Mediators, brace for impact! COVID-19 and Xenophobia

YMI member and co-founder of The PACT India, Jonathan Rodrigues, has shared the following piece about xenophobia surrounding COVID-19, how this may arise during mediation, and one potential tool for dealing with such issues in the mediation process.

A virus has locked over two billion people into their homes, leaving thousands breathless, stifling economies, quarantining social lifestyles and mocking global health care systems. COVID-19 is uncompromising on race, religion, language, skin colour, politics, or social (networking) status—matters that divide us, humans. The world will be a different place when we find the answers for prevention and cure. By then, will we have grown further apart as the human race? #InThisTogether was trending worldwide when the pandemic broke out, but are we really in this, together?

With fresh seeds of discrimination sown in the United States and the nation’s leader referring to coronavirus as the ‘Chinese’ virus, dangerous rhetoric has fostered a new wave of racism. Anti-Asian xenophobia has already begun to take shape culturally and legally. Italy was naturally the first to experience the wave of fear and anxiety setting in with East Asian businesses and students linked to reports of racism. Like the coronavirus, prejudice is infectious. In the UK, a Chinese restaurant owner was spat at by a teenager, while a young woman out on a morning walk in San Francisco was verbally abused and threatened by a stranger on the street.

In a country that has its fair share of religious riots and racism, the discriminatory attitude towards Indian citizens belonging to the north-eastern region has turned more hostile, while netizens in the world’s second most populated country have begun targeting non-vegetarians. In India, some priests claim that anyone who worships the cow is safe from the virus, thus condemning religious and food choices, and a disoriented TV news anchor ranted out his disdain for a certain group of irresponsible religious clerics, instigating a nation-wide hate wave. With life now moving to digital spaces, it won’t be long before the bigotry finds its way to people’s homes, uninvited. Instances of some radicals ‘ZoomBombing’ private online meetings have already been reported, while litigation enthusiasts have begun filing racially-motivated multi-trillion dollar law suits.

Our generation has no clue what has just hit us, and while the scientists do their jobs, a pandemic lockdown doesn’t give anybody the moral freedom to be prejudiced, and stereotype people on race and religion. Quarantined at home, these news bytes are splitting individuals who have formerly shared close personal or professional relationships. The developing trends across the world are polarising perspectives, and shaping the morality of the 21st century. Some condone the chants of racism, while others vehemently condemn it. The ones who can afford to #StayHomeSaveLives snarl at those still on the streets, looking to earn their next meal; and not surprisingly, that feeling is mutual. These are our clientele, so should we care?

Mediators are expected to remain unbiased and objective in their behaviour, no matter how extremely the disputants perceive the core issue of the conflict. Disputants will carry a lot of emotional (lack of social contact) mental (economical and physical stress) baggage to the mediation table or online platforms, and it will impact how they feel about other side, beyond the main issue being disputed. Separating the person from the problem, a popular jargon in the mediation, couldn’t be more relevant for disputants of the post-pandemic world. Society will be subconsciously fragmented on the concept of ‘justice’, and we must brace for impact.

The best learnings come from experiences; thus, I would like to refer to a slippery situation faced by a mediator in the UK, and how it helps us develop a strategy for the future. 

Case Study: A local lawyer was claiming penalty amount from an immigrant youth for unpaid invoices. Upon learning that the mediator was from India, the local lawyer quickly sought his opinion on the communal riots being reported in India. Out of the blue and into the spotlight, the mediator sensed the anxiety in the parties, waiting for his response. Seated at the mediator’s left was a Muslim lad, and to his right was a much senior white man – who posed the question. Being engaged in pre-mediation small talk, ignoring the topic could have been perceived by parties as the “mediator having an extreme opinion compromising his neutrality in the mediation or that he cannot be trusted, as he doesn’t seem to have the skill to handle a sensitive situation”. In that moment, the mediator could either say “no comments” or use this great opportunity to be honest, accept where he stands, respect the racial undertone in that question, and convey very intelligently that no hostile vocabulary will be entertained in the room. Choosing the latter, he said, “That’s unfortunate, what we see happening in Delhi. It hurts me as an Indian and as a mediator, and I wish I could do something to help. Big cities are so richly populated with diverse cultures, that are bound to be clash. I believe if people can hear each other out, it begins the problem-solving process. And, from what I hear, they have appointed a couple of mediators to initiate dialogue.” This unrehearsed banter could have been an innocent ice-breaker with no intention from the elderly gentleman to investigate motivations, but it wasn’t to be. The mediator wasn’t surprised when, a couple of hours into the mediation, both participants discussed the racial angle to the dispute, in private sessions.

