Category Archives: Conflict Resolution

Fallacious Argument of the Month: meet the straw man

fallacy of the monthThere’s nothing like a good argument, as any fan of Monty Python knows.

Having a good argument, however, demands diligence, attention to detail, self-awareness, and practice; it’s all too easy to have a bad one. The bad kind, alas, abounds in political discussion, particularly during an election season, makes frequent appearances in conference rooms and at family dining room tables, and of course proliferates like rabbits on the internet. With the aim of bettering public discourse and combating the viral spread of fallacy everywhere, I propose to launch a regular feature: the Fallacious Argument of the Month.

Each month I will spotlight a different fallacious argument. This month please welcome July’s fallacy, the straw man argument.

For the lazy thinker, nothing could be more fun or easier than the straw man argument. Simply set up your straw man by distorting or exaggerating your opponent’s position, and then set it ablaze or knock it down. This lets you disregard what your opponent actually said and unburdens you from inconvenient facts. (The down side of course is that no one gets to debate and discuss the issue on the merits, although that of course is the point.) Examples of straw man arguments include these two, taken, for the sake of fairness, from each side of the American political aisle:

If you have a favorite fallacious argument that you’d like to see featured here at Mediation Channel, please let me know. And don’t forget to tune in on August 3 for next month’s Fallacious Argument.

Common courtesy should not be an oxymoron

thanksA recent article in the New York Times about the decline of manners in a Blackberry age prompted one executive coach to write to the Times editor to share an anecdote drawn from his own experience working with professionals. He wrote,

I was told by a client, who is a former board member of a large cosmetics company and now a venture capitalist, that she had decided to refuse to help fellow alumni from her prestigious university. When I asked why, she explained how over an 18-month period, she had gone out of her way to help six alumni network into new jobs. In response to all her efforts, not a single one took the time to thank her.

This is a glaring example of how politeness and manners seem to have gone the way of the dinosaurs.

This letter resonated with me deeply. A year ago I described my own experience with the deterioration of manners in a post that asked, “Whatever happened to thank you? Thoughts on gratitude“. What prompted me to write it was my disappointment in the failure of a former student to thank me for a favor I had performed on his behalf. His thoughtlessness produced one positive result at least: it made me think what “thank you” really means:

It is not simply expressing gratitude for the extra mile, the care, the thought. “Thank you” is also about renewing or building relationships. “Thank you” honors a past deed. “Thank you” affirms hope for the future.

Common courtesy, alas, these days seems increasingly uncommon. All too often, I note its absence. This is in fact why earlier this week I published “Please contact me…but kindly read this first if you need advice“. I remain delighted to be of help; but I also hope that those who seek my assistance may be prompted to take a moment to consider the time it takes to give it. And because I cannot ask more of readers than I would of myself, I will also take especial care to be sure to show my appreciation for the time that others give me. And so I thank you, gentle reader, for your time, now and always.

Remembering Morad: thoughts on Iran and US relations

Iran and US relationsHour by hour, print, TV, and web sources bring news, narratives and dramatic images from Iran of protests and violence as Iranians take to the streets to voice opposition to the results of the recent presidential election.

The news from Tehran has brought back memories from a summer long ago. In 1976, a 17-year-old just a year away from high school graduation, I spent the summer studying Russian language in the Norwich University Summer Russian School, a full-immersion Russian language and cultural program. Norwich, a private military college in Northfield, Vermont, was also the site of another kind of cultural exchange program. Enrolled at Norwich at that time were about 30 members of the Iranian Imperial Navy, young men given the opportunity to study in the U.S.

One of them, Morad, became my friend. When I wasn’t studying myself or involved in Russian School activities, I would hang out with him, taking long walks or gamely learning tennis under his patient tutelage. He was 20 years old, far from home for the first time in his life. He missed his family, particularly his sister, and his friends in Tehran, and would describe his life with them back home. We constituted our own small cultural exchange program as we asked each other questions and eagerly swapped stories about life in our respective countries.  He spoke English flawlessly, enjoyed language study, and appreciated my own curiosity about foreign languages. He was pleased when I asked him to teach me some words of Persian, and he happily did so, pointing out the similarities between his native language and mine, both Indo-European tongues.

