Teach Us to Needle, Needle Us to Learn

February 1, 1996

Teach Us to Needle, Needle Us to Learn
Responses to Virstan Choy: From Surgery to Acupuncture

by David Augsburger (reprinted from Congregations, Jan/Feb 1996)

Virstan B. Y. Choy has pricked our overinflated trust in direct, dialogical, open-system processes for resolving conflict. He has almost painlessly needled the swollen cultural egos that assume multicultural applicability to western theories (which don’t work that well for us, we westerners might admit). He has practiced the same acupuncture in his tactful writing, which is necessary in Asian conflict resolution.

He has inserted long– very long– needles that reach to several of the western basic assumptions that lie deep in our social and personal psyches. He has nudged our neural nodes to let go, let be, and let ourselves see other visions.

Western conflict assumptions– basic assumptions that lie beneath the theory and practice of conflict interventions– are commonly shaped by three metaphors. War, sports, and business. In war, survival is at stake, is everything. In sports, achievement is central, winning is everything. In business, profit is the bottom line, success is all. Inevitably, the other party in the conflict will be seen as an opponent who must be conquereed, a heretic who must be silenced, an enemy who must be excluded, a devil who must be destroyed.

All conflicts, in this dualistic vision, are either competitive or collaborative, destructive or constructive, malignant or benign. (Deutsch, May, Fromm) When we split all conflict into two types, we get seduced into either-or thinking. We split from others because we are splitting inside. We fragment in the face of conflict and our thinking becomes more concrete, more polarized, more divisive. We are divided selves. In the end, disputes are “either-or” dilemmas. Either we will win or lose, live or die.

Where the West is either-or, the Asian world begins from both-and. Harmony and solidarity are central values that presuppose complementarity. In the Indie and African worlds, there are many groups that prefer a third option– neither-nor. Neither party is assumed right, neither will win. Instead the community will create a solution that resolves the dispute and that they– not the disputants– own. The three options, competition, complementarity, or creativity offere deeply contrasting outcomes even as they begin from very different basic assumptions. Of course, mediators in every culture make use of all three approaches, but the starting point, the dominant process, the preferred outcome are strongly shaped by the primary metaphor.

Westerners feel better when parties in a dispute are talking openly again; westerners are more comfortable when the issues are named, defined, placed on the table by both sides; westerners trust direct negotiations, immediate conversations, candid exploration, mutual-authentic-vulnerable give and take; westerners relax as resolution moves toward face-to-face reconciliation symbolized by a handshake or a hug. These are signs that constructive, collaborative, benign processes are being used to choose the right outcome in the right way (for the vindication of those who are right).

“Ultimately we must choose; finally someone must yield; eventually the right will prevail.”

Westerners believe in deeply held cultural myths of the righteous individual triumphing over the evil conspiracy. Of course, there are multiple myths, varied assumptions, diverse expectations, but communal solidarity is feared as cultic or left to the Amish and the triumph of the majority is the best we can hope. Surgery is necessary. Amputation may be regrettably required. A transplant (get rid of the old leadership and import the new) may be the only way to save lives. And since western know-how is better, other groups (especially those who are non-dominant cultures within our world because they are not like us) should learn our conflict theory, profit from our research, gain from our wisdom. (“Scratch any person in the world and under the surface there’s an American trying to get out,” imperialism teaches us.)

Not only do distinctive Hispanic, Arabic, Indian, Asian, African-American conflict patterns differ sharply from the dominant western models, they have much to teach us. The exchange is clearly mutual, two-way, with equal contributions to make. In conflict theory, the playing field is far more level than we have been able or willing to see.

Virstan Choy, writing to Asian and Asian-American congregations, offers a clearn challenge to western models: prizing relationship, seeking to preserve relational integrity, utilizing the predisposition toward harmony and solidarity, and utilizing the polarities and the paradoxes of solidarity to work out the tensions in relationship and the contrasts in goals creatively.

The metaphor of acupuncture is intriguing and at the same time illuminatingly clear. In acupuncture, one deciphers the energy flow, identifies the nodal trigger points, and makes an invisible intervention. Skilled leadership in conflict situations can take clearn nonanxious positions with the right people in the system to activate positive cycles of change. Rather than raising anxiety in the system, as Kurt Lewin has taught us, this reduces it by gently removing a block or reducing a drive. Third party processes become the art of making new connections, disconnecting old binds and bonds.

Carl Whitaker, the family therapist, once likened his work to the miming of Charlie Chaplin. When he was young, he danced with the footwork of a genius, but as he grew old, Chaplin, the little clown, became a minimalist. Gone were the steps and the flowing gestures. Instead, everything could be said by bowing the head and lightly lifting the hat.

“What I do in therapy, as I grow older,” Whitaker said, “is like Chaplin’s simple gesture. I want to forget the footwork and learn when to lift my hat.”

That is acupuncture. To know the trigger point. To release the nervous energy. To heal.

Lead on Asian churches. Lead on in your own unique wisdom on the healing process. Lead out in challenging other groups’ assumptions through this kind of dialogue. Our surgery has not been all that successful. We have much to learn.

David Augsburger is Professor of Pastoral Care at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA 91182. He is author of Conflict Mediation Across Cultures, Westminster/John Knox 1992 and Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures, Westminster/John Knox 1986. Augsburger is a lover of multicultural dialogue.

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Reprinted from CONGREGATIONS (Jan/Feb 1996), with permission from the Alban Institute, Inc., 7315 Wisconsin Avenue, Suite 1250W, Bethesda, Maryland 20814-3211. © Copyright 1995. All rights reserved. www.alban.org/journal.asp

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