The Quality of Our Attention

“A mediator is a sensitive outsider. Their presence in a situation of conflict or disturbance can bring a quality of attention to people who might otherwise feel lost, hopeless or, even, anaesthetised from their own suffering.”

A presentation given by mediatEUr Senior Associate Brendan McAllister at the conference ‘Conflict Resolution: Peace, Practice, Perspectives – Celebrating Women as ADR Leaders’ in Dublin for the International Women’s Day, 8 March 2013.

Good afternoon everyone.

 “Conservation of energy is the function of form. Without form, meaning leaks out and drains away in time.”

 So spoke Michael Longley, the Ulster poet, in a lecture at Queen’s University Belfast a few years ago. Longley was reflecting on the importance of ‘form’ in poetry. ‘Form’ is a term used when referring to rules and structure in poetry.

In the 1960s, Longley and friends such as Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon argued about the importance of form.

In the 1990s I asked Michael Longley to become a patron of Mediation Northern Ireland. I wanted an excuse to occasionally raid his mind for wisdom relevant to the work of mediation.

“Conservation of energy is the function of form. Without form, meaning leaks out and drains away in time.”

 I’ll come back to Longley.

I was asked today to consider the difference that mediation might make to the plight of vulnerable people; to the poor; to women; to poor women; to women, whether poor or rich, who are victims of violence, discrimination and various forms of abuse.  How might mediation be relevant?

While a mediator needs to be empathetic, they must resist becoming too emotionally immersed in a given situation. They must force themselves to maintain a critical distance.

A golden rule of mediation is never to take ownership of the problem; take responsibility for the process.

Once a problem becomes personal for the mediator they stop being a third party intervener and instead become part of the problem.

The mediator is only responsible for their contribution.

When confronted with a situation of conflict or disturbance, the mediator asks: is there a useful contribution for mediation to make?

If so, what is the mediative task?

The task will most likely involve one or more of the following functions:

  • Assisting communication.
  • Improving understandings.
  • Supporting creative thinking.
  • Exploring accommodations.
  • Facilitating agreement.

The intention of mediation is to effect positive change. Otherwise mediators could be dismissed as self-indulgent tourists of other people’s suffering.

Positive change can flow from any one of the functions I have just outlined in spite of falling far short of a resolution of the core problem.

In the most intractable conflict, change often occurs by incremental, patient, ‘mini-steps’, and ‘peace comes dropping slow’.

Let me read to you an extract from an article in the Guardian newspaper of 30 June, 2012 by Amit Chaudhuri.

Chaudhuri is reviewing a book by the Pulitzer Prize winner, Katherine Boo. The book is entitled: “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum.”

It is Katherine Boo’s account of her time in the Annawadi slum in Mumbai over a two-year period, when she gets to know the local residents and chronicles their lives, their struggles and, too often, their tragic and premature deaths.

Chaudhuri says this of Boo’s approach to the book:

“She gradually renounces the novelistic mode partly because she realises that, unlike the novelist, she can’t possess her characters, not least because many of them – in particular, a constellation of children – end up dead; as a narrator, she must share with the residents of Annawadi the loss of control, of mastery, this entails. And this, in turn, produces a paradoxical masterfulness; we see that it isn’t information or research that Boo is bringing us, but a quality of attention. She worries that, as a foreigner, she lacks the ‘immersion’ a native would have in their world; but maybe natives become disengaged, while outsiders inhabit their chosen spaces more fully.”

 In effect, Chaudhuri is saying that Katherine Boo does not tell us anything that is factually new about the slums of Mumbai – the existence of such slums across the world has been well documented. But writing out of sustained engagement with Mumbai’s poor, Boo brings a quality of attention to her subject.

And, secondly, Chaudhuri suggests that the local person can become so used to their dire poverty that they adapt to their harsh normality and are numbed by it. But a sensitive outsider who chooses to enter such a world can be vividly affected. And the critical awareness of the outsider can, in turn, become influential in the situation.

So be it with mediation. A mediator is a sensitive outsider. Their presence in a situation of conflict or disturbance can bring a quality of attention to people who might otherwise feel lost, hopeless or, even, anaesthetised from their own suffering.

I would observe five significant features of the quality of attention that the mediator brings.

