Bringing Empathy Back into “Development Deadlocks”

Listening to an episode today on CBC Radio’s program Tapestry called “The Moral of the Story is…” about the ways that humans construct a sense of moral certainty to guide our actions in the face of difficult or complex situations- http://www.cbc.ca/tapestry/episode/2012/10/12/the-moral-of-the-story-is/

In part, the program focused on atrocities and conflicts that have been perpetrated by people who feel they are morally certain about their actions, based on their beliefs about their cause or the people they have made into “enemies”. Susan Dimock, professor of moral philosophy at York University, Canada was interviewed and made an excellent point that, in order for people to commit atrocities or engage in intense conflict with others, our natural human tendencies toward empathy need to somehow be overcome. This is normally accomplished in one of two ways- people develop strong moral certainty about the value of their cause despite its effects, or they construct a portrayal of those on the other side of a conflict as inhuman and morally corrupt. We see an example of the former in the tragic and misguided moral certainty that many Canadians felt at the time that the forced residential schooling of Aboriginal children was carried out- despite the obvious damage to individuals and the fabric of families and communities. We see examples of the latter played out in recent genocides in Rwanda and Yugoslavia.

To a lesser degree we see these same tactics of misguided moral certainty play out all too frequently in conflicts about environment and natural resources. Proponents are framed only as morally corrupt, greedy corporations out to plunder and destroy communities and their resources. Communities and their elected officials are often perceived by proponents as only seeking to get as much money or score as many political points out of the situation as possible. Both sides believe in the moral certainty of their cause and use their framing of the “other” to recruit supporters and muster emotional power. Both sides become invested in their beliefs and spend little effort in trying to genuinely understand the other side’s viewpoints, motivations, and interests. In the end, the whole mess is handed over to a third party- government or the courts- to sort out, often making decisions which are to the benefit of neither party. This process uses an excessive amount of financial and social resources, takes a great deal of time, stifles innovation and our ability to adapt effectively to change, and causes an inordinate amount of angst and anxiety. We call this the “development deadlock”.

That’s why at Shared Value Solutions we work hard to help both sides engage each other in face-to-face dialogue, foster work to help both parties get past these unconstructive and detrimental perceptions, understand each others’ true motivations and interests, and work to identify and secure mutual benefits of a positive relationship. We use tried and trusted tools from alternative dispute resolution, community capacity-building, communications, and collaborative planning; and bring independent expert environmental and socioeconomic advice and ongoing evaluation and monitoring to the table.

In other words, we help to bring empathy and trust back into the equation to short-circuit the kinds of conflicts that lead to long-term negative consequences for all.

Please contact us if you find yourself on either side of a potential or ongoing “development deadlock”- we can help you plan a way out!

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