Mediation Is Actually a “Revenge” Tool

by Phoebe Sheftel
Pennsylvania Council of Mediators

It usually starts as a fight over pigs or women. No, we’re not referencing language bandied about during a recent political contest. Although the results of that campaign may have seemed a question of life or death to some, there really is a history of contest over pigs and women that has often led to real death for the loser. In the tribal highlands of New Guinea, revenge has long been the tool of choice to resolve disputes. And it frequently starts with pigs.

Pigs are a prized symbol of prestige and wealth; they translate into currency for buying women as brides. Because of the investment of honor, something as simple as killing your pig if he’s found tearing up my garden, can easily escalate into a three-year battle involving alliances with other tribes and the death of dozens of people. Revenge is the only way the tribesman can maintain his honor. This primal human drive has been sublimated, but not eliminated, by the rise of state governments. And that’s where mediation comes in.

In fact for most of human history, until about 5,500 years ago, when states and their laws became the instrument for resolving disputes, personal or tribal revenge was the primary weapon for dealing with conflict. But today, nearly all human societies have given up the personal pursuit of justice in favor of impersonal systems of justice operated by state governments. However, the thirst for vengeance is among the strongest of human emotions, ranking with love, anger, grief and fear. Modern state societies encourage us to express those emotions but not our thirst for vengeance. Rather, we are taught by society, religions, and moral codes that seeking revenge is bad.

In some ways, we are still working on this transition from personal agency to state agency as the appropriate tool to resolve conflicts, trying, often without much success, to disconnect the human emotions and drives from the action. It doesn’t really work. A standard precursor to building citizens’ support for war (a/k/a revenge) is demonizing people, the “other,” usually not known directly or personally. And states, often under the guidance of religious and moral codes, have developed the technology of mass killing and broken historical records for violent deaths. Mediation, however, whether at the international level or the local level, provides an effective way to bridge that supposed split between personal revenge and impersonal state action.

In certain cases, the state does acknowledge the inescapable urge for satisfaction (a somewhat contained form of vengeance) by allowing crime victims to be present at trial, perhaps speaking to judge or jury, and even witnessing the execution of a loved one’s murderer. Mediation, however, and particularly the growing practice of victim-offender conferencing, seems to be that safe place where we experience the best balance between personal revenge and impersonal state justice, giving people a chance to speak their vengeance but resolve conflicts without direct damage to the other. Moreover mediation allows disputants to form alliances, not with their enemies’ enemies, but against the problem rather than against each other.

Phoebe Sheftel has 20 years experience mediating community, employment, environmental and public policy issues. She currently serves on the Joint State Government Commission’s Advisory Committee on Alternative Dispute Resolution.