[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
Many of us decide to get involved in social justice work because we feel compassion and even empathy for those who suffer from pain, oppression, or exploitation. This is a given. However, within various movements, we can, unconsciously or with the best intentions, perpetuate the same pain we work to eliminate, at least emotionally, amongst our colleagues. This is not simply because we lack the alternative structures conducive to more acceptance and participation for all, such as when we establish corporate hierarchies with leaders or vanguards who virtually unilaterally and unaccountably decide much on behalf of the whole. I believe an additional underlying reason for non-constructive tension, hostility, and even disrespect amongst those of us in the activist community is that we do not seriously enough consider the role of tone, energy, and body language in our meetings, groups, and coalitions. Perhaps there is no formula for noticing the existence of "cold" energy, judging the severity of it, or for "warming it up," but we need to recognize that our individual and collective energy is a real phenomenon that has the potential to make or break our dreams for a better world.
I wish to give a personal example albeit perhaps a unique one that poorly illustrates my point: About a year ago, I attended a meeting at the "Life" office downtown. The meeting was called to plan how we as the local anti-war activist community would respond if the US or
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During the meeting, with about 15-20 people around a large table in the Life office meeting room, I wanted to expand on the topic at hand by discussing how we would address this possible attack on Iran before the actual attack occurred, and Ima wanted to stray from the topic by bringing up that we shouldn’t ignore or expunge the Iranian government’s crimes. Perhaps we both should have been held accountable by the group since meeting was focused on what we should do in the event of a US attack on Iran after the fact (though I’m not sure most people had a say about the agenda before the meeting): meetings, groups, and coalitions usually form around a destination or a goal, after all. However, I sensed impatience at my comments and irritation – scoffing, sighing, grumbling, eye rolling, throwing up of hands, and general vibes – when Ima made her points. Hostility was established and non-constructive tension was palpable.
Feeling this negative energy, some of us attempted to mediate the situation by responding to those also concerned with the Iranian government, saying that perhaps we could have a later time during the meeting to address these issues as well but that we had a duty to ensure the flow of the meeting for the original purpose for which it was called. However, two of the Life hosts, Odetta and "Drew," harshly scolded myself, Ima and others, implying that they were the leaders and could decide who got to speak, when, and about what since it was their office. Perhaps this was a well-intentioned attempt to hold us accountable to the group, but by this point, I, too, becoming defensive, spoke in a more hostile tone as I commented that this dynamic seemed very dictatorial and that we should be on more equal ground since I feel we all have a right to be heard. In response to my comment and, perhaps more importantly, my hostile vibe, Odetta gave me a long, cold, intimidating stare, pointed at me, and told me to "watch it," and Drew literally screamed at me and said he’d force me to leave if he had to, right in front of everyone. I don’t think I was the only one that day that left the Life office feeling more emotionally drained and discouraged than usual. I don’t believe any more of these coalition meetings took place since that one.
Perhaps this is a poor example, but I believe this tension and hostility could have been avoided. How many of us have experienced a meeting or conference call where someone wants to talk about something off-topic or even expand upon it but the response is subtly or overtly hostile, even if the language used to respond to this person is not technically "mean"? In short, how many of us have been affected by group energy? This unhealthy energy is more than the spoken language used: it is an underlying tone that includes body language and the vibes composed of the thoughts, feelings, and orientations of participants toward each other.
We all get frustrated and stressed as activists – how could we not feel this way, at least occasionally? After all, we are "fight[ing] the unbeatable foe" – we are trying to resist and transform machines, systems, and mindsets that many believe to be immovable. Naturally, this stress invades our meetings, our work, and our everyday lives if we are heavily involved. We get discouraged and angry when we deal with people who believe very similarly to ourselves, not to mention those who don’t.
I would not ask anyone repress feelings of frustration or anger or pain for that would poison us regardless – these feelings force their way out in strained smiles and general bitterness even if they aren’t expressed overtly. However, I would ask us to consider the ways in which we express our frustration with a person or group and our general orientation toward one another, especially toward those who dissent. If we do not take this energy seriously and deliberately relax toward the warmth that is often in reach if we only remind ourselves of its importance, individually and collectively, we will hurt each other and the damage the potential of our movements.. Without the warmth, our groups will dwindle away from the critical mass needed to transform society.
Meetings normally have a purpose – a goal. We don’t want people to disrupt meetings, but we also don’t want people to feel restricted or deprive the group of any insights, either. Balance is the key: we need both of these interrelated issues to be addressed in a mutually accountable group contract. After a few discussions with friends, I offer a few suggestions for relaxing our tone, helping to make sure everyone’s freedoms and personhoods are respected, and our time together is used efficiently and productively:
1) Establish a set agenda democratically at the beginning of or before the meeting that includes times for each topic and how long each person can speak as well as a time when additional concerns can be brought up.
2) Agree on a way that participants can gently hold one another accountable, such a signal (like a beep beep) to remind someone that they are straying off topic, going over their time limit, etc, before the meeting begins.
3) Create a time, way, space, and/or place where people can express their frustrations with each other in a healthy way either throughout the course of the meeting, at a designated time within the meeting, or even at a later date – perhaps ad hoc, informal group therapy sessions.
4) Designate a mediator who doesn’t add their thoughts on different topics but instead monitors and comments on the dynamics and tone of the meeting or group and who can remind people or the group itself to stay on topic, that someone’s tone is hostile, or that someone is going over their predetermined time limit.
If we’re going to incorporate the seeds of the future we want in what we do today, we must certainly structure room for dissent, new ideas, and equalized power within our groups and meetings, even amongst people who may not possess the social graces many of us enjoy or popular opinion more of us share. However, more than structures themselves, as Justin Podur pointed out in describing a vision for a liberated community/culture in Real Utopia, the last line of defense against oppression, emotional abuse, etc. is our own individual orientations and checks upon ourselves. Checking ourselves is the most difficult because we don’t want to believe we’re bad people. We’ve got to allow ourselves to be human, though, and strive to perpetuate the warmth as much as possible.
I believe, as romantic as it may sound, that we need to constantly remind ourselves to strive for unconditional agape love Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of. Breathe deep. Relax your face, shoulders, hands, body. Listen carefully and take seriously the thoughts of others. Soften your tone – not your voice level, but the feeling behind it. Remind yourself that these are all your brothers and sisters and appreciate them. This is especially important though certainly more difficult with those we disagree with or who irritate us. We must have the humility of self, joy for life, and faith in one another to project good vibes toward each other, in society generally, but especially within our movements. How will we build our new society on solidarity if we cannot love each other? What kind of society will we create if we are cold more often than we are warmth? If we are dedicated to perpetuate love as fully and holistically as possible, the warmth liberates us from the cynicism and snobbery that certainly color not just our movements but our future. We’re all in this together and we’ve got to keep each other warm.