Archive for January, 2010

Back again after too long a gap . . .

This blog is the first in what I hope will be a series of short observations on aspects of culture and dispute resolution. I’m calling it ‘rules of engagement’ as it seems to me that, at the risk of some oversimplification, the plethora of information about cultural difference and dispute resolution ends up leading me to this one key question: what are the terms on which, and the norms by which, people engage in the process and tasks of dispute resolution. I’ll come back in a later post to some of the factors in this Asian region that also prompt this reflection, especially to the extent that there may be norms and conventions that actually inhibit engagement – that is, where there is a preference for non-involvement. This – to anticipate later comments – ranges from internalised cultural norms about loss of face (thus it’s best not to do anything in order to avoid the risk of one’s own, or other’s, loss of face) to equally internalised norms of non-involvement in the civic or public space – that is, the rules learned along the way about the acceptable spheres of individual activity, which might specifically exclude the political and civic. On that last point, have a look at John Kampfner’s new book, Freedom for Sale: Why the world is trading democracy for security. See a review in the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/sep/13/freedom-for-sale-john-kampfner

This series of blogs is also partly going to be shaped or – more likely – provoked – by conversations in my Ethics classes, in which it becomes plain that the highly moral, socially-concerned local students are also predominantly influenced by a utilitarian calculus . . . which leads to interesting conversations about wage differentials, sweat shops, investing in companies that derive all their income from military hardware (basically, that’s OK, as there’s a guarantee of a good return). Principally, there’s an abiding thread in the discussions about the obligations of the bystander. And at this stage I have some ill-formed thoughts about the norms of bystander obligations, social norms of deliberation and engagement (and the greater the degree of perception that you can change things, the greater is the level of engagement – though not necessarily articulate or civil engagement, but that’s another task!).

The most immediate point of departure is an article on empathy and moral judgment in the magazine of the “Greater Good Science Center” which I hadn’t heard about until today. That article – “The Evolution of Empathy [http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/greatergood/2010/january/De_Waal.php] – explores the foundational nature of empathy and the manner in which empathy remains “core” while is has been surrounded by the development of a range of other social, linguistic, cognitive and moral tools. De Waal’s conclusion:

“Emotions trump rules. This is why, when speaking of moral role models, we talk of their hearts, not their brains (even if, as any neuroscientist will point out, the heart as the seat of emotions is an outdated notion). We rely more on what we feel than what we think when solving moral dilemmas.”

This has a twofold relevance for me at the moment: one is in the explorations in ethics of moral psychologists like Jonathan Haidt and Josh Greene (especially Haidt’s intriguing work on the stronger moral foundations of conservatives over liberals . . . which is a bit troubling for card-carrying liberals: see http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind.html]; the other is a speculation on the manner in which empathy, and its legitimate expression, are shaped by culture. This links back to the theme – rules of engagement – because empathy also implies at least a degree of engagement with the “other”. And it also may link to the range of cultural norms on non-intervention, non-expression etc.

De Waal’s commnent is that:  “. . .  empathy comes naturally to us. It is not something we only learn later in life, or that is culturally constructed.” But in addition to this, it is not immutably hard-wired in terms of our expression of empathy or what is socially and culturally acceptable by way of overt expression of empathy, opinion and so on. Think of the differences between those members of different cultural worlds you know in terms of a greater or lesser willingness to offer opinions – sometimes opinions you’d rather do without or didn’t really ask for. So, it may not be culturally constructed in the sense of having its origins in culture; but empathy – as a form of overt expression – is likely to be culturally constructed.

And this is where the link with dispute resolution comes in, especially to the extent that the ‘conversation-based’ processes – negotiation, mediation – depend on a greater degree of engagement and willingness to become engaged. Here we begin to see the impact of the differences in the ‘rules of engagement’ in that, as a rough generalisation, the Asian norms will tend towards non-engagement, non-contradiction, and deference to the opinions of those higher up the perceived social hierarchy.


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