IVAT 24th International Summit on Violence, Abuse & Trauma

This past Saturday (September 7, 2019) I attended the IVAT 24th International Summit on Violence, Abuse & Trauma Across the Lifespan in San Diego CA. According to the event overview, “This Summit is a unique forum for professionals across all disciplines and philosophies to gather for in-depth exchange of current information on all facets of violence, abuse and trauma prevention, intervention and research.” I attended this event because of my interest in and knowledge of conflict resolution. I thought some of the information I could gather here would be germane to my academic interests. I was correct, but not in the ways I thought beforehand.

Though the summit started on Wednesday, September 4, I attended only on Saturday. I had to work at my day job and lacking any prior experience with this event I did not want to risk my precious time-off to be disappointed. I attended three workshops.

The first workshop was the reason I decided to attend this summit to begin with. Using Film & Storytelling as a Community Engagement Tool for Prevention Efforts, presented by Meghna Bhat, was an overview of the uses of film, cinema, and Digital Story Telling (DST) within the context of community activism. Though the presentation was ostensibly about prevention efforts, the information provided seemed applicable to any community activities. I have been dabbling with video for the past year or two; this workshop gave me ideas that will help me further along on that journey.

The next workshop was a panel entitled Effects of Junk Science on Attitudes and Beliefs. The panel featured Kathleen Faller, Viola Vaughan-Eden, Charles Schudson, and Seth Goldstein. The moderator was L.C. Miccio-Fonseca. I was surprised that the discussion centered on abuse within the context of the courts; however, I suppose it makes perfect sense given the venue. There was a gravitation toward discussing parental alienation syndrome and how it has affected custody and abuse cases in the courts. There was quick discussion of front groups, e.g., the Heartland Institute. This discussion of front groups was interesting because members of the panel predicted the introduction of treatises (published works) from these ideologically driven organizations as evidence in future court cases. The lessons of this panel are to always review the methodologies behind anything you want to accept as truth/evidence and make sure you educate your audience to the realities behind the scenes of what you are presenting.

The final workshop was a twofer entitled VIOLENCE AND TRAUMA: THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT AND SUPPORT. The first presentation, by Christa Nettles, was Community Violence, Victimization & the Urban Community. Nettles described the conditions that create crime-ridden communities, making the point that many, if not all, of these conditions are outside the control of the residents of the community. She painted a picture of a despairing community that lacks the power to solve its problems (which is an excellent example for my own interests in structural violence and social capital).

The second presentation, Postvention After Mass Violence: Providing Trauma Informed Community Support, by Fiona Vajk & Anneka Busse was an overview of how a more privileged community (a college campus) can deal with the aftermath of a mass casualty event. Busse is a survivor of the shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas (1 October 2017). She provided insights into the communities of survivors that have coalesced from the mind-numbing litany of mass murder events in the United States. Busse also shared personal anecdotes about her coping mechanisms and the support she has received since that incident.

What struck me most about the final workshop I attended was the transition from the description of a helpless community unable to provide basic necessities for its residents beside the description of a privileged community that has the resources to provide basic necessities, as well as educate and support the survivors and bystanders, and others, of traumatic events. The first presentation described an existence that is traumatic. The second described an intrusion, however profound, into an otherwise contented existence. I felt like I experienced a kind of a cognitive whiplash. I am not sure how the two were connected except as an explanation of the extremes and disparities of care offered by the two types of communities.

I enjoyed this summit. I learned about some familiar things in ways that I have not considered before. I was intrigued that some of the presenters I spoke to were unaware of the concept of structural violence, even as they dealt with it regularly. All in all it was a good experience. I think I will probably attend future summits.

On Quixotic Behavior

I have seen the news about an off-duty Los Angeles Police Department Officer firing a shot from his firearm while confronting a group of teenagers near his home. I watched 2 different versions of a video that documented; one that ended as the officer pulls out his firearm and fires, and one that continues after the shot and shows the scattering of the crowd; they both appear to be from the same source though one is edited to achieve a particular reaction. I observed a couple of things about this event, some from the video itself, but mostly from the reactions of the people who watched the video on social media.

Both of the videos I saw started after the altercation started. I noticed that the officer was seemingly surrounded by hostile teens and what seemed to be a large number of watching bystanders. Neither version shows how the altercation started. When the videos start they both show a teenager being manhandled by an adult male.

