A Mediator’s Bookshelf

No matter what I’m reading, I try to see if it can help me better understand conflict. Insights can come from unlikely places if we are open to them. None of these books is specifically about mediation, although one is co-authored by a mediator. All have informed my thinking about conflict and my dispute resolution practice

White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism by Robin DiAngelo

Calls for white people to educate themselves about racism have come in the wake of police shootings and violence against African American men and women. While this book is flawed, it is a good place to start.

DiAngelo is a sociologist, and so her perspective on racism is a welcome change from psychological or individualistic accounts. She offers a clear explanation of structural or systematic racism. Racism not simply a matter of racist or ignorant individuals; it is equally something embedded in our laws and practices. She also draws on years of experience as a corporate “diversity trainer” to provide vivid examples of what she calls “white fragility” – the defensive manoeuvres that some individuals undertake to resist the idea that racism is real, and that their actions might support it.

White Fragility is written from an American perspective. (Canadian readers may be amused that participants in DiAngelo’s US-based workshops have told her, “I’m not racist. I’m Canadian.”) While Canadians are not immune to racism, its contours are different here than in the U.S. DiAngelo’s focus is anti-black racism, and she has little to say about anti-indigenous racism.

In my experience as a Toronto-based mediator, race is a complicating factor in many conflicts and failing to understand this can be a barrier to resolution. I have seen race play out in different ways in personal injury mediation, community disputes, workplace conflict, and restorative justice conferences. More than ever, dispute resolution professionals need to make the effort to understand the systemic nature of racism and white privilege. White Fragility deserves a place on the mediator’s bookshelf.

Less than Human: Why we demean, enslave, and exterminate others by David Livingstone Smith

If you looked at the title and thought, “That sounds depressing,” you’re right. Philosopher David Livingstone Smith draws on research in social science, history, and evolutionary psychology to explain why human beings de-humanize others. That is, how we can come to see our fellow human beings not as creatures like ourselves but as some kind of lesser beings. Dehumanizing others in this way is all too often the first step on the path to mistreatment.

Livingston provides a wealth of examples. The chapter on the de-humanization of North American native peoples by European colonizers is particularly relevant. These events seem far in the past, yet their reverberations extend to the present time. As I knew not much more than the outlines of this history, the material here was particularly eye-opening.

This book reinforced for me how important it is to listen to how people talk about those with whom they are in conflict, and whenever possible to reinforce the humanity of those on the “other side.”

Virtuous Violence: Hurting and killing to create, sustain, end, and honor social relations by Alan Page Fiske and Tage Shakti Rai

These authors offer a radically different analysis than Livingstone Smith, and indeed from most others who have thought about conflict and violence. Fiske and Rai argue that the motive for much violence is the regulation of social relations, and that people who commit violence feel that their cause is righteous – even morally required. They provide evidence from a variety of different cultures and historical eras.

People in conflict are rarely at their best, and as mediators we’re sometimes required to understand the perspective of people who hold positions that we may find offensive. This book helped me understand how actions can look “right” from the inside while being morally problematic to those on the outside.

Feast: Why Humans Share Food by Martin Jones

Did you know that human beings are the only animals to share food outside of our immediate social groups? Jones, an archeologist of food remains, investigates the history of the meal in order to understand why. He takes us from a prehistoric communal butchery of a wild horse after it is felled by a hunting party, to the emergence of the restaurant in 18th century Europe, to a contemporary solitary diner with a newspaper and TV dinner.

Feast prompted me to think about the ways in which humans come together, cooperate, and celebrate. Attention to the social dimension of food (as opposed to its nutritional value) gives us a new perspective on lavish buffets set up in mediation spaces.

Brainfishing: A Practice Guide to Questioning Skills by Gary Furlong and Jim Harrison

If you’ve had the pleasure of being in one of Gary Furlong’s courses, it will be no surprise that Brainfishing is lively, engaging, and full of practical wisdom. Asking questions is at the heart of mediation. We ask questions to unpack parties’ positions, understand their interests, and build rapport. The authors draw on recent research in neuroscience as well as their years of experience in mediation, negotiation, and consulting.

Brainfishing is well worth reading through, and also having to hand as a refresher.

About the image: “Part of a bookshelf containing books by ancient philosophers” a photo by Roman Eisele, Wiki Media Commons