Story in Art and Mediation
Chapter 2 -- Story in an arts context, and in American culture
The tradition of sharing stories is as old as the human race. Everyone tells stories. There are personal stories that reinforce our sense of identity and family connection. There are stories passed down through our culture from generation to generation that teach us moral lessons. There are stories of crime and war that make the news and help to shape our view of the world. Some of us turn to the movies, to books or to the theatre for our stories. I believe there is a connection between conflict resolution and the ways social change artists work in community settings. The power of stories is the connection.
In Conflict Resolution, the mediator must ensure that all participants tell their story. There is an expectation that each party arrives prepared and capable of sharing a narrative that frames the conflict. The goal of a narrative is consistency, like a script for a play.
Story denotes something that is spontaneous and while it may be familiar, it is unrehearsed. A story evolves from the moment and attempts to explain a situation or an action in context of the moment. With each telling, the story takes on new meaning. For some artists and mediators, storytelling is not just a form of communication it is "the primary form of communication" (p. 161). "We agree that all human communication can be understood as story, or narrative" (p. 161).
For the sake of this paper, I will use the term story to refer to both narrative and story. In general I have capitalized my references to Black and White cultures in America. In direct quotes, these words might not be capitalized, in which case I follow the text exactly.
The range of literature and thinking around the subject of story is so broad it would be impossible to explore the subject in full. What the authors in this review share are a perspective that story is the building blocks of human communication. When we share stories we strengthen the group identity, or we might create new ways to understand the issues at conflict. The question that guides me is, how does the use of "story" in mediation resemble or differ from that used by social change artists?
Part 1 of this review looks at Story in an Arts Context; my interest is story in the context of a socially conscious arts movement in the United States. Part 2 is interested in Story in an American Cultural Context. This section focuses on the African American tradition of story through the evolution of the spiritual. This context includes story as a tool of struggle for social justice and liberation. Part 3 examines Story in Mediation. My interest is in how mediators think about and use story in the mediation, especially when transformation is a goal.
In the history of Western Theatre, Aristotle (384-322 BC) is celebrated for his ideas that separated art from politics. By relegating the story in theatre (i.e. tragedy) to a separate realm from politics, he codified a form of theatre that used story to control the political thoughts and actions of its audience through intimidation. The goal was catharsis, a purging of the pent up emotions and in the process; the audience is reduced to outsiders, who pay, listen, and respond. Aristotle's coercive system of theatre served those in power and their moral values. Now the lone hero had a particular face and morality so that his tragic fortune and catharsis is in alignment with church and state.
With the widespread acceptance of Aristotle's ideas, the reality of the life of the audience was dismissed while the actor and the tragic story-set down in script and fixed in time-became the focus of inquiry. Although most of Aristotle's observations on artistic form and purpose were later modified, many of his ideas were codified into ironclad rules of theater. It was widely accepted that the hero's story existed outside the realm of human politics (Boal, 1974/1979; Schoeps, 1977; Southern, 1961).
Working in Germany, Bertolt Brecht [1896-1956] influenced the education of socially conscious artists around the world. Brecht sought to stimulate the minds of his audience concerning the world around them, creating theater to move the audience into action, to question their status in the world and the conflicts that were playing out around them. Brecht adapted theatre for his own purpose, returning to the traditions of narrative theatre that integrated economics and politics with the human being as the object of inquiry. The stories told in the theatre, he believed, should not move the audience to tears and an orgy of emotion, but should educate them to act to change and transform the world (Brecht, 1957/1964 see also Boal, 1974/1979 and Schoeps, 1977).
One of Brecht's most well known students is Augusto Boal, a Brazilian political activist, and Artistic Director of the Arena Theater from 1956-1971. Working in the slums, Boal (1974/1979) incorporated much of Brechts concepts of theater into his work with the poor. Boal created theatre to help the under classes conceive of and practice for freedom. Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) used story as the primary technique to help the poor transform their personal and social reality into political awareness and action. Boal looked to theater as an instrument of education, rejecting the popular idea of theater as only spectacular and entertainment. TO uses story to increase each participant's capacity to confront internal and external factors of oppression by increasing their capacity to conceive of change. At the grassroots level, stories are an efficient weapon to remove all artificial barriers between those who act and those who are acted upon. A central feature of TO is to begin a story of conflict or oppression then stop the action and invite the participants to offer an ending, repeating the process until an empowering solution is proposed.
A shared story helps participants build their capacity to enter the conflict, to define the issues, and to conceive of an outcome. Many of these techniques were adopted into the practice of social activism, education, performance art, psychology, therapy, and now, conflict resolution. In this context, theater allows us each to tell our story through our perspective then to see those stories exhibited side by side. (Boal, 1974/1979).
