Thursday, March 21, 2013

Anarchist Controversies

Controversies have been a part of the anarchist scene for a long time now. I recall being a brand-new, freshly-minted, teenage anarchist in the ‘90’s, looking around to see what anarchist projects existed out there. I came across the Love & Rage Anarchist Federation, I was intrigued by what I saw in a newspaper that they produced so I looked into what they were up to currently. What I came across was a huge passionate controversy going on full-force, people publicly flipping out, angry accusations being traded around, the whole works. “Well, I didn’t really want to join them anyway”, I thought to myself, and I didn’t look into them again.

Anarchists have a history with this kind of thing, going right back to the beginning. One could say that the very thing that first differentiated anarchism from Marxism, ideologies aside, was a big dramatic public controversy. Two charismatic alpha-males, named Mikhail Bakunin and Karl Marx, had it in for each-other, people took sides, and eventually Bakunin and his people got kicked out of the group. “Fine, we’ll create our own damn organization!”, Bakunin and his people said, and the rest is history.

As the years have gone by I have seen many countless different controversies come and go within the anarchist scene. I have actively participated in some, I have silently observed others, and I have seen friends of mine get burned-out by them and then leave the scene altogether as a result. I myself once took a couple years break from the anarchist scene after one such controversy - the whole experience was just so very disheartening and emotionally draining for me that I wanted nothing to do with anarchists anymore. Time and again I have heard people say things along the lines of “with comrades like this, who needs government agents?”

What has kept me with the anarchist scene all these years was not the people, but the idea and ideals behind it all. If I was to be into anarchism because of anarchists, I would have left the whole thing long ago. Say what you will about anarchists in general, it’s the whole big controversy thing that comes up again and again from time to time that is something that I believe really self-sabotages the whole “movement”. It is almost as if there exists within anarchists some kind of inherent genetic programming that periodically gets activated, to help to thin the ranks, to keep the whole scene from getting too big or too vibrant.

Right now a big controversy is taking place in Minneapolis, among the anarchist scene, and it looks like the San Francisco Bay Area recently had one as well. I am not really all that concerned by any of these controversies – they come and they go, and people come and go, and projects come and go as well, I understand all of that. What concerns me is that the whole thing is so damn repetitive, all the recurring patterns and predictable behaviors, it’s redundant. And worst of all the social atmosphere within the anarchist scene in general does not seem to demonstrate that people have learned anything from all of these countless controversies. All this blood, sweat and tears, to no avail.

One of the things that I believe is underlying this whole phenomena is that anarchists in general are a very ideal-based, principle-minded people. Such-and-such a position is defended, on principle, and that very same stance is also attacked by others who see it as violating some other principle. Compromise can be seen as violating principles and so can talking to “other side” or having them be a part of one’s group. The underlying assumption seems to be that by taking a firm, consistent, unyielding and principled stance, step by step, step by step, every step of the way, eventually the beautiful new world that one is yearning for will come to be. Given that the very nature of an anarchist vision is so very radical, fundamentally different from and at odds with the world that we all inhabit today, I can see why one would take this kind of strong principled approach.

At the same time, the people behind and surrounding the principles are not seen. In other words, real-life human beings both cause and are affected by these principles, and this results in real feelings and real lives being impacted. Principles are important, I would say vital, in that they can serve as guiding forces in an often-times savage and confusing world. And I want to ask – how are these principle-based actions affecting the real-life people in front of you?

What I am proposing here is not the abandonment of one’s principles, but the addition of new principles to one’s repertoire. In particular, there is empathy. By seeing the world through the other person’s eyes, by walking in their shoes, a whole world opens up. In the heat of the moment, flared tempers, passionate calls to action, the world narrows down, and people are not seen. Empathy, then, is intentionally taking the time to see things from the other perspective.

Another principle is that of assuming good intentions. I am struck by how people, again and again, go from seeing someone as being a comrade, someone with shared values who’ve they’ve known for x amount of time to then seeing that same person as… being a total scoundrel, with nothing but a desire to cause harm, and that they have never been up to any good. Remembering someone’s basic humanity means keeping in mind that we are not surrounded by demonic beings, but real-life human beings with values and needs similar to our own.