As I recall, he phoned me once or twice after I’d returned home when my program ended, and then we soon lost touch as kids do. In 1979 the Shah fell from power, toppled in the Islamic Revolution, and months later the U.S. severed all diplomatic ties. At that time I thought of him and the other young men from the Iranian Navy and feared for their fate on their return.

The news from Iran resurrects these half-forgotten memories of a long-ago friendship. I wonder where Morad is now and whether he is safe. I think how fortunate I was to meet him, to learn something of his country and language with their ancient cultural roots, and to spend a little time with him — two kids, just talking and hanging out.

If only diplomacy were so simple. If only our shared humanity and mutual curiosity were enough.

On Mother's Day, every mother deserves a little peace…and justice

An organization committed to promoting social justice, Inter Pares, whose name means “among equals” in Latin, has launched a campaign to take back Mother’s Day and rededicate it to the causes of peace and reconciliation that its early proponents worked for.

Here’s the video they’ve created urging mothers and anyone who’s got a mom to take back Mother’s Day:

Hat tip to Catherine Morris at Peacemakers Trust.

Remembering wartime: photos of present-day city evoke tragic past

Remembering the wartime deadTo commemorate the 65th anniversary of the end of the Siege of Leningrad, photographer Sergei Larenkov overlays photos of present-day St. Petersburg with ghostly images of Leningrad during the blockade.

In these grim images, the dead trudge silently along city streets, while modern-day passersby rush along, blind to their presence. Eerie and deeply moving, these photos speak of the immediacy of the past, the suffering through war of the nameless dead.

For other posts discussing war and large-scale conflict, please see

Hat tip Boing Boing.

Online petition asks Obama to promote conflict resolution

Online petition seeks use of conflict resolutionConflict resolution expert and social justice advocate Kenneth Cloke has created an online petition requesting that U.S. President Barack Obama promote the use of conflict resolution both domestically and internationally.

Dispute resolvers, peacemakers, and ADR professionals are encouraged to add their signatures to a growing list of supporters.

This five-point proposal asks that Obama implement the following steps:

  1. Create a cabinet level ombudsman office or department of peace and consensus building to work proactively to prevent and minimize conflicts
  2. Build mediation, consensus building, diversity, and democratic conflict resolution processes into every proposal for change, whether domestic or international
  3. Invite representatives of international institutions, governments, and community organizations to attend a conference to discuss how to improve conflict resolution competencies and encourage collaborative problem solving around the world
  4. Request that the United Nations initiate a global effort to train diplomats and national representatives in conflict resolution, and incorporate in all treaties a clause requiring signatories to mediate and arbitrate disputes.
  5. Initiate a program and a fund to support conflict resolution professionals in serving in trouble spots around the world and help people prevent, resolve and recover from conflict.

January 20, 2009: The better angels of our nature

our better angelsChange has come to the White House.  Among the signs: the new White House blog, which affirms the commitment of the Obama administration to three core principles: communication, transparency, and participation.

Among its first posts was this one, proclaiming a National Day of Renewal and Reconciliation:

We are in the midst of a season of trial. Our Nation is being tested, and our people know great uncertainty. Yet the story of America is one of renewal in the face of adversity, reconciliation in a time of discord, and we know that there is a purpose for everything under heaven.

On this Inauguration Day, we are reminded that we are heirs to over two centuries of American democracy, and that this legacy is not simply a birthright — it is a glorious burden. Now it falls to us to come together as a people to carry it forward once more.

So in the words of President Abraham Lincoln, let us remember that: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

It is enough to move even an atheist like me to say, “Amen.”

No soap, radio: confronting our fear of asking questions

No soap, radioThose of you who grew up in the U.S. may be familiar with “no soap, radio“, a prankster’s joke.  When I was a kid, it was the kind of gag that older kids would pull on younger ones. The prankster and her accomplices — a group of sixth graders for example — would approach their mark — a younger sibling in the fourth or fifth grade perhaps — and offer to regale him with the funniest joke ever.

In the version popular in my hometown, the joke went something like this:  “Two elephants sitting in a tub were taking a bath together. One elephant says, ‘Hey, pal, pass the soap.’ The other elephant replies, ‘No soap, radio!'”

