Culture and Conflict

Michelle LeBaron is a world-renown expert in the field of conflict resolution. She has lectured, taught, researched and authored books on dispute resolution and cross-cultural conflict resolution. After teaching for eleven years at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and the Women's Studies program at George Mason University, she joined the Faculty of Law at the University of British Columbia (UBC). She is currently a Professor of Law and the director of UBC's Program on Dispute Resolution.

Michelle LeBaron, give me your definitions of conflict and of culture.

I have come up with, I think, the most succinct, least academic definition of conflict I ever heard of, and that is that conflict is a difference that matters. When you look at it, there are all types of differences between you and me, for example, but they don't materialize in conflict unless somehow, something about our identities, or meaning-making processes, or our ways of seeing the world bump up against each other. And that's why I talk about conflict as a difference that matters.

The definition I like the best about culture is also a plain language one; that is culture is what is all around us that we don't see. The analogy is the water that fish swim in. It is the thing in the room that everyone knows and that people from outside the group would not know. Because it's implicit and unspoken and yet shared. That means that culture is not just, as is so often thought about, related to nationality, ethnicity or race, but it's related to all kinds of dimensions of difference such as socio-economic differences, gender, sexual orientation, disability - all kinds of dimensions. I think that's so important because it broadens the discussion and it also brings to the surface that all of us are multicultural. You cannot be assigned some sort of cultural identity by somebody else. You instead draw from different identities at different times and different contexts. And different identities can be salient at different times. For example, when I was the only female faculty member in an all-male faculty for years, suddenly gender became much more salient to me as a way of understanding others' actions than it had been before.

Do you think that cultural differences are at the root of international conflicts?

If you take a look at a lot of what is out there, both in the popular and academic press, we have the legacy of a scholar named Huntington who wrote an article called The Clash of Civilizations. He predicted these very large worldview and cultural differences would be the undoing of the world. People have picked that theme up in more popular venues and I really strongly disagree. I do believe that culture is virtually always a factor in conflict and we can't not act from cultural perspectives; we are cultural beings. The idea of putting cultural lenses or biases aside doesn't make sense because they are part of our identity and part of the way we perceive and act in the world. At the same time, leaping from that awareness to a causal link is hugely problematic because it suggests then that somehow, these differences are immutable and we're on some sort of inevitable collision course. And I think that's really wrong. I think what that does is it masks or makes it difficult for us to see the actual positive contributions of cultural ways of being. And it lends itself to a lifeless set of technologies around conflict resolution in which sometimes we try to get people to submerge their cultural identities because we see them as problematic. I think that it should be quite the reverse. When we look at times when people across intractable conflicts, or international conflicts, have come together, it's usually through some bridge which is in part cultural rather than be being blocked by some division which is cultural. We have common denominators such as sharing foods, experiencing each other's hospitality, involving ourselves in creative arts that someone else is showing us. These can be superficial ways of sharing culture and yet, they can be a very important foundation in building a relationship that can lead to some sort of constructive resolution of an international or intercultural conflict.

The Centre for Intercultural Learning believes that people can develop specific skills and competencies to become interculturally effective, and one of these competencies is just what you are talking about; a willingness to learn, to share and to take an interest in someone else's culture.

I think that's right. We can train ourselves and each other to be culturally fluent and one of the main ingredients is having a spirit of inquiry. Just really being curious. And that doesn't mean being naïve or that goodwill is enough and you can wander into all kinds of cultural boundaries without worrying. That is not the case. Part of cultural fluency is having specific skills and developing cultural fluency to know where the cultural boundaries lie and how to traverse them.

In dealing with conflict, what importance should we attribute to culture?

Culture is always relevant both in trying to understand differences and in trying to address them. And so how do we position it? I would say that typically, approaches to conflict appear in three layers. The top layer is whatever the thing is at issue. If it's a question of who gets which resource, which is what people most often think conflict is about, we tend to focus on that and problem solve about that. The second level tends to relate to communication. We think that if we just use enough communication skills, and fully communicate about that thing that is at issue, then we will be able to solve conflicts. But both those views are very limited in that they don't take into account that there may be symbolic aspects connected to the ways that each of us relate to whatever materially is at issue. But if we have communication prescriptions like active listening or reframing, those flow from a particular set of assumptions about communications that may not be shared by the other party. Therefore, I think that cultural, worldview and perceptual issues, which I call the whole symbolic kind of realm, are absolutely foundational to understanding any type of intractable conflict and indeed, are usually the most productive place to start. Rather than starting with problem-solving about an issue, if instead we start with perhaps a social ritual, some sort of coming together and some sharing about who each of us is, as opposed to what we each want with respect to the issue, then we develop a climate which is far more generative and creative than if we narrow things very quickly by focusing on the material issues.

You've written about a story told of Jimmy Carter trying to bring about a peace agreement with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat at Camp David. Can you tell me about that?

