nor can we, as Americans mediating other Americans, claim impartiality from either polarization or racism. We too, are steeped in both. That makes the neutral mediator premise quite difficult to put into practice, but admitting our own misjudgments is a good place to start.

Third, we must distinguish the what and the how. Hyperpolarization and racism must be addressed, that’s the easy “what.” How we address them is much more complicated, and will require a plurality of approaches. In any given scenario, we may best approach these two problems by beginning with that which is most salient for our conversation partners or audience. The feedback loop between oppression and hyper-polarization shows how they reinforce each other, but where one may be in that loop varies.

Fourth, we must separate our work from the broader, more fraught, concept of “civility.” That word carries the baggage of racism, sexism and the like, of silencing the marginalized, telling them to wait their turn, to be patient. Acknowledging this harmful misuse of civility can help us uphold the useful tool of genuine civil discourse.

Fifth, we must be clear that as humans operating within the same systems, we too have blind spots. It has taken me years to learn what I know about racist injustice, and I am learning more daily. While there is a type of malicious ignorance, what I’m talking about here is a type of ignorance we must be able to accommodate. It is far more important to help others go along the path of enlightenment, instead of shutting them down prematurely, stifling their will to learn.

Sixth, our privileges grant us the ability to be heard differently by different audiences depending on the topic. We should recognize the opportunity to put our privileges to use accordingly, not to supplant the voices of others but to supplement them, making the soil for conversation more fertile by helping the skeptic open up to a topic they have resisted engaging.

Seventh, we must reverse the trend of making everyday objects, people, actions, and beliefs about partisan politics, for neither Republicans nor Democrats have consistent, clear, and opposing track records when it comes to racism. More and more aspects of our lives are being "marked" as conservative or progressive identifiers, however inaccurate those marks may be. Certainly, most anything may be viewed as political in a broader sense. For example, produce ends up in grocery stores after navigating a host of laws and regulations, but eating a salad is not a liberal activity, it's just a salad.  Not every aspect of our lives needs to reinforce partisan belonging.

Finally (for now), we must redefine what it means to belong. I belong to my family, and I imagine like yours, every relative has not always treated other relatives with perfect love and respect. How do we hold that imperfection in our communities without allowing it to tear us apart? The dynamic noted in point seven unfortunately is creating an ever more elaborate test to determine if one belongs or does not belong, centered upon partisan identity. The desire to belong makes sense, but when it is based in manufactured threats and partisan polarization that exhibits patterns of dehumanization, we are left only with the illusion of belonging and the risk of a dangerous future.

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