Brecht influenced socially conscious artists in the United States like the San Francisco Mime Troupe working in the Bowery district among the underclass to create a theatre that speaks to and with, and for their community of people. He even influences the work of Imamu Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones). In 1964, Baraka politicized the U.S. stage with the one-act play The Dutchman, which won an Obie Award. This was followed in 1965 with The Slave and The Toilet. These plays symbolize the confrontation, hostility, and mistrust between Blacks and Whites in America (Schoeps 1977).
In the oral tradition, the story was interdisciplinary and unscripted so that the audience/community was free to intervene and shape it to their needs. This oral tradition was under the authority of the local community. Together, the community became the teller of its own story reflecting shared values and a view of the world (Boal, 1974/1979; Southern, 1961). Traditions of organizing and gathering people that use story to define the community experience survive in many forms. The tradition continues as part of a socially conscious arts movement. Socially conscious artists come from any lifestyle, or culture. What they hold in common is the use of their artistic ability to combat, correct, or confront the oppressor's version of their culture, story, and identity. Through the sharing and placing authority in their story, they challenge the dominant arts and culture. Participants address issues of motivation and passivity, create new structures of interaction, and stimulate new perspectives (Boal, 1992/1992; Sholette, 1990).
John O'Neal, an African-American writer, actor, and activist made some major contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. He committed himself to make theater that spoke to the dignity and grace of his people in the face of overt Southern oppression. Using Brecht as a major reference for his writing and thinking, and the Suitcase Theater of Langston Hughes and Ted Ward as his model, O'Neal, along with Tom Dent and Gilbert Moss founded The Free Southern Theater (1963) in New Orleans. Their goal was to make theater that encouraged and supported those in the movement. Their theater would place on stage the life of poor and working class people in the south, providing critical and reflective thought among those working in the Civil Rights Movement. John's motto is "Theater for those who have no theater." (4) This tradition of theater desired --to rouse its audience and society to active ends" (Szanto, 1978, p. 7).
Free Southern Theater functioned to invest the people with stories of their own moral values and virtues. Socially conscious artists call upon the middle class and working classes to make themselves the object of their own theater. They urge people to reject the lone hero's struggle and embrace the collective struggle (Boal 1974/1979). William Cleveland (1992) believes socially conscious artists place their art at the use of the have-nots and thus suffer a loss of face in the eyes of the haves and their supporters.
The tradition of story as a tool for change is being rediscovered and redefined by artists working at the community level. These artists seek to contribute to an emerging public sphere where dialogue and consensus among and between conflicting groups can occur. Community artists are returning to the use of stories gathered from the lives of the people, and the use of rituals in their work, bringing the traditions of earlier cultures into the modern art for social justice movement.
Many of the Africans enslaved in the American South came from the Central and Western region of Africa. In this region of the world, the privilege given speech and story extends to the drum, dance, ritual, and song (Jackson, 1995; Stewart, 1996). For all peoples their literature emerged from their oral traditions and with the African American, it was no different. This oral tradition combined the various traditions the Africans brought with them across the ocean with what they were forced to invent in their new location. What emerged was a tradition of story that was "made in America" (Gates & McKay, 1997, p. 3). Despite laws that forbid them to practice their oral traditions, these enslaved Africans began their quest to tell their own story in order to prove they where as human as their enslavers (Gates & McKay, 1997).
The spiritual serves as a cultural marker in the transition of Africans to being in America and their passage through the system of slavery. The significance of the spiritual connects to the peculiarities of the institution of slavery. Learning to read, write, or even play a drum was illegal, yet the propagation of the Bible was considered useful activity. The Bible became one of the only open avenues of speech available to enslaved Africans. Spirituals were in part a rephrasing of Protestant hymns integrated into a display of communal rhetorical creativity. (Jackson, 1995 see also Hansberry, 1972). For the enslaved Africans, the significance of spirituals ran deeper than a desire to embrace Christianity. Spirituals were a display of their collective story. In the face of those who wanted them to believe they were worthless, enslaved Africans created a community. They blended their oral traditions and their enslavers' religion to create themselves anew (Gates & McKay, 1997; Jackson, 1995; Sanger, 1995).
This unique and compelling way of telling their story was remarkable in several ways. One was the anti-literacy law enacted in 1740. These anti-literacy laws were a cruel part of the process to codify slavery in the Americas. The objective was to deny these Africans access to the primary components of identity and socialization, language and speech (Gates & McKay, 1997). The law forbade them from telling their story using their own language. The laws and attitudes directed at them by their enslavers became a challenge to communicate in other ways, for the most demanding aspect of culture is the need to communicate with others (Alkalimat, 1986/1990).
