Let’s talk about abusive communities.

It’s not a thing we talk about.  Abusive relationships are so often framed in terms of one person (usually you’re dating them) smacking you around and making angry, jealous duckface.  We don’t consider group relationships–communities, spaces, industries–capable of being abusive, but they are. They can be worse, because when you’re in a group, you don’t think you’re as alone as an abusive group can make you feel.

From observation, experience, and so on, here’s some of what that looks like:

  • A group working overtime to say, “We’re so accepting!  We don’t turn you away no matter what!” — because the subtext, what they’re really saying, is “You’re so awful you need accepting people, and by the way, never displease us, because we’re only here because we’re so accepting.  No one else will have you.”
  • A group that triumphantly trumpets being outcasts as part of their identity.  Just like those first dates who tell you they’re too “authentic”, too raw for the mainstream, who call other people prudes and sheep and believe in “brutal honesty”, the hint you’re being given here is that these people are very, very bad about others’ boundaries.  Groups that are bad about boundaries will, I guarantee you, contain at least one predator.  And once word gets around at how bad that group is with boundaries, there’ll soon be a lot more of them.
  • Any group that demonstrates trust and “letting you in” by gossiping about ex-members of the group and how terrible they were.  “You’re better than X; between you and me, this is what they did.”  They’re demonstrating to you exactly what will happen to you if you step out of line and displease them.
  • Any group whose basic reaction to new people is standoffishness, closing ranks, or hostility: “fake geek girl” tests, noob culture, your opinion being nothing until you’ve impressed the right person or dropped the right cultural reference.  Any group whose attention you have to dance for doesn’t actually like you enough to be worth dancing for.
  • Any group that, for that matter, reacts with hostility or possessiveness when you have other interests, other friends, or other demands on your time.  A group that doesn’t like you having or spending time with friends who are outside the group, or who doesn’t like you having ties they can’t directly monitor, is trying to isolate you and cut off your reality checks.
  • Any group that gets mad at you for violating unspoken, unasked-for, and unagreed-upon expectations or rules that you never discussed or consented to–and that aren’t part of the general cultural discourse, like the basic “don’t harass people” or “wear clean clothes” or the like.  This is no different than being a many-headed controlling boyfriend, or abusive parent.
  • Any group that has a significant backchannel for information about predators in the group, dirty secrets, problems that never seem to get solved–because that means communication and honesty has been broken for a long time in that space, and there are serious, serious problems running rampant through it.
  • Any group that does not have an accountability mechanism in place for its members, or where the accountability mechanism is there but it’s lip service, not enforced–and calls to enforce it are frozen out or discouraged.
  • Groups that have an unusually high turnover.  Do people in your scene or group of friends constantly seem to be disappearing and being replaced?  Are there always people on the way out the door?  When people leave, do you never, ever hear from them again?  Consider why.
  • Groups where you will face significant repercussions, socially, for disagreement with a very few people.  Is the power in the group you’re in equal and proportionate?  Is there such thing as “People we’re not talking to,” and who decides who the entire group is not talking to?
  • Groups whose mythology about themselves and who they are don’t seem to match their behaviours.  Does a group say it’s diverse, but contain one token diverse person?  Does a group pride itself on being accepting, but hang out with the same ten people it did fifteen years ago?  That means there’s a serious break between self-image and actions, and that gets exceedingly problematic.
  • Groups that use “nice” as blackmail.  “If you’re nice, you’ll do X and Y.  If you’re nice, you’ll give me what I want.  If you don’t, you lose your status as nice.”
  • There is an imposed narrative that a community or space is not an industry, community, friend group, but a “family”.  The cultural association we have, in North America, is that family is forever; it is a thing you can’t leave–and thus have to put up with, no matter what it does to you or how it treats its members.  It is a very unfortunate thing to say, but any company, group, or community that casts itself as a family is putting up a huge, massive red flag.
  • Groups where nobody ever actually explicitly asks for anything.  What others want from you is manipulated out of you, or implied, or passive-aggressively put on the table, sort of.  But nobody comes right up to your face and asks for it.

If you just recognized a group of yours in this whole long list of behaviours? First off: I’m sorry.  But more importantly: Walk. Walk, walk, walk away.  Go.  Run.

It’s one of our favourite narratives as activists that one person can make a difference.  But here’s the thing: An abusive community is not a person, it’s a system; it’s a set of rules that are broken–may have been broken before any current member of the group joined it–and you are one person.  You cannot change the dynamic of an abusive group unless you are in a near-tyrannical position of power there: a hiring manager, or a staff person where others are volunteers. You can’t “save” an abusive community, and you can’t show them all.  That black hole will suck you dry.  You will waste your life trying.

