Conflict – A Case Study with Fireman Sam

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Fireman Sam was arrested and harassed for racism. That’s not strictly true, it’s an old story, but it makes an excellent case study in localised conflict.

In 2012, David Jones, the creator of the Fireman Sam character, was going through security checks at Gatwick Airport. He saw a woman with her face covered by a hijab, pass through in front of him and commented to a security official “If I was wearing this scarf over my face, I wonder what would happen.” He was subsequently detained by security officials for making a racist remark.

The security officials demanded that he apologise for the remark. Mr Jones refused on the basis that he had made an observation rather than a racist comment. A stand off ensued, the duty manager and a policeman became involved until it was resolved through a compromise in which Mr Jones apologised for making a remark that could be considered offensive by a Muslim guard.

This is just another story of avoidable, everyday conflict that has a very real cost in terms of time, money and emotion. A minor incident escalated because we – human beings – are poor at dealing with conflict.

What do we learn from it?

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    The environment. Airport security is an essential part of travel, but nobody enjoys it. Passengers find the anxious queuing, controlled rat runs, undressing, searches and questions demeaning, if not downright humiliating. Security staff have a dull, monotonous and unglamorous task that carries great responsibility. Most of the passengers passing through are resigned, sullen and resentful. Very few, if any, show appreciation for the hard work and dedication of the security staff. It’s a tinderbox for conflict.

  • Conflict is all about perception. In conflict, there is no truth. There are only facts and perceptions, and perceptions trump reason. Each person will interpret a situation differently, depending on their circumstances and experience.
  • The role of values. David Jones as an older, white middle class male with a military background would almost certainly have valued order and fairness. The Muslim security officer may have put the highest value on her religion. The duty manager valued loyalty, so sided with his team, as did the policeman who would have felt loyalty towards his fellow security officers. We all have values and values define how we react to conflict.
  • The conflict summarised

    The failure to listen. The dispute could have been resolved quickly if the individuals had taken the time to listen and understand each other’s point of view. In this case, both sides were too concerned with defending their own positions and failed to appreciate the other’s concerns.

  • The role of the impartial 3rd party. Conflict draws you in; it becomes increasing hard to resolve the conflict as you are dragged down into the emotional vortex. An impartial 3rd party, in this case it could have been the police officer, stands outside the emotional turmoil and is able to guide those involved to resolution.
  • The Golden Bridge. An apology is the easiest way to resolve a dispute but the hardest to get. David Jones refused to apologise because he believed that he had done nothing wrong, so the demand for apology was perceived as an attack on his self-esteem. In the end, the duty manager proposes the “golden bridge” that allows both parties to conclude the dispute with dignity.

This may seem like a storm in a teacup but to the individuals concerned it will have been an emotionally disturbing experience. As David Jones says “I feel that my rights as an individual have been violated. What I underwent amounts to intimidation and detention. I was humiliated and degraded in full public view”.

So what?

There are two thoughts to take away. The first is that the world we live in is becoming more complex and ambiguous. Simple narratives rarely work, so we have to get better at dealing with conflict. We have to work to consensual agreements rather than resorting to an adversarial approach.

The second is that we have to get better at managing airport security so that we move away from the resentful us and them situation to one in which a mutually respectful alliance is built to ensure common security.

It can be done, we just need to do it.

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