The Neutrality Trap
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The Neutrality Trap

Disrupting and Connecting for Social Change

Bernard S. Mayer, Jacqueline N. Font-Guzmán

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eBook - ePub

The Neutrality Trap

Disrupting and Connecting for Social Change

Bernard S. Mayer, Jacqueline N. Font-Guzmán

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About This Book

Work for social change through constructive engagement and systems disruption in this practical resource for social change advocates and conflict specialists

In The Neutrality Trap, expert mediators and facilitators Bernard Mayer and Jacqueline N. Font-Guzmán deliver an insightful and practical exploration of how to understand the conflicts we face as social change agents.

You'll learn about systems disruption and constructive engagement: how to develop the relationships and change strategies that help people, systems, and societies confront their most important social challenges. In this important book, you will:

  • Discover how to challenge the status quo in an effective way
  • Practice how to "get into good trouble, " and pick the battles worth fighting
  • Learn to be strategic in your approach to social change and sustain your efforts over the long term

Perfect for anyone interested in progressing and achieving social justice, The Neutrality Trap is an indispensable guide to engaging in and managing the necessary conflict that comes with meaningful change.

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part one
engaging conflict

chapter one
engaging and disrupting for social change

“Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.”
—John Lewis, Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America
At a time when our country and our world seem constantly on the precipice of chaos and disaster, we can easily lose faith that the future has anything to offer other than more and worse of the same. Fires rage, hurricanes destroy, pandemics kill, and we seem incapable of doing anything about them. Our political systems seem much better at redistributing wealth upward, maintaining the power of elites, and suppressing dissent than confronting our most serious challenges. Democracy seems in retreat and authoritarianism on the rise across the globe.
But pessimism itself contributes to our political paralysis, and we must never forget that systems do change, people's lives improve, and oppressive governments fall. We are on a long and winding road that takes us to some very surprising, sometimes wonderful, but also frightening places.
Sometimes change is painfully slow, and sometimes advances are undone. Then, suddenly, amazing and important moral progress occurs. What were once unusual and unpopular attitudes about same‐sex marriage, gender fluidity, and sexuality rapidly become far more widely accepted. A totalitarian system that has held millions of people under its thumb suddenly disintegrates. While racism continues to affect every corner of our societies, racist ideology is broadly rejected by growing numbers of people.
But none of these changes occur magically or without significant pain, and all are vulnerable to the immense capacity of systems of power and privilege to defend themselves and claw back progress toward fundamental change. For broadly based and deeply rooted progressive change to occur and for power structures that maintain an oppressive social order to be upended, those systems must be disrupted—something must occur that forces them to change how they operate. The disruption may be unplanned and external (e.g. climate or demographic changes) or intentional and directed (e.g. social movements or political campaigns). The seeds of change are embedded in all organic systems, and that includes oppressive systems that seek to maintain a destructive status quo. How they change, however, is not only not foreordained but largely unpredictable. Yet change will happen, and we will necessarily be part of it.

Strategic Disruption

No matter how dramatic the impetus from external sources, intentional efforts at disruption through popular movements and political activism are essential to forcing change and guiding how it occurs. Without intentionality and a conscious change strategy, our capacity to foster system reconstruction (and, in some cases, system destruction) is limited and haphazard. Each of us has a role to play in this, and we each have a unique set of capacities that we can bring to this process. In order to do so, we have to recognize this potential individually and collectively and find the moral courage to pursue it.
One place to start is by recognizing how often, despite our best intentions, especially when we occupy positions of privilege, we are part of the problem. Much of what we do, including much of the good work we undertake, contributes to the maintenance of systems that we want to change. This is inevitable because we are part of these systems. Our natural desire to believe that we are good people doing good things can lead us to downplay our role in maintaining the structures of oppression and hierarchy.
This paradox—that the good work we do often reinforces destructive systems—can be found in what conflict interveners do to guide disputes toward resolution, but the same is true for all “service professions,” including medicine, counseling, law, human services, and education.
For example:
  • When we participate in collaborative efforts to deal with organizational conflict, we may be enabling the continuance of an exploitative hierarchy.
  • When we foster dialogue between community members and police officers to try to improve relationships and communication, we may be reinforcing a public safety model that emphasizes law enforcement over community development and mental health.
  • When we convene conversations among different ethnic groups to try to resolve tensions that have led to violent interchanges, we may undercut a growing movement to promote the rights of a historically exploited group.
None of these efforts are necessarily misguided or inappropriate. As we seek to change systems, we also have to support people as they navigate these systems. But undertaking them without considering the impact our well‐intentioned and even necessary actions may play in the larger pattern of dominance, oppression, or hierarchy is problematic and sometimes dangerous. One of the most important challenges we face in promoting social change is how to develop strategies for increasing constructive dialogue among groups in conflict while also raising the level of that conflict in an effective and durable way.

