Thursday, December 27, 2012

Responding to People in Power

There are topics about which I feel confident and settled in my knowledge and experience to speak with a sense of inner authority. How we transform the legacy of millennia in learning how to respond to those in power eludes me. I keep thinking that I have a piece of the answer, and then I see even more fully how immense the challenge is. Nevertheless, I want to contribute my share to a conversation I didn’t start and which I hope can be ongoing in many circles as we come to see our complicity, both when we have formal power and when we don’t, with maintaining things as they are. I want this conversation to become bigger so that we can tap into our collective wisdom, beyond what I or any one person can offer. I share these thoughts with the humility of knowing I truly don’t know what the way forward is.

Milan Kundera in
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, speaks more than once about the fact that people in power shit just like everyone else. I remember being startled by the bluntness of this image. For myself, I have preferred a different way of aligning myself with the complete and radical shared humanity of all. I remind myself that whoever the person is I am thinking of was once an infant, and I immediately touch my hope that, at least then, that person was loved. Different as these two methods are, they both point to the same truth, though I doubt that Kundera shares my fervent desire for each person on the planet, including all those who have harmed others, to receive sufficient love that harm would stop. This, for me, is one aspect of being able to transform, within myself, how I respond to power. I want the well-being of the person in power even when I want to oust them from power, even when I want to do everything in my power to stop them from doing further harm. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Adam Lanza and All of Us

Adam Lanza in sixth grade
by Miki Kashtan

I am a Jew from Israel, where the Holocaust is a core formative story we all imbibed. One of the most astonishing experiences of my life was the moment in which I felt compassion for 7-year old Adolf Hitler. So astonishing, in fact, that I am a little afraid to expose this in public. I was reading Alice Miller’s For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, and I felt my inside shifting and changing as I was reading. Almost every word fell into a clear place, my heart and mind opened and stretched and realigned, and then, without knowing it was coming, there it was. The monster became human, so painfully human. I no longer hated him. It was a milestone on my path. Over time, I lost my ability to hate altogether.

From Alice Miller, and from many other sources, I have come to accept without any doubt that no one does violence to others without violence having been done to them earlier. From James Gilligan, whose work I have mentioned here before (e.g. here and here), I have come to understand the mechanism that translates violence received into violence enacted on others. From Marshall Rosenberg and my years of working with Nonviolent Communication, I now have a clear frame for making sense of the work of Miller, Gilligan and others. The language of human needs helps me understand violence with an open heart, without collapsing, without blaming, without shaming. 

By far not everyone who experiences violence passes it on to others. I am no expert, I have done no research, and I cannot claim to know anything. My humanity is strained when I hear of what happened in Newtown last Friday. I am aware, mostly, of helplessness, of profound, unspeakable grief, of a fundamental inability to change the violence I know about, or to even grasp the violence that remains hidden. And, yet, my heart aches to say something, to summon my strained humanity, in all its limitations, to the task of bringing love and understanding to what I have learned about violence and how it may apply to Adam Lanza and our thinking about what he has done.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Myths of Power-With: # 2 - The Either/Or of Decision-Making

by Miki Kashtan

Recently, I was at Rainbow Grocery, a local worker-owned coop where I do a lot of my shopping. Rainbow has been around since the 1970s, and is one of not so many such places that have survived the test of time and are still thriving. As I was looking for a particular bulk spice (for those who care, their bulk section is what I most go all the way to San Francisco for), I overheard a worker explain to a customer an oddity in the way that the spices were organized. I heard weariness in her voice, so I turned to her afterwards and said something to the effect that this oddity could be fixed. She looked at me with what I saw as an odd mixture of commitment and resignation, and said: “Change is very slow when you run a democracy.”

To me this sentence sums up the crux of the issue I am exploring today. This response assumes something I myself question: why would change have to be slow in a democracy? I know the answer, because I think I know what she and others mean by a democracy. I think they mean a certain version of participatory democracy in which everyone participates in all decisions. I used to share the belief that this was the only possible path. In this understanding, we either compromise on the possibility of making things happen, or we compromise on the ideal of power-with, the value at the heart of this version of democracy: no one has anything imposed on them in any way, shape, or form.

Although this dilemma overlaps with the issue I named in Myth#1, I see a significant distinction between the two. When writing about the first myth, that everyone can be included, I was focusing more on the complexity of membership, which is about who gets to be part of a group or organization in the first place. Membership, then, involves a host of privileges and responsibilities, of which decision making is only one. Here, in this post, I am focusing on the process of decision-making within a group or organization whose membership is already clear. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Does Nonviolent Communication “Work”?

by Miki Kashtan

The premises underlying the practice of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) often stand in stark contrast to the messages we receive in the culture at large — whether from our parents or teachers while growing up, or from the media or other cultural venues for the rest of our lives. They also, often enough, belie what we see around us in terms of human behavior. To take just one example, how much evidence do we see on a daily basis that would support the assumption that human beings enjoy giving? If we just look at how people behave, without adding layers of contextualizing their choices, there’s no question that the conclusion that people are selfish would be much more warranted.

Looked at from this angle, choosing to embrace Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is admittedly an outrageous proposition. Indeed, many people choose a very limited version of this practice, one that focuses pragmatically on seeing it as a set of skills designed to resolve conflicts. At the same time, I see people, repeatedly, be attracted to the all-encompassing vision that is implicitly painted by these assumptions even when they disagree with them. Often enough, I know of this inner struggle people have because they challenge me when I present NVC from the perspective of its underlying principles.

Sometimes the challenge takes the form of questioning whether NVC would work in this or that situation. Part of the difficulty stems from a misunderstanding of what it means for something like NVC to “work.” When parents bring up challenges with their children and express disbelief that it would “work,” it is a code word for “getting my child to do what I want” without recognizing sufficiently that the fundamental intention when bringing NVC into a situation or relationship is about making things “work” for everyone, which would include the child.

At other times, people triumphantly presented “proofs” that NVC doesn’t work. One of my recent entries was about one such example - the fact that “even” people with extensive NVC experience end relationships and go through breakups.

I also have my own anguishing examples: relationships I haven’t found ways of transforming or exiting; sour endings in relationships, both personal and work-related, that left my heart aching for imagining another outcome.