"Don't mourn, organize!" I've seen this slogan often and tend to agree with it, with the caveat that we may need to process (not get stuck in) our grief before and while we jump into action. What I've been chewing on since November 9 is how we organize. In particular, I have hemmed and hawed over whether or not to put into written word what I believe matters a lot: how we treat other in our daily lives and also on public platforms. I've been fearing criticism of this stance by some of my most respected friends and colleagues given my social positioning and identities, which tilt me far to the side of privilege on this very imbalanced field of power and wealth called the United States. More specifically, I have been reading publication after publication about the ways in which white people take over, dilute and diminish justice struggles, and more generally often harm more than they help movements explicitly aimed at challenging white supremacy, such as Black Lives Matter. So I have been weighing whether or not to keep my views to myself.
Then I revisited Manson's "The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck." This article gave me the courage to speak my "t" truth because one of the few fucks I won't give up is that how we relate to one another matters, whether we're engaged in a regular daily interaction or resisting the violation of human rights and environmental degradation on a larger scale. Indeed, this fuck is why I keep The No Asshole Rule front and center on my bookshelf. May my intention to promote wise speech and action come through loud and clear in this post and strengthen our collective actions rather than undermine them. Lord knows, we need as large a critical mass as we can muster to resist the shit show unfurling on the U.S. political stage as I write this post.
In 2011, I walked away from a tenure-track assistant professorship in education to become a psychotherapist. Many people thought I was nuts. How could you leave such a coveted position in academia? You spent all those years progressing along this career path and now you're quitting? I thought you were an agent for social change! How are you going to generate social transformation while working individually with people in a confidential space?
Leaving academia turned out to be the best thing I could do for my sanity and health. At the risk of irritating my much beloved activist friends and colleagues, I have come to see that much of the social justice work I undertook from a university perch resembled the aggression, divisiveness, and verbal warfare I'm currently witnessing on the heels of the 2016 presidential election. I still carry the commitments I had then, but I use different tools to enact them. More specifically, I frequently turn to models of dignity and nonviolent communication to do the work I used to do, as I believe they enable me to approach social change work with my integrity intact and ensure that peace, about which I also give a fuck, has a prominent place on the social justice map.
Rewinding the story a little bit, I identify Tara Brach and her sangha, of which I was a member during my three years as an assistant professor, as significant shapers of my decision to exit academia and shift my approach to justice work. Her teachings repeatedly drilled home to me that separation generates suffering, whether that separation manifests from a sense of superiority or inferiority to others. Additionally, she rocked my world when she named aversive judgment--that is, when we judge someone or something as bad or wrong--as synonymous with aggression. Both of these lessons revealed how much of the social justice language and behaviors in which I engaged generated harm, separation, and suffering.
More specifically, self-righteousness abounded in our treatises on justice and dotted the pathway with "shoulds." Someone who is anti-racist, pro-feminist, and promoting a redistribution of wealth, for instance, should do x, y, and z or they are not true activists and allies. Ironically, many of us replicated the hierarchical ranking of "good" and "bad" actors that the Euroheteropatriarchy against which we raged set up for us in the first place. In other words, our rants overflowed with aversive judgment as we looked down on those who did not subscribe to our particular ideology or approach.
A favorite past-time during that era was to take the white supremacy literature I pored over and use it like the sharpest razor blade against my own skin. Although extremely anxious and depressed while marching through the world bearing so much judgment for myself and others (and drinking way too much to cope with that anxiety and depression), I believed my privilege meant I did not--I could not--know suffering. And as I learned more and more about the pain suffered by marginalized communities of which I was not a member, I absolutely would not permit emotions that got in the way of the work I was supposed to be doing, particularly guilt and shame. They, like my whiteness, were the enemy.
Now please allow me to clarify my stance a bit. Concepts like "white fragility," "false empathy," and the "white savior industrial complex" have been and continue to be very helpful for those of us trying to become skillful contributors to positive social change, especially white people. How we use those concepts (and practices like nonviolent communication) is what I am emphasizing here, as everything is dangerous, to borrow from the late Michel Foucault. What I came to realize is that going to war with ourselves generates significant casualties--suicide in worst-case scenarios--and saps energy at a time when we need it most stay in long-term struggles for social justice.
To say a bit more about this self-aggression, we know that berating and belittling others does not foster good will or solidarity yet we frequently bully ourselves until, curled into a tight ball to fend off the barrage of harsh judgments, we inadvertently become extremely self-centered. Thinking that I caused systemic harm prevents me from becoming curious about the factors outside of myself that have contributed to any given moment or circumstance--an understanding that is essential to seeing clearly what is and, from that place of clarity, developing a potent action plan. Self-blame also is masterful at demotivating us so that we stay collapsed in a ball on the ground rather than get up and engage with the world.
With regard to guilt and shame, specifically, I now view them as simply emotions that we, initially at least, do not choose to feel. They actually can provide us with useful information, if we listen to them with curiosity rather than judgment, and process them to their end since all emotions have a beginning, middle, and end if we allow them to move through us. (It turns out emotions do not have a long shelf life when we let them run their course rather than feed them with our thoughts.) They certainly become problematic when we try to bury them--and so make them stronger--or grab onto them for dear life and so become mired in deep, paralyzing muck. They also can be very annoying when they take up all the space in a room. But they, and the people experiencing them, are not the enemy. White supremacy, economic inequality, heteronormativity, misogyny, transphobia, and additional forms of systemic oppression and domination, on the other hand, are worthy of attack.