You don’t need an abusive group in your life. Nobody, not one person, needs to be stuck auditioning for love in the Manson Family. Just like with significant others, having a friend group is not automatically better than being alone.  Your relationships should not persistently hurt you. Not your lovers, not your families, not your friends or communities, or industries.  It’s the things you give each other as part of healthy relationships that make them valuable, not just their very existence.

So, what do healthy communities look like?

  • Healthy communities don’t make you jump for their approval.  They like you or they don’t, and they’re upfront about liking you or not.  Approval and affection are not consistently treated as prizes or hostages in a healthy community.
  • The members of healthy communities ask each other for what they need or want.  They take no for an answer.
  • The members of healthy communities treat you and each other with respect.  Boundaries are observed, and members of healthy communities check to ensure they are not over your boundaries.  When you say no–enforce a boundary–that no is accepted gracefully and you are not penalized for having said no.  Having said no to something, you are not pushed on it to change your mind afterward.  Your “no” is remembered and honoured.
  • When you violate a boundary of a healthy community, it tells you exactly what boundary you have violated and why it’s important to the group that you correct that violation.
  • In general, problems and boundary violations are fixed in a healthy community.  They are not buried, denied, explained away, and repeated.  People who perform problem behaviours either correct them and make good on their commitments to correct them or are removed from the space or group.
  • A healthy community is not utterly bereft of abusive individuals, but what is healthy is the way the group’s systems handle abusive individuals.  A healthy group does not enable nor tolerate abusive behaviours.
  • A healthy community works to minimize double standards, as much as they are able in our systematically unequal society.  There is no behaviour that’s allowed for one tier of the group but not for others.  You cannot earn your way into bad behaviours being “allowed”.
  • If you are having a rough patch in life, a healthy community doesn’t drop you like a hot rock.  They ask you: “What does help look like?” rather than imposing a solution upon you, and getting angry if you do not agree that this is the solution.  A healthy community provides support rather than “fixes”.
  • On the other hand, if you are having a rough patch in life, a healthy community doesn’t magically appear to scoop you up and soothe away all your pain.  That’s called a predator, and if they won’t have you when you’re healthy but show up when you’re weak or miserable, that’s something to treat with extreme suspicion.
  • A healthy community does not tell you to suck it up and be less sensitive. It helps you care for yourself.
  • Conflict in a healthy community, barring conflicts that egregiously violate the boundaries of members, is not always instantly the end of relationships.  Conflict is treated with sincere and honest communication on all sides.  Conflict isn’t feared, and setting boundaries is not feared.
  • The leak of people out of the community is both small and visible, and people who drift out of the group still are willing to maintain ties here and there with friends inside the group.

That list is harder, because there are exploits to all of these indicators.  There’s a “but, wait–” to every single one that can be used by abusive persons to argue that actually, it’s your fault.  You’re making space unpleasant for them because you’re not giving them what they want, regardless of what it costs other members of the group.  This is proof that they’re right and you’re wrong.

This is not what this list is for.  I would strongly suggest that anyone using this list as a stick to beat another person over the head with take a strong, hard look at themselves. You cannot actually be part of a healthy community if you are an abusive person.  You will have trouble being part of a healthy community if you are not actively working on a healthy you.

Best of luck, folks.


Endnotes:

There’s a lot of good writing on abusive spaces and communities, starting with Issendai’s posts on sick systems and qualities that keep you in sick systems.  They’re invaluable reading on group dynamics and how they go sour.

Followers of Tomorrow.

Following up, as promised, on that last “Do Things” post?  A good first step going into 2014:

Developing our ability to effectively follow each other.

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A lot of what I consider my activist work isn’t being a leader, but a follower: I promote other people’s stuff.  I get behind the bar at Not Far From the Tree parties, arrange the catering for deputation workshops, exchange business cards with community groups so I can funnel that information to the person whose project who really needs to connect with them.

This is not to say that I don’t have the same desire for recognition and validation that the rest of my generation stereotypically has (I mean, shit.  I’m an professional artist.  ‘Nuff said, guys).  But I just don’t find myself out in front much.  For reasons: some of it time and some inclination.  Freelance living in my field means you inevitably and inexorably spend more and more time Wrapped Up In Your Own Shit ™, running a business of precisely one that only you can manage.  It doesn’t leave much oxygen for anything else, and it really wears the shine off the idea of being in the spotlight.

But it’s also because focusing on leadership — on the press mentions, the reputation, the personal opportunities, the credit — has this way of derailing, and then destroying, the actual work.