In the West and Central regions of Africa privilege given to speech extends to the drum, dance, ritual, epic tale, poetry and song (Jackson, 1995 see also Stewart, 1996). In the course of everyday activities and in their rituals there is an expectation that all in attendance will:
Often a mother will dance, cook, clean, and shop with her baby tied securely to her back or hip. The rhythm of the communication shared helped to prepare the child to be adept at mastering multiple language systems successfully (Diop, 1955/1974, 1963/1989 see also Pinker, 1994).
In the face of this denial of their humanity, enslaved Africans become a collective voice calling upon their collective ancestral songs, stories, symbols, and music to create a community through work songs, scripture, and spirituals. Drawing upon the story of the Israelites, they asserted a relationship between themselves and the text. The purpose was to share the story of their oppression, affirm that they were children of God, and to express they're longing for freedom (Sanger, 1995 see also Gates & McKay, 1997).
Spiritual seemed to confirm to the enslavers that their captives were resigned to the situation and contented reflections of them. For the enslaved Africans, spirituals mostly represented an opportunity under the nose of their oppressors to communicate across great distances, to signal escape, to further plans for rebellion, or simply to acknowledge the unity of the group. In the face of those who wanted them to believe they were worthless, they sang their individual self into being (Alkalimat, 1986/1990; Gates & McKay, 1997; Jackson, 1995; Sanger, 1995; Stewart, 1996).
Story became a group process by which to exercise some control over their situation and to create a positive self-image. In the process of creating the story of their captivity, they demonstrated their ability to adapt a strange tongue to their needs. In so doing, they demonstrated the ability to maintain a sense of history, a continuity of meaning, and a positive self-identity. Thus creating an original music rooted in the unity of Central and West African traditions of field songs.
Building from a communal hum or guttural expression, voices emerge out of the unison to begin a song. (Gates & McKay, 1997; Jackson, 1995; Sangor, 1995). A sound, an exclamation or a verbal cry "enables speakers to anticipate responses on the basis of prior internalization of similar behavior and listeners to respond in ways that conform to the expectations of others" (Jackson, 1995, p. 105). They demonstrate two aspects of the collective folk song; the use of personal pronouns to exert a group identity and their use of sophisticated rhetorical devises like the metaphor.
Although the use of collective terms among the enslaved were forbidden and monitored, they managed to convey the collective idea through use of personal pronouns like "I" and "me." This representation expressed the individual self and the individual as part of a community of shared meaning and consciousness. The system of personal pronouns is the engine that drives us towards individualization. Pronouns allow us to preserve a sense of our own identity and hold a collective identity simultaneously. In the case of the spirituals, the additional use of familial terms like "brother" and "sister" served as a further connection between the individual and the group (Sangor, 1995, par. 26-27).
The style of the product was spontaneous, never the same twice, improvisation of melody and text were encouraged, a song was extended according to time and circumstances, and used a "leader-chorus structure" (Jackson, 1995, p. 188). The process was democratic. The process was important. Sanger (1995) uses the example of "I got a shoe" as a beginning line that is quickly repeated by the group in affirmation. Then a second line proclaims "we got a shoe", which is again affirmed by group. Next comes the call ~all god's children got shoes" followed by community agreement. Sanger also points out that this is one of the few spirituals that uses the collective we. The interest was in the purposeful and creative use of speech to hold a safe identity, and to build a community (paragraphs 23-27) (Alkalimat, 1986/1990; Gates & McKay, 1997; ya Salaam, 1995).
Because African Americans were never seen as a part of the cultural norm, they felt free to create uniting stories to meet their needs. Story in this tradition is about a struggle for cultural retention and resistance against psychological oppression. However, today it is an inescapable fact that a familial relationship existed between Black and White Americans and predates the founding of the nation placing the African at the very origins of a New World national identity (Bennett, 1961/1969, p. 639 see also Andrews, Foster, & Harris, 1997, p. 351).
Consistent with my first two sections, I will look at mediation as a culture. Which cultural perspective (story) of mediation that you embrace affects the way that you might view the use and uses of story in mediation. My interest is in the instruction given to mediators on how to use story. I will look at literature from mediation as transformation and mediation to unite people as they work towards social justice.
Some practitioners view mediation as a system that can help to satisfy disputes and human needs that if left un-addressed can lead to violence. Others view mediation as a way to unite people and work towards social justice. For some, mediation is a process that does little to resolve disputes so they focus on ways to transform the individual. A growing number look at mediation as a means of codifying class oppression. No matter what perspective a mediator holds certain instructions are common to the mediation process when it comes to the collection and use of story.
