I know a student action group that lost some momentum this semester. It was seemingly at cross-purposes and suffering morale problems. The group knew a facilitator near the campus and decided to hold a retreat to clarify their strategy. I ran into a few of the members after the retreat and asked how it went.
“We had so much hard stuff to say to one another,” I heard. “Who knew there were so many pent-up resentments and conflicts?“ And, “We got really honest.”
“What’s the result?” I asked.
Their faces relaxed. “Back on it, now.” And, “We’re united again.” And, “Now we see our direction.”
One of the ironies about activists is that people who are okay with a sit-in at the office of an authority figure or with blocking the street at rush hour are often reluctant to express conflict with one another.
The ugly splits that litter the history of many countries’ movements for justice may partly be caused by this: the difficulty of waging healthy, cleansing and clarifying internal conflicts before they turn sour and ugly. Our troubles with handling internal conflict also plays into the hands of governments that plant informers and trouble-makers in our midst to break us up.
Fortunately, there are also plenty of examples in which groups had fights and came out of them stronger and clearer.
‘We’re here because we’re queer’
In the Movement for a New Society, we consciously worked at becoming conflict-friendly and sometimes found that a fight moved us forward like nothing else could.
One occasion grew from the tension around sexual politics in the early 1970s. In those days, the best that most groups on the left could do with their LGBT members was show some tolerance, but our caucus within the Movement for a New Society wanted to build gay liberation into the core theory of the network. Some of us wrote a book on LGBT theory that drew connections with other forms of oppression and presented a vision of what a sexually free society would look like.
There was an atmosphere of discomfort in the room when the Movement for a Free Society national network meeting’s agenda moved to whether the network should adopt the book as an official publication. A number of conflict-avoiding comments were made, increasing the discomfort. Then someone said, “The trouble with publishing this is that then so many gay people would join us that we’d lose our breadth of membership.”
Silence filled the room while LGBTers sat stunned. Suddenly a heterosexual ally spoke up: “That statement was homophobic!”
Almost as one, the queer caucus rose and stomped out of the room. The co-facilitators suggested that everyone form buzz groups wherever they were to process what was happening for them. An hour of intense work took place, in the larger room and also in the small room where the caucus gathered, while people confronted their own fears and hurt and anger.
The people in the caucus suddenly reappeared at the door, dressed up in miscellaneous hats and scarves and whatever could be found, marching and singing, “We’re here because we’re queer because we’re here because we’re queer!” The shift had happened in both rooms, and it was expressed in the laughter and dancing. The short discussion that followed quickly reached consensus that the book should be published as emerging Movement for a New Society theory.
I’m not sure we could have reached consensus without the sharply stated polarization and the conflict that forced everyone to move to a deeper level. I was grateful that we didn’t have political correctness getting in the way of people voicing their real fears. It was the fight that supported the transformation, and going through it forged the unity that made Movement for a New Society a nonviolent army that had impact far beyond our size.
From chaos to community
The psychologist M. Scott Peck wrote about this dynamic in his book on how groups get stronger, The Different Drum: Community-Making and Peace. He identifies three developmental stages that strong groups go through: “honeymoon” (superficial, polite efforts to join and get the job done), “chaos” (the fighting time, which members try to end by asserting solutions that don’t work) and “community” (also called a high-performance team, which happens when members accept on a deeper level the diversity of who they are).
I have often facilitated for groups as they went through the scary chaos period to reach the other side.
At one point, veteran trainer Starhawk and Training for Change assembled an international group of activist trainers together to consider how we could be more helpful to the mass confrontations that followed the Battle of Seattle in 1999. We met in Starhawk’s attic in San Francisco. Before long, the group went into chaos. I completely forgot Peck’s theory and was as chaotic and clueless as everyone else — until we suddenly stepped through the threshold into community. Then I remembered the theory!
That’s when I realized that the growth that happens in conflict is not fundamentally about ideas and reason. The emotional dimension is key — which is bad news to some, and good news to others. One influence on whether it’s good or bad news has to do with social class.
Class conditioning and conflict
I’ll risk a generalization: Middle and owning class people are more uncomfortable with conflict than working class people. By “middle class,” I don’t mean what politicians mean, because they code the phrase to signify employed working class people. I mean middle managers, teachers, small business owners who have to run their own businesses, professionals including lower-tier doctors and engineers. The economic function of the middle class is to manage, teach, fix and design jobs for the working class.
Why does middle class conditioning include conflict aversion? The economic purpose of middle class people’s socialization is to prepare them for middle class jobs. Do you know a management or teaching job where the way to get ahead is to have a fair amount of turbulence going on among the people you supervise or within your classroom? Middle class jobs emphasize smoothness, rationality, calming the waters, linear progress, appearing “in charge.” That’s the goal of owning class socialization, too. So how can people brought up that way really appreciate — let alone participate in — a good fight?
The couples counselor George Bach wrote a book about the importance of conflict for relationships called The Intimate Enemy. He wrote it after he found that many couples most needed to learn the skill of fighting with each other in order to regain intimacy.
I remember an international, week-long training seminar I led in which the large majority of the 35 participants were people of color. But it was the white people who did most of the talking, until the third day. That was the day I confronted a know-it-all white participant who was trying to dominate the proceedings; he and I had a grand fight which ended with him stalking out of the room and leaving the course.
After a short debriefing with all the participants about what had happened, we went to lunch and convened small breakout groups. I chatted with an education professor from a nearby university who had come to observe my work. She said, “I observe that you have seven small groups going; at this moment in every single one it’s a person of color who’s talking.”
“Right,” I agreed.
“Has it been that way each day?”
“No, it’s been the usual drill of white people hogging the time. What has changed is that we had a fight this morning.”
