Kenneth Cloke, one of the most esteemed mediators and peacemakers, gave a program at the Southern California Mediation Association’s 27th Annual Fall Conference titled “The Heart of Mediation – The Art of Asking Questions.”

The following material is from that program:

“Orders of Skill in Securing Agreements

Skills in Exercising Power: Uses intimidation and decisiveness – grounded in Machiavellian principles, aggressive, fear-based directive, oriented to action and outcomes, resulting in win/lose, hierarchies of domination and subordination

Skills in Expanding and Defending Rights: Uses rhetoric and advocacy – grounded in language and legalistic distinctions, competitive, anger-based, focused on speaking, oriented to facts and issues, resulting in compromise and settlement, lose/lose

Skills in Satisfying Interests: Uses the art of asking questions – grounded in emotions and interests, collaborative, empathy-based, focused on listening, transformative, oriented to relationships, resulting in resolution and satisfaction, win/win

Skills in Leading by Values: Uses integrity and insight – grounded in wisdom and spirituality, ethical, heart-based, focused on awareness, oriented to being and living one’s values, resulting in learning and transcendence, beyond winning and losing”

In that program, Cloke advised “asking questions that make a person consider the consequences of their actions.”  Two of his most powerful questions were as follows:

What life experiences led you to feel the way you do?

What facts would you need to know to cause you to question your view on this issue?

As difficult as it may be for some people to accept, their “sincerely held religious beliefs” are “lifestyle choices,” which are subject to change.

For goodness sake, consider religious missionaries and evangelizers. Missionaries spread their faith and evangelizers “convert or seek to convert (someone) to Christianity.  Spreading faith or seeking to convert someone from one belief to another, by definition, means that religious beliefs are subject to change. 

Furthermore, “as religions moved across space, they also changed. Some of this change occurred when religious leaders interpreted doctrine differently in different historical contexts. Change also occurred as a result of influence from indigenous religions…  At other times, change occurred as a result of adaptation.”

From a more individual level, people within any given religion, frequently move from one church or temple to another in an effort to find one which best aligns with their personal beliefs.  This may stem from a change in their religious beliefs or as a result of changes in the beliefs represented by any given church or temple. 

This is by no means intended to make light of people’s “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Everyone has beliefs, religious and otherwise, and those beliefs shape who we are as people and our overall perceptions.  That is not insignificant and it’s disrespectful and insensitive to think or act otherwise.  In fact, missionaries and evangelizers do what they do because of the importance of their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

That being said, the beliefs people hold at any given time, as sincere as they may be, are “lifestyle choices.” 

Those "sincerely held religious beliefs" cause some to view LGBT people as “moral decay” and “immoral”, among other things.

For people with religious beliefs such as those held by Ted Cruz, Mike Pence, Antonin Scalia (deceased), and many others, being gay is a “lifestyle choice” because God doesn’t make what they view as “mistakes.”  In their eyes, acknowledging that someone could actually be born lesbian, gay or transgender would mean that God makes “mistakes.”  Since their God doesn’t make “mistakes,” people can’t possibly be born lesbian, gay or transgender. 

Those with this mindset sincerely believe that "gay" people are heterosexuals who are attracted to members of the same sex and/or are engaging in sexual acts with members of the same gender as a result of their "issues."  In fact, Sexual Orientation Change Efforts (SOCE), commonly known as “conversion therapy”, “reparative therapy” and “ex-gay therapy” is premised upon such a sincerely held belief.  This is in spite of the fact that there is no scientific debate about whether homosexuality is a choice. The professional mental health and scientific organizations uniformly reject the idea. Many of them make even stronger statements about these issues. 

Others, such as Marco Rubio, sincerely believe that people are, in fact, born LGBT and that it is not a choice. However, they sincerely believe that it is a sin for LGBT people to engage in sexual behavior consistent with who they are.  As such, their "sincerely held religious beliefs" are that LGBT people need to be chaste and celibate for their entire lives because otherwise, they’re sinning.  Although most LGBT people have not become Catholic priests or nuns, the Marco Rubios of the world believe that they must live their lives from a sexual aspect, as though they were Catholic priests and nuns. 

Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, recommends celibacy for women:  ‘To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.’ (1 Cor. 7:8-9)"

Although the Marco Rubios of the world acknowledge that people don’t choose to be LGBT, they don’t even want to give them the option of exercising such unnatural “self-control” – they want to force them to do so.  Otherwise, from their perspective, LGBT people are sinners and must be treated accordingly.  In fact, this is why some believe that "Marco Rubio might be the most antigay presidential candidate yet."  

Whether someone comes from Ted Cruz’s or Marco Rubio’s perspective, they aren’t willing to consider the possibility that the “lifestyle choices” they’ve made with regard to their “sincerely held religious beliefs” about LGBT people could possibly be incorrect.  As such, they don't care to consider the possibility that their beliefs about LGBT people could be wrong.  And, if so, they refuse to consider the possibility that they may have seriously harmed LGBT people and continue to seriously harm LGBT people by shaming them, judging them, and doing anything and everything in their power to deny them equal justice under law, particularly in a country that isn't a theocracy. 

"Mental health professionals and others practicing any form of SOCE are by definition allowing their personal beliefs harm others.  Such 'treatment' has been found to be ineffective, and often to cause severe emotional harm, including suicidality.  In other words, it is akin to psychological abuse.

As if that weren't bad enough, in 2015, a New Jersey jury found that 'a nonprofit organization that claimed its so-called gay conversion therapy would turn gay men straight violated the state's consumer fraud act.'"

Meanwhile, when the Catholic Church changed its policies and stopped allowing priests and nuns to marry and required them to be chaste and celibate, it not only became the best hiding place for gays and lesbians, but also created a great many other sexual problems regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity because it's not natural to be chaste and celibate. If you have any doubt, consider the Catholic Church and its ongoing sexual abuse scandals.  This is very much related to Catholic Church’s decision requiring priests and nuns to live their lives in an unnatural manner. 

Interestingly enough, research shows that 94% of all American parents believe that it’s especially important to teach children responsibility.  Considering that along with rights come responsibilities, this is incredibly good news. 

The bad news has to do with “the real messages adults are sending about values.”  You see, in 2014, Harvard University’s Making Caring Common Project published a report titled “The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values.  The report stated in part as follows:

Selfishness and indifference to others among both children and adults are commonplace. Too often, students who are different are mocked or bullied, too many children are disrespectful to both other children and adults, and too few children and adults feel responsibility for their communities ... Our findings suggest that youth’s fundamental values are awry ... Youth appear to value caring for others less as they age ... When children don’t prioritize caring, they’re also less motivated to develop the social and emotional skills, such as empathy, needed to treat people well day to day ... [Instead,] they are at greater risk of many forms of harmful behavior, including being cruel, disrespectful, and dishonest. These forms of harm are far too commonplace...

Any healthy society depends not only on developing in youth the urge and ability to care for others but also on instilling in them other ethical values. Perhaps especially, a civil and just society depends on developing in youth a strong commitment to fairness ... Our research suggests that we are not preparing children to create this kind of society ...

In other words, at-risk teens are by no means alone with regard to their lack of emotional skills needed to live within a civilized society.

At the root of this problem may be a rhetoric/reality gap, a gap between what parents and other adults say are their top priorities and the real messages they convey in their behavior day to day….”

The first 10 amendments to the Constitution make up the Bill of Rights.” The First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

In other words, the “lifestyle choices” people make with regard to the religious beliefs they sincerely hold are constitutionally protected rights. 

However, along with rights come responsibilities.  When the vast majority of parents agree that it’s especially important to teach children responsibility, isn’t there a rhetoric/reality gap, when those same parents, religious and political leaders, and other adults then exercise those rights irresponsibly? 

The following is language from the United States Supreme Court with regard to members of the LGBT community: “Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness.... They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right."

Is shaming and judging members of the LGBT community, subjecting them to “treatment” that has been found to be ineffective and akin to psychological abuse, and condemning them to live in loneliness a responsible exercise of religious beliefs?  I’m afraid that the answer to this and many similar questions explains the reason behind the rhetoric/reality gap.

To the extent that there’s “moral decay” and “immorality” in our society, is it members of the LGBT community for being who they are or is it the result of people exercising their rights without regard for the corresponding responsibilities?

