March 6, 2003 Episode 37: Before I Built a Wall

Today we discuss people getting along with each other as neighbours in times of peace and times of conflict. How people get along with each other has been a basic question posed by humans for as long as history can record. In his classic poem, Mending Wall Robert Frost contemplates the question of boundaries and cooperation when he writes:  

Before I built a wall, I'd ask to know 
What I was walling in or walling out, 
And to whom I was like to give offense.

Originally, we planned an episode this week about dispute resolution and the different ways in which people can settle conflicts. With perpetual threats of war and increased tension among people in general, this seemed like a timely topic to address. Unplanned events, however, often converge with the best-laid plans to create something that would have made sense all along. 

Long-time children's television icon, Fred Rogers, of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood died this week at the age of 74. As we contemplated conflict this week, we realized that for many people our age and younger, Mister Rogers was our first teacher in dispute resolution, whose influence we remember fondly as we grow older, even if we sometimes forget the specific lessons.

Catherine Morris, a Canadian lawyer with experience in dispute resolution since 1983, is the director of Peacemakers Trust, an Associate of the Centre for Asia Pacific Initiatives and a former Executive Director of the Institute for Dispute Resolution at the University of Victoria. She maintains an extensive website for Peacemakers Trust. We spoke with Catherine this week about how methods of formal dispute resolution have expanded as cultural diversity and postmodern concerns challenge traditional beliefs about interests and rights.



I don't apologize for having been a child of television. I grew up in a boring, boring place that will remain North Carolina. Don't be fooled by what you see if you go there now: it was a different place in the 1970's. I read voraciously. I played educational games and less-than-educational games with enthusiasm. I had more friends than any industrious person would have bothered to accumulate. I went to movies, and later, I attended the cinema, as well as the symphony and even the opera (there was an opera company that had sprung up locally and improved as time went by). And I still watched television. A lot of television.

I was in Winnipeg when I got the news that Fred Rogers was retiring. This was in August of 2001. I saw an article in an American newsmagazine. His television show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood had been on the air since 1967, it said. Rogers had been on television even longer than that: my later research uncovered that this native of Pennsylvania had worked in children's television in the 1950's and that Mister Rogers' Neighborhood itself had had a precursor air on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation from 1963. Perhaps predictably, once the Americans noticed the promising show being broadcast north of the border, they had to have it, and Rogers began his association with the American network PBS shortly thereafter. It remained in production for 34 years. I had to suppress a rueful laugh upon reflection. All that time, I was worried sick about school, girls, school, women, school, and career, and there was Mister Rogers just plugging away, managing to sustain his little cathode ray island of stability. This corresponded with the way I had perceived him as a child, by the way. I knew intuitively that I had been right about him, and the revelation that his show had been in production for 34 years proved it.

I went back, back to the world of children's television, and saw the show again last year, watching a rerun in a spare moment. It didn't look the way I remembered. It was as if the entire thing were aimed at preschoolers! Still, one of the appeals of great art is that one can revisit it, see it with new eyes, and draw comparisons between what one was beforehand and what one has become since.

Fred Rogers is why there is television. Television in a democracy must make an issue of access, and Fred Rogers is the best opening argument I can make. Children of all ages need to be told that they are loved. They need to be told that they are capable of handling some adversity now and will be capable of handling more adversity as they mature. They need to be told that they are special. The adults in a child's life should be competent ones. They should avoid any devastating errors and avoid lying to and otherwise misleading the child. I would add that this set of basic and necessary needs should not be withdrawn at any time. Children of all ages should have grounds to feel confident these needs will continue to be met as they age. No one matures or grows out of the need for these things.

Fred Rogers is therefore why I do First Person, Plural. This show debuted on May 9, 2002, on a community-based campus radio station in Canada. For those of you who don't spend your spare time browsing the CRTC website, let me simplify the situation for you: Community-based campus radio exists because the CRTC has created a spot on the dial for those individuals who would use it to produce audio content. This creation is one that had to take place at the level of federal government, because, quite simply, commercial radio showed very little interest in facilitating this possible use of radio. There are two people producing this show, and neither of us is getting paid a dime for our efforts. We have done most of the production at home, using our own equipment, although the station's production facilities have been useful to us at times and should continue to be. It is true that with my MBA, I could be doing far more lucrative things south of the border. The most reliable published estimate I've read of how lucrative put the figure at $80,000 in U.S. funds annually. Why am I currently willing to work as hard as I do without compensation? My answer to this question is not as readily documented as the salary figure is. All I have is a series of thoughts springing from an educated guess. The educated guess is that shows of this type are as necessary to adults as Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was and is to children. Adults need to be nurtured, informed, and treated as if their development (and adults do develop, if they are permitted) were important. The implications of omitting such a principle would be catastrophic, in my assessment.

My parents, understandably concerned about television's effects on me, would often ask as I watched the small screen, "Don't you have anything better to do at the moment?" I cannot think of anything better I could be doing at the moment than pursuing the reclamation of existing media. I think that television, to say nothing of radio, has been conceded too rapidly to a specific rhetorical school, a school that sees no purpose in developing children at all except to be compulsive consumers without the cultural resources to be anything else. I have gone through a number of not-watching-television phases, and I keep coming back to it because so much is right with the medium even as the content leans towards being only a way of killing time between commercials, the way radio has unmistakably become outside of a few little islands of sanity. Television is a technology of great import, and it is one that I strongly recommend not be conceded to the special interest of oligopoly-at-any-cost. Frankly, I was trained to a higher standard in my business courses and elsewhere: feudalism is beneath me.

Fred Rogers had a lot to say about how to be a good neighbour. A good neighbour cared about what was happening in other people's lives. A good neighbour gently let others know that they were cared for and could generally count on the neighbour to be there for them. A good neighbour felt a wide range of emotions to express and did not run away from people who were sad and angry or people who were joyous and friendly. A good neighbour had conflicts and crises, but these were resolved in a calm and loving manner with the neighbourhood in mind as well as the individuals. Most of all, the capacity to be a good neighbour was something worth developing, something immediately relevant to one's life, and not antithetical to the need to, quote, grow up, close quote.

Fred Rogers was sometimes satirized as being too bland even for the preverbal set, but if there was one thing that never failed in his on-camera demeanour, it was the implicit recognition of the possibility that human existence could be worthwhile in and of itself, that the life course and the capacity for apparently spontaneous growth of all sorts could be preserved and facilitated. And Fred Rogers was a man on a mission, quite literally: his ordainment in 1963 as a Presbyterian minister carried a charge to pursue television as a means to his ministerial ends. Television had a tendency to disintegrate into a schlock factory even in those early days, but he clearly wasn't going to concede access to this obviously powerful medium without giving it his best shot first. He himself said, quote, I got into television because I hated it so, close quote. Sounds like right livelihood to me.

copyright by Pattie Thomas and Carl Wilkerson 2003


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