This post is primarily written for my queer/trans/POC community, as well as allies actively engaged in anti-oppression work. And the context of this article is the assumption that people you are talking with, or in connection to, are allies – this is not about talking to Trump supporters, or people who aren’t working to be allies. Please share widely as you see fit.
Some of us were shocked, and some of us were not shocked by this election, and the events afterwards. For some of us, there is a new load of fear over the one we’ve been carrying for most or all of our lives. A lot of us are really scared, not knowing whether the casual interaction at the bus station, or the street is going to be harassment or worse. We’ve been scared for a long time of police, but now we’re scared of everyone who is white or straight, or cis, or all of those things. And we’re angry – with righteous anger for all of what has happened, and is still happening, and, perhaps, also what we know will happen. And there is deep sadness, too, for all of the suffering. All of this is understandable, and OK – that is, we should not feel bad to have these feelings, or to express them to others.
Over the past few days, there has been a raging conversation (and in some places, argument) about whether or not it’s right for allies to wear safety pins. And I have noticed patterns of communication that have meant that people stay mired, instead of being able to move forward in solidarity. The sheer fact that we have been spending several days on this should suggest to us that there is a problem.
One of the things I spend a lot of time doing is teaching queer women how to have happy relationships. And one of the things I see over and over again is that how we act in unhealthy ways in relationships are exactly the same as how we act in unhealthy ways in communities – except that in communities the damage is magnified. And from my perspective, there are things to learn here. So I’m going to outline four principles for healthy community communication – principles that will help us move forward. If we don’t practice these principles, we and our allies will remain mired and paralyzed.
These principles are based on science, and on what we know about how people can successfully relate to one another. These are also informed by Buddhist principles.
First, don’t speak or act when you are triggered. There is real science here. When we are triggered, a part of our brain called the Amygdala is activated. And when it is activated, a process called “Amygdala Hijack” happens, and it literally hijacks signals that are going to your pre-frontal cortex – your smart brain. You literally cannot think, even when you think you are thinking. Remember the litany from Dune, that starts with “Fear is the mind killer.” It is, literally.
So often in activist communities and conversations, we’re triggered, and speaking and acting from that triggered place. In relationships, this means fights, or processing that gets nowhere, and resolves nothing. You know what this means in conversations in community and activist circles.
Second, speak and act with self-responsibility. Our emotions, whether they be fear, sadness, or anger are OURS. They were perhaps triggered by something someone said or did, or things that have happened, but our emotions are still ours, and we need to take responsibility for them. No one else can create those emotions, and no one can take them away. Only we can deal with them.
Third, speak and listen cleanly. By speak cleanly, I mean speak without blame (or self-blame,) shaming, criticism or defensiveness. At some point in the culture of the left it became de rigeur to shame people who you didn’t agree with. I don’t know when or where it started (the 80s?) but it has become the way we talk to each other when we don’t agree. And, I think as pretty much everyone has witnessed, it is completely unhelpful, and generally results in alienation. (And, in the relationship context, not speaking cleanly ends relationships.)
Listening cleanly means a couple of things. It means not making assumptions about actions and words, and also noticing our own habitual triggers. One really helpful tool that we teach a lot is to use a set of questions developed by Byron Katie. If someone says or does something, and we think, for instance, that they had an intent to obstruct, we might ask, 1) Is it true that they were trying to obstruct? 2) Do we absolutely know that this is true? 3) What does believing this bring up for us emotionally? and 4) Who would we be (or how would it be) without believing that they meant to obstruct? It can also mean assuming good intent.
Give actionable, specific requests. When an ally does something, often times the response is something like “that’s not enough” or “that’s just perpetuating the problem,” or what have you. But it actually doesn’t help an ally figure out what to do – it generally alienates them. Instead, if in response, you gave a specific actionable request, that’s much more likely to have a useful result.
For example, if you really don’t think that wearing a safety pin means anything, you could say something like, “I appreciate that you are trying to make a statement of solidarity with that pin. What I would really like it if alongside that, you’ll come to our meeting on Monday where we discuss specific actions we’ll be taking.” Or something of that nature.
Now I can already hear the objections to all of this. I will be accused of tone policing, for one. And I also know that many people feel that it is not our job to educate allies on what to do. And I’m sure I’ll hear many others. You’ve heard the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. If we can’t figure out how to come together as allies wanting the same kind of inclusive, equitable society infused with compassion and love, we are going to get mowed down by the right, and I refuse to watch that happen.
Using these four principles in our conversations about what to do and where to go from here takes learning some skills, but they aren’t hard to learn, and there are many teachers, me among them.