Another look at solving our problems

Including tropes that could be boring or obvious or said too often

In our collective presencing session on Friday, there was a lovely vision of approaching equality. In terms of day and night, the equinox was nearly there. In terms of gender balance by numbers, it was nearly there. Yesterday, the moon was nearly half full: half dark and half light. I find it inspiring to have these glimpses of a more promising future, though seeing a better vision at the same time reveals how far we are from realising it. ‘Patriarchy’ is not a word I often use, but I also caught a glimpse of what that might mean. To my mind, all these major societal issues, including racism, along with all the kinds of discrimination and bias based on any noticable characteristic (and that is a large number) are interlinked, interlocked in the complex tangle of inequalities, injustices, prejudices, privilege, power abuses, and so on. None of them are the exclusive domain of any one culprit group. Sometimes, members of the disadvantaged groups have been seen as complicit. Even slaves have been reported as internalising their slavery, and not know what to do if they were liberated. And some members of groups that can understandably be seen as oppressed side with their oppressors if that means that their lot is better than other members of that oppressed group. I guess that's what group identification and solidarity is meant to tackle.

Many of us yearn for a better society, a better economy, better institutions, which do not institutionalise any of these ills. I want a better world; so from my perspective, or the perspective of my group, I try to figure out what needs to happen. If someone asks what needs to be done, I've got my, or our, answer ready. Particularly if my answer doesn't need me to change much, there are advantages to this. It means that if someone else doesn't agree with my answer, and doesn't do what we think they ought to do, then we can shift the responsibility for what is wrong to them, not us. I can just stay the way I am, because obviously I'm not the problem, am I? So I don't need to feel guilty or to blame. I'm justified in feeling self-righteous.

How annoying that my group is not the only group in the world, even though we agree on so many things that sometimes I wish everyone was like us! What are these different ideas about what the problem is, and different solutions that other people seem to have? If I were to admit that someone else's solution has some merit as well, that might mean I need to change, and I don't like that idea. I'd much rather go into great detail on why we are right and they are wrong. We can spend our time arguing, or even fighting each other, and we might not notice that no one is putting much energy into solving the problems we all agree still exist.

I see this as a real problem, so I'm going to suggest some things which other people need to do … Apologies for a couple of paragraphs of irony above, up to here. Monty Python's Life of Brian has lots of ironic humour, including the story of the People's Front of Judea and the Judean People's Front, keenly satirising the splintering of extreme political groups. I'm not as funny.

But I will suggest some things that occur to me as ways of tackling this … er … syndrome. I'd like to contribute these ideas with no implication that they are any more correct than anyone else's ideas, and with I hope a healthy degree of recognition that I need to take my own advice more often. Where I write ‘me’, ‘my’ etc. include ‘you’, ‘your’ etc. and vice versa.

1. Don't come up with answers by myself: do it collectively – understand that any solution that I come up with by myself is likely to reflect some of my own biases and assumptions, and is quite likely to be self-serving, and defensive of anything I am insecure about – and if I do it with just my own bubble, my solutions will reflect the assumptions of my own bubble. So when I say, collectively, I mean together with people from different backgrounds, who prioritise different things. Overall, be aware that the solutions that appeal to me most are likely to be the ones that cost me least. That goes for everyone, and calls for balance.

The precondition for this is 2. Become ever more aware of my own biases and assumptions and the biases and assumptions of my group – this is very difficult without external help, and I mean, external to my own group. It will need continued attention, and is a process that will never ever be complete. But also, don't fall into the trap of thinking that you are the only one with biases. You could fall into feeling unwarranted guilt if you did that. We all need to do that, preferably helping each other.

3. Listen to other people's ideas for solutions, and try to see both the good points and the blind spots – show clearly that you see the good aspects (appreciative enquiry; steelmanning) and make allowances for their blind spots, as you would like them to make allowance for yours. If you can get into dialogue about blind spots (on either side) so much the better, though it is not easy going.

4. In particular, understand people's psychological insecurities (and trauma) including your own. Whether you mean to or not, if you get into a situation where the other person actually feels unsafe, (and that's for them to judge, not you) you can say goodbye to meaningful dialogue. Notice that happening when you yourself feel unsafe. It is so important here to practice communication in ways that everyone feels safe enough to continue in dialogue. ‘Nonviolent’ is a word that is often used here.

5. Maintain connection and communication. From the other end, we can all learn better to hang in there even when we are feeling somewhat unsafe, provided that we are not actually physically threatened, where ‘fight or flight or freeze’ would become appropriate. It can be too easy to walk out of a conversation saying that you don't feel safe, and effectively to use that as a dominance tactic – like ‘I'll only talk if it's on my own terms’. If you really feel unsafe, it's best to take a break. But do come back.

6. If conflict breaks out, do one of two things: (a) change the game (for yourself at least) to one in which the conflict does not arise, and invite others to join you (b) if it is already a conflict between groups, do something like reflective listening in pairs across the divide, getting to know one person from the other ‘side’ well, and working towards mutual trust.

7. Make love my guiding principle. Use my privilege (or ‘rank’) to help the underprivileged, and never to protect my own privilege. If I have resources, share them, hold them in common. “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

Topics: Complex psychology

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