I am unaware of there being any sound attached to the video. I remember only the video of what happened. An obviously exasperated adult, surrounded by hostile teens, is trying to gain control of a situation that he clearly has no control over. His actions are predictable. He is reacting to hostility with hostility.

The actions of the surrounding teens, seeing one of their own being assaulted by an adult, are also predictable. Several teens tried to pull the teen being manhandled away from the adult. I saw the adult punched solidly at least once. They too were reacting to hostility with hostility.

What I was unable to tell from the video was whether the adult was a police officer. There was nothing I could see that showed whether the teens knew this was a police officer or not. I wouldn’t be surprised if he were announcing that fact to the teens. However, given the circumstances, seeing their peer being manhandled by an adult, I will not pretend that the teens were obligated to believe a man who has his hands on one of them.

I suppose the reactions were what shocked me the most. I presumably watched the same video that others were watching, but I did not react the same way. I saw people assigning blame to one party or another. Ascribing guilt and motive to either side from the same basis of  information. The kids must have been doing something wrong. The cop is a monster who can only communicate with his gun.

I don’t know how it started. I don’t know who started it. I saw bad behavior on both sides. That teenagers lack impulse control hardly needs to be stated; this does lead to bad behavior. Without the full context, however, it is hard to blame the teenagers for the way they acted.

The police officer could also be held blameless for feeling the hostility being hurled at him. However, I would expect that the police officer should have some tools to help him deescalate these situations. His manhandling of a teenager is what caused the problem. I cannot say that he was not within his rights as a citizen and a peace officer because I do not know what really happened. What I did see was someone who looked like a civilian pull out a gun and fire it to scare off a bunch of teenagers.

As a specialist in conflict resolution I am not trying to assign blame. What happened was the result of poor decision making on both sides of the confrontation. It does not surprise me that a large group of teenagers might lack the skills necessary to deal with conflict, though it is saddening. What shocks me is that a police officer, a person who presumably deals with people and conflicts on a daily basis, also lacked those skills.

On Veteran’s Day and Nonviolence

Today is veteran’s day. I am a veteran. My wife and I had a day off from work, so she treated me to a movie. I like war movies, so we went to see Fury.  It was basically two-hours worth of industrial scale inhumanity and slaughter; however, it did do its job of taking you away from reality for a while.

This got me to thinking about some things today. I did some two years and change in the army. As I have written previously, the army was where I first started to learn about conflict and its resolution in a systematic way. I am a man trained in violence. I have seen actual inhumanity and slaughter. I understand the havoc that violence wreaks on both its victims and its survivors. Yet, I still believe in the efficacy of violence.

This summer I did half of a training on nonviolence with Pax Christi. I only did half because I realized in the middle of the first day of training this it was not for me. I don’t have the complete faith in nonviolence that the leaders of this training did.

Some recent reading has helped to crystallize my thinking. I read an article, Nonviolent Resistance in Power Asymmetries by Véronique Dudouet, from The Berghof Handbook for Conflict Transformation (available at http://www.berghof-handbook.net/), that states in some circumstances, “nonviolent strategies might not have sufficient leverage to bring about necessary changes (p. 253).” The author writes about a very precise set of circumstances wherein one is trying to wrest power from another who will do anything to hold on to power. Wherein you are up against a mad dog with no morality or scruples; when you are fighting people with nothing left to lose.

I am convinced of the usefulness of nonviolent tactics. However, I am not convinced of their utility in all situations. Nonviolence is, in my opinion, a tool for the long-term. In the short-term, it is far too easy for precisely aimed violence to wipe out a fledgling nonviolent movement. There are mad dogs in the world; people who do not listen and cannot be reasoned with.

I believe that violence and nonviolence are both tools which can be deployed simultaneously, but must also be used appropriately. In the short term, violence can get you a few wins. In the long term you better have a plan to feed, clothe, and house people or you will not be able to win.

I know that violence absolutely works in the short-term, but without a long-term plan the winners in the game of short-term violence will always lose to somebody who is better at violence.

Making a living in conflict (resolution)

I am just about half way through earning a master’s degree in conflict resolution. I am beginning to think about what comes next, career wise. Can you make a living resolving conflict for other people?

The most obvious path seems to be mediation. There are several instructors in my program who are professional mediators. I have gone to a mediation conference (and am going to another one next month). I have gone to a mediation study group that discusses the trials and travails of professional mediators. I am just about to finish my mediation class. All indications are that I would make a fine mediator.

