Sculpting the City of Sand

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton. 2010. “Sculpting the City of Sand.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (September 9): 9A.

The image is compelling: Five people sculpting together during the “Sand in the City” event a couple of weeks ago. Not yet complete, this particular effort eventually yielded a statue of the University of Iowa emerging from the agricultural economy of the state, with Grant Wood’s two iconic white farmers and the Bank of the West at the center of the transformation. A city built of sand.

But what is sand? Where does it come from and where is it going? Can its flow suggest better ways of resolving the conflicts that bedevil us in the present day?

Michael Welland provides very accessible answers to the first two questions in his prize-winning 2009 book, Sand: The Never-Ending Story. In brief, he reports that sand is “one of our planet’s most ubiquitous and fundamental materials and is both a medium and a tool for nature’s gigantic and ever-changing sculptures.” Born primarily from the weathering of rock, sand eventually becomes deposited in layers of sediment at the bottom of continental shelves. Over millions of years, these deposited sediments become rock that is uplifted into mountain ranges and eventually weathered into sand that begins the journey anew.

The part of this story that catches my attention is that sand is always being transformed and hence symbolizes the instability and impermanence of both human labor and natural structures. “My name is Ozmandias, King of Kings,” reads the inscription on a crumbled structure in Shelley’s famous poem. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

Some might despair. I don’t, for I take impermanence and instability to be a natural feature of human life. I think of our communities and cultures as always being in motion, always being sculpted into something new. Lucky for us, I say, for otherwise we could never know what we can become. We would always be embedded in some sedimentary layer, trapped in endlessly familiar ways of thinking and behaving.

And so we have the opportunity to sculpt our city, state, and nation, taking advantage of the fluid, shape-shifting character of the materials around us.

Conflicts will inevitably emerge as we sculpt. How should those conflicts be resolved?

The all-too-common answer is to let them spiral out of control: a problem emerges, sides form, positions harden, communication stops, perceptions become distorted, and the conflict widens. Conflicting parties quickly slip into what Fisher, Ury and Patton in Getting to Yes call “positional bargaining”; each party tries to win and make the other one lose by starting with an extreme position, stubbornly holding to it, hiding one’s true views, and making small concessions only as necessary to keep the bargaining going. The resulting decisions leave relationships damaged and better alternatives unexplored.

But according to Fisher, Ury and Patton “principled negotiation” offers a better way. According to it, the conflicting parties actually share a common problem: how to devise a mutually beneficial outcome.

To resolve this shared problem satisfactorily, the parties should:

  • Be hard on the problem but soft on the people; in other words, separate the people from the problem and negotiate as if relationships mattered.
  • Focus on interests rather than positions. (Positions can be thought of as the outcomes that people demand, whereas interests are the factors that underlie and explain the positions they take.)
  • Create value by trading across differences and inventing options for mutual gain.
  • Use mutually-acceptable objective criteria to assess the quality of any proposed settlement.

And, to negotiate well, they need to analyze and improve their BATNAs (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) while analyzing and raising doubts about the other party’s.

This is all pretty standard stuff in the negotiation literature, and by teaching it I’ve learned that principled negotiation can yield better solutions. But it cannot work in every situation.

Most important, the issues that most deeply divide Americans these days are all about relationships. They have to do with community, identity and inclusion: Who are we? What makes us what we are? And who should have a right to help sculpt our “city of sand”?

Essentialists claim the United States should be a straight, white, Christian, capitalist nation, whereas Constructionists want to define it as a nation of diverse ethnicities, sexual orientations, and religious beliefs supported by a just and sustainable economy. How this conflict will be resolved depends on the outcome of on-going debates about who counts as a person, who counts as a citizen, and whether certain voices should weigh more heavily than others.

The city of sand is being built right before our eyes. It too shall pass. But for now the crucial struggle concerns who has a right to sculpt.

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