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Maintaining Difference Pt. 2
In the U.S. in 2020, it’s hard to see a problem with maintaining difference. Differences are so stark that we seem to live in multiple Americas—leftists, democrats, republicans, and the far-right believe and live by entirely different sets of information, disinformation, and experience.
To address these divisions, we often hear calls for unity and tolerance—a return to a golden age of America that never really existed, when everyone seemed to share values and norms.
And, certainly, there is a need and a desire for shared understanding in order for us to live alongside each other: up must mean up, and time must turn in shared rhythm, and when the sun rises we all agree that our star is in the sky. But—difference is just as important as similarity. Whether magnified or suppressed, we all exist at different vantage points in the world and have different mind-body needs—these differences enrich, challenge, and grow us.
Rather than meaningfully addressing our differences—appreciating, acknowledging, enriching, and empowering them—we either obscure them with false sameness (the melting pot), or enflame those differences in a power struggle for control of the laws and regulations that everyone, regardless of need or desire, must obey. Our conflicts at every scale are impacted by a competition over which ideologies, needs, and desires rule our relationships and worlds and therefore which differences are held in the light and which are discarded.
So, what would it mean for our conflicts to reject both the idea of violent divide and of peace as unity—what does it look like to maintain difference in a liberatory sense?
Difference Under Control
"So it is clear that the question is not one of integration or segregation. Integration is a man’s ability to want to move in there by himself. If someone wants to live in a white neighborhood and he is black, that is his choice. It should be his right. It is not because white people will not allow him. So vice versa: If a black man wants to live in the slums, that should be his right. Black people will let him. That is the difference. And it’s a difference on which this country makes a number of logical mistakes...”—Kwame Ture on Black Power
Most of us at one time or another have been in a conflict where conditions are so constraining that the options for resolution are extremely limited. Maybe the relationships in our house have become intolerable but because of housing costs, leases, and wages we can’t afford to move. Our best option is to repair our relationships with our roommates but our differences are so stark they seem insurmountable—out of sync habits, temperatures, noise levels, use of resources. Conditions such as those in housing are ripe for conflict escalation, because our different needs are forced into proximity by powers (in many ways) beyond our control—the structures of racism, capitalism, xenophobia, and more.
As Kwame Ture shows us—we are impacted by each other’s differences to the degree that we are controlled by each other. If I need a loud space and you need a quiet space, as long as we have significantly separate spaces there’s no harm. If we are forced together, or if I have control of both our spaces—this is where the conflict arises and harm escalates. This is a matter of power.
The containment of controlling power among a few individuals creates a pervasive sense of competition—us vs. them, my needs or their needs, I’m right so they’re wrong—in which difference can amplify our fears and anxieties about having our needs met or our world in the order that gives us meaning.
In a conflict in which we have little controlling power, we often respond to difference in a few ways:
Fighting or competing (only one person or group can be correct or can win)—suppressing difference
Hiding or masking (let’s not talk about it)—erasing difference
In situations where we have some or significant control, we have more options:
Convincing others (or being convinced) that we are the same (we mostly agree on everything else, so there’s no problem)—avoiding difference
Compromising or cooperating (We can stay where we are and both get what we need)—acknowledging difference
Disbanding (In order to get what we need, we have to be apart)—separating or segregating difference
The less control we have or the more willing we are to sacrifice our own needs, the more likely we are to engage in competing, masking, or convincing responses—all of which are reasonable survival responses. Maintaining difference in a meaningful way happens primarily when we cooperate or disband—and both of these responses require a certain level of freedom or power. If we cooperate or compete, a higher level of conflict persists—we continue to renegotiate or struggle over differences. In the other responses, the conflict may persist but it is suppressed until other events cause it to escalate or become irrelevant.
Maintaining difference in a society ruled by concentrated power is limited by the struggles we must engage in to survive, and also paramount to altering the inherited practice of bending others to our will. We must reflect on how we control others—or use controlling factors (access to housing, funds, water, care, support, belonging)—to obscure, minimize, suppress, or admonish difference.
Below I’ve shared a few types of difference that show up in the toughest conflicts (and many conflicts contain a bit of each). For each, I’ve created/am creating a list of reflective questions which are posted here and can be explored individually or in small groups.
The discussion on difference is already full of insightful comments—you can continue to post here. Next week, I’ll share some practical strategies for maintaining difference at various levels of energy for sustaining conflict and various levels of control.
