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As Long as We Remember...

March 9, 2007

Conflict Resolution

Edward Lulie III

There is an ongoing feud between two prominent local men, both of whom have occasionally dressed in white "good humor man" suits. The argument isn't over clothing, or who has the right to wear it, but rather over things that have been said and done in the past.

Those verbal and written exchanges have been covered by this august online magazine and the latest chapter in this continuing debacle is now called the "Duel." In my humble opinion (or not as the case may be) the substance of the issue was determined by a large majority of voters back in November and that one individual roundly prevailed and the other, and his well heeled supporters, did not.

Thus we come to a hotly debated subject over resolving the ongoing feud through a public debate. I fear this method is doomed to failure.

To begin, most debates are never really "won." Skill, charm or the rare use of logic and reason usually allows one side to prevail over the other. It doesn't really mean that the side with the most merit always wins.

Back in the 1858 a great series of debates was held between one Steven Douglas and one Abraham Lincoln; both were running for the U.S. Senate. Mr. Lincoln is generally considered to have lost those debates, but it was Lincoln whose position ultimately prevailed.

Yet that only happened after years of "argument" by hundreds of thousands of soldiers using such debating tools as rifles, pistols, swords and cannon to determine the outcome. That debate was called the "Civil" war, an odd name as - in reality - there was very little civility shown during those disruptive years.

Of course, there was the old style custom of dueling by pistol or sword to resolve disputes. This had an unfortunate tendency to sometimes lead to the death of one or both of the duelists. It was outlawed in the United States in the early 1800s. Yet most High Noon western style showdowns in the street were really the same thing, a duel of honor.

I suspect that such conflict resolution will continue to be illegal unless someone discovers the revenue enhancement possibilities of televising it or running it as a pay-per-view event. In our particular feud it is unlikely that it will end in a High Noon showdown on Patrick Street and for that we can give thanks; the traffic there is already bad enough.

The duel is in one sense a variation of the ancient English Common Law right to a trial by combat. Here in Maryland such a right still existed when we adopted the Common Law after the Revolution replaced the King of England with the State of Maryland.

The right to trial by combat was generally regarded to have been lost in the early 1800s; but it might always be brought back. Each side would choose a champion or would personally engage in combat. These days the "trial" is between each side's lawyers who employ book and briefcase rather than blunt or edged weapon.

I fear, however, that the amount of blood shed during trials today is probably far greater due to the sharpness of tongue and paper than ever was the case with mere blade or bludgeon. We can hope that this current dispute does not evolve into one which heads into a courtroom. Yet the question remains: How do you resolve it?

In the past conflicts were also resolved by providing witnesses or oath takers in greater numbers than one's opponent; it seems to me that this greatly resembles the debate currently proposed in this dispute. Such trials by witnesses and oath takers had a tendency, as both sides confronted each other, to end in an outbreak of mob violence.

One can not rule that out either, although a case might be made that the last election campaign was a slightly less violent modern variation. It ended with one side clearly prevailing and the bloodshed limited to a few pigs that were roasted during the campaign (a great number of rubber chickens also perished).

Of course, the written and spoken word is a powerful weapon. I fear that we will see future editions of this journal filled with the accounts of verbal and written slings and arrows over this very debate. Perhaps instead of a debate we might resolve the dispute with a duel of Ice Cream Pies at 10 paces, or a 10 K run (the survivor wins).

Sadly, I fear that this dispute will not be put behind us before the next election and that when it does old passions and tempers will again rise in angry words.

Of course, if we just repealed the ban on dueling I have no doubt that ESPN or some other fine company would arrive with checkbook in hand to vie for the rights to broadcast it. Until then you may expect that this struggle will continue and since there is little other local news at the moment that it will be the subject of endless and infinite analysis by columnists such as myself.

I think that Chocolate Ice Cream Pies at 10 paces (between white suited combatants) might be, after all is said and done, a far more dignified and reasonable resolution than a debate. At the very least it would be a heck of a lot more fun to watch.

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