On cue, the prankster and her accomplices begin to laugh uproariously.  The younger kid surreptitiously glances at them, not sure why his older sibling and her friends are laughing.  Puzzled and uneasy, but not wanting to appear unworldly (meanwhile wondering anxiously whether ‘radio’ might be some kind of sexual slang), the younger kid begins to laugh, too, hesitantly, then with more conviction.  The prankster and her friends suddenly stop laughing, and maliciously one asks, “Hey, kid, what’s so funny?”  The younger kid stops, sensing too late the undercurrent of cruelty.  The air is charged with it, as a shameful silence hangs.  The older kids explode with laughter again, and in triumph the prankster shouts out the real punchline, “If it’s so funny, then explain it to me!”

Like a home-grown version of the experiments in social conformity conducted by Solomon Asch in the 1950s, it’s a prank that exploits a strong fear and an equally fierce desire: our fear of looking stupid, and our desire to belong.  Unfortunately, when you don’t ask, the joke’s on you.

It takes courage to admit when we don’t know something, and courage as well to ask.  As the proverb says, “The one who asks questions doesn’t lose his way” — or, for that matter, look like an idiot on the playground. It’s a grade school lesson that all of us should heed.

(Photo credit: Emiliano Spada.)

Prevent conflict escalation: use Google's new Mail Goggles email tool

Prevent conflict with Mail GogglesAs anyone knows who has awakened in the sober light of dawn to regret an email sent in haste the night before, electronic communications can be lethal. Be too quick on the trigger with the “send” button and you may find you’ve initiated DEFCON 1 in your workplace or personal relationships. (And forget about negotiating by email, as Victoria Pynchon cautioned readers recently — its very nature seems to encourage anti-social behavior, including lying and deception.)

Google, understanding full well the dark side of human nature (particularly that side of human nature that responds to its email after too many Jell-O shots in the wee hours of the morning), offers a solution: Mail Goggles. Here’s how it works:

When you enable Mail Goggles, it will check that you’re really sure you want to send that late night Friday email. And what better way to check than by making you solve a few simple math problems after you click send to verify you’re in the right state of mind?

By default, Mail Goggles is only active late night on the weekend as that is the time you’re most likely to need it. Once enabled, you can adjust when it’s active in the General settings.

Mail Goggles may prove to be one of the world’s most powerful conflict prevention tools yet. It’s available on all Gmail accounts. Simply click on “Settings”, then “Lab”, then scroll down to “Mail Goggles” and select “Enable” to protect yourself from further embarrassment.

Mediation Channel to host Blawg Review, celebrate Conflict Resolution Day

On Monday, October 13, I’ll be hosting Blawg Review, the weekly review of the best in legal blogging. I’ll be taking the opportunity to salute International Conflict Resolution Day, celebrated this year on Thursday, October 16. This marks the fourth time I’ve served as a Blawg Review host — readers may recall that last year I teamed up with Geoff Sharp to deliver a double-hemisphere edition of Blawg Review.

Blawg Review itself is a weekly miracle, a monument to dedication and perseverance. Under the guidance of its anonymous editor, Blawg Review presents the many facets of legal blogging, refracted through the lens of each week’s host. Kaleidoscope-like, at each turn Blawg Review reveals new patterns as it shows us the life and art of law. With each host, the colors shift and new shapes emerge.

Blawg Review, in short, dazzles. Consider the efforts of these recent hosts:

  • This week, Andis Kaulins, an American expat, hosts the exuberant Blawg Review #180 at his blog Law Pundit based in Germany and celebrates German-American Day in style.
  • Securing Innovation, an American intellectual property blog, found delight in the commonplace by honoring the invention of the ballpoint pen with Blawg Review #179.
  • The innovative Peter Black presented Blawg Review #178 from Australia at his blog, Freedom to Differ, becoming the first host ever to use the social networking service Twitter to deliver Blawg Review throughout the day to his readers.

As usual, I have very tough acts to follow.

You’re invited to submit a post for inclusion in Blawg Review #181. Or, perhaps, you may decide you’d like to play Blawg Review host yourself one day