Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Day 6: The Conflict of Incongruence

One of the things we often encounter in subtle ways is incongruence--when the behavior of a human system appears inherently misaligned with the espoused values of that same system. In this week's workshop, someone, we'll call her "Mary," brought an example of this dynamic of incongruence from her civic life.  She found herself and her family being asked to participate in a public fundraising event themed around violence. The violence was presented as playful entertainment, using euphemisms in the advertising, presumably to make it "family friendly," however, the violent subtext was present and disturbing to her.  Our U.S. tradition of Halloween may occur as having the same properties--using violence as the basis of "family-friendly" entertainment.  In short, Mary was experiencing internal conflict.

She described her process of deciding to "speak up," or as Roger has said, making public the background conversation she was having with herself.

There is a good introduction to the concept of background conversations and the considerations of making them public in this former workshop (bottom of the entry). It involves considering of your relationship to the "complaint," so to speak, considering the consequences of your successful speaking, considering your role in the current state of things, and holding a disposition of infinite positive regard to whom you are speaking.

She was mindful that the act of expressing her concerns would be an intervention with a range of consequences in the human system. Prior to authoring a letter to the organizing committee, she considered a number of things, including:
  • Am I overreacting?
  • How will I be perceived?
  • What is likely to come of my speaking up?
  • Would the potential beneficiaries of this event have the same concerns that I have?
  • What language should I use when expressing my concerns?
  • What outcomes am I hoping for?
  • What do I expect the outcome to be?
In this process, she first checked with her partner and others to see if they had a similar reaction. They supported her plan to author a letter to the organizing committee. She described the thought and care that she invested in crafting her response as well as the physiological sensations of sending the letter; she remarked that she experienced "butterflies" in her stomach around expressing her concerns to the organizing committee.

Then she described two responses, one of an organizing committee member, one of an individual who was "higher" in the formal institutional hierarchy and named as a direct beneficiary of the event. The organizing committee member defended the decisions of the committee, explicitly disregarding Mary's viewpoint as valid, and topped off the grand spectacle of her irritation by hanging up the phone without the traditional polite salutations. These reactions were what Mary had anticipated, more or less. 
The reaction of the instititional "leader" was more politic, citing his sympathy for her concern, but also 
acknowledging the positive intent of the organizing committee and the need to go forward with the current plan for the fundraiser. Mary pointed out to the senior leader that the way in which the fundraiser was currently framed seemed to be opposed to particular explicit systemic goals he identified for his term of leadership, which included "driving" a more caring culture.

After Mary shared her story, we all did a rather funny thing.

First, I must say that in looking back on it, I am not totally sure what Mary intended by sharing this experience of conflict.  It seems to me that she was sharing it in service to the group as a whole as a real case in which we could learn something together about the process of conflict.

However, I don't feel that we were collectively present enough to notice Mary's offering as a case study from which to learn.  What we did instead is offer up all the associative thoughts we had in response to Mary's experience.  I suppose I eagerly took us down this well-intended primrose path by stating that I too experience a lot of normalized violence in my child's classroom, saying I felt it was a conseqence of our cultural paradigm of "good and evil." Others encouraged Mary in various ways, qualifying her behavior as courageous and impactful, despite the visible reactions. They gave examples from their own lives in which similar things had taken place and how they had grown through the conflict. There was a reference to the value of mindfulness in the presence of conflict, even though we professed that we largely struggle with being able to practice mindfulness in the moment of conflict.

It was a bit amusing to me that we sort of overlooked the opportunity to learn together from Mary's experience in favor of expressing the thoughts that her experience stimulated within us.  I include myself in this "we."  In essence, we did not generally inquire into Mary's experience but rather asserted our own experiences or reactions.

If I had to do this again, I would inquire into some of the very intriguing dynamics that Mary articulated.

Roger began to do this by saying, "The interesting part of that is the butterflies! Why was that happening?"  Mary responded in part, but I suspect that there was much more that we didn't take time to examine.  What was the relationship to the anticipated (or expected) reaction and the butterfies? Did she experience the same butterflies when consulting with those she knew to be like minded to determine if they too were experiencing conflict?  If not, why not?  Why were these only present in expressing her views to the organizing committee member? What was present in her assumption about their reaction that wasn't present in her assumption about, for example, her partner's reaction?

The value of apparent agreement
What is it about each of us (or maybe only 51% of us) that makes us first question our own sense of judgment so that we have to consult others? Why can't we trust the inner voice that tells us something is awry?

