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Maintaining Difference: Pt 3
Consider a dinner party where there are vegans, vegetarians, and meat-eaters of varying commitments to eating meat. A host can respond in a few ways—cook options for everyone, cook options for vegans so that everyone can eat but maybe not have what they really want, or cook for themself and let the guests pick and choose. The guests have options too—they can be curious about each other’s eating choices and respect those differences, or they can try to persuade others to eat their own way. Each person’s choice is probably informed by a mix of ethics, cultural norms, access, and personal preferences, as well as complex factors like the healthiest diet for human bodies, what’s right for the planet, whether animals have feelings or spirits, how the economy should run, and so on, and so on.
Consider an organization that is deciding on its next strategy to address political misinformation. 75% of the organization has voted in a poll to engage legislators through phone calls and letters, 10% have voted for a direct action campaign outside the office of the political agency responsible for the misinformation, and another 15% are unsure what to do but none of the ideas on the table suit them. The organization can conform to the majority, can engage in both strategies presented, or they can go back to the drawing board for an idea that the final 15% can get on board with. Many factors likely contributed to these differences of perspective—political ideology, political knowledge and experience, information and options available, personal commitments or ethics, and so on, and so on.
Most of us have probably been in situations where conflict has arisen over choices like these—sometimes generatively and other times destructively. How do we decide whether to emphasize and celebrate our differences, and when do we decide to try to convince others that one way is the right, just, or moral way?
Let’s start with a potentially obvious truth: it isn’t wrong to change or to encourage change in others—transformation is a meaningful and important part of life, and we are changing and influencing each other constantly.
How do we know when trying to change someone’s mind or actions is the best route, and when it’s controlling or manipulative? How do we know when someone’s “difference” feels threatening or scary because of our own ableist, racist, classist, assumptions?
There is no black and white answer. We have to navigate this all the time. We must trust our gut when something feels dangerous or harmful, but also question the parts of us that are informed by oppressive social norms.
When we find ourselves trying to change someone, we can ask:
Am I trying to change this person’s mind, perception, or behavior to:
prevent harm? or
shift power? or
make myself/my efforts more comfortable, powerful, or righteous? or
And, if my intention is to prevent harm or shift power,
how do I know this is harmful (what am I basing that on)? or where am I shifting power to and from?
what outcomes will my efforts have for me, for this person, for others?
do my actions cause their own harms or give me undo power/control?
what information, ideas, or principles am I using to weigh these harms and outcomes?
Once we’ve done this inner work and determined that difference in this conflict is generative, meaningful, and important—then we can begin to practice skills beyond accepting, tolerating, or acknowledging difference, but actually giving our differences air and life.
Stretching our Curiosity
Shira Hassan and Mariame Kaba say “judgment and curiosity can’t co-exist.” When our reflex upon hearing someone’s opinion or position is judgment (that’s wrong, gross, harmful, terrible, ugly) we’ve put an obstacle in front of our ability to wonder and therefore our opportunity to learn the meaningful why behind someone’s difference.
We are all limited by our own experiences and the value system we’ve learned or accepted for ourselves. On our own, we are only so capable of understanding other ways of thinking, knowing, and interpreting the world—in order to understand something new or different, we need new information or perspective. A judgment blocks our ability to ask the questions or receive the information we need to understand: instead, that difference is something other than and often something to be suppressed or distanced from us.
When confronted with difference in a conflict, we may escalate unintentionally by reflexing with a judgmental response—wrong, incorrect, sell-out, betrayal, gross—and that place of accusation is hard to come back from without facilitated support. On our own, we can help to temper these reflexes by noticing them and practicing a different response in our everyday lives. The next time we notice a judgmental reaction (to anything! a person’s appearance, way of communicating, comment, or belief), we can ask ourselves—
Where is that coming from (what experience, learning, assumption in myself)?
Why does this matter to me (i.e. why do I have a position on this at all)?
How does my reaction serve or limit me/my purpose/my intention?
Is my first instinct to control or change this other person? Why?
Stretching our curiosity means understanding those reactive responses of judgment in ourselves and responding with questions to the other person/people that open us to understanding, such as:
Why did you do/say that?
Why do you believe or support that?
Where did you learn that?
Why is that so significant for you?
What does that mean to you?
What is your fear or concern?
The more we learn the answers to these questions, the more we can understand how that idea, behavior, or belief makes sense and suits that person or group. We open ourselves to learning about their experiences that may have informed their reasoning, that otherwise we would have missed. We can also begin to explore the potential benefits, joys, and generative challenges that this difference presents.