Considering that perspective-taking is the core of empathy, doesn’t the refusal to entertain perspectives other than your own preclude empathy? 

Consider, for example, "The new rules [on same-sex relationships adopted by the Mormon Church in 2015, which] stipulate that children of parents in gay or lesbian relationships — be it marriage or just living together — can no longer receive blessings as infants or be baptized at about age 8. They can be baptized and serve missions once they turn 18, but only if they disavow the practice of same-sex relationships, no longer live with gay parents and get approval from their local leader and the highest leaders at church headquarters in Salt Lake City."

Does that foster empathy or impede it?

How about when college students at a secular university refuse to read an award-winning autobiographical book by Alison Bechdel about “coming to terms with her homosexuality as her funeral-director father remains closeted”, claiming that it would compromise their “personal Christian moral beliefs to read it”?

Does that cultivate empathy or thwart it?

These are extremely important questions to ponder because perspective taking is the core of empathy, which is the key to conflict resolution or management

From my vantage point, much of the "moral decay" and "immorality" in the world centers around a "lifestyle choice" operating under a morally bankrupt concept of "faith", which leads to a complete disregard for the resulting harm it causes others.

The connection between the belief that facts either don't matter or that there is no such thing as facts must not be overlooked.  

"Critical thinkers need to distinguish knowledge from opinion and belief....

Knowledge is produced by thought, analyzed by thought, comprehended by thought, organized, evaluated, maintained, and transformed by thought. Knowledge can be acquired only through thought. Knowledge exists, properly speaking, only in minds that have comprehended and justified it through thought. Knowledge is not to be confused with belief nor with symbolic representation of belief. Humans easily and frequently believe things that are false or believe things to be true without knowing them to be so."

Meanwhile, faith is "an unquestioning belief in anything.... A critical thinker does not accept faith in the first sense, for every belief is reached on the basis of some thinking, which may or may not be justified."

An opinion, on the other hand, is "a belief; typically one open to dispute. Sheer unreasoned opinion should be distinguished from reasoned judgment — beliefs formed on the basis of careful reasoning." 

The confusion between facts and opinions was set forth in Disney•Pixar’s film Inside Out as follows:

Facts and opinion look so similar. They get mixed up all the time.” It also mentioned “critical thinking,” which is how people are able to distinguish fact from opinion.

"Critical thinking, especially critical thinking that leads to compassionate action, requires a wellspring of empathy. The connection between critical thinking and empathy might not be obvious; it might even seem contradictory. However, if critical thinking involves seeking, analyzing, and evaluating multiple perspectives on a complex question or issue, then being able to 'see' through someone else's eyes is essential.... The empathy gained from perspective taking is a precursor to nuanced thinking, communicating effectively, and taking positive action in the real world."

Now, try and envision how you would feel if your child had been slain in a mass shooting and, rather than receiving empathy from people, you were receiving hateful messages from individuals who sincerely believe that the mass shooting never actually occurred. The feeling was described by one such parent as follows:  "I still remember the chills that were running down my body, hearing the voice mails. It’s over the top.”

Actual people suffer very real harm from those who confuse facts with opinions and are unwilling or unable to engage in the critical thinking required to distinguish them. Of course, this does require empathy, which is incompatible with shame and judgment.    

Empathy is an amazing form of bias reduction. The problem is that you can't be a good listener in order to engage in the perspective-taking, which the core of empathy, when you're too busy judging. You see, research has established that people can't effectively engage in two active tasks simultaneously. Listening is an active task, as is judging. Try engaging in a phone conversation while reading email and you will see just how much you don't hear when you're busy judging.

The individuals who left voice mail messages that sent chills running down the recipient's body most likely view themselves as moral people. That being said, is it moral or immoral to send hateful messages to a parent whose child was, in fact, slain in a mass shooting?

This is so incredibly important because, as big a pill as it may be to swallow, the cause of 'moral decay' in our society might actually be those who, without questioning their "sincerely held beliefs (religious or otherwise), label others as wrongdoers and punish them accordingly.  

As the Bible says, "Let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.... A person may think their own ways are right, but the Lord weighs the heart.... The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding." 

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