War, blame, self-responsibility, and compassion

There are many, many wars going on right now. Some, like the 44 military conflicts, create suffering on massive scales, and large losses in life. But there are many, many other wars. Gang wars, sectarian conflicts, internal conflicts that have not yet gotten violent, conflicts between political parties, as well as the internecine conflicts between sub-factions social groups, and, sadly, between people in a couple who love each other. Conflict, including everything from the small, private conflicts we live each day, to the huge conflicts that kill thousands, seem to be simply… human. We can’t seem to avoid it. We haven’t managed to avoid it for any of our history as a species.

I spend a lot of my day talking to couples (or members of ex-couples), and writing about relationships. My (relatively new) work as a relationship geek and coach has given me insight into why conflict gets out of control. And in thinking about what’s going on in the world, I actually think that it’s all the same stuff, just vastly expanded in scale. What happens in couples, especially in what we call “high conflict” couples, where each person blames the other for everything, is exactly what’s happening in the world today.

The problem is, blame is never a useful thing. It never gets at the root of the problem, and never solves anything. Even if you are able to get to a sort of settlement, blame will rear its ugly head yet again, and a new cycle of conflict will start. Blame is completely useless in healing conflicts, whether it be conflicts between partners, or conflicts between countries.

If a couple is locked in conflict, it’s easy for a cycle of blame to start going. One person blames the other for an affair, for instance, while that partner blames the other for being cold and withdrawn. Then that partner blames the other for being critical… you get the picture. This is about as useful as the cycle of blame in Israel and Palestine. There comes a point where “who is to blame” is a completely useless path to walk down. And the problem is, especially when it comes to global conflicts, there seems to be no other conversation. Hamas is to blame because they are shooting rockets into Israel. Israel is to blame because they’ve been cutting off Gaza for years… etc., etc., ad nauseum.

So what is the right path? The right path is two fold: self-responsibility and compassion. Where blame doesn’t help, taking self -responsibility does. And we’re not talking self-blame here. We’re talking looking deeply at yourself, and seeing what’s there, and what you are really responsible for. For that person that might have had an affair, it would be taking responsibility for their feelings of alienation and loneliness, and acting on them. I think that a really big thing that people need to take responsibility for is acting out of fear. Some of that fear is immediate, and some of that fear is historical and cultural. But it is fear nonetheless, and acting out of fear never has good results – it can never heal conflict.

And compassion is actually really simple. Not always easy, but simple. And compassion always starts with ourselves. So much misery is caused by lack of self-compassion.

Of course, Israel and Palestine, Russia and Ukraine, and many other conflicts are not between equals. So the burden of self-responsibility is most heavy on the party that has the most power to effect changes in the relationship. But compassion is important for both sides.

I’m glad that I am able to help couples heal conflict. I wish there were a way to help countries do the same. Human beings have a hard time with self-responsibility and compassion, and it just gets worse the larger the collection of humans there are.






The Personal is Still Political

It’s funny, I’d never read the original paper that coined the term “the personal is political” until I was getting ready to write this blog post. It’s an interesting read. The basic point, from my perspective, is that you can’t separate what we do (or what happens to us) individually, from what happens in society. It’s all connected. Interpersonal social dynamics interweave with group dynamics, differences in culture, history and oppression.

What makes this even more true today is that even more than the late 60’s when that article was written, we live in a society that commodifies everything. There are absolutely a lot of problems with this, but this blog post is not a rail against commodification — that train has left the station, and we’re stuck with it, unless we wish to radically change the way we all live our lives. (I don’t see that coming down the pike anytime soon.)

This year, for Gay Pride, Kink.com, a San Francisco-based company that specializes in internet porn, specifically around BDSM, had a prison-themed party. Here’s a little taste of the promotional material:

What kind of trouble will 3000 of the world’s hottest men get into when in lockdown? Let your fantasies run wild in solitary, fall in love in the shower, plan your jailbreak with your mates, celebrate your creative freedom, in Pride weekend’s BIGGEST circuit party of the year!

Now as you might imagine, there was some degree of outrage at the idea that playing at prison is a good idea for a party for Gay Pride. It’s a really horrible idea. I don’t know who came up with it, but I can think of about 50 different reasons why it should never have happened. Some people rightly protested, and Kink.com’s response to the protest has been also horrifying.

To me, why it could happen, is a much more interesting question than why it did happen. I was in a couple of different Facebook conversations about it, and I thought that I should lay out my perspective in a more ordered, lengthy fashion.

First off, I want to be clear that when it comes to sexuality, I’m libertarian. I think consenting adults should be able to do whatever it is we want to do with each other, and although that party was a horrible idea, kink.com had the right to put it on, and people had a right to go. That said, I am also relentlessly committed to consciousness. I have the habit of doing what I can to shine a light on everything I do in my life and examine it, and ask about whether it is really resonant with my values and higher purpose. Some things I can easily reconcile, and others are a lot harder, because we live in complicated, problematic times, and I’m human (and not a Buddha.) I do have the habit of shining that same light to everything I come in contact with (for good or ill, depending on your point of view, I guess.)

So back to the question, why could this happen? Is it just some one person’s weird idea that it might be fun to have a party where people play at being in prison? Not so much. From my perspective, it’s a reflection of personal play, combined with the commodification of that play.

Being queer in the Bay Area means that you know people, and are exposed to things that are more edgy than, say, living in New England. I do actually rather like that about it. One thing that I’ve been exposed to is sexual play that includes a dynamic that involves drastic power imbalances. For instance, pretending to be prison guard and prisoner, or master and slave. Some people just play at this in the privacy of their bedroom, others play in play parties, and some others live that life 24/7.

I’m going to be clear here — I do have my kinky (I actually say curly) edges, but some particular kinds of role play have always been difficult for me to swallow.  And the reason is that they reflect very real power imbalances that real people do (or did) experience every day in ways that are (or were) very, very less than fun–in fact, in ways that are (and were) devastating to them. Further, some of them are (or were) condoned and institutional, and reflect (or reflected) the very real manifestations of oppression.

Of course, that is their power. People play at being, say, the plumber and the housewife all the time, and it can be kinda sexy, but it doesn’t have an edge, does it? I know that some might argue that embracing those extreme power differentials in the context of sexual play is transformative. I can imagine that might be true in some situations, but I’m not utterly convinced, particularly for dynamics that reflect situations of real oppression. Prison guard/prisoner play, even between people in the privacy of their own bedroom, minimizes the lived reality of people and objectifies the people who are oppressed.  I’m sure it’s fun, though.

But that’s the problem. From my perspective, pleasure is trumping consciousness. And the result?  Add that to the commodification of everything, and add a little dash of OITNB, and you get… The Kink.com prison play party. It was inevitable. I could also write a long treatise on the problematic nature of master/slave play, but luckily, there wasn’t a kink.com slave auction  for Pride.

Sex and sexuality is powerful, fun, enlivening, sacred and transformative. And it can’t be separated from society and its imbalances, oppressions, divisions, and complications. We have to shine the same light onto it as we’d shine onto anything else. We have to be willing to at least look at the effects of our personal choices in  how we find pleasure.