We go into a project with goals in mind: I want to get this specific thing done.  But when the emphasis is on the I rather than the get thing done, that tends to show in how we go about it: hoarding ideas, secretiveness, exclusivity, viewing other people’s good ideas as competition, planning the marketing campaigns before the actual work itself.  This has been, in a nutshell, my personal big frustration when it comes to the #TOpoli crowd in 2013.  We’re all so busy playing rock star that nobody’s writing any songs, and so many good things have just died due to the bad kind of inertia.

So, here’s an idea.  I don’t care if I get credit for it:

It would be really awesome if we could create, together, a community of mutual support.  Do each other’s grunt work and phone-calling without looking over our shoulders to see who’s watching. Refocus on political work not as leaders of tomorrow, but as mutual collaborators and supporters.

Use each other’s feedback as a way to refine and improve ideas, and then do them, rather than seeing it as a reason to sit back down and go away.

Trust that you’ll be around when I have a great idea; that I’ll be when you have one too.

Do the work.

So I guess that’s my Christmas wish, guys.  Happy holidays.

Do things.

I am, at least for the next six months, a full-time fiction writer.  That isn’t a skill set that overlaps much of the rest of the world.  Except when it does, and this week it does.

Professional novel-writing was an object lesson in the idea that if you want something done, you have to do things.

Eventually as a writer, you learn that nobody can write that damn book for you; that the reason your friends have book deals and you don’t is that you haven’t gone and done the work.  And you go do the damn work, and sometimes it’s glorious and sometimes it’s the worst, and then the work is done and you can have, because of that, what you want.

This is also a good lesson for activism.

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I worry frequently about #TOpoli.  I worry we have this idea that if we talk enough, or talk the right way, other people might go do things.

Sometimes we plan events, which are centred around people talking about something in the hopes that someone else will go and do things.  And while education about how municipal democracy works is way too undercooked right now, and unarguably important, it’s also unarguable that we have a mayor who’s not going to resign no hell no way, a council that’s going to spend non-trivial amounts of time saving what’s already on the ship through the next year, and probably very little chance of movement until election kicks in.

What do we want to see happen?  What does the city we want look like?  Because right now, if we want it, we do it.

I am hurting to see those hands on shovels.  I want to see those feet on the ground.

Where do politicans come from, after all?  They’re people who stepped forward to do things.

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Citizenship is kind of a commitment, the same way being in a relationship is a commitment.  It’s less about the trappings than the small moments of how you live.

Art is, to be perfectly fluffy about it, the business of making something from nothing.  Making things, when you put your mind, your friends, and your muscle behind it, is not that hard a road to walk.

You can’t do it?  Get a buddy.  Do it together.  Yes, you can.

Out you go.

(More on this tomorrow.)

How to Not Elect Rob Ford

Another installment, today, of the beautiful/terrible hybrid of The Wire and Mucha Lucha that is the Rob Ford mayoralty.  But what catches my eye in all this is a discussion on Facebook about how to act now to make sure it doesn’t happen again: How we really, really need to not have Rob Ford, Four More Years.

The thing is, we got Rob Ford, the First Four Years for some very specific reasons: An economic point in time that had people feeling squeezed financially without it being so bad that we could understand it was everyone; a city that’s been divided and fragmented along old borough lines, income lines, and racial lines (yes, just admit it, guys) for far too many years; and — this cannot be downplayed — a very crowded field of very, very weak mayoral candidates.  It was a choice between various shades of weird racism, bullyboy antics, and caretaker presidents, and so really it was no choice at all.  No good choice was presented.

So, and this one’s aimed a little more at people who are working in partisan or political structures?  A few thoughts on how to not elect Rob Ford.

1) Do Not Leave A Leadership Vacuum.  This is a recognizable symptom of one’s own success.  In the immediate aftermath of strong, long-lasting leaders of a given political stripe, you get this gaping hole of not very much doing.  It happened with Jean Chretien, it happened with David Miller, it happened after Mike Harris, and it is almost certain to happen once Harper finally goes to the big retired politicians think tank post that’s out there, waiting.  The best theory I have as to why is because opposition is a place that sharpens your ambition, your taste for standing out, and government is…not.  People with that urge are kept in the back hall closet so they don’t look bad on The Leader.

It is hard to distinguish future candidates, or build any recognition with the electorate, when you’re always behind that other guy.

So, the suggestion: If you are a political party?  Have an active, collectively-oriented leadership training program.  Give people in your own ranks, whether they’re elected, candidates, or young volunteers, structured spaces and opportunities to develop their skills, and grab some spotlight — and to do it with party backing.  Build up the profile, brand, and good name of people who aren’t the person in charge.

Distribute authority, and back each other up when it’s used. Encourage debate.  Encourage innovative policies.  Take policy from the back bench, or the riding association, and implement it.  Send respect both up and down the ladder.

