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The trouble with thinking we’re right

American legal scholar Martha Minow on true conflict resolution

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Martha Minow, a former Harvard Law School dean, worries disputes between the state and religion go to the courts too often.

Alyssa Stone for the Deseret News

Editor’s note: This story is part of Deseret Magazine’s January/February double issue addressing political polarization.

The dinner table conversations in Martha Minow’s home have, for decades, revolved around the big issues of the times: civil rights, the women’s movement, the war in Vietnam. From an early age, Minow was exposed to a fearlessness around addressing big ideas, and absorbed a sense of obligation to engage in public life and effect positive social change.

A former dean of Harvard Law School, a 300th Anniversary University Professor and a leading authority on human rights law, Minow thinks a lot about what it means to honor the humanity of each individual, particularly those who are often marginalized. She studied the origins of ethnic conflict in Kosovo and, in 2001, worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to chart possible ways forward for post-conflict societies in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. 

Minow’s scholarship spans a broad range of topics, including human rights, legal ethics, disability rights, education law, local news and the role of law in promoting social change. In her most recent book “Saving the News,” she wrestles with alternatives for sustaining local news.

In an interview with Deseret, Minow shared her thoughts on more productive ways of resolving conflict, seeing the humanity in those we disagree with, and finding resolution amid tensions between state and religion. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


We need to share the belief that there is something good about having the possibility of learning from people who are different from yourself and cultivating enough humility so that you don’t think you’re always right.

When I was quite young, probably in first grade, I distinctly remember noticing that the prayers that were said in school were not the ones that I heard at home. My family is Jewish, and I grew up very mindful of the history as the basis of religious identity. It was part of my upbringing to recognize that the human experience is universal. I’ve always felt that the oppression the Jews have experienced gives us an obligation to stand up for people who are not Jewish but face similar kinds of challenges.

The focus in my work has always been on people who are excluded or marginalized in society. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who fought in the Civil War, wrote that it was “the absolute belief” that leads people to violent conflict. So many wars have been fought because people are so confident that they’re right.

I’ve been writing for some time about how problematic it is for disagreements between the state and religion to go to court. If you go to court, they don’t say, “Let’s work it out.” The courts answer “yes” or “no” questions in a winner-takes-all approach. But the questions of church and state are not “yes” or “no” questions — they are very complicated issues. 

When it comes to resolving these disagreements, I advocate for finding points of convergence and negotiation. I have the utmost respect for the Utah Compromise, a concerted effort between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and state leaders to find common ground around the issues of LGBTQ anti-discrimination and religious freedom. I’m not a Latter-day Saint, but I do understand that a part of Latter-day Saint theology respects the Constitution and understands that pluralism is an important part of being able to live together. We need to share the belief that there is something good about having the possibility of learning from people who are different from yourself and cultivating enough humility so that you don’t think you’re always right. 

At Harvard Law School we have a program on negotiation that teaches students to distinguish between their interests and their positions. Often, the conflict seems irresolvable, because people have positions that are too far apart. But when people reflect on what they really want, once they identify the interest underlying their position, they can often come up with a third answer that both parties are quite happy with. 

I acknowledge there are some irresolvable conflicts. Yet, I do believe that a mindset that can lead to more productive solutions is one that recognizes the humanity of everyone involved. It tries to find the points of convergence and overlap to achieve common goals while coming from different positions.

In the United States legal system, we’re very focused on the individual and individual rights, but rights are actually a way to think about relationships. We don’t have rights apart from other people. It is about constructing the basis for respecting other people. 

So many wars have been fought because people are so confident that they’re right.

Some people have told me they didn’t understand my work — why I focus on child abuse, war, genocide. And for me, it’s all very connected. The connection has to do with the dehumanizing of another that can lead to violence, discrimination, war and the refusal to find a way to coexist. Unfortunately, there can be a downward slide. I worry about our country right now, that there’s such demonizing of people. 

I had a wonderful adviser in college, Gerald Linderman, who told me: “Don’t forget that the people you’re writing about are all human beings.” That was very powerful to me. 

I think that we can lower the temperature and hostility of conflicts when we separate the disagreement over issues from the dignity of the people holding views with which we disagree. Respecting people that we really disagree with means listening and being open to the possibility that we don’t understand. It also means finding areas of agreement we can build on. These points of connection can be pragmatic and practical, but they also can very much be renewed and strengthened by a recognition that the person on the other end of the disagreement is a human being who has dignity, who deserves respect, who — just like me — has struggles, and hopes, and dreams, and all the things that make human life precious. 

This story appears in the January/February 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.