Tuesday, 21 January 2014

A study of conflict resolution in the case of Ian Gorst and Rob Duhamel

 "Chief Minister, Senator Ian Gorst, wanted the States to sack Deputy Rob Duhamel after claiming he could not work with him any more. He said he withdrew his proposition after "constructive dialogue" with Mr Duhamel meant they could find a way to work together. He said he "regretted" the way matters had escalated. Mr Gorst said earlier this month Mr Duhamel did not work well with other ministers who had "lost trust and confidence in him". But in a joint statement, the two men said they would work together to improve communication. " (1)

The resolution lacks the spectacle of a political punch-up, and let's be honest, it is pretty clear that there was a certain voyeuristic element in the impending vote of no confidence. How could it be otherwise, with a public weaned on the "Celebrity" game shows which thrive on sadism? Some of the comments I have seen suggest that the public feels cheated of the fight.

And so there has been a lot of talk lately with lurid headlines on Facebook and elsewhere of the kind that says "Gorst collapses", and the general feeling is that he decided that he could not win a vote of no confidence against the Planning Minister.

But I don't think that's the whole picture. Certainly there has been a groundswell of support for Deputy Duhamel, some of it, I understand, from within the Council of Ministers. And there has also been the feeling, expressed by Matthew Price on BBC Radio Jersey in an interview with Ian Gorst, that Senator Ozouf was given another chance, and made commitments to improved working practice, and why should the same consideration not been shown to Deputy Duhamel. I wouldn't be surprised if Deputy Gorst has taken those matters on board in reassessing the proposition.

Yet the most important part of the news has been overlooked. Senator Gorst met Deputy Duhamel. They talked together; they managed to take the heat out of the conflict, and actually issued a statement which was a constructive way forward.

The last time a Minister was "sacked" by a vote of no confidence was Senator Stuart Syvret, ousted by Senator Frank Walker. The two were at loggerheads. They would have needed some kind of referee to talk together, as it was clear there was a lot of animosity between the two. So far from politics being about issues, the distinct impression was that a lot of that conflict was a clash of personalities. It was unlikely that any common ground could be reached.

That happens a lot with political disputes. A lot of the phraseology betrays the kind of thinking behind the conflicts. One comment on Twitter asked whether Ian Gorst was "man enough to resign" if he lost the vote. This is the world of boys games, of schoolboy fights, and while these comments are being made by grown adults, they have not really left the playground that far behind.  

People prefer not to talk and sort out differences, especially men, where it is seen as a sign of weakness. "Man enough" itself is redolent of a particular kind of masculine posturing, where any compromise is seen as a sign of weakness. We don't say "woman enough". In fact, the far harder task is to step back, and talk, and defuse conflict.

It is not really a sign of weakness to negotiate for peace rather than lobby hand grenades over into the other trench. Do we really need this kind of "strong man" approach to politics in Jersey? Do we really need all the old ingrained patterns of defending, withdrawing, or attacking in the face of judgment and criticism? This is the way politics has been shaped, with blame, insults, put-downs, labels, criticisms, and comparisons - all forms of judgment which block out the ability to listen.

The "strong man" approach issues demands that implicitly or explicitly threaten the other with blame or punishment if they fail to comply. These are the patterns of control and power. Isn't it much better to really listen and negotiate instead?

Marshall Rosenberg, founder of "Non Violent Communication", commented on the psychological aspects of the desire for control that is so often toxic:

"In this type of system, only some people have the power of having their needs met, often at the expense of other people's needs not being met. Thus, this destructive mythology fuels moralistic judgments and sets the base for a domination system -expressed in a language that brings pain in relationships and violence in the world." He argues that what is needed in situations of conflict is to establish connection with other human beings.

There is a crucial difference between non-violence and passivity; the former is an act of compassion, of taking the trouble to speak and listen, whereas the latter is one of submission. Had the proposition just been withdrawn, that would have been a purely passive action, but instead, a joint statement was issued, which set forth methods to resolve future conflicts and work together better.

And language is critical in how we defuse conflicts and seek a peaceful resolution. As Rosenberg notes:

"We are unconsciously and habitually influenced by language processes that affect our choice making by distorting our perceptions. The language we use and the thoughts we have inform the kind of actions we take."

Talk of "weakness" or "cowardice" is the kind of language that can destroy any conflict resolution. It is the language which Nietzsche used to denigrate Christianity.

A non-violent approach means turning away from a mentality which sees opposition as trench warfare, and instead seeks not to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. This, Rosenberg says, means taking responsibility for our actions in increasing conflict or seeking peaceful solutions:

"Taking responsibility for ourselves diminishes the probability that we will use coercion to get our needs met or submit to others who choose it as a strategy"

If we look at part of the joint statement, we can see an admission of faults on both sides, an apology from Deputy Duhamel, an expression of regret from Ian Gorst that there was an escalation of events which led to this point, and a joint commitment to work together in a constructive manner. There is also a commitment to work towards dialogue and mutual understanding between all Ministers.

That's a statement of taking responsibility for mistakes on both sides, and moving matters forward. It's what used to be called "consensus politics", and there once was a good deal more of it in Jersey politics.

When the old committee system ended, power was concentrated in a very few individuals, and the system was almost designed for bullying, intimidation, and all those patterns of control learned in the playground.

It was not helped by two Chief Ministers who did very little to build political consensus, preferring to have the Council of Ministers consisting of a narrow range of political viewpoints. That's something that comes again from school - team games, where the captain picks their favourites. Senator Gorst made a strong effort to buck that trend and have a more diverse range within the Council of Ministers, and the conflict with Deputy Duhamel demonstrates, as their joint statement shows, that more is needed to be done for that to work.

In the meantime, at least two politicians who were at loggerheads have managed to meet and thrash out a way forward to resolve the conflicts between them. That is something commendable, and a promising start. Some people don't seem to like peacemakers, but that's the only way we are going to improve politics in Jersey.

"Peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal" - Martin Luther King Jr

"Peace cannot be kept by force, it can only be achieved by understanding"
- Albert Einstein

"If you want peace, you don't talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies"
- Archbishop Tutu

"I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself"
- Nelson Mandela

(1)   http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-jersey-25751645
(2)  There are many books on Non-Violent Communication, but "Nonviolent Communciation: A Language of Life"(2003) by Marshall Rosenberg was the one recommended to me by Annie Parmeter, who introduced me to his ideas, as well as to the feminist critique of male power games.

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