A final principle here is that of talking with each-other. This ought to be a no-brainer, but I see it pop up again and again that in a controversy people actually talking with each-other, face to face talking that is, quickly goes out the window. In place of face to face conversations are face to face shouting matches and face to face hand gestures. But more likely than that, even, is not being in the same room at all, but instead talking only with people whom one already agrees with, or communicating over the internet, which in itself usually has a very distancing kind of effect. Just getting together, in person, and talking – no special kind of talking, no fancy mediation set-up of some sort – just talking. This in itself often has a very positive effect, and it is also one of the first things to go when things get rough. This does not have to be the case.

But as far as talking goes, there is a kind of talking that I generally find to be very unhelpful, and that is arguing and debating. I remember once being at the (in)famous anarchist study group of Berkeley, California, and somebody posed a question to the group: “Has anybody here ever been convinced of something through an argument or a debate?” Everybody responded “no”. That incident really struck me, because with all of the time and energy that goes into arguing and debating, it all really does not change people – except to make them either want to start throwing punches or to walk out the door. This is not the kind of “talking” that I would like to see more of.

The kind of talking that I find to be really helpful is where people are being really real with each-other, where they are being open and they do not have their defenses up, and where people are really listening to what everybody has to say. When one speaks one does so to really express where one is at personally and where one is coming from, not speaking to try to prove to others how “right” one is. And when one listens one does so with the intent of really trying to understand the other person, what it all means to them, not “listening” so that one can find fault with something they said so that one can then trash them for it later. This is a whole different quality of dialogue that I am talking about here.

There is a lot that I can say about this kind of conversation, I can go into a whole rant about Nonviolent Communication and shit, but now is not the time for that. The point that I am wanting to make is that different kinds of approaches to big controversies can be taken. There are alternatives out there and they can be implemented. It is simply a matter of making a conscious decision to want to respond to these things in a different way and then making the effort to follow through with that. It is not necessarily easy, but it can be done. And it is worth the effort too, for the sake of more solidarity, more community, and all that good stuff.

I would like to conclude this by offering my services to anarchists anywhere who would like some more support in implementing the kind of things that I am talking about here. I am not saying that I am a bad-ass mediator that can solve everyone’s problems, or that I can say a few magic words and everyone will start loving each other again. But I can offer empathic listening and some coaching that can be supportive in difficult situations. And when times are tough, everyone can use some more empathy and support.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Reflections from a Ten-year Giraffe Freak

Around this time ten years ago I first fell in love with Nonviolent Communication (“NVC”). This love-affair has gone through all kinds of different twists and turns, ups and downs, but in some form it still continues on to this day. Myself, my life, who I am, has been so thoroughly affected by my involvement with NVC, that I can scarcely imagine who I would be now if I hadn’t gotten into the whole thing.

There is no one to blame

One of the most profound changes in my life that I attribute to NVC is the perspective that there are no bad people, there is no one to blame, and that moralistic judgments of any kind are ultimately not a helpful thing to do. When I first started studying NVC I was just emerging from a prolonged bitter judgment-fest that had gone on for over a year straight, and by the time that I came to NVC I was in a place where I felt like I had been dumped onto the side of the highway, through my own actions, as a result of my having burnt so many bridges with different people. Studying NVC then was in actuality a process of rigorously applying the lens of human needs to everything and everyone. If all actions, all feelings and all words are used as attempts to meet some fundamental human needs that we all share, then what could these needs be? So applying that lens of “fundamental human needs” to situation after situation, needs guess after needs guess, was a big part of my “learning NVC”.

In many regards, I look at who I was before I got into NVC and who I was the years following it, and it all just simply *feels* different from each-other. The difference is this: blaming people. Yes, I have and still do blame and judge people after having discovered NVC. Knowing NVC does not change that stuff. What has changed is that there is an underlying understanding that judging is not really a way that I want to go about doing things, and that another way is possible. With the whole lens of “needs” available to me, I can intentionally change around my inner state from one of judgment to one that approaches something resembling more compassion. Focusing on story-lines like “So-and-so did X, Y, and Z, therefore that person must be an A, B, and C” in my experience usually does not lead to more compassion. However, story-lines like “So-and-so could have done X, because they were feeling Y, and were possibly needing Z” in my experience often does help the whole compassion thing come out.