That way, when election time rolls around and your equivalent of Ghengis Khan is thinking about taking a teaching post somewhere quiet, you’ll have people with spark and solid leadership skills to put on an election slate.  Not just Adam Giambrone.

2) And speaking of our friend Adam Giambrone?  Vet Your People, and Have Standards for Your People.

Yes, volunteers are scarce.  Yes, they might have come up through the ranks and they’re your friend and just not a bad guy and it was only once, and–

Yeah.  Can it.

If someone fucks around on his partner with teenagers and reacts with a petulant “but we can still make out, right?” when he’s busted?  If someone has shady ties to Etobicoke gangs and multiple DUI convictions?  If someone has a habit of telling lots and lots of little lies every time he’s caught doing something wrong?

Don’t run him.  Stop giving him jobs.  Don’t send that guy above mopping out the storeroom.

This, I realize, is controversial territory.  But I’m laying out my reasons here.  It’s mostly because: Integrity.  Honesty.  If people behave badly in their personal lives — and yes, politicians have a right to a personal life, complicated or not — they will behave badly in their professional lives, and we’ve seen this thing happen over and over and over.  When they are found out — and they will be; we have an Internet, people — it will look like shit on them, it will look like shit on you, and, most importantly, it will further erode the trust everyone has in the electoral system and all the things we say, not do, about government.

The importance of government and the social contract that it makes with the people it represents is the bread and butter of your lives, guys.  Treat it with more respect, and make sure the people you’re running are people you can stand behind.  Don’t just date whoever asks you out: Have standards.

3) Build Relationships, Not Sales Pitches.  And segueing neatly from the importance of government and people’s cynicism thereupon: Your neighbours — your voters — can tell when they’re being sold a bill of goods.  Just like you don’t date whoever asks you out because they showed up, you don’t answer that booty call that comes in every four years, because you know it’s a booty call.  The cynicism toward politicians is about how they only show up when they want something, and so you have to show up when you don’t want something.  Build relationships.  Be a functioning, positive part of a community.

Do good things in the place where you live without a commercial tacked on, reminding people whose benificence this is.

Social capital is not a new concept.  But politicians use theirs remarkably poorly, and I have never understood why.  Use it better.

4) Don’t Waste Time Telling People Why Their Choice Was Bad; Offer Better.  Nobody likes someone who comes along and shits on their freely chosen decisions, and whatever reasons they had for them.  Attack ad campaigning, on the functional level, gets you nothing with people who aren’t already in your camp.  It’s preaching to the choir, and it’s a none-too-subtle bullyboy mechanism: Look what we’ll say about you if you go up against us!

If you really want to elect a candidate, make sure you’re showing — and proving — why they’re a good choice, the best choice.  What they will do, rather than what the other guy won’t.  And then respect people’s agency and get out of the way.  Nobody likes to be condescended to, either.

And when you’re actively, positively working in a community, with candidates whose behaviour befits office-holders and who’ve been helped to be all they can be?

We will never again have an election where the best choice is Rob Ford.

There, look.  I fixed politics.  Dinnertime!

Edmonton’s rape posters, and what lives in the subtext.

So here’s a thing:

For a few years now, SAVE Edmonton has been running an anti-sexual assault campaign, Don’t Be That Guy, which puts the focus not on women’s behaviour (short skirt, took a drink in public, etc.) but men’s.  It’s the epitome of working to prevent rape by saying Don’t rape instead of Don’t get raped.  It’s been successful/notable enough that it was exported to Vancouver, and there’s been talk of bringing it to Toronto as well.

This week, a group called Men’s Rights Edmonton launched a counter-campaign.  As described in the Star article:

“The poster depicts attractive young women drinking in the company of young men, and has the caption: ‘Just because you regret a one-night stand doesn’t mean it wasn’t consensual.'”

“‘Nobody wants to see sexual assault happen, nobody wants to see rape happen, but we have to stop thinking of this as a gender problem,’ says a member, who would only identify himself as Raz.”

It’s hard to not get whacked in the head by the subtext here, and by where the problem is.

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So pretend you’re a person with this worldview: That all around you is the risk, any time you have sex with a partner, that they might — out of revenge — report you for rape.  That sex is something that women have and frequently regret, and that regret translates into punitive action for their innocent partners.

If that’s your world?  There is something very wrong with the sex you’re having.

Who am I to tell you your sex-having is wrong?  Well, here’s my data: Sex under the ever-present threat of criminal charges, regret, and recriminations sounds like no damn fun for anybody, and that’s an awful lot of work and risk for something that’s no damn fun.

I mean: You’re in bed with someone who will regret being there.  That’s no fun: Why not hold out for the person who is overjoyed to be in bed with you?

