5 popular ways to shut down conversations about power.

kathyescobar crazy making, equality, incarnational, injustice, relationships 20 Comments

Years ago when I started speaking out against the powers-that-be about “church”, I noticed a pattern. Almost the minute something negative was shared, there would be an immediate defensiveness and responses like “be careful about being divisive”, “the church is made up of imperfect people”, “t’s not all bad”, or “I’ll pray for you.” The basic summary of the responses–“quit saying negative things, we don’t like it.”

When the events in Ferguson broke out last year, I was appalled at the comments on Facebook when people from the underside of power (or advocates for them) shared.  Almost universally, there was a rebuttal, a “but there are two sides to the story,” “#alllivesmatter”, “but what about….”, almost anything to shut down the big feelings of anger and grief.

I have noticed the same pattern in so many other conversations, too, concerning pretty much anyone on the underside of power. When we talk about poverty and the poor or women or LBGQT issues or Native American history or people of color, there’s so often a defensiveness that emerges that shuts down the conversation and somehow attempts to either put those with less power back in their place or dismiss the passion of their advocates.

It makes me crazy, but it feels fairly predictable. When I posted about Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, I got a few messages about “their alcoholism” and “there are two sides to the story.” and thought Yep, there it is, almost like clockwork. 

I respect people’s perspectives and definitely don’t want all these conversations to be one-sided but at the same time, when those with power and privilege immediately respond that way it feels like a sure-and-quick-way-to-shut-down-the-conversation.

It doesn’t open up dialogue.

It doesn’t help those on the underside of power feel heard.

It doesn’t foster healing and movement-toward-change.

In fact, it perpetuates the problem.

It seems like almost every time a controversial subject emerges from the underside of power, we hear these kinds of responses (sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly):

1. “You need to stop being so angry.”  Oh, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that one.  “They’ll listen to you when you stop being so mad.”  I am not saying that anger opens doors because I know it is scary for people, but goodness gracious, we need to learn how to let people be pissed off about the injustice they and others they know are experiencing.  We can never be polite enough, not angry enough, not _____ enough to accommodate making everyone feel comfortable in hard conversations.

2. “But remember, there are two sides to the story.”  This usually translates to: “Um, they deserve what they are getting somehow.” or “We weren’t the ones who did it, why should we have to be blamed?”  It always points to minimizing the reality of what’s being shared.

3. “You just need to be patient.”  To me, this ranks almost as high on the nails-on-a-chalkboard-meter as when married people having sex tell single women, “But God is your husband.”  Sure, there’s something to be said about the long-game on change, but I know there is never a right time to question or disrupt the status quo.

4. “God’s in control.”  I am not going to go into all of the terrible theology that goes into this statement when it comes to power and injustice but I believe these words really have a way of making people of faith feel small and unfaithful and dismissed.

5. “But what about…..”  There are always so many “what about’s” that can be part of good healthy conversations at some point, but when that is the starting point, the first thing out of the chute, what it communicates is:  “what you are saying doesn’t really matter all the way because of x, y, or z”

There are so many more, and I’d love to know what you would add or you have experienced.

It seems like the thread that runs through all of these somehow reflects,”You are making me feel uncomfortable and I don’t like it.”

Yep, change is uncomfortable.

Respecting the deep grooves of oppression and the damage its done is uncomfortable for all of us.

Honoring the realities of people on the underside of power is uncomfortable for all of us.

Listening without fixing or solving or scripturizing or minimizing is uncomfortable for all of us.

Getting in touch with our privilege is uncomfortable for all of us.

And holding space for grief and anger and depression and rage and hurt and damage is oh-so-uncomfortable for those feeling it, those hearing it.

The biggest threat to real change in our hearts, our systems, our world is our aversion to being uncomfortable. But the truth is that we have to live with it a long, long, long time in order for real change to happen.

A way forward is to create safer people who over time can help create safer spaces for important conversations that lead to collective action.

And it can start with something as simple as this: When people with power and privilege hear things from those on the underside of power, maybe we could respond with:  

“Tell me more.”

“I hear you.”

“i’d love to understand more about what you are thinking and feeling.”

“Thank you for your honesty. It helps me understand.”

“I want to learn.”

Oh, how I know this is only a start and there’s a critical need for two way conversations and deeper dignified dialogue and all kinds of ways to learn and listen together.

I just really believe that we can never get there when these 5 things keep being the first line of defense in conversations related to power.

My hope is we’d start noticing it–on Facebook, in real life conversations, in our hearts, in our thoughts.

Let’s start letting ourselves live with the discomfort.

It’s part of real change.


ps: April’s Down We Go column is up today at SheLoves Magazine. It’s called An Open Broken Heart.  In some weird way, I think both these posts somehow fit together.  Tell me what you think about that theory.