[Image description: a green bar with the word Perception in pink letters, with an outline of an ear on the P and an outline of an eye for the O]
Many of the enormous conflicts we face today, as well as those in our interpersonal relationships, are about our physical reality and events. Modern understanding of psychology and perception show us that our brain chemistries and mechanics, points of view, and referential knowledge mean that we can all look at the “same” event and come away with very different perceptions of what happened. Conflicts over perception are largely related to:
What happened, how, and by/with whom?
What smells, sounds, sights, textures, tastes, feelings, exist in this moment and beyond?
What impact did/does/will that have?
To maintain difference of perception, we have to understand when it really matters that we disagree and why—then shape the conditions for how we can move on in healthy disagreement without denying each other’s experience.
[Image description: a green bar with the word Meaning in pink letters, with a mandala attached to the M and a praying person with a beard for the G]
Some of the most intractable (entrenched, immovable) conflicts are those that relate to how we make meaning in the world—these are our ideologies, principles, beliefs, and values. They are intractable because the thing we value most for ourselves (to be good, to be powerful, to be knowledgeable, to be righteous) often compels us to influence others, in ways that sometimes conflict with their own values or desires. To know if our conflict is about meaning we can ask, do we have different understandings of:
how the world works (how it was made, how it runs, what keeps it going)?
humans’ role in the world and cosmos (what gives us purpose, what we are intended for, does something exist beyond life on earth)?
the role or treatment of the land, earth, water, animals, and other life in our own purpose?
the role or treatment of groups of people (genders, races, ages) in faith or society?
whether something is right or wrong (what is our code of ethics or morality)?
To maintain difference, we have to understand how practicing our meaning/purpose conflicts with the other person/group practicing their meaning/purpose and under what conditions these meanings can co-exist in healthy conflict/tension, rather than violence, suppression, or control.
[Image description: a green bar with the words Needs & Interests in pink, with a water drop for the first D and a burrito for the I]
Similarly difficult to resolve are conflicts in which our needs and interests conflict (we both need ten oranges but there are only 9 available, or we need things from each other that neither are willing to give). These conflicts are about access to our needs (material or social) and goals (achievements or purpose) and are often linked to a sense of our value as individuals or groups—If I don’t have my needs met, I must not matter/be important/be worthy/be cared for—and have a real impact on survival, health, and quality of life. A conflict is related to needs and interests when it involves:
access and division of air, water, food, shelter, health/wellness, healing, rest, fulfillment
receiving or denying care, nurture, affirmation, recognition, dignity, respect, joy
time or opportunity to make, build, create, or work toward something meaningful
freely expressing and practicing one’s identity, values, or faith
being relatively/reasonably secure, safe, or without fear
To maintain difference, we have to recognize that our body-minds operate and are nourished differently and understand whether our needs are actually in direct competition/conflict and under what conditions all of our needs can be met.
[Image description: a green bar with the word Preference in pink lettering with a 3-tiered cake for the second E]
The line between need and desire is rarely clear—when it is, conflicts can still arise over differences of want, desire, comfort, or enjoyment. These conflicts often increase in tension when certain people or groups receive these “luxuries” always or often, while others are expected to live on the bare minimum. Or, when some are always or often accommodating others, while their own desires go unacknowledged or reciprocated. While these conflicts may seem frivolous compared to others, joy, happiness, comfort, and entertainment are meaningful aspects of social life. We can tell if a conflict has to do with want or desire when it relates to:
how the excesses of life are divided or accessed (time, soothing, exciting or novel items or experiences)
for whom something is built, shaped, designed (comfort, aesthetics) beyond necessity
around whom are experiences tailored (enjoyment, intrigue, nourishment) beyond necessity
To maintain difference of preference, we have to embrace a diversity of experiences for ourselves and others, and understand when our preference differences are intolerable to each other and why and under what conditions we can each have the experiences that bring joy.
Everyone can’t have everything they want all the time—nor can all information (perception or meaning) be open to constant debate. But, the degree that control is relinquished in order for our differences to be meaningfully maintained is a signal of our liberation (and anti-oppression).
Opportunities to Learn + Act
Attend: October 29, Black Trans Intimacies: On Building Futures in the Present hosted by UC Berkeley’s Center for Race and Gender
Attend: November 10, The Rise of a Trans Abolitionist Vision hosted by Midwest Institute for Sexuality and Gender Equity
Check out the Media Manipulation Case Book that maps current disinformation campaigns
Image description: a teal box with the words in white lettering: "...every single mistake moves us forward... all the conflict that we have is a resource for our next spot, and we have to really figure out how to give ourselves the space to make mistakes. We've created a culture where we're so afraid to make mistakes that we can't practice, because—who would want to?" —Shira Hassan, Every Mistake I’ve Ever Made