  1. They listen for a truth that is deeper than what is known.
  2. They have compassion for the human suffering that is at the heart of conflict.
  3. They facilitate the communication of truth and suffering between people who are at odds with each other.
  4. They enable people to gain recognition; to feel truly understood.
  5. They enable acknowledgement to take place.

Acknowledgement is the practical expression of recognition.

The importance of recognition and acknowledgement was wonderfully illustrated by the recent experience of the so-called Magdelene Women here in Ireland.

On 5 February, 2013, a report by Senator Martin McAleese confirmed that between 1922 – 1996 in Ireland, 10,000 girls and young women were forced to live and work in laundries run by several religious orders of nuns. The laundries were viewed as an effective and appropriate way to deal with young women who had a child outside marriage, came from broken homes, were seen as problem children,  or were considered to be in moral danger.

Indeed, McAleese found that the State had placed 2,000 girls and young women in these laundries.

A number of the women, now middle aged or elderly, had spent a life time campaigning for recognition.

On 19 February, the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny rose in the Dail (parliament) to express remorse as a contingent of survivors watched from the public gallery. His statement included the following words:

“ For 90 years Ireland subjected these women, and their experience, to a profound indifference. By any standards it was a cruel and pitiless Ireland, distinctly lacking in mercy.

 (…) We swapped our public scruples for a solid public apparatus.

 (…) Speaking directly to the women whose experiences in the Magdalene laundries have negatively affected their subsequent lives, as a society for many years we failed you.

 (…) We forgot you or if we thought about you at all we did so in untrue and offensive stereotypes. This is a national shame for which I say again I am deeply sorry and offer my full and heart-felt apologies.”

 The Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister), Eamon Gilmore also addressed the Magdalene survivors, saying:

“We have heard you, we believe you, and we are profoundly sorry for what was done to you.”

 It is also significant that in advance of his speech, Mr. Kenny had meetings with groups of the women. Therefore, when he expressed his apology on behalf of the Irish State, he spoke within a relationship where a degree of respect had been established.

After the Taoiseach’s speech, in the full glare of the media, representatives of the Magdalene Women gave expression to their sense of joy and liberation: they had been believed; they had been truly recognised at last. They had been publicly described in terms which they viewed as essential and true: their victimhood was at last officially understood.

Conflict, violence, division and social injustice, create victims. Victims are people who have been violated. Violation is a humiliating experience or condition.

The opposite of humiliation is dignity.

Dignity is the hallmark of a human being who lives with a sense of equilibrium, within themselves and around them. To live with dignity is to live in peace.

Recognition is essential for the restoration of dignity.

The Taoiseach said that the Magdalene Women’s experiences had cast a long shadow over Irish life.

As a former Victims Commissioner from Northern Ireland, and also as a citizen of my generation, I am conscious of another long shadow over our lives: the violent deaths of over 3,600 people, the wounding and maiming of at least 40,000 more, the tens of thousands affected by conflict over the past four decades and more.

The absence of recognition represents a deep flaw in a peace process that is otherwise celebrated and lauded across the world.

Ours is not a perfect peace. Indeed, it is an incomplete peace. The failure to deal with the legacy of our divided past is also creating a growing sense that our peace is mutating: that instead of growing into a society in Northern Ireland with new civic norms such as pluralism, partnership and accommodation, there are signs of retrenchment, tribalism and parallel living.

And so, I return to Michael Longley and his sage observation.

“Conservation of energy is the function of form. Without form, meaning leaks out and drains away in time.”

 Mediation is an example of ‘form’. Working with the consent of those involved, the mediator designs and constructs processes that transform the energy of conflict into something creative and life-giving.

The quality of our attention to the legacy of conflict and the wounds of division is now deficient and a once-in-a-generation opportunity to attend to deeper truth, with compassion, is fading with each passing year since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Perhaps at the heart of such a failing is a widespread inability between the two main traditions of Northern society for mutual recognition of each other.

We need to improve the quality of our attention to each other, lest a future generation some day discovers that because we failed to establish structures and arrangements for engaging with the legacy of our conflict, the meaning of our collective suffering leaked out and its wisdom was lost.

This blog entry is a transcription of a presentation given by mediatEUr Senior Associate Brendan McAllister at the conference ‘Conflict Resolution: Peace, Practice, Perspectives – Celebrating Women as ADR Leaders’ on the International Women’s Day, 8 March 2013.

To learn more about the conference, click here.

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