January 2, 2006

Dispute resolution

Posted at 1:56 pm in Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

This article looks at (amongst other things) the way in which cultural disputes such as the Elgin Marbles might be resolved, or how the situation can be progressed positively.

National Post (Canada)

Keeping the peace to earn your keep
Sadly enough, dispute resolution is an area of expertise that is still very much in demand
Laura Lind
National Post
Monday, January 02, 2006

In Inner Peace, World Peace, Kenneth Kraft writes, “One need not wait until war is declared and bullets are flying to work for peace. A more constant and equally urgent battle must be waged each day against the forces of one’s own anger, carelessness and self-absorption.

“A person should strive to be at peace when interacting with a child, vacuuming a carpet or waiting in line.

“This sort of peace work is important,” he continues, “because if we don’t practise it, if we separate ourselves from a situation through inattentiveness, negative judgments or impatience, we ‘kill’ something valuable.

“However subtle it may be, such violence actually leaves victims in its wake: people, things, one’s own composure, the moment itself. According to the Buddhist reckoning, these small-scale incidents of violence accumulate relentlessly, are multiplied on a social level and become a source of the large-scale violence that can sweep down upon us so suddenly.”

With gunfights in downtown Toronto, with angry accusations fired off in election debates, with Canadian soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, with no end in sight for the war in Iraq, it’s time that all people take the trite messages of seasonal greeting cards a bit more seriously, and work in our own way for peace.

You could, in fact, turn it into a job. It’s not necessary to be a member of the United Nations Security Council or working for a NGO abroad to be a professional peacekeeper. There are careers in smaller-scale peacemaking.

Take, for instance, the new field of cultural mediation. It may sound like a position made up by Catbert, Dilbert’s evil Human Resources director, but it’s actually a very prestigious job.

Bill Clinton does it. He was hired to try to convince Tony Blair and the British Museum to allow the Elgin Marbles to be returned to their original home, the Parthenon, before the Athens Olympics. Unfortunately, the 200-year-old dispute between the two countries has yet to be resolved.

But just because it wasn’t resolved doesn’t mean progress hasn’t been made, according to Christine Forsyth, a Toronto cultural mediator. “They may have moved the dialogue along to a different level. Maybe Clinton’s efforts have helped to change the dynamic.”

Some solutions currently being discussed, Forsyth says, are the creation of a British Museum in Athens to house the marbles, or the construction of a virtual museum.

That’s why Forsyth enjoys working in cultural mediation. “These are very creative people,” she says. “Once they get the idea of how things work they come up with extremely creative solutions.”

Forsyth’s work hasn’t often been on as grand a scale as the Elgin Marbles dispute, but in the past year she has been called in to mediate in a dozen cultural quagmires.

Typically, her clients are from design firms, dance companies, theatre groups and film companies. She can’t divulge specifics, but most often she is brought in when long-term creative partnerships have broken down.

In these situations, unlike conventional business disputes, the arguments aren’t always about money, Forsyth says. They need to retain the goodwill — with their clientele, their synergy and their place in the community — that they’ve created over the years. Recognition and acknowledgement are also of concern. “These are investments of a creative lifetime,” says Forsyth. “You want people to be able to look back at their past and body of work without bile rising in their throats.”

Formal mediation is a two-step process in which the participants are free to suggest and discuss a huge variety of options for solving a dispute. Then they decide collectively which one to take.

It sounds like a straightforward business, and that anyone could facilitate a conflict with a couple of training seminars. But it’s often the reputation of the outsider that keeps participants in line and behaving well towards one another. With a former American president like Clinton in the room, uh … [insert Moncia Lewinsky joke here] … maybe that’s why the Elgin Marbles dispute remains unresolved.

Seriously though, Forsyth, who is the former Secretary General for the Ontario-Quebec Commission for Education, Trade and Cultural Affairs, and the Chair of OnDisc, a national alliance of intellectual property creators, is very well-respected in arts communities, has a reputation as a trustworthy listener and has a Master’s degree in alternative dispute resolution. Her conflict mediations have often ended with all participants together in the same room with their families — and champagne.

Mediation, although a new field, is an old practice. It is quite far removed from litigation, where both sides harden against each other during the process. “People have always turned to a third party to resolve disputes,” says Forsyth. “In the past 150 years, judges have become the paradigm. But all around the world there has been and continues to be millennia of tradition, of turning to the church, or turning to elders, for resolution.”

Forsyth says there is a role for Canadian mediators as honest brokers in world events, and suggests our national aptitude for mediation might be the result of our courier-du-bois heritage as explorers of uncharted waters.

Or perhaps it’s our motivation to drink unopened champagne.

Whatever the reason, here’s wishing everyone a bit more peace in the New Year.
© National Post 2006

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