Being Present

In a way, the whole no-judging thing is just a starting-point, because what is really helpful, what people are really calling for, interpersonally-wise, is presence. People generally want other people to be there, for them, listening, paying attention to them. People usually aren’t after just having somebody’s physical body there while the other person’s mind is spacing-out thinking about someone something somewhere else. People want other people, right there, making space for them, alert to them. What one says while paying attention usually does not matter, but the paying attention part does.

So part of the whole deal, as I see it - going through the whole self-inquiry process, looking at the fundamental needs at play, transforming judgments and the like - is all a matter of “clearing a space”, internally-speaking, to make it possible to then be able to be really present for other people. You can’t really be present to another person if you are judging them – you are in your thoughts then (judgmental thoughts) and not really with the other person at the moment.

Authenticity and Congruence

One of the things that I really attribute to NVC in my life, ironically enough, is a way to access personal authenticity. That is, being real, and showing up that way with others. As a result of NVC, I later discovered the work of Carl Rogers, which introduced another concept that relates to this whole thing, called “congruence”. Congruence is where one is consciously aware of what one is thinking/feeling/experiencing in the present moment and articulating it. This is what NVC does, or rather, can help people to do. For me, it has helped when I first do “self-empathy”, that is, checking in with myself, seeing what I am personally feeling and needing in the moment. Once I am clear what that is, then expressing it. That’s “congruence”, NVC-style.

It does not always work out this way, of course, even after ten years of NVC I still all too often clam-up, disconnect, mentally flee or chicken out. But because I know NVC, the tools are there, and if I remember that and choose to do so, I can be really authentic if I wanted to. This has been very helpful for me. I have had a number of different situations over the years that I believe have been greatly aided in by my “cutting through the bullshit” and talking directly and personally about what is going on. I have found, in a number of different occasions, that people often feel a great relief and a sense of freedom by seeing that it is possible and “permissible” to be honest, authentic and real in a social environment.

Empathic Understanding

One of the great things about NVC, something that I have been totally gung-ho about over the years, is empathy. That is, people actively listening to other people with the explicit intent of trying to understand the other person’s experience from that person’s point-of-view. No analysis, no diagnosis, no advice-giving or telling other people what’s up. Just listening to them and trying to understand what things are like *for them*.

The ways and means that this is done through NVC is again through using the lens of fundamental human needs. That is, assuming that everything that people do, say, think or feel is motivated by some fundamental human needs that are at play, and guessing at and eventually finding what the motivating needs *are* in a given situation. This can help to facilitate more depth and clarity of understanding. Also, needs are relatable, you have them, I have them, we all have them, so looking at another person’s experience through the lens of fundamental human needs can help aid in one putting oneself in another person’s shoes.

At the best of times, empathically listening and empathically understanding another person can be a very similar experience to that of the heart-felt authenticity, or congruence, that I mentioned earlier. In other words, when one is speaking as deeply, personally, and honestly as one can, it is all very much like that of inviting and sensitively exploring together with another person their inner experience. Both personal authenticity, as well as empathic listening, are forms of intimacy and vulnerability between people. A big part of doing NVC, then, is that of consciously choosing to do that. This then leads me to…

Taking Emotional Risks

We all live in a mean, cold, cruel, fucked-up world. People everywhere are disregarding others, exploiting others, and hurting each-other in all kinds of different ways. Practicing NVC, then, is a pretty counter-intuitive thing to do, given how things are. Doing the whole NVC thing then involves basically opening up, being honest, authentic, personal, as well as being caring, empathic, and trying to understand people no matter who they are, what their beliefs are, and no matter what they have said or done. When one puts oneself out there in this way the risk is that other people may not notice, care or in any way receive what one is offering.

But it is all worth it. The reason why I think this is that when it all “works”, that is when other people do notice, acknowledge and respond to one’s authenticity, empathy and caring, wonderful things can happen. In relationships, people can melt, people can open up, heart-felt interpersonal connection can happen. And it is this, this connection between people, that is basically the whole point behind “doing NVC”. When this connection is established, the foundation then exists for resolving conflicts, creating action-plans and for giving and receiving in ways that everyone feels good about. Practicing NVC involves taking risks, and one can and probably will fall on one’s face at times when doing it. But the potential for real person-to-person contact and care is all the reason I need to continue to do it.

Taking Personal Responsibility

If there is one thing that I have learned through all of my years of practicing NVC, it is that it is all about the practitioner taking personal responsibility. Very often, I have seen people view NVC as being like a series of magic words or incantations that the practitioner is supposed to give, that if only certain things are recited in conversations then the conflicts would be resolved, other people would do what you want them to do, and everybody will then suddenly love each-other.