That was a case where Carter was at Camp David with Begin and Sadat trying to broker a peace agreement and Begin had walked out and was actually back in his quarters packing. Carter tells that he went to Begin to bring some sort of closure to his conversations with him. But Carter is also a very effective peacemaker, and he knows not to give up, and so he brought a signed group photograph of the three leaders, inscribed personally to each of Begin's grandchildren. When Carter gave that to Prime Minister Begin, apparently, Begin was very, very moved. It touched a chord in him and he began to think about how the actions they were taking on that day would have a legacy for his grandchildren and for whole generations of grandchildren. According to President Carter, that was the turning point that encouraged Begin to re-engage in the negotiations which we all know ended in brokering a successful peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.

That's a wonderful story because it demonstrates not a negotiating tactic, but an understanding of different reference points, or a certain knowledge of what would motivate my colleague, as opposed to a more "what's in it for me?" approach.

And I do think that there are a couple of different things that help. We have all sorts of frameworks for thinking about culture; for instance High and Low Context, Individualist and Collectivist, and so on. I think it's useful for people to pay attention to starting points. It doesn't mean that if you and I are having a low context, direct kind of communication that there are not also some sort of high context things going on. These starting points are not dichotomies; they are continua and so if we think about what's the most natural starting point for us in a given settings, we also have in our minds the possibility that things change and are dynamic. It is also useful to talk about currencies. What has value for you and for me in a given cultural context? And how do those things that have value need to be acknowledged in order for us to be able to move forward with our negotiations? There's a whole phrase that comes out of conflict resolution where we say "separate people from the problem." I think that is exactly wrong. We know that interculturally it is impossible because for many people, that kind of divisibility simply doesn't make sense.

Do you think the fact that our planet is "shrinking" - with instant communications, e-mail, wired networks and such - that cultural differences are being minimized and therefore less important, than say, a hundred years ago?

I do think that there is some kind of truth to that. We can point to all sorts of indicators of globalization of world culture. At the same time, we have something else that is going in exactly the opposite direction, which is the continual claim to particular identity boundaries by all kinds of groups in the world. So I would say there is a kind of polarization almost; there is this level of rapid communication and connection among all humanity, or at least all humanity that is connected to a computer, which is not all humanity. And then there is a strong desire or almost a resurgence of people needing and wanting to affiliate and to feel they are connected to particular identities. And we see, in some ways, some of those identities getting manipulated as we saw in the war in the Balkans. It seems to me what this shows us is that identity is a deep kind of need. Mary Clark, who is a biologist and an author, writes about our need for belonging. We have a need for belonging and connection and at the same time a need for autonomy, which we negotiate through our human relationships. And that is absolutely a constant in human history and continues to be, notwithstanding our technological advances.

Tell me what the "Platinum Rule" is.

The Platinum Rule turns the Golden Rule upside down and says: You know, it's not very helpful for me to treat you the way I want to be treated, which is what the Golden Rule is, because you may be different from me in some important ways. Instead, what I need to do is to treat you the way you want to be treated. So the Platinum Rule is: Do onto others as they would have you do onto them. Rather than imaging that your reference point points to the way someone else wants to be treated, you actually need to inquire about how that person wants to be treated and then try to accomplish that.

I was recently speaking with Canadian police officers who were about to leave on a civilian police mission to Haiti. What kind of advice would you give them, or what kind of preparation do you think they should have to effectively work in this type of environment?

I would advise them, and I would hope, that they have a lot of training about intercultural relations and conflict prevention! If I had to distill some key ideas from those two areas, I would say: Bring your spirit of inquiry while really being careful to notice the way that othering happens. The way that "us and them" perceptions can so quickly emerge. They should resist a sort of rigid categorization of who is "us" and who is "them." The other thing would be a capacity within themselves that would need to be developed in an ongoing way and that is the ability to be supple, creative and to think in novel ways under stress. Finally, I would say self-awareness is critical. Awareness of their own lenses, what they are looking through, what makes sense to them, and how that affects the way that they interpret and relate to others.

Are there times when the cultural context will dictate when one should use an impartial mediator or negotiator, and times when this mediator should be an insider? When it's ok to use someone who has a stake in the outcome?

Absolutely!. It's very often the case. Take Mexico for example, where someone who is an insider partial may be actually preferred by people who are involved because it doesn't make sense to them to insert someone without relationship or without insight into the entire history of what's happened. That would make more sense in a low context Canadian setting, perhaps, but less sense in a cultural context where there is more focus on the intactness of relationships and insider knowledge. However, there are no hard and fast rules about this. I remember very clearly talking with people here in the Chinese community in Vancouver about setting up a mediation centre and they said; "Make sure it's not in Chinatown." They wanted to have outsiders mediating because they were worried that people might not come if they had to worry about losing face by discussing difficult personal or community conflicts. There are no hard and fast rules, but I think it's important to recognize that there is this continuum between "outsider so-called neutral," [although I don't like this idea of neutrality because I don't think it is really useful or valid], and "insider partial." Depending on the circumstances, the same group might at times need someone that is "insider partial" and at other times, someone who is so-called "outsider neutral."

Michelle LeBaron, thank you very much for this.

You're very welcome. It was my pleasure talking with you.