People who struggle with maintaining difference receive the responses to these questions as opportunities to manipulate or convince the other person that they’re wrong or should change. Maintaining difference means responding instead with our genuine thoughts and with appreciation that each of us is living authentically and doing what is right for us.
Maintaining difference doesn’t mean we have to agree with whatever the other person says or does or never say things that contradict their view—that would just suppress our own differences!—but to maintain difference we face it, rather than avoid, doubt, or convince away those parts of someone that don’t sit perfectly with us.
Once a difference has arisen and we’ve tempered our judgment, our curiosity can lead us to further questions, such as:
Where is there tension between our ideas, positions, or actions?
How will we work through those times of conflict without harming each other or each other’s efforts?
What more do we have to do together (or learn about each other) to be ready to respond to those conflicts in the ways we want to?
We should try to discuss these questions before a conflict comes up, rather than waiting for tensions to arise. If we understand each other’s differences, our conflicts can be generative and mutually beneficial, rather than destructive.
Our relationships are a site of conflict where we have many options—even when we can’t alter the conditions around us (our housing, employment, location) we can change the way we treat each other. When our relationship with someone matters to us—we care about them or we must work together to be successful—being able to have healthy conflicts is really important to our overall wellbeing.
We can work on maintaining difference by:
Not assuming everyone’s needs are the same as ours—we can have real blinders when it comes to needs; a space that is loud, messy, and where people interrupt each other may be really normal for me and my friends, but may be very unsettling/off-putting for someone else. Making space to ask: “How is this space or structure working for us? What do we need?” can bring difference to the surface before conflict arises.
Adding variety, so that maybe not everyone’s needs and interests are touched on at every moment, but that everyone finds value and nurturance consistently over time. When we develop patterns of organization, space, events, and relationships shaped around one person (often the dominating or bold member), it becomes harder to break away from that to address an issue. Variety sends the message that we’re flexible, open, adaptable, and we want to present lots of opportunities to show care for each other even if it means we’re not getting our own way 100% of the time.
Generating interdependence—where interdependence means we are collaborators in navigating obstacles, even when our abilities, access, or power differ. In conflict, interdependence means we are both/all responsible for finding a way forward that is mutually beneficial—therefore our different needs, meaning, and experience have to be addressed, not just the needs of the person whose name is on the lease or who was elected into a leadership position. Interdependence is about caring as much about the other person’s wellbeing or success as our own.
Practicing understanding when differences in preference or perception arise—rather than trying to move someone toward what we want or experienced, trying to listen to what their unique experience was without suspicion or doubt. Understanding embraces the possibility that we genuinely saw, heard, or felt things differently, and aren’t just saying so to be defensive or to deceive (i.e., why do we assume people are lying because their experience wasn’t the same as ours?).
Boundaries also help when our needs differ, by controlling ourselves rather than controlling others. If someone’s difference bothers us, we can choose to be somewhere else, to not answer the phone, to otherwise respectfully disengage when we need to not participate in something that contradicts with our needs or values (boundaries include: “I won’t go to that party if there’s drugs,” or “I won’t answer calls after 10pm,” or “I won’t do anyone else’s dishes”.)
Practicing difference in organizations and institutions requires a system or structure that allows for connectedness alongside independence (interdependence)—that means working together like a heart and lungs, but existing as separate entities with our own skills, needs, and efforts. Cooperation within an organization or group requires some kind of glue to hold it together—shared goals, purpose, or values—this glue is the reason that we’re cooperating at all, because together we are stronger or better than we are alone. But just because we have this meaningful thing in common, doesn’t mean that our differences are less important. In fact, it is our differences that make our cooperation that much stronger, because our perspectives, skills, and unique ideas will make our efforts that much more creative and robust. To maintain difference:
Increase the time available to make decisions. One of the most limiting factors to embracing difference is a sense of urgency—we need to decide now!—which shuts people down, rushes through voting procedures, and ignores those left behind. If time is limited, identify the core areas of disagreement and break a larger group down into smaller groups that include different perspectives, to try to creatively resolve disputes and bring those ideas back to the larger group.
Celebrate diverse approaches—rather than expecting that all members work together on every project or “speak with one voice,” find ways that minority positions can also act of their own will and desire, without reprimand or exclusion. Get excited when people want to do something different, and try to generate opportunities for that. That might mean having parallel projects running (a public art display, a political campaign, a mutual aid event) that all seek to address the same problem or concern but apply different skills, styles, or meaning.
