The answers to that are clearly unique to each one of us, and, there are many who actually ARE turning towards, facing squarely and exploring some very ‘scary things’.
The week after I published that piece I came across a TEDx talk by Theo Wilson, an award winning Slam Poet and actor who has been speaking passionately about social justice since he was 15.
It didn’t take long after he started making YouTube videos on culture and race that internet trolls started making racial slurs in their comments. After engaging them in the endless ‘jousting’ that’s so familiar in the comments sections, Theo Wilson didn’t turn away. He became curious about where these people were getting the opinions and perspectives that were commonly shared – that black people aren’t fully human and the belief that ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’ are two different species, not races. He shares this experience, and his response to it, in his talk below …
Theo Wilson’s TEDx talk … the power of conversations that can build bridges.
He speaks about the need for us to ‘upgrade’ our skills for having difficult conversations with people who don’t see the world as we do. As he says, “conversations can build bridges, and when the chips are down, conversations are the last tools people use before they pick up guns.” And he’s talking about real life conversations with living, breathing people.
Then last week I received an email from a friend who had been facing just that kind of challenging, scary thing. My friend had written:
Attached is a posting from the private Facebook page of a “friend”. It is very disturbing. I am hoping that you may provide some anchoring at a time that I feel very vulnerable and afraid. I am interested in getting your take on all this.
They’d added an attachment that contained the disturbing post and comments. It was an image of a group of (mostly) guys each toting a gun, and a caption with the invitation/challenge to join them in “Patriot Shit”. It had been ‘Liked’ by almost 50 people, and almost as many enthusiastic “Hell yes!” comments.
I truly honour the open, curious, clear way my friend, as Theo Wilson had done, engaged his “friend”, and inquired further about their perspectives. He also attempted to engage those responding to reflect on what their comments might mean for those of the groups they seemed to be targeting. Their easy reassurances that “any American was welcome to join them”, and they were ‘only’ targeting “non-Americans who were a threat” had a hollow ring and didn’t feel at all reassuring.
In responding to him, I first needed to sit for a while and hold myself in my own visceral reaction of fear, anger and shakiness. Seeing these perspectives so blantantly flaunted was challenging enough for me, a white woman who would ‘pass’ as an American, even though I’m not. I SO get the fear and sense of vulnerability of a person of colour, or any of the often targeted groups – especially when this is coming from someone considered a friend.
I’m clear that (even as one who is not an obvious target of “Patriot Shit”) I’m not speaking here as one who has all this figured out! I’m very much engaged in this practice, but coming back to attend to the parts of me in upset IS my practice.
And I think that’s the key – coming back home to have our first (not our only, but our first) attention on what’s happening inside of us. When I have parts of me that are feeling upset, scared, shaky, then THIS is where I need to attend to FIRST. To the extent that I’m distanced from or ignoring upset parts of me, one of two things (or perhaps both) will happen.
One is that others will smell this shakiness. And, like all bullies, when those unconscious of their own survival fears, and so believe they need to exert more power over others to ensure their survival, smell shakiness, it can be for them like blood to a shark – they’re much more likely to attack.
The other is that when we don’t attend to the needs and feelings of various parts of us, they will ultimately be expressed – either in our own inner world (physical or emotional distress/illness), or exploding (in ways that are out of integrity with who we are at our core) into our outer world. It’s one of the ways our humanity shows up. Sadly, the victims of this are often those we’re closest to and least deserve it.
I think what’s going on for those engaging in ‘Patriot Shit’ rhetoric, is the not uncommon bravado, and banding together, of those who have seen themselves as having more power. In this case, whites who see themselves as ‘supreme’ – not surprising given that’s been the truth of their experience all their lives. The shifts happening in our culture evoke their sense of the erosion of this supremacy of power. This is terrifying for them and triggers their need for visibly demonstrating this power over others.
Instead of power over, I believe that as a species, we’re being invited to move toward and cultivate practices that point to and are grounded in a different notion of power – the idea of power with.
A few months ago I watched another TED talk. This one by Megan Phelps-Roper – a young woman who was raised as an active member of Westboro Baptist Church.
Megan Phelps-Roper’s powerful invitation to each of us to end the spiral of rage and blame by being a person who refuses to indulge in the destructive and seductive impulses, instead approaching one another with generosity and compassion.
From the time she was 5 (before she could read the signs she was holding) she’d been on the picket lines with her family and other church members protesting against the many groups the Church considered that God ‘hated’. As a young adult, she pioneered the use of social media for furthering these protests. Over time, seeds of doubt were planted in her in part because of conversations she’d been having on Twitter. Some of those she engaged with were clear about their own positions, and had taken the time to understand hers. These grew into realizations that were for her life-altering, and in 2012, she (along with her sister) courageously chose to leave the Church.
Toward the end of her TED talk, she shared some powerful words. “My friends on Twitter didn’t abandon their beliefs or their principles — only their scorn. They channeled their infinitely justifiable offense and came to me with pointed questions tempered with kindness and humor. They approached me as a human being, and that was more transformative than two full decades of outrage, disdain and violence. I know that some might not have the time or the energy or the patience for extensive engagement, but as difficult as it can be, reaching out to someone we disagree with is an option that is available to all of us. And I sincerely believe that we can do hard things, not just for them but for us and our future. Escalating disgust and intractable conflict are not what we want for ourselves, or our country or our next generation.”
These words are so resonant for me. And, I know, even for those who feel drawn to engage with others in this generous and compassionate way, how challenging it can be to approach them. Especially when we feel threatened by the scornful tone of their positions, and their (often implicit) ways of speaking and acting that normalize, and treat lightly the idea of violence toward those who are seen as ‘other’.
But as my friend found, not everyone is open to the idea of the shift from power over to power with as Megan Phelps-Roper was, so there’s no guarantee that our engagement will be as effective as those who engaged with her on Twitter. In thinking about what those Twitter friends did differently with her that made real conversation possible, Megan discovered 4 small but powerful steps that she now uses herself in difficult conversations today:
- Don’t assume bad intent. Doing this cuts us off from recognizing their humanity and the forces that have shaped them.
- Ask questions. Rather than “only emerging from our bunkers long enough to lob rhetorical grenades at the other camp”, asking questions and truly hearing their responses fundamentally changes the dynamic of conversations.
Stay calm. Refusing to escalate – even when things get heated – and instead changing the subject, using humour, or stepping away and coming back later when both are ready to engage.
Make the argument. Not assuming our perspectives are so clear and obvious others should simply see and agree with us. They (like us) believe the way they do because of their upbringing and experiences, so if we want change, we have to make a case for it.
And while we want to listen and be co-creative with others, we must also stay truly connected to our own deep desires and visions for us and our world. When we turn away from these or, out of fear of the consequences of abuse of power we’ve experienced or seen in our own lives and systems in our world, shrink from standing in our own power, the old cycles of power over are perpetuated.
Rather than becoming stuck in a sense of frustration and feeling less powerful, let’s connect with the deep knowing that we are power full enough to create a world where power with is the norm. As you feel curious about or drawn to this, I’d love for you to be in touch.
For those of us willing to turn towards and explore these scary and challenging conversations – building bridges across differences, rather than walls between us, Hiro Boga concludes her wonderful piece on Power and Powerlessness with these words “Power wielded in service to love, in harmony with wholeness, is among the most creative forces in the universe.” Together we can expand our capacity to hold this vision, and say “Yes” to the call to work together in this co-creation.