Or, another way that I have seen other people relate to NVC (and that I have sometimes fallen prey to viewing it myself), is that if one has made the choice to study and practice NVC, and then one approaches other people and tries to “use NVC” with them, that the other person whom one is talking with has then also, unconsciously and inexplicitly, made the agreement to also be using and practicing NVC as well. So then if one goes through the whole process of being vulnerable, authentic, empathic, what-have-you, and the other person responds with judgment, argument and general closed-heartedness, then that other person is simply not holding up their end of the bargain!

The way that I have come to view NVC now is this – NVC is a personal practice, and it involves you, the practitioner, taking responsibility. Other people will say and do whatever the hell it is that they say and do, but you, the practitioner, have a series of choices in front of you as to how you would like to respond, and the options exist before you to go for more of a heart-connection, or not. If you feel that you have made a commitment to living in alignment with these values, the “NVC values” of compassion and partnership, then it is up to you to follow up with practicing these things.

Partnership Not Demands

Even though I view NVC as being a kind of personal practice that one chooses to do, the whole world-view that NVC points to is actually quite different. This world-view, rather than being based on individuals and their own choices, is instead based on community, mutuality and interdependence. This view is such that although each person is responsible for their own feelings, needs and choices made because of that, everybody’s actions still do affect everybody else, and that everyone’s needs are still in some form met in cooperation with other people. With this being the case, if one then goes around pissing people off, screwing people over, jerking people around and beating people into the ground, one is not making for a good social environment for your needs, or anyone else’s needs, being met in the future. Resentments come up, rebellion can happen, fights can break out. Or, sometime in the future when you most need help, you can quite simply be ignored and left out in the cold.

This is why, from an NVC perspective, “looking out for #1” is replaced with “caring for everyone’s needs equally”. In other words, if you look out for the well-being of those around you, as well as yourself, then other people are likely to be pleased and step up to do the same. Caring invites more caring. This all involves having open acknowledgement, consideration, and dialogue when necessary about how all of our actions effect one-another. The goal with all of this is to create a kind of social environment where these values are more the norm, and where everybody operates under an assumption that we are all in this together.

Learning and Practicing

This then brings me to the topic of “learning NVC”, which supports the actual practice of NVC, which is the means through which all of these different wonderful things that I have been talking about here can happen. This is an interesting subject here, because “Learning NVC”, as it is usually presented and talked about in the world – I hate it. What I mean is, I have a strong dislike for scripted dialogues, workshop exercises, sub-cultural jargon and one-size-fits-all formulas. I also have a strong distaste for professionalizing and commodifying things like learning, personal development and heart-felt connection. I simply loose a sense of connection with people when those things come up, and I have a desire to go elsewhere. All of the different things that I cherish and love about NVC are not things that I usually find in formal NVC learning environments.

With this all being the case, even though I love NVC and have found it to be enormously beneficial in my life, I am reluctant to want to recommend to other people that they pursue official NVC training or literature. Often-times, the only NVC stuff that I feel comfortable offering to people who are new and interested in learning more are things that come either from myself or a small number of trusted “NVC” friends that I have. I quite simply do not trust the standard, “normal” way that NVC is offered out there. I fully expect social distancing, disconnection and inauthenticity to come about through the usual means that NVC is presented to new-comers. I feel quite sad and disappointed to say these things, because I would like to say that I feel like real buddies and comrades with all of the different NVC trainers/facilitators out there, but that is simply not the case

And, at the same time, I do believe that it is possible for me to eventually get to that place. Through using the different NVC principles and practices, the same stuff that I have been talking about earlier in this piece, I totally believe that real heart-felt connection and understanding can happen between me and all of the different “normal” NVC trainers out there. The one additional requirement for that to happen, though, is something that I have not mentioned here so far. It is that of explicitly setting aside particular time and space to have such dialogues take place. This may seem like stating the obvious, but it is actually quite a big thing. In a world of “busyness”, overwhelm and great stress are the norm, setting aside time and space in one’s life to have intentional dialogues with people can be a big thing to take on. But it is a necessity, I believe, for all important dialogues and for all of the relationships that one values. Perhaps this task is a part of the repertoire of things for the next ten years of NVC to focus on.