Summary of Lisa Schirch: Transforming the Colour of US Peacebuilding: Types of Dialogue to Protect and Advance Multi-racial Democracy

Lisa Schirch sent us a link to this article which she published as the Toda Peace Institute's Policy Brief No. 114 in September 2021.  In it, she directly addresses the discussion we (the Burgesses) have been having with Jackie Font-Guzmán and Bernie Mayer about the relationship between Left-Right peacebuilding, racial justice advocacy, neutrality, and related matter. We highlight several of the key ideas here, but urge readers to follow the link and read the whole article to better and more completely understand her argument.


By Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

September 22, 2022

Lisa begins by observing that "strategies to advance democracy in the US are fragmented with white peacebuilders mainly focusing on using dialogue to reduce political polarization, and black and brown social justice activists mainly emphasizing the need for shifting power to ensure democratic representation and basic rights already enjoyed by most white people." This distinction is similar to the one that has emerged in our discussion with Jackie Font-Guzmán and Bernie Mayer about how to save and advance democracy.  (However, we look at much more than dialogue and offer an alternative strategy for addressing social inequities.) 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 points to the work of conflict resolution expert, Jim Laue, who, in the 1960s worked directly with Martin Luther King, who together combined social justice activism and bridge building dialogue.  

For Laue, taking sides with racial justice advocates and using dialogue with people across the political spectrum were both essential to what he called “conflict resolution.” Laue worked with the Community Relations Service, and later taught at George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution, where other faculty also focused primarily on US-based conflicts. For Laue, supporting social justice was essential and more important than appearing strictly nonpartisan.

She goes on to explain: 

US polarisation is not simply a matter of differing views on policy between Democrats and Republicans. Three main drivers of US polarisation stymy dialogue between political parties: 1) the legacy of “us vs them” violence in US history; 2) media fragmentation and the weaponisation of disinformation on social media; and 3) an intentional Republican strategy to further polarise the US population.

Today, researchers distinguish between different types of polarisation. Issue polarisation refers to people holding different points of view on public issues. Affect polarisation occurs when people actively dehumanise or demean the dignity of people who hold different opinions.  Political polarisation today reflects both a disagreement on policy views, as well as dehumanisation of human dignity.

Both issue and affect polarisation in the US are a result of historical oppression and a deliberate political strategy. Right-wing political forces now and in the past use political power, policymaking, and the media to increase social divisions and undermine social cohesion.

Attempts at dialogue must take place with this analysis in mind. Dialogue skills enable clear communication about conflictual topics relevant to issue polarisation without name-calling or other communication tactics. But it is not yet clear that dialogue alone can transform affect polarisation that dehumanises or denigrates others’ identity.

A deeper exploration of the dilemmas of the concepts of civility and impartiality is an important element in this discussion.

Lisa goes on to explain how the notion of "civility" means different things to different people. Bridgebuilders see it as talking calmly and respectfully to people who differ from oneself, and she cites "decades of reasearch [that] attest to the positive impact of experiencing or even witnessing respectful intergroup contact." On the other hand, some on the right think of "civility" as a call for "political correctness" and attempt to silence conservative views.  At the same time, she says, right-wing media accuses Black Lives Matter of being uncivil "because they name injustices and provoke discomfort in their calls to disrupt the status quo. ...Activists ask why naming and protesting racism is considered “uncivil” when the term civility is not applied to everyday violence against people with black and brown bodies."

The concept of impartiality is similarly problematic. Like civility, it means different things to different people.  Some (for instance many mediators) see impartiality as meaning that they do not declare support for any side.  "Many mediators assume they are “third party neutrals” and view their credibility as stemming from their refusal to be explicit on their values or beliefs." 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?"

Lisa then presents a very useful comparison between bridge-building dialogue and social justice movement building, and has a chart showing those two approaches' differing analysis of the problem (toxic polarization vs. systemic racism and oppression), differing strategies (dialogue across divides vs. shifting power to end systemic racism), notion of civility (talking respectfully and trusting democratic processes vs silencing those who name or protest social injustice) and notion of impartiality (impartial to parties, (partial to multicultural democracy vs. partial to justice)

Lisa folds all these disparate pieces together by using John Paul Lederach's metaphor of The Meeting Place, which is derived from Psalm 84: a place where "“truth and mercy meet, and peace and justice kiss.” These are not contradictory values or approaches. They are each necessary for sustainable peace." Strategic peacebuilding, Lisa asserts, "requires both shifting power (truth telling and justice) and building relationships (mercy and peace) across the lines of conflict." So, both approaches—bridge-building dialogue and social justice movement building are necessary to reach Lederach's "Meeting Place" (which he calls, though Lisa didn't mention this, the place of "reconciliation.") Lisa follows this observation with an explanation of how the Movement for Black Lives meets all the basic criteria of peacebuilding: it recognizes the conflict is normal and can be productive; it addresses root causes of conflict; and  it requires shifting power and building relational bridges. 

She concludes with a set of policy recommendations:

To Funders: 

  • Fund both movements and inter-group dialogue and
  • Training in strategic peacebuilding.

To Civil Society:

  • Recognize the political forces aiming to polarize the U.S. public and undermine democracy;
  • Support efforts to build power to support multicultural democracy;
  • Choose terms carefully (e.g., avoid "civility" and "impartiality") "when these terms are used to prevent truth telling and protests against the status quo." 
  • Use dialogue skills within movements to build broader coalitions
  • Use dialgoue to address political polarization
  • Coordinate dialogue and movement strategies for change to transform the current color of U.S. peacebuilding.