The mediation of unmet need – 22 May 2013

We tell young children to be tolerant of their classmates. Fights are unacceptable. As is unreasonableness. It is part of the ‘early years foundation’ material that all schools adhere to in the UK, and so it should set people up for life. All children leave school with a plastic folder ‘evidencing’ their achievement of these simple goals. Dignity at work messages are designed to do the same with us grown-up children. You may disagree, but only in certain prescribed ways. To paraphrase a scene from the French crime drama ‘Engrenages’ ‘we have laws, to prevent vengeance’. And yet conflict abounds. Be it dust ups over who is sitting with who, or the minutiae of workplace governance, resource allocation or committee membership, right up to whose religion is the one true voice, or who should run a country… human kind seems desperate to perpetuate the sort of bickering that would drive any parent wild with despair.

And part of the brief reflection that went into thinking about this post came from a conversation I had with my new colleague David Roberts. He works on post-conflict zones, and peace-building, and he’s a fantastically enthusiastic, committed (in the right way) and interesting chap. But we were talking about a particular friction we had observed and he urged that we thought about the ‘unmet needs’ of those displaying the behaviour we were discussing.

It is such a simple, and therefore elegant thought. If the unmet needs of those seeking friction can be accommodated, acknowledged or met, then positions of tension might be unwound. It is not rocket science, nor is it a million miles away from standard COIN thinking around bringing the largest lump of insurgents you can to the negotiating table, to unlock the intractability of conflict.

But the original elegant thought then tied into several security studies seminars I have recently been to, in which defining a unitary account or object of study of ‘security’ proved very difficult. Much like it is impossible to define sanity, and only to define sanity in partial opposition to insanity (which is easy to locate, define and describe), security is best defined as the partial resolving of conditions of insecurity.

And what a word insecurity is. Because it nicely resonates with the vast majority of what we discuss as security problems: insecurities and assumptions around the intentions of the ‘other’. And many of these assumptions are based precisely in the black-hole wilderness of ‘otherness’: Huw Gusterson’s excellent book ‘People of the Bomb’ highlights this point far better than I could ever do. So, the fight over school seating is really the insecurity of loneliness, the bust up in everyday work settings over resources and paperclips around conveyed prestige, resilience of employment or such like. Threatening nuclear conflagration is partly an expression of the unmet need of domestic security, for those who are currently doing it. These three diffuse thought-examples have obvious routes to satisfaction. Not capitulation, but satisfaction. The two are different.

I was interested in the piece on Radio 4 this week or last that said that schizophrenia was still awaiting physiological markers. An observable condition that – scientifically -is not yet known to be physiologically based, but literally ‘all in the mind’. An acute disjuncture from societal norms, expectations, relations and yes, unmet need. So acute, in fact, that a single and whole personality can appear to break in two, and the public presentation of this is ‘unacceptable’, ‘alarming’ or ‘dangerous’ behaviour.

We arm ourselves – as nations – to provide a seriousness behind our efforts to mediate and to provide a fail-safe position if that mediation fails. By that rationale the use of armed force should be a rarity – it should be big stick carried quietly and deliberately. By a slightly extended rationale, we should also figure that the greatest threat to our security, is failing to understand the unmet needs of others and in failing to recognise, locate or address the emergent seriousness of their anxiety.

Our own insecurity is, therefore, the realised aggregation of many insecurities. A Rumsfeldian construction if ever I read one!


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