Building our muscles for conflict

(Flickr/Kris Krŭg)

(Flickr/Kris Krŭg)

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.

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