By Teresa Carale
John Thorton, the cotton mill owner in Elizabeth Gaskell’s classic novel North and South, had a tempestuous relationship with Nicholas Higgins, an industrial worker and union leader. But they were both courageous, honorable men who confronted their conflict, a conflict that resulted in a crippling strike that meant greater poverty for Higgins and bankruptcy for Thornton. They developed a deep friendship, each learning from the other, respecting and trusting the other. Each was a leader in his own respective “class.”
As we survey the world we live in, we long for leaders like Thornton and Higgins, leaders who are agents of unity. From a purely anthropological standpoint, unity is superior to conflict; rather than avoiding conflict, we need to confront it in an effort to resolve and move beyond it, to make it a link in a chain, as part of a progress towards unity (Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, n. 55). These words are worthy of reflection—we need to confront conflict in an effort to resolve it and thus achieve unity.
There are conflicts that have existed for centuries and which flare up at different times in history. In many instances, these conflicts were never properly confronted since they were often resolved through violence. The "resolution" did not address the root of the conflict, i.e. the victor in the confrontation dictated the terms of the resolution.
We often have the tendency to run away from disagreements to "avoid confrontation." We may think we lack the skills or confidence to have a reasonable discussion, or we fear that the opposing party might lack those skills. Sometimes one is afraid of not being able to keep one's emotions in check as well. Despite all of these fears and misgivings, we need the courage to confront conflict, to seek and address the root cause of the conflict, to seek solutions that make unity possible.
Towards the end of the novel, after his cotton mill was closed, Thornton was speaking with a rising member of parliament at a dinner party. He openly acknowledged that he was unsuccessful in business and was seeking an employer that would allow him to continue his “experiment”—where “master” and “laborer” are brought together into actual personal contact, so that they are more aware of what each side is doing, resulting in greater understanding. His leadership was not a result of his owning a mill. He remained a leader despite his apparent financial ruin. His leadership came from within. His vision of the world had changed: he had become an agent of unity.