Protecting and Learning in a Time of Hatred
This is a time of action.
Posted Nov 17, 2016
Like anyone who is profoundly disturbed about the election of Donald Trump as the 45th US president, I've been doing a lot of reading, reflecting, and talking with other people. I wrote an immediate response to the elections the day after. Now, having digested the results for longer, I have more clarity about what I wish to see happen as we grapple with this new reality.
I want to start by saying that the results are not affecting everyone in the same way. That eight transgender youth killed themselves on the day of the elections is a clear indication of the fear and despair that this extremely vulnerable group is experiencing. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks all manner of hate crimes, harassment and other ways of targeting certain populations have documented over 400 new incidents since the election. While anti-Semitic incidents are also very much on the rise, including swastikas and spray painting "Heil Trump" on a wall, and I am also female and an immigrant to this country, I am not at present targeted, and darker skinned and visibly queer people are. Whatever else happens, whatever else any of us say or do in the coming years, I want us to keep this in mind: some people are suffering immediate consequences, and they need immediate and ongoing protection.
Protection vs. Punishment
This week I had a previously-scheduled opportunity to meet with a group of university ombudspersons from across the country when I was a guest speaker at their annual conference. The topic was how Nonviolent Communication (NVC) can be helpful to them in their unique role of ombudspersons. Given the timing, we also discussed, specifically, how they can respond to the issue of hate crimes and related incidents, which are very much on the rise in campuses across the country.
I shared with them my perspective that a focus on human needs - the centerpiece of an NVC lens on reality - leads to different action from a focus on what is or isn't acceptable. From a needs frame, they would be talking with their administrations about how to actively protect vulnerable populations, including in particular Muslim women (many of whom are afraid to wear their head covers out in the streets). This could mean seeking volunteers to reduce the chances that vulnerable individuals and groups would be alone in places where they can potentially be attacked. This is immediate and focused action that is directly linked to the need for safety for all.
As hard as it may be to take in for some people, punishment does not lead to prevention of harm, and certainly doesn't restore what may have already been lost for those who have been affected. I was heartened seeing how deeply the people in the room took it in. They represent about 40 universities in a number of states, and if they adopt this perspective, perhaps some students will feel less alone in facing what is happening.
Beyond the ombudspersons, I am longing to see groups of people coming together all over the country to offer active protection and support to those whose very lives and certainly their dignity are on the line. Martin Niemöller's famous poem keeps echoing in my mind:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out -
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me.
I hope something has been learned from history, and that enough of us will know to speak out and to gather with others to do all we can to avert social catastrophe. Because as far as I am concerned, catastrophe is looming.
Since I posted my initial thoughts, I have encountered several more responses that have enriched my understanding, especially from Otto Scharmer on how we came here, and from Tom Atlee about how to move forward.
In reflecting on all that I've been taking in, a new metaphor emerged for me. I now see the relief I would have felt had Hillary Clinton been elected more fully as a "fix" of a drug that was already destroying us, and Donald Trump's election as "hitting bottom". Even if somehow the petitions succeed - those calling for investigating a possible fraud in the election, and/or for the Electoral College to vote based on the popular vote win that Hillary Clinton received, and/or for impeaching Donald Trump because of financial issues possibly hidden within his tax returns that he has opposed releasing - a significant portion of the US population, far larger than many have imagined, is alienated, angry, and resentful to the point of voting for someone that only a small percentage of the population actually likes. This is not a new phenomenon, only an intensification of a steady march.
Along with Michael Lerner, who says that "Shaming Whites and Men Has Backfired", I am troubled by the move to blame the people who voted for Trump. I have a deep commitment to honor the dignity of all, even those I wholly disagree with, and am challenged when I see people blamed and shamed, regardless of who they are. I want to be able to maintain a parallel stance of deep care for all, and at the same time being mobilized and committed to stopping harm. The two are not at odds for me.
It's clear to me that without seeing everyone's humanity, we will not find a way of moving forward that will actually create change. I have a complete conviction that making individual voters the problem and attacking them is a continuation of the very mindset that's implicated in getting us here. Blaming them diverts attention away from what I see as the core cause: a system of intensified capitalism that is incapable of serving the needs of all.
Early on in the life of the capitalist project in the North American colonies, working people came together across what later became racial divides. They recognized their common plight and were envisioning how to unite to oppose the system that was oppressing them. The response from above was to institute a racial divide and invent whiteness per se in order to allow the emerging ruling elite to maintain its power. What we are seeing now is the direct result of an ongoing and systematic effort to direct European immigrants and their descendants towards allegiance with the ruling elite rather than with other working people. Whiteness, as Thandeka so aptly points to in her work, was both a consolation prize and an immense loss of identity, tradition, and culture, as each wave of immigrants from Europe were required to accept values and norms that meant letting go of their own.
To create change, to bring about the world I dream about, along with many - a world that truly works for all, where needs are at the center of all decisions - would require a fundamental restructuring of the basic systems of society. This would be a move away form individual grinding responsibility, growing relative poverty, and more and more accumulation at the very top. We have tried that, and more and more of us know that it doesn't work.
What we haven't tried, and what isn't taught and is only a little experimented with, is to envision a radically different way of doing human social life. Many of us long for it and have an inkling it's possible, and some of us have been building and articulating this vision. It would be a move towards collaboration, community, collective accountability, and a different kind of freedom that isn't primarily about pursuing individual material self-interest, even at cost to everything else. I myself have painted a detailed picture of such a world in my book Reweaving Our Human Fabric, so I know it's possible.
Our collective failure, as I see it, is that we haven't found a way to articulate this vision that is inviting, that is truly free of elitism, that is attentive to the diversity of experiences of people, and that is ultimately co-created with others, especially those who work with their hands and bodies. We believe and say this is the world of the future, and yet we continue to act in ways that almost guarantee that we won't be able to create effective alliances across class and race.
I am not pretending to know how to do it, and I haven't been particularly successful in crossing class divides. I am speaking of this precisely because I don't think many of us know how to do this. Our visionary efforts are inaccessible to people who truly need them, and I see a desperately needed monumental task in making it possible for those who are fed up with the business-as-usual to have a true visionary alternative rather than what is, for them, a no-brainer lesser of two evils. I found Van Jones' "Messy Truth" mini-series of videotaped conversations in Gettysburg particularly enlightening in pointing to what it would take to transcend the divide. In his own frame: it's about talking to each other rather than about each other.
This is a time of action. I have heard from many people already that they are dusting off the activism of their youth, or getting ready to take action for the first time in their lives. Not being an organizer myself, all I have to offer is thoughts and ideas.
Since I come from the perspective of NVC, the foundation of what I would want to focus on is to reclaim our ability to see across all divides; to understand, from within, other people's experiences; and to find together the common needs we all share so as to begin to imagine strategies that can attend to those needs, for all of us.
I deeply hope that as people coalesce into groups actively working to make sense of where we are and to face it creatively, there will be those who will respond to the deep need for safety and dignity that more people are acutely experiencing these days by organizing a creative and effective strategy for protecting people. I can only imagine how different WWII would have been if such networks as the Underground Railroad had existed there. I also want to believe that enough people can look, together, at how to transcend the big divides in this country and focus, for once, on building a cross-class, cross-race movement based on our shared human needs that can catapult the dramatic transformation that will allow us to have a future as a species.