How does style influence conflict? It’s not a question that gets often asked. Its importance should not be overlooked. What’s in vogue can, I think, constrain or emphasize behaviors, positions or approaches to conflict. Look at the antebellum period, especially the twenty years leading up to the Civil War. Adam Goodheart, in 1861: The Civil War Awakens, briefly touches upon the emergence of the 19th century beard. Anybody who takes a minute to look at the photos from that era must certainly be struck by the robust beards that seem to sprout everywhere. Even Abraham Lincoln grew a beard, after campaigning clean shaved. What were these beards about, and what do they have to do with conflict resolution?
Goodheart writes that the emergence of the beard “…predated the war by a number of years — and was subject of a great deal of contemporary comment and debate.” He is not alone in wondering at its significance. “As early as 1844, one physician began inveighing against ‘woman faced men’ with their habit of ’emasculating [the] face with a razor’.” It was not until the 1850’s that the beard had fully sprouted as movement, with men everywhere growing whiskers. Goodheart recounts a journalist’s survey in Boston, in which of the 543 men encountered, some 338 were with beard. Apparently, even the remainder had some sort of additional whiskers, if not a full beard.
So, what does a hairy face have to do with conflict resolution? The vogue of the moment was the embrace of ‘manliness’ and masculinity. This was not a period for negotiation, or for softness. These were days, no matter where you stood on such issues as slavery, in which men proclaimed their interests with vigor, and without any thought of compromise or negotiation.
The peace conference hosted by the Virginians in 1861 and chaired by ex-President John Tyler was doomed to failure in part, I believe, because of the style of the day.
Tastes, preferences, styles. It makes me wonder whether what is stylish today doesn’t constrain and affect how we handle conflict.