The professor grew excited. “But that checks out with all the research: After groups have a conflict, the dominance pattern is upended and those previously on the margins speak up! It doesn’t matter what the conflict is about — it can be about the color of the drapes. It’s just that a conflict upsets the prevailing order and those who were playing it safe step up!”
I believe that’s the hidden purpose of the chaos period: to open the space for a new, diversity-friendly order. What lies on the other side is community. This is true whether on a macro scale — revolution, anyone? — or on a micro-scale, in our action groups.
So, to get your group ready for the revolution, find a conflict-friendly facilitator, build your muscles for conflict and watch yourselves become stronger.
Waging Nonviolence is hiring a writer to interview leading movement figures and analysts and produce one Q&A-style article per week. The writer will work with our small editorial team to identify the interview subject each week. For the most part, we’ll be looking to hear from activists, organizers and scholars who can shed light on… More
By melding theory and practice, Philadelphia’s Vanguard S.O.S. are building skills and collective power.
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If you want to learn conflict resolution, try “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life”, by Marshall Rosenberg. Nonviolent communication teaches how to get past the game of “Who’s Right”, and how to express and hear the nine basic human needs.
Lumpen, what George is talking about here is not conflict RESOLUTION, but conflict ENGAGEMENT. A subtle, but different perspective. What I hear George is saying that the act of engaging in conflict is healing – if only we can get past our various privileges to do so. And it certainly helps to have a supportive environment (community or facilitator).
In the final example from the article, a fight is described where a participant left the course. Afterwards, it was reported that the remaining participants had a higher energy level and greater participation by those who had previously been more reserved. I would be cautious of labeling a higher energy level as “healing”.
This example is the default mode in which most activist groups eventually disintegrate. Most likely, the individual who stalked off and left the group had one or more needs which were not being met. It was his inability to express those needs, and the groups inability to empathize with those needs, which was the core of the conflict. When someone leaves a group, the group is diminished; it is a loss. The higher energy afterwards may seem like an equitable trade, but I would ask you to consider the possibility that with a different approach to communication, a different language, the conflict might have been resolved, and the person may have been able to continue to contribute.
This type of communication also imparts energy to a group, and to individuals. It is a means to go beyond mere shifting of the dominance pattern, but rather a way to eliminate it from the groups modality.
I would encourage you to check it out. Youtube Rosenberg and Nonviolent communication to find out more.
Yes, the person who stalked out did have a need that was not being met. In a group whose purpose is to meet everyone’s needs, I would as facilitator support continued work with that person and Nonviolent Communication offers a valuable toolbox for that work. But not all groups have the same purpose.
However, there is diversity of purpose among groups, just as there is diversity among individuals. The purpose of that group was not to meet every member’s needs, just as the purpose of a social action group is not to meet every member’s needs. The purpose of a social action group is to do social action. Its mission deserves respect, including by individuals who discover, perhaps to their surprise, that they don’t share that mission or at least don’t prioritize it.
Note that in the column I was far more specific about the energy that was released by his departure. It was the energy of the suppressed margin — the people of color — who although in the numerical majority had been (typically) marginalized by the white minority of whom the needy guy was one. For the marginalized, whose needs were less fully met because of the needy guy’s wish to dominate the group’s attention with his own personal need, the conflict was a blessing, it was a liberation. We could get back to the purpose of the group. And — lest this be missed — the very fact of the conflict released them to claim their full membership in the group.
Please, white and middle class people, become self-aware and realize that your socialization may have you in a conflict-averse box that marginalizes the working class and people of color! Must you insist that the accident of your socialization be turned into “the right way” of human relationships? If so, it becomes arrogance. Especially in light of the abundant research that shows conflict aversion reduces the chance of authentic community!
Conflict, cleanly and clearly fought out, is usually a blessing, an avenue for growth, an affirmation of the group’s purpose, a development of its strength.
What I am hearing you say is that you feel afraid when people don’t seem to possess a certain level of consciousness about their own conflict-aversion tendencies. Am I understanding you correctly?
Thanks George for this excellent article, and for being an ally to middle class folks by pointing out what our conditioning (the ways we have been hurt) has left us blind to.
I’ve been working on my ‘conflict muscles’ and I’m still very conscious of my default position of keeping everything neat and nice (ie conflict beneath the surface, which isn’t nice at all). It takes effort to push against this and it’s really about integrity. This is one of the places we middle class people get messed up, which is obviously all about keeping class society functioning. For me acting with integrity is about doing what is right, even if it is difficult and may challenge my comfort and rank.
Conflict isn’t easy. Growing up middle class I got the message that rocking the boat would leave me all alone and unloved. For me that means it’s much scarier to engage in conflict with people I care about than to take on the ‘powers-that-be’ through social action.
What can middle class activists do to shake this stuff? A few thoughts:
* Prioritise building close relationships that can stand the test of conflict
* Loosen up and make mistakes – and notice that it’s not the end of the world
* Own up to mistakes and take responsibility for the impact they have on others
* Stop pretending we know what we’re doing all the time (it makes things better for everyone including us)
* Listen to feedback from people of other class backgrounds and take this on board without responding defensively
* Build our conflict muscles by welcoming conflict, initiating conflict when it’s needed, and hanging in there while it is worked through, however bad it might feel!
That’s what I’m working on anyway.
Conflict is magic and it’s not the conflict that is key. It’s how we deal with conflict that can effect magic.
Thanks, George. I think having enough commitment to the group so that people come back in the room is key. By the way, I’m going to be talking about this to a group of Quakers in a few weeks, so if you have any examples of Quaker meetings working through conflict to a deeper place, I’m collecting stories and would love to hear yours offline.
Thanks for the really interesting article, and for all the inspiring articles on this site.
I don’t really like the picture of the woman wearing not much, it makes me feel looked at rather than strong.