Embrace some contradiction. Have conversations about what it means that people see an issue, problem, or obstacle differently within the group and how those differences can be expressed without being seen as betrayals to the mission. What does it mean for a small group to publicly say, “We care about this organization and respect our work in it, but on this point we disagree?” Prepare for that and talk about it, rather than being shocked when it happens and then leaping in to suppress or quiet or shame that group of “dissenters.” These kinds of disagreements don’t have to tear our organizations apart, but they will when we aren’t prepared for them and don’t appreciate the lessons we can learn from them. These dissenters often have valid, meaningful, and marginalized positions that can elevate the whole organization if embraced.
Shift to a horizontal organizing structure, that disperses control and authority across the group, rather than concentrating it at the top. Some models to explore are sociocratic model, spokes model, or holacracy.
Organizations can increase their power when they collaborate with each other, but often that comes with conflicts over goals, strategy, values, narrative, tactics, how meetings are run, how communication happens and all sorts of “norms” that differ across groups. These conflicts are destructive when they distract or draw energy away from the work we’re trying to do together. Maintaining difference in an anti-oppressive sense is beneficial when it means we can reduce the energy we put into competing with each other or taking each other down, and increase the energy we put into building a relationship that serves our common goals. Collaborating across difference involves:
Identifying why we want to collaborate at all—knowing where our interests skills, and strengths align or complement each other means we can see where working together is mutually beneficial and where it isn’t. We can embrace that there are areas where we shouldn’t work together, and communicate boundaries around those areas.
Name and notice each other’s strengths and skills where they differ—what does everyone bring to the table?
Communicating about divisive conflicts and agreeing to not interfere with each other to the extent possible (setting boundaries) can help to identify where conflict will be generative (our disagreements about how to achieve common goals) or distracting (our disagreements about goals or purposes that we don’t share). Inter-group boundaries are commitments in the interest of the partnership, such as “We won’t interfere with your legislative campaign, because that isn’t our lane of organizing” or “We won’t publicly comment on or interfere with your direct action, even though we’re personally committed to other strategies.”
Creating space outside of moments of urgency or tension (so, not when a crisis happens) to discuss our differences—why do we approach things the way we do? what is our reasoning for using these tactics? what have we learned over time? what does this mean to us?—this understanding will help us communicate better in times of crisis. When we create these spaces where there are no decisions to be made or problems to solve, they are more likely to promote listening and understanding, rather than debating and competing.
Not all people should be in relationships and not all organizations should work together—sometimes our differences are in such conflict that trying to enmesh them only diminishes each of us. When we’re forced to be together or when we try to enmesh ourselves despite differences (rather than because our differences are our strengths), we often end up competing or controlling each other in ways that limit our own efforts as much as they do the other person or group. Non-competitive autonomy is an agreement to go our own way and not interfere with each other. It can include:
Agreeing to focus our creative energy on our own purpose, rather than trying to make others share our purpose. When we do the work or have the relationships we want to have, that is enough to show what being a part of our efforts or lives looks like and what benefits it might have. We can remain open and inviting for people, without centering our efforts on convincing or converting people to our point of view.
Agreeing to focus our fighting energy on our true opposition, rather than on people of relatively equal power who simply disagree with us or have a different perspective. This requires us to identify and know who our “true enemies” or “true targets” really are, and let others go their own way even when we don’t support or agree with their approach.
Creating separate space (whether physical or in time) so that we aren’t bumping into each other.
Choosing projects or efforts that don’t compete or undermine others, whenever or however possible.
Rather than asking “How does that other person or group harm or interrupt what I/we envision?” ask, “What does that person or group bring to this environment/situation that I/we don’t bring? What does that generate in the world that resonates with people? What do we have to learn from that?”
Opportunities for Learning + Action
Read: Our Communities, Our Solutions: An Organizer’s Toolkit for Developing Campaigns to Abolish Policing by Critical Resistance.
Read: A series of essays called Abolition for the People: The Movement for a Future Without Policing and Prisons.
Practice: The next few weeks and months are likely to hold a lot of tension with friends, family, neighbors—check out this de-escalation guide from aorta—try to practice these tips in heated situations. Relax your body language and voice, distract or interrupt when tensions rise, validate people’s feelings and present options for how to move on/move forward, avoid critiquing or criticizing how someone expresses themself and instead listen and move away from the thing that is causing distress. You can also register for this online de-escalation and know your rights training on November 4th (I can’t vouch for this material, to be honest, because I haven’t attended and don’t know the organizers).
[Image description: a yellow rectangle with white letters that read “Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people.” ―Audre Lorde]