Disrupting and Engaging

Many of us who have worked in the conflict field (e.g. as facilitators, mediators, peace builders, and trainers) also have backgrounds as social activists where raising the prominence of public conflict is central to the mission of promoting justice. Working to help people resolve their differences has often seemed like a logical and constructive next step. But what seemed like a natural progression has often meant losing the clarity of purpose that the previous focus on social change had provided. While the conflict intervention field has at times helped consolidate changes that social movements have generated, it has also sometimes undercut the energy necessary to build movements by focusing prematurely on dialogue, de‐escalation, and resolution.
The two of us have spent a significant part of our professional lives working to understand what drives conflict; the relationship between communication, emotion, power, culture, and structure; and the processes that can be used to support people in working through their conflicts in a constructive way. We have guided public dialogues, high‐stakes negotiations, and intense interpersonal interactions in organizations, communities, and families. Much of our work has involved trying to identify how people can resolve differences, arrive at solutions to seemingly intractable problems, and lower the level of tension and hostility in volatile situations. But in doing so we have also had to support people in raising difficult issues, accepting that some elements of their most important conflicts are not amenable to tangible short‐term solutions, and learning to mobilize and use their power effectively.
We have experienced some astonishingly and unexpected transformative moments in our work with others, but we know that profound change does not come easily, predictably, or by the mechanistic application of some formula for human interaction. We believe that just as the lessons we have learned as advocates for social change have informed our work as conflict interveners, our work on conflict sheds light on the struggle for social justice. What those lessons are and how they can be applied to the volatile world we inhabit is the focus of this book.
Three of the most important lessons we have learned are the vital role of conflict in breaking cycles of oppression, the importance of taking a strategic approach to long‐term conflict, and the danger that neutrality poses as a central guiding principle for the role that conflict interveners play in the change process. These lessons are relevant not only to conflict specialists but to all those working for social change.

Constructive Conflict

Conflict intervention practitioners frequently assert that conflict itself is not the problem, but how we handle it often is. Labor and management struggle over competing interests, environmentalists and fossil fuel producers look at the world through different lenses, and divorcing parents often have different visions and values about rearing children. The challenge we all face, therefore, is not so much how to resolve these differences but how to find a constructive way to deal with them over time.
What conflict interveners have usually meant by handling conflict constructively, however, has been about bringing these differences to rapid and peaceful resolution, tamping down the level of emotionality and particularly anger, “separating the people from the problem,” and minimizing the disruptive effects of conflict on people, communities, and institutions. This vision of what makes conflict constructive negates the true importance of creative and constructive conflict in our world.
So what makes conflict truly constructive?
Constructive conflict moves us forward in creating the world we want to be part of, one that reflects our most important values and desires, promotes the systems that will contribute to the changes we seek, and disrupts those that interfere with these. Constructive conflict is also carried on in accordance with our values about human and group interaction and with the fundamental goals we are pursuing.
There are two important caveats here, however. One is that what is constructive is contextual to the person and situation. The other is that no action is pure. The line between constructive conflict and pointless destruction is often a fine one. When does angry, militant, and effective mass action turn into looting, arson, and violence against individuals?
The initial reaction to the George Floyd murder was justified, necessary, chaotic, and sometimes destructive of the very communities who have been historically victimized by the White racist system that the protests were directed against. This is not unusual. It is what happened after Rodney King was beaten, Dr. King was assassinated, and during some of the most important labor actions in American history (e.g. the Pullman and Homestead Strikes). Accepting that such violence may be an inevitable and sometimes energizing aspect of social change efforts may force many of us to deal with an uncomfortable level of cognitive dissonance, but working for social change requires that we do so. Of course, the violence associated with progressive social movements, although generally small in scale and destruction, is frequently exaggerated and seized upon to discredit these movements in their entirety. This was the response of many supporters of Donald Trump who tried to minimize the destruction and dang...

Table of contents