Additional Perspectives on Oppression, Justice, Advocacy, Neutrality, and Peacebuilding

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Newsletter #56 —October 4, 2022


In This Issue


From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors — Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

 More Thoughts on Neutrality and Related Issues

The conversation that we (Heidi and Guy) have been having with Jackie and Bernie elicited responses from a number of other people.  We highlight the key ideas from several of these below, and will include more later. Since we have now spent four newsletters on this topic, however, we are going to move on to other topics for awhile, and then come back to this. 

Other topics we want to address soon include how to get people away from the ubiquitous us-versus-them, win-lose framing of all disagreements, and the tendency to think of collaboration and compromise as unacceptable "selling out" to the enemy.  We also want to do more with the question of scale and complexity and how to deal with bad-faith actors who are trying to tear us apart. If you have thoughts to contribute on these topics, or on anything else related to hyper-polarization in the U.S. or elsewhere, please write us!  

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From the BI/CRQ Hyper-Polarization Discussion

First, here are two comments about neutrality came in before our discussion with Jackie and Bernie "went public,"  one from Larry Susskind and the other from Louis Kriesberg.

Larry Susskind

In Consensus Building in the Age of Trump, Larry said:

Neutrality is central to the value we add as ADR professionals. Our neutrality allows us to earn the trust of all sides in any dispute. It also means we can operate in the interstices between the parties and, in so doing, carry messages and provide cover for parties to come together without appearing to be weak. My contention is that many ADR professionals are so upset by what is happening in the Age of Trump that they are ready to risk their perceived neutrality. While I understand their motives, I am convinced this would be a disaster for the profession.

Louis Kriesberg

However, Lou came down on the other side of this debate:

there is an assertion that “we” set aside personal political partisanship and avoid progressive advocacy.  I disagree.  There are times and places where that can be effective for promoting democracy and justice.  Progressive goals can result in incremental gains.  President Clinton’s acceptance of the Republican Party’s goal to “end big government,” did not get him concessions from Republicans.  His concessions did not stop extreme hostility and lies against him and Hilary.   President Biden’s progressive domestic goals have actually helped achieve some significant gains. 

Jay Rothman

In "The Reflexive Mediator." Jay asserts "third parties cannot be neutral, and therefore striving to be so is a wasted effort." He argues, instead, that third parties should be "mindful" of their own reactions to the people and conversations they are having. Once they recognize their own inevitable bias, they can choose to hide it, or reveal it in an effort to raise important issues. But he says, bias should be "disciplined," so that all parties are treated fairly and respectfully. This models the way he hopes the parties will treat each other:

... having both articulated my own bias to myself and raised it to a level of self-conscious scrutiny, I “discipline it” by trying to balance it by taking perspective of the other side, just as I hope the parties will eventually be able to do with each other.

Ken Cloke

In "Neutrality, Omni-Partiality, and the Evolution of Political Conflict" from  Mediation in a Time of Crisis, Ken observes

I suggest we shift our thinking from being neutral to being omni-partial, first, because there is no such thing as genuine neutrality when it comes to conflict; second, because the language of neutrality creates an expectation that fairness means suppressing our past experiences and insights.

But real fairness comes from using the past to gain an open, honest, humble perspective on the present. Worse, neutral language is bland, consistent, predictable, and homogenous, and used to control what cannot be controlled…. Yet because neutrality implies objectivity and distance from the source of the conflict, it cannot countenance empathy, or give the mediator room to acknowledge or experience grief, compassion, love, anger, fear, or hope. Neutrality can paralyze emotional honesty, intimate communication, vulnerability, and self-criticism. It can undermine shared responsibility, prevention, creative problem solving, and organizational learning. It can ignore the larger systems in which conflict occurs. It can fail to comprehend spirit, forgiveness, transformation, or healing, which are essential in mediation. As a result, it can become a straitjacket, a check on our ability to unlock the sources of conflict.

While Ken isn't any more supportive of neutrality than Jackie and Bernie are, he does not advocate taking one side against the other.

Omni-partiality does not require us to agree or disagree about facts, but asks us to encourage empathy and dialogue over meanings; and to reject adversarial, competitive judgments grounded on distinctions between “us” and “them.” It “separates the person from the problem,” allowing us to be “soft on the person and hard on the problem,” and inclusive of everyone, without collapsing multiple truths into some simplistic, superficial, one-sided façade of Truth. At the same time, it is grounded in core values, such as inclusion, diversity, respect, honesty, collaboration, and caring.

He ends his essay powerfully by saying:

Each of these crises [Covid, racism, policing, global warming, etc.] asks us to overcome the hostile, adversarial, authoritarian forces that separate “us” from “them;” to realize that there is no “them,” there is only us. And as we do, it becomes easy to be omni-partial, and on everyone’s side at the same time, allowing us to face our conflicts and crises together, as a diverse and cohesive community of problem solvers.

Greg Bourne

This notion is echoed by Greg Bourne, who wrote in "What Do The Times Require?""

