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When people cannot get past having been insulted, sometimes it’s war.

August 24, 2011

Over and over again in disputes that come to me for mediation, I see the dynamic that I refer to as “the insult factor,” that is, where someone has said or done something, or many things, that really affronted the other side.  So the vendetta has begun and continues.

Many times through the process of the mediation, people can work through their negative emotions and find a way to make peace.  It is glorious when that happens.

But sometimes, the insult factor is just too much for them.  They just can’t “get over it” and resolution or settlement is not yet possible to reach.  They continue to disagree, to litigate, to fight, to war with each other.

I am reminded of this aspect because of a recent mediation, of course.  There, squabbling siblings in a dispute over the family real estate just could not let go of their issues of the past, and, despite all of the efforts of the day, and the wise advice of their attorneys, settlement, within reach if they grasped it, ultimately broke down late in the day (i.e., was deferred to another day).

What is interesting to me is that I also saw this dynamic in a completely unrelated context, and was bemused by it, as I was reading Edmund Morgan’s well written and lively biography of Benjamin Franklin recently.

In the book, I learned much about Franklin’s efforts to mediate the conflict between the British Parliament and the American Colonies in order that the British Empire could continue to include the American Colonies for the benefit of all.  (Franklin of course ultimately abandoned his efforts to try to keep the two sides together, and put his weight behind Independence.)

But I think it was the “insult factor” that caused the two sides to go to war.

Franklin had had a novel view.  He believed that Parliament was subordinate to the Crown, and saw the Colonial Assemblies or governing bodies the same way.  Thus, Franklin saw Parliament and the Colonial governments on the same level, equally subordinate to the Crown.  Parliament saw itself as superior to the Colonies.

Parliament was affronted that the Colonies were disobedient of the wishes and desires of Parliament or the Crown.  In Parliament’s view, the Colonists were insubordinate and unsubmissive.  In response, the Parliament made decisions designed, through the imposition of taxes and the use of military force among other things, to beat the Colonies into submission, to teach them a lesson, to get them in line.

Franklin saw that the colonies were affronted by Parliament’s efforts; and they rebelled further.

Each side perceived the other’s actions as insulting.  Parliament thought it “had the right” to do what it did; the Colonies thought that their “rights” were being infringed.

Franklin ultimately concluded that Parliament not only didn’t understand the Colonies but that they refused to see the conflict from the Colonies’ perspective.  The Colonies could not tolerate Parliament’s insults, and war erupted.

Things haven’t changed much since the American Revolution.  In the disputes that come to me, sometimes people are just unwilling to let go, they cannot or will not see the other side’s point of view, and they cannot manage their own emotions in the face of the perceived insults of the past or present.  So their war continues or even escalates.

Thankfully, I have not seen bloodshed in mediation as in the Revolutionary War.  And mostly I see people get to peace despite their initial feelings, as I have previously written, through the transformative magic of mediation.

But sometimes, people are stuck in a path of self- or mutual-destruction.  And it is their decision to keep fighting, which although unfortunate, is their choice.


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