You’re in bed with someone who is so risky to report you for a crime that you have to make a postering campaign to shut her up.  That’s no fun at all.  Why not go to bed with people you can talk with about a problem before it gets to, oh, the copsSomeone you can talk to face to face, and not just through public posters?  Someone who trusts you, and who you trust?

If sex is a vulnerable act for you, one that exposes you to risk, are taking reasonable precautions?  (A condom is a reasonable precaution.  So’s explicit, clear, and continuing consent — yes, yes, yes.  So’s deciding someone is too much risk and opting for the low-maintenance reliability of your hand.)

Why not make explicitly sure that the people you take to bed leave your bed happy?

Why are they so vengeful and regretful when they get out of bed with you?

No, really: Why is the direct effect of sex with you regret and anger?

Person with this worldview, you have a problem on your hands.

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And yes, it is your problem: Not because of issues of fairness or blame or whatever, but because you’re the common factor in it, and while you’re not even by far the only person whose safety and happiness will be impacted by this problem you’ve got, I assume you want to be safe and happy.  You do want to be happy, right?

You, having identified that safety in sexual relationships is not just an issue for women, want to act so that you are safe from harm, right?

You want to have the fun, awesome, seconds-please sex with people who think having you there is the best and will spend the next week walking around with a little secret aw yeah smile on their face?

Well, then it is time to do some problem-solving.

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That’s not an accusation or a burden: It’s the things that are our responsibility that are ours to be able to change.  We can change how we think about people, and change how we treat them and behave toward them.

We can change how we take someone to bed and how we act toward them: asking rather than assuming what’s good for them, and telling them what’s good for us.

If we’re not 100% sure someone is able to consent to sex — that later, they might regret it, or that this might be rape — we can say: Maybe we should rain cheque this shit for another time.  We can ask them: Are you into this?  It is cool if you are not into this.  If that sex was going to be there in the first place, it’ll be back later.  If it doesn’t come back, it was likely never there, and we’ve saved the both of us a lot of grief and bullshit.

If someone is less than happy after we’ve been in bed together, we can sit up and ask them: Hey, is everything okay?  What can we do to make that better?  What do you need?

If we don’t care what they need, or if they’re happy after, we can do the whole world a favour and not take that person to bed.  Then there won’t be any regrets or rape cases against us, right?  Much tidier and easier for everyone.

We can grow ourselves some standards, and not settle for less than someone who absolutely wants us.  Whether we want each other for a week, for three weeks, for a year, forever — let’s just not settle for less than yes, yes, yes.

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Because if you have this problem and you don’t solve it?  I’m afraid you are Being That Guy.  And no amount of counter-postering campaigns, and trying to get people to shut up about it, will be able to change the words out of your mouth and the deeds you choose with your hands.

And you’ll be having this fight forever.

And that’s no fun for anybody.

Debate and its purposes.

Somewhat unexpectedly (as in, it was not what I planned to be doing with my Tuesday night) I am watching Texas Senator Wendy Davis’s 13-hour filibuster of SB5, a bill which would basically gut abortion services throughout the state.  So are over 90,000 other people, at moment of typing.  If she and her colleagues make it to midnight Central, the special session called to debate it will expire, and the bill will be dead on the order paper.

They are stacking loopholes and procedure and rules-lawyering like mad right now.  And there is this terrible fear.  And there is this terrible hope.

I’m sure the editorials are already being written about how Sen. Wendy Davis’s filibuster is an example of whatever.

Here’s one.

The assumption that we have to resort to loopholes, filibusters, and procedure rules-lawyering is the thing wrong with government right now.  This is why when you tell people they should care about their citizenship and governments, they turn the hell away.

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The idea behind Parliaments (and Senates, and Legislatures, and Councils) is that good debate, impassioned or reasoned or astute debate, would move people.  That you walked into the room with an open mind, and talked about why you thought a decision was positive or detrimental.  That once all sides of an issue were examined, the group arrived on what seemed best.

That’s why the vote isn’t held at the beginning.  It is held after a minimum of hours of debate.

It is held at the end.

We know, as citizens, when everyone’s walked into the room with their minds already made up.  When what is said in the places of government doesn’t matter; just the loopholes and procedural rules and how long you can say it and maybe, maybe still have a chance.  In some ways, the words said today on the floor of the Texas Senate matter a lot; they told stories that don’t get heard.  They aired just what was going on in Texas.

In legislative ways, they’re meaningless words, because we all know that they will not sway one voting Senator.

This is not how it should work.  We should not be sitting here trying to think of any way, every way an obstruction can be put in place, because we should not know that nobody is listening.

If we want to talk about distrust and apathy toward government, and why people think partisan bodies can’t make good or clean decisions?  This is the thing we have to talk about.