The mediator didn’t panic and smoothly navigated the moment with delicate poise and tact, by READ-ing the moment correctly. Here’s hoping the READ formula can benefit us all.

Relax: We need to accept that we have inhaled certain negative vibes from what we have read, heard or watched during the self-isolation period. Almost similar to sterilizing our hands after a visit to the supermarket, we can’t take it for granted that we are not being affected by what has happened around us, and deny a cleansing. May be, it’s time to try meditation – a process often mistaken for our profession – before a scheduled mediation. Subconsciously suppressed negative energy will eventually reflect in our behaviour as neutrals. We have to be comfortable with ourselves and our ideology, so that we can exude confidence when faced with a delicate situation. If we are disconnected with our own feelings towards racism, we will mess up the situation by being judgmental about others. 

Empathise: Racial overtones often surface during private sessions with disputants, as they are often courteous to not speak their mind out loud. This is an opportunity for the mediator to not only respect why they feel that way, but also study the source of the emotion. It allows to connect with the person and understand why they feel what they feel. We aren’t agreeing with their ideologies or condoning their attitudes, we are only respecting the origins of emotion. We must be careful to not sympathise with the bias behaviour, but play the role of a good active listener – learning more about their real interests, and insecurities that may hinder them from getting closer to realise these interests. One may argue that we must not tolerate such confessions – I disagree. It allows us to relate with the participants as humans and let them know that it’s alright to have a racist thought, as long as they are aware that their predisposition can get in the way of the negotiation and they are ready to act on it.

Advice: The fact that participants choose to confide in us the darkest emotions reveals a couple of important signs – they want to feel heard in a confidential space as it’s difficult talking about such things in public; they want to listen to what you have to say about what’s going on in their head. Once again, very few mediators are certified psychotherapists, so our job is to provide conflict resolution advice, which will prevent this prejudice from thwarting the negotiations. Respecting the subjective bias, it is important that we invite participants to view the conflict objectively – interests, options, alternatives. This is relevant in disputes where is no prior, nor will there be any further acquaintance between the parties. Reminding participants that mediation is not the place for assumptions and conspiracy theories, we must encourage participants to move beyond doubt towards common ground, unless there is a specific incident that is causing a hurdle in the dialogue, and a definite apology or any other remedy is necessary to move forward in the mediation. This is relevant to cases where disputants continue to share a relationship, beyond the matter in dispute.

Discipline: Communal stereotypes and biases can sometimes blast open like a volcano during an intense argument in a joint session, without any warning signs. There is no better first aid than the art of ‘reframing’ – straight from the mediator’s tool kit. Strap it right in and be sure to move immediately to disciplining – reasserting the ground rules, explaining the voluntary nature of the process and how such language and lead to a quick end, and getting their confirmation to restart the process. Importantly, the disciplining has to be generalised for everyone in the room and not a beating exclusively directed at one party – no matter who was guilty. We must also let this be the final warning for everyone in the room that another ill-mannered episode of racial slurs would lead to termination of the mediation.

We are accountable for our practice to the global profession of mediators, and it’s important for us to be guided by a globally-accepted set of expectations and ethical code. Many disputants may be having their first impressions of mediation, and it’s important for us to secure their interests in the dispute and their trust in the process. Confidentiality prohibits us from reporting such behaviour, so it is important to ensure that the mediation process is not abused by participants for personal vendetta.

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