There is one problem, however; I don’t really seem to have the temperament for mediation. I am not really interested in other people’s problems. Personally, I think this is an advantage. If you don’t really care about the problems of the people before you then it would seem to me you are less likely to try and pick sides. I can remain neutral because i don’t really care.

My mediation instructor does not appear to be amused by this theory. She suggests careful and empathetic listening.

Anyway, I don’t care to put myself in the middle of other people’s problem. I am more interested in structural conflict and the policy implications of conflict.  This is what fascinates me; how the system creates and solidifies conflicts between the system and individuals.

This would allow me to use what I learned in studying public administration for my bachelor’s degree. It would also let me put my master’s coursework to use. I just wonder how much of a market there is for an expert on the mitigation of structural conflict.

Where would I find my customers? What would I actually do for money? I have a lot of questions right now, and not many answers. Stay tuned, because this seems to be one of those things you have to figure out as you go along.

My First Lessons in Conflict Resolution

I first learned about conflict resolution in the United States Army. They didn’t call it conflict resolution in the army, they called it combat. The idea was that you win or you die. A tad confrontational, yes, but it has proven effective enough to be the go to tactic for many nations.

The army was the first place where I learned that conflict was there to be resolved. I learned that there are strategies and tactics available to deal with, and emerge victorious from, conflict. It was where I discovered the work of Sun Tzu and von Clausewitz. It was where I first learned to that to be successful in conflict you have to prepare yourself before you go looking for your foes.

Now I can safely say that I understand conflict a little better than I did as a private in the army. It seems to me that in many of the conflicts I have observed over the years, the people involved did not have any clearly defined reasons for getting involved in a conflict in the first place. Most of the time they were just angry at something, that may or may not have had anything to do with the conflict they involved themselves in.

One of the keys to being successful in conflict is knowing and understanding what your objectives are. If you don’t understand what you are attempting to accomplish, all the wisdom from every strategic genius in the world will do you little, probably no, good. It will be difficult even to judge whether you won that particular, and probably pointless, battle.

The army did teach me how to prepare for battle; how to fight and win. The only problem is that in the army somebody else picks your battles for you. If you are fighting someone else’s battles, only they can tell you if you have won, or not. As an individual, there is no way to win these battles; you are only along for the ride.

There is a lot of wisdom in the phrase, learn how to pick your battles.

Problems with Problem Solving

I have spent a lot of time analyzing the dual concern model. The basic idea of this model is that the actors in a conflict must determine how important a particular goal of theirs is in relation to the other party’s concern for or against the same goal. Basically you are weighing your own willingness to fight for something against your perception of your opponent’s willingness to fight against it.

The model provide four basic strategies, plus a fifth alternative. Pruitt and Kim describe them this way: when neither side cares about a particular outcome, you avoid, that is you take no action. If you care about a particular outcome and the other side doesn’t, you contend, or push the other side to concede. If you don’t care about something that is important to the other side, you yield, let them have what they want. If both sides care about a particular outcome then they work together to problem solve. The fifth alternative is compromise, a mutually disagreeable solution.

Problem solve sounds so nice. It makes it seem like the contending parties are just going to come together and work everything out, calmly and rationally. That leads me to my biggest criticism of my field of study: the blind optimism that every conflict that can be resolved.

Don’t get me wrong, problem solving can be calm and rational, but it requires calm and rational participants. In my personal experience, not all people approach conflict in a calm and rational manner. To be fair, Pruitt and Kim do have a chapter on contentious tactics in their book, they are not turning a blind eye to the fact that conflict is not always so easily resolved.

Problem solving describes a situation where both sides are placing a high level of importance on the outcome. Both sides want it to go their way. If both sides are calm and rational, then there is a good chance that they can discuss the issues and create a solution that fully satisfies each side.  I would guess that more often than not emotion and pride quickly move participants beyond calmness and rationality.

I suppose it is philosophically a good idea for we students of conflict resolution to be taught that all conflict is resolvable. I suppose as a matter of pragmatism it is heartening for people to believe that all problems can be solved. I may be a little cynical, but it only takes one bad actor to destroy an optimistic  outlook. One of my colleagues put it best when he wrote, “Conflict is inevitable, resolution is not.”