This is what’s wrong, guys.

How to Listen.

I swear, I swear I am trying to work.  I have been trying for three whole days.  But you see, everyone is talking about the backlash when you are stalked, and the harassment women deal with every day, and crowdfunding rape guides, and fear.  Another friend called for a racist, misogynist, threatening filth of a person to be expelled from our professional organization for flagrantly breaking its rules to promote racist, misogynist, threat-filth, and has been getting hate mail ever since about “my command of the English language, my religion, my ethnicity, and my nationality”.

More than one (more than one!) of my friends and colleagues are, this week, trying to leave an abusive spouse who runs good odds of hurting them.  I am afraid for my friends.  I am furious over the sheer insistence of some people on being awful to other people.

I absolutely, positively hate the fact that I have started to look at my boyfriend with a thin, desperate gratitude.  Oh god thank you that you are not this, that you do not do this are not this.  I told him this.  And I told him how I hated it.  And he winced, because he hated it too.

The story I have to write for July 1st is a happy, joyful story.  And I just can’t, y’know?

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There is a reason this blog is called The Way Forward Machine.  It’s a stupid pun, yeah, but it’s also a deeply held belief: That what I want to spend my efforts on is finding ways forward.  That fighting entropy is our earthly duty.  That you work with an eye to build, not destroy, no matter the hell what, and leave the place better than you found it.

And so, in my thoroughgoing despair, I want to talk about what it is to listen.

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On the whole, as someone who’s spoken, held silent, watched, listened to double handfuls of online discussion about the rough injustice we live in, and how we might find ways out of that mess, there is a recurring theme.  People show up — people who are not in the direct blast radius of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, hate, etc. and always — and largely do not know what to do.  They speak about how it’s a problem for this other group too, or give their opinion, or generally step all over toes.  And then they get their faces bitten off, and everyone leaves bitter and exhausted and unhappy and having built nothing at all.

Every time, whether it’s in anger, exhaustion, patience, or sadness, they are exhorted to just listen.

The English language is very cool because of all the things it can express, but there are things it also obscures.  Listening is one.  Listening, active and real listening, is a complicated act.

I do not know if anyone in my line of sight has ever talked about how.

From what I know of it, here is how to listen.

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1) Read the words, and read them again.  Read them carefully.

2) You may feel defensive, or hurt, or stung.  This is all right.  These are emotional topics for good reasons.  What people do when we talk productively about racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, hate, etc. is we grow ourselves up, inch by inch, together.  And if it’s been too long to remember, growing up always aches.

3) Listening means not rebutting or arguing or putting a stake in the conversation while you are defensive, hurt, or stung.  This is not because your opinions, your thoughts, your life is unvalued; or because a conversation is an echo chamber which doesn’t want to think about you.  This is because when we are defensive, hurt, or stung, we are not kind or generous to other people, and do ourselves and each other serious disservices.

4) Yes, other people might Mad and Internet.  But the only choices you can make are your own, and that thing your mother told you about the other kids and the jumping off a cliff, and we are here to talk about not how to argue, but how to listen.

5) That thing about your choices is why you don’t have to and shouldn’t really argue with people who are talking about their experiences of prejudice and discrimination.  Because you have your choices.  You will get to choose, in your private head and in your everyday interactions, how you treat the information this person’s giving you, and how you act.  Your life is ever yours.  So’s the power over it.

6) What listening does mean, in that place where you are defensive, hurt, and stung, is thinking past that reaction.  This thing that person’s talking about; they didn’t make it up.  (Always, always assume they didn’t make it up, because people on the whole don’t.)  So it must be somewhere, lurking, where you can’t see it yet.  Start watching: Do you see it on the street?  Do you see it in people you know?  Do you see it on TV?

7) Do you see it in yourself?

8) This will be hard.

9) It is not the hardest part.

10) Maybe you do see it.  But you have reasons (and this hurts, this hurts, this is bullshit and why are those people making me do this?).  What are your reasons?  Can you explain them, deep down, in your own words?  Ask yourself, like Elmyra from Tiny Toon Adventures: Why?  Why?  Why?  Question your reasons.  See if they stand up.  See if they would satisfy you if it was someone else giving those reasons.

11) If they don’t, if they land in a puddle of mixed logic and sputtering because! and do not ask me any more questions!, you may have to do something about it.

12) This is the hard part.

13) I know this because I, who am very careful with the things I say and how they affect others, have fucked up big.  More than once.

14) More than twice.

15) Remember this is not the end of the world.  People will still look you in the eye.  People will respect you more, in fact, if you face that instead of avoiding it, because it bespeaks integrity.  We are built to adapt.  We are supposed to change in the face of experience.

