Mediating Structure

Mediating Structure

by: A.C. Nomen, Staff Writer

Considering what will happen twenty days from now, it’s likely the age-old tradition of gathering together for holiday celebrations will be one of the most difficult. Engaging in conversations with family members, some of whom harbor ideas that don’t necessarily jive with our own, are difficult under “normal” circumstances, let alone during this dumpster fire we’re calling an election season.

For me, it’s my Uncle Louie: His neoliberal ideas, which he seems to believe Moses brought down from Mount Sinai, will be front and center. Yet, herein lies the challenge: How do I engage in civil discourse with my Uncle Louie in a way that leads to my better understanding his perspective, while at the same time moving him a bit more toward mine?

My challenge, which is not unlike those who share the same predicament, is to be present, listen with empathy, ask questions, talk less and not be ready with an argument. If we trust that we are spirit beings, and there’s a difference, as Eckhart Tolle puts it, between the “I-thought” and the awareness of “I-am”, then it will be much easier for me to find an opening wherein Uncle Louie and I may engage in civil discourse. This is one of those things that “says easy, does hard”, but it can be done.

Being present, and practicing the skills highlighted above, makes us better equipped to enter into difficult conversations. This is the foundation. The bigger challenge with family gatherings is they occur infrequently and are comprised of folks who – over the years – have fallen under the spell of our pattern seeking central nervous system. In other words, as soon as Uncle Louie, whom I see but once per year, walks in the door, my hands will start to sweat and I will hypnotically reach for the nearest bottle. If, on the other hand, Uncle Louie and I would intentionally come together on a regular basis (e.g., at a club meeting, at work etc.) equipped with the awareness skills Mr. Tolle has given us, the result would likely be far better. This brings me to the notion of the “mediating structure”.

The term mediating structure is defined by Berger and Neuhaus as “. . .those institutions standing between the individual and his private life and the large institutions of public life.” It strikes me that these “institutions” – if that’s the best word – can be of a number of different varieties. For a child, an example of a mediating structure is the family. For adults, mediating structures could be clubs, faith-based groups, the place of employment and so forth.

Mediating structures bring us together and provide space wherein ideas and notions may be discussed and vetted. And, no, this is not Facebook. While we can post ideas to social media, this is not the same as what happens when one is present to the other. A post is something that gets laid down once, and if what’s communicated is taken the wrong way by the reader, the chance for presence is gone. No, this is about “dialogue”: active, two-way communication using the skills noted above.

In the work-a-day world, a very important mediating structure is the labor union. Labor unions play a vital role in bringing people together; they support arriving at a shared understanding of what is important to the group and what ought to be done about it. Unions help build a sense of community, shared understanding and solidarity. In fact, union halls are places where people often celebrate life’s milestones, such as weddings.

Today, however, the role unions play as mediating structures has been greatly diminished by the neoliberal corporate state. Under neoliberalism, a system that’s predicated on rendering human beings atomized consumers, unionism, and the sense of solidarity that goes with them, had to be destroyed. This isn’t meant to suggest unions are without flaws: everything human beings create has at least some flaws. Nothing is perfect. What’s being suggested here is that the need for mediating structures, such as unions, within the business world, has not gone away, and what ought to be considered is the effect weakening union power has had on our democracy, which is where we find those “large institutions of public life” – the other side of the mediating structure.

Unions have the ability to bring us together, thus mitigating the forces that cause us to be separated as atomized consumers. What needs to be considered is the “how”: In what way could a re-proposing of unionism be effective in organizing life, and providing us with an essential mediating structure?

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