Tuesday, October 10, 2017

About Political Dialogue in a Confrontational Culture

This blog is the first in a new series called “From the Field”. In this series we spotlight stories and insights from former students, friends, and colleagues who are working in the field of dispute resolution.


By Oriol Valentí i Vidal ‘17


Last week, images of the Spanish police brutally cracking down on voters in Catalonia’s illegal referendum on secession popped up on computer screens around the world, bringing with them a wave of international attention and unprecedented internal anxiety. 42.34% of eligible voters cast their vote, the majority of whom (90%) supported secession from Spain. Aside from the failed coup d’état in 1981, this represents Spain’s most profound constitutional crisis since democracy was restored in 1978, and remains a hot debate in Catalonia.

After finishing my LL.M. at Harvard Law School a few months ago, I came back to Spain: first to Madrid, and then—coinciding with the referendum for the independence of Catalonia—to Barcelona. However, as much as I was excited to be back home, viewing such extreme polarization first-hand worried me. Although Spanish political culture tends to be confrontational, the current level of social tension has seemed, at least to me, unparalleled.

This only worsened when the Catalan government pressed forward with the organization of the secession referendum even after the Spanish Constitutional Court declared it unconstitutional. The rest is history, with the subsequent weeks punctuated by criminal proceedings initiated against members of the Catalan government and Parliament, detention of senior government officials and seizure of electoral materials following judicial orders, daily protests in our cities, and, what is most distressing, police violence against unarmed citizens.

At that point, the central question was clear: Is there any room for democracy in the absence of the rule of law? Or is the former so tied up in the latter that one cannot exist without the other? Supporters of the referendum argue that the historic and current circumstances of the conflict themselves legitimize the secession vote, even without Spanish Constitutional support. Those against it, for their part, claim that this would be the end of our liberal democracy.

Against this heated backdrop, I sensed a unique occasion to contribute my ADR knowledge and skills to help bring some peace to the table. “Since I am not an elected official and thus cannot make a difference in the public sphere,” I told myself, “I might as well try to persuade those around me to engage on these controversial issues in a more civilized and productive manner.”

And yet, this has proven to be a very difficult task for various reasons. First, as noted, Spain (and, to a lesser degree, Catalonia) has a strong confrontational political culture. We live in a country where showing empathy towards the other side’s claims is considered, at best, a sign of weakness, and, at worst, support for your adversary. This conviction might be historically rooted in the belief that unless you annihilate your political enemy, he might later come after you. The bloody Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) is a good example of that.

Indeed, the two parties—the two sides of this current fight—have grown so distant from one another that they have fallen into the classical negative traps that Harvard Law School professor  Robert Mnookin highlights in his book Bargaining with the Devil: When to Negotiate, When to Fight—tribalism, demonization, dehumanization, moralism, zero-sum fallacy, fight or flight, and call to battle. Political leaders and citizens alike view their “opponents” as so fundamentally wrong that they refuse to even engage in conversations, let alone true negotiations.

This deadlock has led the Catalan government to repeatedly call these last weeks for a mediated solution to the conflict. In response, the Spanish government has continued to insist that “there is no political dialogue outside the rule of law.” This is yet another evidence that in our political culture we often request pre-conditions to negotiate, and draw red lines even before a negotiation has started.

Second, unlike many other relevant debates, this is one that strongly speaks to the core of one’s national identity. Not being a citizen of the Kingdom of Spain anymore, or continuing to be subject to Spanish rule, is almost a question of life or death for many. When feelings are so strong, there is little room for rational discussions because, as it turns out, it almost always comes back to whether one feels Spanish or Catalan.

Third, there is an extreme level of disparity in what is being covered by the Spanish and the Catalan media outlets. This leads people to strategically choose what they want to read, watch, and hear. This, in turn, reinforces their preconceived opinions and convictions. And, muck like we have seen in the United States since last November, it seems that we are entering a “post-truth” era, in which the divide between facts and opinions grows blurry, undermining any attempts to engage in sensible and genuinely informed conversations.

Last but not least, as a man born and raised in Barcelona, I myself have very strong opinions on these issues. For better or worse, that reality often makes it hard for me to have these discussions calmly when I am met with certain types of arguments. In fact, my political views on the debate are so publicly known that family and friends alike come to me to both exchange ideas and challenge my thoughts. This has been especially true since I invited Sr. Artur Mas (the 129th Catalan President, 2010-2016) to Harvard Law School, where he discussed Catalonia’s project for independence with Prof. Mangabeira Unger. The Spanish media reaction that ensued, and the personal attacks that I received, were only the beginning of what was to come.

In this context, how can I engage family, friends, and myself in productive conversations? How can I connect with strangers who agree with me, and with ones who don’t? What is the best way to overcome distrust, hard feelings, and even my own prejudices? How can I avoid falling into the regular spiral of unfruitful verbal accusations?

In my experience, a first key step is to show empathy toward those you disagree with. I often find myself repeating another person’s perspective back to them to make sure I have understood it fully—while still making clear that empathy and sympathy are not one and the same. From my own experience, I know this is often a difficult first step. It requires self-control and discipline when the other person’s intentions are different than my own, and even more so when their perspective is hurtful. But I think that most (or all) of us have the capacity to be generous and active listeners when we choose to be. And by making that choice, we stand to gain substantive change in the dynamics of the conversation: this is the power of reciprocity.

Indeed, as social psychology has shown, humans feel obliged to repay in kind what someone else has first provided them. Here, reciprocity achieves important goals: (a) it sets the tone of the conversation by establishing an unspoken quid pro quo frame; (b) it teaches the other person that she can listen to me without needing to agree with my position; and (c) it decreases the emotional tension of a high-stakes conversation.

If this first step is accomplished—and, admittedly, I do not always manage it myself—I try to verbally acknowledge that though our differences in thinking might be great, both are legitimate nonetheless. This may seem like an obvious statement, but often in the midst of a heated debate, it is far from assumed. Discussions of whether Catalans should have the right to self-determination or not has often proved just how outlandish this idea of mutual legitimacy feels when passions run high. But it is only when, and if, these two prior steps are accomplished that the time comes to assert one’s own position and interests—preferably as peacefully as possible—while avoiding the temptation to fall into provocations or personal attacks.

In sum, the heated discussions and uncontrolled levels of stress that Spaniards and Catalans are living through put to the test our levels of tolerance to conflict and our capacity for empathy and understanding. In confrontational cultures like ours, understanding what empathy truly means and its potential to fundamentally alter conversations is a necessary first step to national reconciliation. Moreover, I believe that in a time where there are constant empty calls to negotiation, it is more necessary than ever to propose specific, creative solutions that engage political actors and citizens alike in a fruitful political dialogue. This is, above all, a deeply personal issue for so many people. It is by remembering that those on the other side are just as grounded in fact and just as legitimate in their feelings as we are that we might be able to visualize the beginnings of a path forward.

Oriol Valentí i Vidal ′17 was a student in the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program in the Spring of 2017, working on a project with City of Boston Department of Neighborhood Development, Office of Housing Stability. He is an Associate Attorney at a Spanish law firm, where he works in the dispute resolution department, and will be teaching alternative dispute resolution at the graduate level in the spring semester. In addition to HNMCP, Oriol took several classes in the ADR curriculum at Harvard Law School, including the Negotiation Workshop, Dispute Systems Design, and Legal Profession: Collaborative Law. He was a member of the Harvard Mediation Program, the Harvard International Arbitration Law Students Association , and served as an LL.M. representative.