This is my personal philosophy of “values”-based conflict and conflict resolution.
When a problem is presented in the context of clashing “values,” it is not really a clash over values but over the prioritization and expression of those values. For example, no one is really against freedom, justice, equality, or dignity. In a particular context, a person might prioritize freedom over dignity, for example, or justice over stability, or prosperity over integrity. It’s not that the other party does not have any values, and it’s not that they don’t value what you think you value. The issue is that they are prioritizing and expressing values differently than you are prioritizing and expressing yours.
Even the same value can be expressed differently in different cultures or settings. From my own experience, I’ve learned that to express public politeness in business culture in France you maintain a neutral facial expression with strangers. That contrasts to the Southern US culture where I was raised, where you meet strangers in public with a wide grin and greeting. It’s not that the French are arrogant or snooty, but that they maintain a reserved, neutral public composure and keep their belly laughs, grins, and familiar speech for intimates and friends. Many cultural miscommunications are based in different expressions of the same value, and what is considered an expression of politeness in France can be taken as rudeness by an American (and vice versa).
Conflict resolution in these cases can only be possible when each party is able to reflect and verbalize HOW they are prioritizing and expressing their values. Only when the values and expressions are explicated in this way can the parties talk through similarities and compromises. Perhaps Party A’s top priority is Justice and Party B’s top priority is Security, but they both have Mercy and Prosperity as high priorities. In that case, Parties A and B could compromise in order to provide each with a little Justice and Security by an act of Mercy.
I illustrate these points in my class by having role-playing scenarios, like a mock Arab Spring. In the Mock Arab Spring project, I have students sign up to play one of four possible roles in six possible countries set in the present day: to represent Journalism, the Government, the Military, and the People in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Egypt, and Bahrain. This project took one week, meeting twice a week for an hour and a half. On DAY 1, students were required to come to class having defined the membership of their group and prepared a list of six important priorities for the group they represented. They sat in groups (around their country’s flag I set on the tables) and work on group work for the day. DAY 1’s tasks were to 1) introduce who they represented, 2) explain the priorities they held, 3) go around the table role-playing a wave of protest/reform/revolution, in order to 4) reach an agreement on the TOP 3 values and priorities IN RANK ORDER (#1, #2, #3) for their country. The Journalist was in charge of recording what everyone said and keep everyone on track toward the country agreement.
For example, the People of Bahrain could hold protests demanding the release of political prisoners and protesting unemployment. Then, the Military of Bahrain would respond by attempting to peacefully break up the protest. The Government of Bahrain would release one prisoner and promise economic reform. The People would respond by staging a hunger strike sit-in outside the parliamentary building demanding the release of all political prisoners. The Military would violently disperse the crowds. Etc.
The students could decide when and how to negotiate together and make compromises, and the Journalist could comment on things like the Government going back on a promise to the Military made earlier. I made participation in this final project a substantial part of their term grade, and walked the room, answering questions and making notes about how prepared and engaged the different group members were.
On DAY 2, each country group was responsible for presenting an account of the Arab Spring in their country led by their Journalist, and the group decided how to present their process and final agreement to the class. Some of the agreements were very detailed, including a Peace and Reconciliation commission for Libya and the establishment of an international Economic Development Working Group in Egypt. The final agreements looked something like this:
#1 Economic Development – establish a public/private commission; #2 Democracy – rewrite election laws and devolve power to parliamentary bodies, #3 Stability – work slowly and in moderation to keep radicals from disrupting society and international relations
Then the students voted (and couldn’t vote for their own country) for the country that deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. Each member of the winning country received bonus points.
The final exam of the course was a 4-6 page, take-home reflective paper on the project where the student talked about who they represented, and how they managed to balance their priorities and values with the need to compromise with the other members. I was very impressed by the papers, and especially surprised by the quality of reflection by the Journalists about the difficulty of objective recording.
Activities like the Mock Arab Spring are very effective at teaching students to take on a role, understand the implications of that role, and define the meanings of abstract values in practice.