Difficult times require difficult choices. To the benefit of our cherished democratic republic then, what kind of a response is required for these times — living through a pandemic, economic distress, political turmoil, racial reckoning and public confusion about what is true, all occurring simultaneously and interactively?

. . .

We are not always going to see eye-to-eye or agree on the solution to specific issues or concerns. But when we do not agree, there must be an effort to understand the other, identify what we have in common, identify what is the common good, and work respectfully through our differences towards a solution that can be imagined by all. As we work through areas of disagreement, we do so from the starting point that there is a mutual concern for one another – if for no other reason that the alternative will most certainly erode our social contract with one another, and the health of our society.


What values, then, must we consider? Start with the many values to which most aspire. To be respected. To be heard. To be given a fair chance. Simply said, supported in some form by nearly every religious tradition, to treat others as we wish to be treated. Compassion, empathy, understanding, forgiveness, some degree of grace and yes, dare we say, love – a word we typically shy away from in the public square. (Not to be confused with some sentimental notion of love that accepts or overlooks evil and tolerates anything.)


History shows that hate and violence never win in the end. They result in more hate and more violence which lead to ruin, or no one left standing. Love requires standing firm against hate and violence. Love also leads to concern for the other, those who look different from us, those who have a different ethnic or cultural background, those with a different belief system, those who may even be considered “the enemy.” We’ve seen up close the results of hate, discord and violence. We must choose the better path – and the first step begins with each of us making that choice.


Lisa Schirch

In "Transforming the Colour of US Peacebuilding: Types of Dialogue to Protect and Advance Multi-racial Democracy" Lisa maintains that "Both bridge building dialogue and social justice activism are necessary peacebuilding strategies," and asserts that rather than being at odds with each other, these two approaches are actually complementary.  She says that the notion of impartiality is problematic because it means different things to different people.  Many mediators, for example, say that it means not declaring support for any side.  A second meaning is "making deliberate efforts to humanise and treat all people with dignity. This approach may also be called “multi-partiality” or an attempt to see different points of view." A third meaning requires avoiding even the terminology associated with one side or the other--for example, avoiding use of the term "social justice," since that is a red flag to some Republicans. But she asks, "What does it mean to be impartial when terms like cultural awareness and racial healing are viewed as partisan ideas? Is it possible to protect multicultural democracy while delicately avoiding such terms?" She goes on to compare the assumptions, goals, and methods of social justice movement building and bridge-building dialogue.  Due to space limitations, we will explore those ideas in a coming newsletter.

Martin Carcasson

Lastly, our colleague Duncan Audrey referred us to an excellent article by Martin Carcasson, a summary of which we have recently added to the discussion.  Martin introduces the concept of "principled impartiality,"  which involves a careful balancing of three somewhat contradictory goals:  1) impartiality, 2) democratic values, such as "inclusion, equality, free speech, pluralism, and human rights, and 3) quality information and arguments (hence a commitment to accuracy, clarity, and reasonableness, and opposition to misinformation, manipulation, and logical fallacies." 

We believe that working to identify these tensions, put them on the table, and do the hard work to manage them works to elevate conversations. ..."the concept of principled impartiality is not designed to end discussion, but to spark deeper discussions that must be engaged. I argue that is the heart of the work of the deliberative practitioner, as well as other impartial practitioners like journalists, librarians, teachers, city/county managers, etc.

Martin acknowledges that growing societal polarization has made that balance increasingly difficult:

By all accounts, the importance of good process has exponentially increased at the same time that trying to negotiate the tensions inherent to principled impartiality has become almost hopelessly complex and fraught with peril. Unfortunately, one primary reaction to the hyper-polarization and proliferation of bad faith actors and tactics was increased pushback on and dismissal of the role of impartiality and neutrality.

Martin answers this  by saying:

In the end, democratic decision-making in the face of wicked problems, hyperpolarization, and the proliferation of conflict entrepreneurs is exceedingly difficult. In this environment, those attempting to serve as principled impartial resources for our communities face immense challenges and vocal opposition (often from multiple sides). Nonetheless, I would still argue we have no other choice than to soldier on. To abandon impartiality completely and simply join the fray as partisans will likely only further erode our political culture and exacerbate the problems of polarization, distrust, and misinformation. Fighting fire with fire is likely to simply burn the whole democracy down. ... I recognize the likely objection of the perceived weakness of impartiality in the face of powerful bad faith actors—my work was once described to me as “speaking nice to power”—but I would argue they revel in a hyper-polarized environment where opposing arguments can be dismissed as “fake news,” and no one trusts any source of information. For our communities to get back on track and improve their ability to address their shared problems, institutions committed to defending democracy and helping us distinguish between strong and weak arguments must be developed or reinvigorated.



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Colleague Activities

Highlighting things that our conflict and peacebuilding colleagues are doing that contribute to efforts to address the hyper-polarization problem.


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Beyond Intractability in Context

From around the web, more insight into the nature of our conflict problems, limits of business-as-usual thinking, and things people are doing to try to make things better.

About the MBI Newsletters

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