The mediator is at the center of the process. The mediator is instructed to make sure each party develops their story. The mediator has the power to set time limits and speaking turns. They must pay attention to the time so each party gets to speak for the same amount of time. They are also expected to articulate the history of the conflict. A mediator must guide each party to develop something between a rehearsed narrative of who, what, when, and a story that demonstrates the legitimacy of their emotions. From these directions, it is clear the process rests with the mediator. To be successful, a mediator needs to be highly skilled in oral communications and cultural styles of communication. Because the ability to tell one's story is at the heart of mediation, the mediator must pay close attention to and work to improve the communication skills of each party. A mediator is cautioned to take the time to listen to each partys story then determine if additional stories should be solicited. They are expected to know that right moment for the correct reinforcement in order to move the process to a new level- (Folger, Poole, & Stutman, 1993; Donohue, 1989; Moore, 1986).
The mediator's most intense encounter with story is during the interview phase. Every decision, from who to talk to first to where to meet, could influence the outcome and feelings of success. (Bush & Folger, 1994; Moore, 1986 see also Rifkin, et al. 1991). However, even before interviews can begin criteria have to be set that could limit the number of interviews and the kind of data [stories] to be collected. Mediators, along with disputants must consider the cost involved, the time to be committed, the relationship between disputants, and the amount of financial resources and other support available (Moore, 1986).
A mediator is instructed to be neutral in the dispute. Neutrality is experienced as a "step towards problem resolution" (Rifkin, et al. 1991, p.152), and as a quality of the mediator that ensures "a fair and just process" (p.152). Many mediators consider neutral as meaning to be impartial to the issues, show no feelings, ignore your own values, and have no personal agenda. Some researchers believe neutrality actually incorporates two qualities, impartiality and equidistance. Equidistance is defined as "those practices by which mediators support or encourage the disclosure of the disputants" (p. 15). Impartiality and equidistance imply a contradiction that makes neutrality difficult to achieve (Rifkin, et al.).
The mediator listens to each story and is called upon at times to support and direct the disclosure of information by each party. This coming together implies an alliance. Stories are mined for what they can ~ell the mediator about possible movement towards settlement. Then, the mediator is asked to return to the role of impartial outsider.
This coming together then pulling apart creates a paradox for the mediator and the disputants.
Paradoxes are recursive, self-perpetuating loops of interaction that contribute to the establishment and maintenance of contradictory positions. (p. 153)
The paradox arises because equidistance and impartiality are "contradictory by definition" (p. 153).
For this reason, mediators are cautioned to view themselves as mediators of stories not sides. By focusing on the stories people tell instead of sides, mediators may be able to avoid the paradox of neutrality. This means a focus beyond stories about the dispute or conflict and eliciting a full range of stories that express "the ongoing interactive nature of the mediation narrative" (Rifkin, et al. 1991, p. 160).
Further support of storytelling comes from mediators who work with large groups and public policy issues. Stan Gentle (1996) (5) often finds himself in this position and stresses the need to pay closer attention to the stories of each party. When social justice is a goal, stories represent data that goes beyond the issues at hand to ideas about the systemic roots of the conflict. When unity and social change are goals, the stories each party shares are clues to how we deal with emotion and values that are at times more important than the conflict. In this context, stories let parties' address past conflicts and acknowledge the damage. Stories are a way to conceive of a future that moves the community to a new level of social, political, and economic relations. Stories open the way for dialogue to provide a forum for parties to share information, express emotion, and relate their values. When social justice is the goal a large investment of time is required. The procedure depends on hearing from as large a number of parties to the dispute as possible.
The significance of what a story represents increases when the goal is transformation of the conflict into an opportunity for moral growth. In this orientation, story opens the way for self-reflection and transformation, contributing to increased dialogue and the restructuring of relations. In order to help parties to tell their story, a mediator must be open to multiple ways of interpreting the dispute so as not to favor one party's reality over another. At the same time, the mediator must be able to keep each party focused on the issues not on each other. The mediator must be capable of accepting the emotions that might range from fear, selfishness, to defensiveness while at the same time striving to bring disputing parties to a place of caring and confidence. They have the responsibility to balance the emotion in stories (Rifkin, et al. 1991), especially when disputants are from different cultural or social backgrounds. (Bush & Folger, 1994).
