Transformative Dialogue

July 22, 2012

A couple years ago (wow, was it really that long ago?) I read the book The Promise of Mediation, about Transformative Mediation, and reflected on the topic a bit. I’ve been following a couple blogs about it off and on, including one from the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation, and today there was an interesting blog post about “Transformative Dialogue” being used in Africa:

…we began by defining what a transformative dialogue would have as its goal: to change the quality of the interaction between community members, allowing people to interact from a position of clarity and strength; being open and perhaps responsive to the perspective of others, whether they agree or disagree.

I have been interested in the idea of dialogue for a while, and the descriptions in this post are right in line with what I imagine dialogue can and should be: a coming together of people with different perspectives, with the only goal being to have a positive interaction. I also strongly believe that the best (only) way to help people is to help them help themselves. That is, we cannot go in to someone else’s conflict or situation and tell them what to do. All we can do is support them in figuring out for themselves what to do. Transformative dialogue as described in the blog post clearly addresses this:

Unlike many other third parties, a transformative facilitator has no goal other than to support party decision-making and inter-party perspective taking. We respect the commitment to peace and reconciliation held by many practitioners and acknowledge the value of those goals. But we believe that the best way to get to help communities get to peace and reconciliation is to focus on supporting interactional change while having the patience to allow community members to move at their own pace. As transformative facilitators, we do not determine the agenda, who needs to be involved, or what ground rules need to be in place for a conversation. We do not prioritize inter-ethnic interaction over intra-ethnic interaction nor see the intervener as the architect of change. All choices, including these, are left to community members.

I would like to have the opportunity someday both to work on dialogue and to learn more about transformative practices. I am still not certain I agree one hundred percent with the transformative approach, but this post resonated with me and it strikes me that perhaps this approach makes more sense to me in the context of dialogue rather than mediation.


Book review: The Lucifer Effect

March 4, 2011

Note: I cross-posted this at my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

I was really looking forward to The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, by Philip Zimbardo. I had high expectations that it would provide me with a deeper understanding of how “evil” comes about. Unfortunately, I was quite disappointed with it, and did not come away with the sense that I had learned much at all.

Before I delve into my critique, let me start with the caveat that I do not think I was the target audience for the book. In college I took several psychology classes, including social psychology. Therefore many of the studies and psychological principles that Zimbardo discusses in The Lucifer Effect were quite familiar to me. This is probably the major reason I did not feel that I learned much from the book; I was expecting it to somehow go deeper than the classic psychology studies. That said, however, there were other reasons that I did not find the book particularly compelling, some of which I think would in fact be a turn-off to the target audience (the general public, and in particular people who believe that individuals are inherently good or evil).

One major issue I had with The Lucifer Effect is that it is extremely long-winded. In fact, while reading it I did something quite rare for me: I skimmed large chunks of it. Zimbardo’s main goal in this book is to demonstrate that situational and systemic factors have a far stronger influence on behavior than we realize or want to believe (people in general tend to attribute behavior to dispositional – inherent to the individual – factors rather than situational ones). To achieve this goal, he presents an in-depth analysis of two situations: his famous Stanford Prison Experiment and the Abu Ghraib prison abuses. I felt that there was far too much detail; it was not interesting to me and I did not need it to be convinced of the results. In addition, I found the writing itself to be long-winded. Often there would be a sentence or even paragraph that I felt like I had read before. He repeats the same important points over and over in slightly differently phrased ways, and it felt tedious.

I do believe that the points Zimbardo makes in The Lucifer Effect are important ones. However, I fear that the length of the book and the details it contains detract from these points reaching the people who are skeptical – would they really spend the time needed to read such a heavy and long book? On the other hand, for those of us already convinced of the general principles and hoping for new insights, it is a disappointment as it seems to mainly re-hash the standard psychological experiments (for example, the Milgram obedience study and the blue-eyed/brown-eyed children experiment).

The other major issue I have with The Lucifer Effect is that I do not feel his systemic analysis, particularly in the case of Abu Ghraib, goes far enough. While he thoroughly covers one systemic aspect – the way in which even the top of the chain of command was aware of and allowed the sorts of abuses that occurred – he spends only a couple pages addressing the fact that the very core of the military is in training people to kill and in dehumanizing other people because they are the “enemy.” The fact is, the individuals who committed these “evil” deeds existed in a culture with an authoritarian and violent mindset, and to me that is an important influence on their behavior that needs to be taken into consideration.

I believe that, while situational factors are certainly important, the picture is not complete without examining the societal context as well. Most cultures, including the American culture, normalize authoritarian, punitive, and dehumanizing behavior at some level. In the American culture, most children are raised using punishment, sometimes physical punishment, people who have broken laws are routinely dehumanized, and we have a powerful military actively fighting wars. Most people act morally in the normal situations they encounter in their life, but this morality is layered on top of the non-verbal messages in our culture that normalize authoritarian, punitive, and dehumanizing attitudes. When a particular situation then provides the additional factors necessary to normalize actually acting in such ways, it is not surprising that many people do in fact then act in ways we label as “evil.”

I suggest that if our culture did not in any way normalize authoritarian behavior – that is, if children were raised using non-punitive discipline, people who broke laws were treated humanely (such as through restorative justice programs), and we did not engage in wars – then far fewer individuals would turn evil even in the situational factors described by Zimbardo. Although as Zimbardo says, we can never know for sure how we ourselves would act in a particular situation until we are actually in the situation, I am fairly sure that I would not treat other people inhumanely no matter what the situation. I was raised non-punitively and any form of violence against another human being is completely outside of my way of being in the world.

Quote of the week

May 15, 2010

After a couple months hiatus, I’m diving back into my weekly quote feature with a provocative quote on science and religion. It is from an essay titled “Mind and Spirit,” by John A. Buehrens, from the book Our Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism, by John A. Buehrens and F. Forrester Church.

As important as science is, however, a sound integration of mind and spirit means that the world cannot be saved by mind alone, nor by science alone, nor by reason, nor by technology. As our nuclear age and our ecological crisis so painfully demonstrate, without a larger sense of purpose and relatedness, the productions of science and the human mind can themselves become dangerous idols. These relational issues, and issues of purpose, are spiritual in character. At the same time, the various warring sects of religion testify that the products of the human spirit can also become dangerous idols if not brought within a wider and more reasoned perspective.

That “larger sense of purpose and relatedness” is what I believe is absolutely critical to becoming a more peaceful world. We need both rational, logical, critical thinking and a spiritual sense of the interrelatedness of all beings.


February 19, 2010

Those of you who have followed me here from my old address at, welcome.

I’d like to point out the organization directory linked from the header; you can go here to see short summaries of all the organizations I have highlighted on this blog. Currently they are organized by category, but I will soon by adding a list organized by region as well.

I may be playing with the look, widgets, etc. over the next few weeks. Please bear with me as I get the blog just the way I want!


April 6, 2009

Obama is talking about non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. Thank goodness we finally have someone smart in the White House:

Mr. Obama said that his administration would “reduce the role of nuclear weapons” in its national security strategy, and would urge other countries to do the same. He pointed to the agreement he reached last week with President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia to begin negotiations on reducing warheads and stockpiles, and said the two countries would try to reach an agreement by the end of the year. He also promised to aggressively pursue American ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which in the past has faced strong opposition in Congress.

Logistical issue

October 8, 2008

It has come to my attention that the “Email the author” link that appears on some of my older posts does not, in fact, work. This link no longer appears on my new posts but I don’t know how to remove it from the old ones. If you have tried to email me via that link, I have not received that email. Please click to view my profile and you will see a way to email me that will work.