An aside (warning, this is all about me): I sometimes engage in what I call a "sanity check" by consulting others before speaking up. It comes to me in the quesiton, "Am I crazy or do you also feel xyz in response to abc?"   This is actually a very dicey area for me. One of the things that I can inadvertently do is seek agreement from those who will likely share my same viewpoint in an unconscious effort to establish my "rightness." I don't set out with that intent, but after I find many who agree with my take on it, I unconsciously conclude that I am "right," since there are so many who agree with me.  Oh, incidentally, my inexhaustive poll only includes those I know well, so the outcome is guaranteed to be biased--I do not poll people who I know will disagree with me, for some reason. But I have come to really question the value of agreement. When I stop and think about it, I realize that there are many examples throughout history in which many people agree on the "rightness" of something (e.g., the Holocaust, slavery, particular candidates for political offices, global warming as "hoax," the tastiness of Girl Scout Cookies). Now I understand that agreement doesn't make it any more real or true. I am trying an experiment of trusting my inner sense without the cloud of agreement or disagreement by others. I've heard the Roger say that conflict comes from a unshared (but invisible) view of the future. What I'm trying to do is inquire into others' view of the future in the face of conflict.  (I rate myself a C- in this endeavor).

The institutionalization of violence
One of the things that became clear in the Mary's recounting was that the higher-level institutional agent was invested in the economic outcome (as well as other outcomes) of the planned (violence-themed) event. Roger stated that this dynamic--when we are invested in the outcome of a violent system--is the definition of institutionalized violence.  Our university occurs to me as a system of institutionalized violence. It comes in many forms. In general, it looks to me like a system where people are treated as objects to be manipulated in service to economic (or other) goals.  Examples of this dynamic: The way the lecturers are treated; The way that those teaching "service courses" are treated; The way that students are mandated to take certain courses as a means of ensuring "course demand" for particular experts in the system.

This institutionalized violence comes in the form of companies computing the costs and benefits of releasing products into the market for which they know people will be injured, mamed or killed (e.g., automobile companies).

Where is our point of participation in these systems?

Is violence natural and from what perspective?
We attempted to make clear the distinction between violence as a naturally-occuring phenomenon and violence as a consequence of perspective.  Roger attempted, in his most endearing and obfuscating way, to illucidate the altering power of perspective by talking about the survival of the fittest, normally attributed to Darwin. Roger pointed out that in the same document that brings us the survival of the fittest concept, Darwin spoke about love roughly 100 times more than the survival of the fittest concept, yet the competition model of existence is the one that survived in the collective psyche about evolution.

Roger referenced Maturana, who has a different interpretation of evolution. Maturana's interpretation is that living systems (I'm going to mess this up) have a dynamic relationship to their surrounding, that it is this dynamic relationship that interacts with the structure of the system and defines what the living organism becomes.  In a VERY simplistic way, it is the idea that both nature and nuture interact to create the outcome at the cellular level. This is consistent with the recent findings from stem cell research that shows that there are no such thing as stem cells, that they are actually defined in relationship to their surroundings. In other words, it is a collaborative model of evolution, rather than a competitive one.

This description sort of works for me when I look at nature, but breaks down for me with respect to what occurs to me as violence in the human system. (Ooh, actually, now that I am reading this, I am asking the horrible question, "Can a violent event like rape be part of the collaborative development of the 'victim' and her surroundings?" I would hate to answer this question for anyone, myself included. But surely, many victims of heinous crimes have done so.) For me, I am asking, is it possible that there is a whole invisible set of dynamics that I cannot see in any given "violent event." ?  For example, if we were to consider that we live in a 2-dimensional world and all we know and see is in that 2-dimensional world, a 3-dimensional "event" that intersects our 2-D world will look only like a 2-D event. For example, a sphere intersecting our 2-D world will look like a circle from our 2-D perspective.  If we could had the perspective that enabled us to see the 3-D object, it would be obvious to us that it was a sphere, but from within the viewpoint of the two dimensions, one would insist that it was a circle because we can only see a circle (a 2-D object), we only know the 2-D.

In the same way, is our world view of "good" and "evil" (2-D viewpoint) limiting our ability to see something more loving (3-D viewpoint)?  Dear God, I hope so.  I sincerlely hope that the horrible violence that we experience in this world has a far different and more loving meaning from some other, invisible to us, perhaps eternal perspective. This is not so much a wishing for a kind of heaven, although I can imagine that would be nice, but my belief that the universe is fundamentally loving and the incongruence of what occurs as violent in the face of that belief.  If you know the answer, please share it.

But despite all that, a key question is, what influence does our world view have on our interpretation of events, peoples actions, our own thoughts and actions?

Roger will not be here new week but hopes we all will be.

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