A transformative orientation dictates that the nature of the conflict is secondary to the potential for human growth. The goal is to prepare people to respond to conflict in productive ways. Allowing parties to tell their stories from many perspectives helps them realize their "human capacity for experiencing and expressing concern and consideration for others" (p. 82).
The goals of transformative mediation call for the ability to help conflicting parties to see the dispute through the eyes of their opponent by wanting for their opponent what they want for themselves. To achieve this level of acknowledgement calls for a period of conscious raising supported by education in order to re-orient parties to think in terms of self-transformation instead of resolution of settlement.
In this model, the mediator is as a sort of spiritual guru guiding parties to a place where they feel good about each other and themselves. They create an atmosphere in which each speaker feels at ease and aware of their own self-worth. This requires establishing a high level of trust between parties and among parties and the mediator. Only in this environment can the receiver extend recognition to the teller as they become aware of and acknowledge the opposing party's situation. The objective is to empower each party to: (a) become clearer about goals, (b) realize the range of options available to them, (c) increase and use new skills, (d) become aware of additional resources, and (e) to take part in the decision-making (Bush Folger, 1994).
Practitioners and theorists from various fields of conflict resolution are trying to understand the connections between human needs theory and conflict resolution as a system of mediated justice. Many oppose processes like transformative mediation and charge that it leads to efforts designed to fix the people, especially the poor or unskilled. Victoria Rader (1990) is a steadfast critic of human needs theory and approach to conflict like that implied by transformative mediation.
We are encouraged by people like Joseph A. Scimecca (1990) to look at story in mediation as a way of helping bridge the communication gaps between people from different cultures, and between Black and White Americans in particular. This means focusing more on what a story means to the speaker and hearer. This system of shared symbols aids in what Scimecca sees as the two needs basic to all humans; the need for self-consciousness and self-reflexivity. Scimecca considers them as universal because they do not depend on a cultural interpretation and are not determined by one's genetics.
The need for self-consciousness means we need to be aware of the world around us and have a frame of reference for dealing with that world. Self-reflexivity allows us to look back on our life and experiences then take the best in order to continue to live.
Our stories make us feel a part of the group. However, while they help us feel a part of our group, our stories can foster mistrust and misunderstandings when communicating outside our group. This is because the meaning of our story is what we say, but meaning also depends on the perception of the hearer. Perception affects how we frame what we say and how we receive the words of others. Perception hampers our ability to understand the meaning others give to their stories.
How much the speaker and hearer agree on meaning is further complicated by the fact that what a story means to one could imply the opposite meaning to the other. In the constructivist view of language equal meaning is given to literal and figurative language, because meaning is viewed as having "to be constructed rather than directly perceived" (Ortony, 1979/1993, p. 2). Our understanding of story and metaphor is challenged by the competing cultural realities rooted in language and story. It is the role of those who teach to help clarify and to establish a system of story as consciousness of personal history, world history and connections to the history of others (Freire, 1970, 1994).
Among African Americans, a speaker is expected to take a position then communicate that position in strong terms in order to press the validity claim that what she/he believes and acts on to be true. To be neutral in the exchange is to invite distrust or disdain. Given its modeling of Western European culture, many White Americans have a cultural orientation that is supported not by emotion, body language, or investment in information, but from the aspect of a specialist or expert (Kochman, 1981, 1990).
What story means to African Americans is very different from what it means for Whites. Whites approach story as a means to arrive at a point when one party agrees with the other or by the reason of their words they convince one party to consider the other's point-of-view. Given the passion in Black style, it can be difficult for Whites to differentiate between argument as an expression of anger and the argument of dynamic opposition meant to persuade the opponent. "Whites fail to make these distinction because arguments for them functions only to ventilate anger and hostility. (Kochman, 1981, p. 19 see also 1990). For African Americans sharing stories is more about the engagement itself, not the outcome. It is the engagement, the fact that you respect the other person enough to respond to them, to treat communications as a form of reciprocity that sways them (Sanger, 1995). It is not a matter of agreement but rather remaining open to the engagement.
In cross-cultural communications, the devil is in the details. However, if the conflicting individuals are morally committed in a relationship based on mutual struggle, getting to dialogue and self-directed education can prove daunting, but not impossible. This chapter sought to develop ideas from the arts and conflict resolution from writers who believe there is a larger role for storytelling as "an alternative discourse" (Rifkin, et al. 1991, p. 160).
We are advocating an alternative understanding of the communication process that shifts the focus from transmission of the messages to the reciprocal interactions of storytelling. (p. 160) In the next chapter I will discuss my method of inquiry. I report on my research design, study population, and how I went about collecting and analyzing the data.
|Published in In Motion Magazine October 7, 2001.
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