Ana Simeon Mediation

A hospitable space in the midst of conflict

What role might mediation play in public life?

Posted on Sep 26, 2021

Theoretically, a democracy fosters open and informed discussion on all kinds of issues under the sun. Open media empower citizens to inform themselves and deepen their understanding of the world we share.

In practice, media often polarise and dramatise controversial issues – whether it’s taxes, abortion or climate change – rather than seek common ground or offer a nuanced perspective.

As for the House of Commons? Debate is dominated by pre-packaged sound-bytes liberally peppered with personal attacks. Decisions are made by party diktat, and listening has become an endangered species.

The ingredients for a good mediation are respect and listening, a safe space for examining diverse perspectives, and attention to objective criteria to guide decision-making. What would our public life look like if we took these seriously?

Here is my attempt to answer this question, in a letter to the editor of The Guardian Weekly in response to an opinion editorial by Mark Lynas on the politics of climate change.

As a mediator working with conflict in groups and organisations, my job is to offer disputants a neutral framing – a description of the issue that expands their thinking, promotes curiosity and offers a safe space for examining divergent perspectives. Respect for disputants and, strangely, the conflict itself, is key to creating a safe space for a productive conversation.

Within such a framing, needs can be addressed, objective criteria brought to bear on the discussion, and values mutually heard and respected. For proponents of market-based solutions and those in favour of more community-based models to have a productive conversation as opposed to a shouting match, a safe space grounded in respect needs to be offered.

If Mark Lynas (The Guardian Weekly, March 20, “Climate debate ruled by extremists”) truly wishes to encourage people climbing “out of their trenches” and “working together” he is going about it in a strange way. Calling one or both sides “extremist” is hardly likely to yield anything productive. Rather than promoting dialogue as Lynas claims, it suggests a desire to push one side entirely out of the space of politically acceptable discourse. We associate the word “extremist” with blowing up installations and taking hostages. Now suddenly this term is being applied to people who question capitalism as a viable model in the era of climate change.”

In Canada right now, the federal government is pushing through a terrorism bill, Bill C-51, which if passed would give police and secret services frightening new powers of search and seizure, eavesdropping and incarceration without charges. One RCMP report explicitly describes the “anti-petroleum lobby” as a terrorist threat. Nor is this trend unique to Canada. I find it hard to believe that Mr. Lynas, a free-lance journalist focusing on climate change, is ignorant of the political context and the real-world implications of the word “extremist”. The wise reader will draw his or her conclusions as to whether this is motivated by a desire to promote dialogue or a very different agenda.

– Ana Simeon

A shorter version of this letter was published in The Guardian Weekly on March 31, 2015