16) Having thought a thing that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny does not make you a Bad Person.  That notion is largely bullshit: there are people, and they do good or bad things, and that is all.  This makes you a person who is growing yourself up, one inch at a time, like all the other people in the world, and the best reaction to being less than you could is to be more.

17) Think about those things you do, and start to change them.  Think about what you could do differently, even if it’s small, that will let you ask yourself Why do I do this? and give you a good answer.  One that leaves better things behind it; ones that build.  Because listen means, deep down, when someone is in a shitty and walled-in place, do something.

18) Go back, and read the words.  You will be fascinated by how they look different, look deeper, even though the thing they are saying has not changed.

19) Maybe you will hate the speaker a little for the saying of them; for wrenching your life out of the predictable orbit and setting you on the course to doing a hard thing.  I think that can be all right too, insofar as you don’t take that out on them.  The important thing is that your legs grew.  The important thing is that you listened.

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This is everything I know about how to listen.  I hope it helps you.  And I hope, if you have other thoughts on this, that you will share them.

Communities, Conflict, and Cohesion.

Long silences abound here: I’m full-on focused on the other half of my life at the moment, and the deadlines attached to that, but wanted to mention an upcoming event–Hacking Reality: Communities and Confrontation.

Blurb!

Join us at the Academy of the Impossible on Thursday, April 18 for the latest in our series examining the Internet and online culture.

Confrontation is inevitable (and arguably necessary) in any engaged community. Conflict is often a catalyst for deepening perspective, but disagreements about values and lived experiences can get messy, especially in the coliseums of social media. The Internet also provides a perpetually and rapidly cycling landscape of events, statements and issues that illuminate (or even stoke) conflict. Can discussion groups with shared/overlapping interests navigate these tensions while preserving solidarity and respect, or are occasional and permanent fissures a fact of community life?

The salon will be moderated by writer, editor and ever-reasonable human Leah Bobet, and is the brainchild of internet feminist Steph Guthrie and comedian and podcaster Dan Speerin. Discussion will touch on the many ways we approach conflict on the Internet, and how these confrontations both express and shape their online communities.

The free event begins promptly at 7pm.

Aside from the fact that I’m quite flattered to have been asked to moderate the night, it’s an interesting topic: How we work together, and how we fall apart.  Communities aren’t handed down to us; they evolve, and they can be built or changed, and I’m looking forward to some thoughtful discussion on setting the tone from the bottom up, what a community is–and how we can individually, hands-on, make our communities stronger and kinder.

If you’ve got thoughts on the topic, or experience from any walk of life you’d like to share, please consider this your personal invitation.

Controversy.

I have been, in accordance with my vow of the other week — and really, because I’m on deadline — actively avoiding any news stories that contain the words “Rob” and “Ford”.  My first instinct upon reading the duel of allegations that has become the Rob Ford/Sarah Thomson debacle was to run the hell away.

Because there is a horrible, nasty, smeary, turd-soup effect that happens when a woman alleges a sexual assault anytime and anywhere.  And there is a horrible, nasty, smeary turd bolognese with turd noodles al dente that goes down every time someone mentions those two special words, “Rob” and “Ford”, in mixed company.  And…oh man, this was not going to end well.  This was not going to end well at all.

I find myself deeply in sympathy with Matt Elliott in his MetroNews column this week: I hate this story.  I hate it to my bones.  Mostly because it isn’t story, it’s controversy.  And yes, there is a difference.

Stories, in the journalistic sense, are collections of facts.  They are reported, although this might be a matter of style at this point, because those facts being known is in the public interest.  Sometimes people think there’s an aspect of those facts you haven’t considered, and so they write editorial journalism or advocacy journalism, to give you an opinion to think about.  But the primary driving force is the same: Here is data you, O Person Living In Society, ought to know.

Whereas the most important function of a controversy is for everyone and their left shoe to have an opinion; its very attraction is the sheer absence of data.  Data would interfere with our chance to weigh in on whoever’s up for scrutiny this time, and that’s the primary product of controversies: reputational stakes.  Their output is not improved services, or a better day-to-day life, or new projects, or stronger communities.  Their output is a slightly shuffled definition on who’s Good and who’s Bad, and nothing else changes in the world.  At all.

So why the hell do they generate so much more ink than other kinds of news, when there is no tangible output from those discussions?  Because opinions are currency not just at City Hall or Queen’s Park; they’re currency on Twitter, and in social groups, and at the hypothetical water cooler I’ve never seen anyone at.  We have reputations too, after all, and there is no neater way to increase your IRL Klout than to have the smartest, coolest, most judgmental opinion on something everybody knows one sound bite about but nobody can lay down facts to disprove.