Although the dignity and nonviolent communication practices on which I currently draw are works in progress rather than panaceas, they generally allow me to sustain self-respect while speaking up and out. Here are a few reasons why:
The reality that we are interconnected means that when I violate your dignity, I diminish my own. If we pause long enough to notice what happens within us when we blame and shame others and/or step into the role of victim, I am confident we will not like what we find. It feels shitty to act out of our base instincts rooted in a rigid us/them mentality, especially when we have done our homework and so know that larger systems are at work when injustice occurs. And being the victim (versus resisting acts of perpetration) spirals us into a realm of powerlessness that feels real but often is not true. In other words, we give up whatever power we do have in the land of victimhood. Although easier to target individuals than to see the systemic conditioning that has influenced our beliefs and behavior (e.g. if we're swimming in white supremacist waters, we're going to get wet), we have a much better shot at re-humanizing those very systems when we can refrain from attacking its actors. Super importantly, choosing not to vilify someone is not synonymous with letting accountability slide. With our big prefrontal cortex, we have the capacity to hold people accountable for their actions without stripping them of their humanity in the process. Restraint is also not the same thing as rolling over and taking a beating. It does mean that as we defend ourselves and what we hold dear through the actions available to us, we refrain from engaging in the aggression that is aversive judgment.
Enter nonviolent communication (NVC). What NVC can do well is challenge the domination structures embedded in the language we use. And just to reiterate, this tool, like any tool, can be used to reinforce oppression and domination. The Center for Nonviolent Communication's founder, Marshall Rosenberg, articulated the radical potential of NVC when he explained how static, judgmental language combined with a retributive form of justice spur and grow planetary violence. More specifically, he highlighted how an emphasis on being rather than behavior (e.g., "You are a racist idiot" rather than "That was a racist action") generates unresolvable conflict and division. In the realm of retributive justice, which Oxford Dictionary defines as "A system of criminal justice based on the punishment of offenders rather than on rehabilitation," Rosenberg also revealed how reliance on authorities that use a dichotomous scale (e.g., good/bad, right/wrong, normal/abnormal) to determine who deserves punishment disconnects people from their own power and limits our understanding of what is actually happening in any given moment.
At the heart of NVC is a focus on unmet needs since they are what drive our sense of dis-ease in any given moment. In other words, if we can drill down to what needs are unrealized, whether they are basic physical needs like food, shelter, and clean water or more subtle human emotional needs like a sense of belonging and connection, we can put our energy toward fulfilling those needs rather than judging and punishing those deemed abnormal, mentally ill, or wrong. This framework has significant implications for how we address those marginalized by our current systems, since we direct our attention toward helping those more vulnerable folks to fulfill their unmet needs--needs that these folks identify themselves!--rather than to developing policies and processes that determine a person's worthiness (or unworthiness as is often the case) in the first place. Back to the dignity model, inherent value and worth is a birthright that is not up for grabs.
Now achieving clarity about what our needs are (and I'm not talking about desires dressed up as needs here) as well as expressing our observations about what is happening without resorting to aversive judgment (e.g., He is a narcissistic, stupid monster!) is no small feat. For most of us, it requires a paradigm shift, not only in the language we use but also in how we approach behaviors, emotions, and requests of ourselves and others that better meet our needs. I maintain it's a worthwhile challenge to undertake. I want to provide an example from my own life of how attention to dignity, in combination with nonviolent communication, have helped me to see how harmful words and actions often mask unmet needs and emerge from past dignity violations to the person wreaking the harm. And again, the capacity to understand unmet needs does not mean we tolerate harmful words and actions. It does mean our response has a better shot at diminishing rather than growing division and violence:
I interacted with a man who spewed virulent homophobic slurs soon after I met him. As a queer-identified person, I struggled not to react to his hate speech with my own speech about how bad and wrong he was. Deciding not to make a two-dimensional caricature out of him, I listened a little longer to his story and asked a few more questions. In the process, I learned that he had been sexually assaulted by a gay man as a young adult and had never processed the trauma. What I know about trauma--and I do believe everyone would benefit from a trauma 101 training in light of how much individual and collective trauma there is in our world--is that it diminishes our capacity to stay present, centered, and grounded, all of which are necessary to keep fear from hijacking our thinking. I sensed that terror, rather than hate, were at the root of his gross and negative generalizations about LGBTQ+ people. So I connected with his fear and validated the horror of the violation he experienced before I spoke of how the individual that harmed him was in no way representative of an entire, and very diverse group of people and asked him to acknowledge that cisgender, straight men perpetrate the bulk of sexually predatory acts. And our relationship continued, giving me more of an opportunity to challenge his distorted, fear-based beliefs about gay people.
I hear the critics in my ear as I close out this post. The individual of which I just spoke is not in a seat of power like our current president-elect and his cabinet members, most of whom have orchestrated and supported great harm to marginalized communities of multiple kinds as well as our environment. My point is not that we need to have dialogues with those intent on harming us. Ears to hear are necessary for dialogue to be of mutual benefit, and I am gearing up for a hell of a struggle.
Rather, I want to ask this: at the end of the day, when we face ourselves, who do we want to encounter? I can only speak from my own experience, which has taught me that resilience in the face of struggle expands when curiosity replaces aversive judgment. Perhaps more importantly, I now intimately know what Donna Hicks so eloquently noted: "When we honor other people's dignity, we strengthen our own."