It’s the same beast: Controversies function not just to tell us if Rob Ford, Sarah Thomson, Yasir Naqvi, Tim Hudak are good or bad people.  We talk about them so damn much because it’s a chance to reshuffle our own social status.  They’re non-topics with null real-world values, so weighing in on them costs us nothing — and maybe someone will think we’re wise or pithy or an insider or cool.  Then we can strut around for a few days going I am the smartest!  Behold my increased social capital!  And I too have a blog!

But the thing is — and yes, there’s always a but.

In doing that — in making snappy remarks about who’s the winner or loser, hero or victim in a situation with two people we do not know or care about — we do some goddamned terrible things.  People are not Fight Night.  People are not living embodiments of ideologies.  They are people.  And when all the newspapers, and City Hall-watchers, and people involved in politics jump ship on everything to write a thousand editorials on who’s right and who’s wrong, on who we ought to hate or celebrate, well.  Humans get lost, in all their real, good-bad complexity.  Some vicious stereotypes get fed their lunch.  A whole lot of dignity gets flushed down the toilet.  Everything drowns in technicalities, rules-lawyering, the death of any nuance, and sides.

I hate controversies because they strip the humanity out of people.  They eat whatever they touch.

There has been an allegation of sexual assault.  That’s some serious shit.  The woman affected has the right to decide exactly how she wishes to handle that occurrence without character assassination; without having to field a thousand new enemies or even five hundred allies who are only allies because they hate the face of the other guy; without having her life dissected to see if we can like her or not, and all the attendant bullshit of being made a symbol of whatever everyone else pleases.  (And don’t think that sometimes people don’t report sexual assault because they do not want to deal with your opinion on their hair, face, pants, words, career, their whole damn life.)

An allegation of sexual assault is not an invitation to controversy.  Our opinions, as shocking as this may be, do not belong in every empty piece of airspace.

So let’s please not confuse story for controversy.  You can tell the difference easily, at a glance.  It’s about if making this point changes the way things work, or just changes who sits next to you in the cafeteria.  It’s about the public interest and not treating people like cartoon characters.

Because if what we’re doing is controversy, it doesn’t pay out, but it does cost.

Giving up on Ford; keeping faith in Toronto

I am back from a weekend in Montreal, and going away — and then coming back — has a way of lending perspective.  Just like turning the Internet off for a few days leaves me taking so much less personally who’s being wrong on it, leaving the City of Toronto for a weekend has been a good breather.

The big headline, upon waking up in my own bed again, was our mayor getting away, again, with some breaches of election law.

My admittedly limited sense of the situation is that this effectively puts an end to court challenges of Ford’s official conduct: It’s been fought three times, and three times lost, and if that shit was going to stick to him, it would have already done so.  And so we are left with this interview quote, posted just moments ago:

It’s…true.  Ford is who he is.

One of the hardest lessons of my personal life has been realizing that you cannot actually get anyone to love or care about you: they do, or they don’t.  And one of the most dramatic improvements in my efficacy and happiness both was when I decided to stop pouring energy down the black hole of people who just didn’t care enough.  I had lots of people around who did care.  I could focus my time and investment in places where love and friendship were actually mutual.

I lost people in doing this.  It wasn’t without pain.  But it’s much better, now that I’m not spending my life chasing the ghosts of other people’s approval.

And…Rob Ford is who he is.  We don’t want a mayor who embarrasses us, who breaks the law, who doesn’t care if he’s done wrong, who hurts us with his policies and his stupid mouth.  But that’s who we have.  Our mayor is frequently That Guy Who’s Wrong on the Internet.  We have a shitty Municipal Dad, and we’ve been tangled up in our Dad Issues for two and a half years.

We are never going to change him by caring, guiding, smacking him around, charging him with things, making funny .gifs.  Nothing.

I think it is time now we broke up with Rob Ford.

But: That does not mean apathy, or turning off city politics altogether.  I think it’s time we broke up with our mayor, and refocused the energy we endlessly spend picking at every aspect of his doings into what loves us back: the City of Toronto.

There are councillors from all political schools who are actively interested in making things happen in their wards and this city.  Relationships have been cultivated, there: on Twitter, in communities, by the groups that have started forming out of the #TOpoli morass.  Let’s focus on those relationships, and on those city-building projects.  Let’s talk to our councillors outside the context of the mayoralty of Toronto, or elections, or that defunct policy agenda.  We’re the people who live and breathe here; we are ultimately the sources of the policy that trickles up into City Hall.  Let’s be that, and stop letting the Fords change the channel.

Because there’s so very much energy here.  There’s so much force to get things done.

Rob Ford won’t change, and he doesn’t deserve our energy.  The City of Toronto does.