Daily Archives: June 3, 2007

On knowing people a long time.

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I find the whole thing about knowing people awhile interesting.

Right now Larry’s being vilified in ways that have nothing to do with what Larry’s actually like. I’ve known him for ages, so have Vicky, Mike, Joel, Laura, and a bunch of other people I know. And every last one of us regardless of the rest of our personal relations with him see what’s being said about him as so far off the mark as to be nearly unrecognizable as Larry. This isn’t because we all worship him, far from it. It’s because we’ve known him long enough to have some clue as to his character, and his actions over time are not the actions of an attention-seeking narcissist.

Similarly, when someone posted the “secret” that I was once diagnosed with schizophrenia and used to talk better and stuff, nobody who’d known me for very long was shocked. That’s because they all knew this stuff, they knew what had happened and why (in great detail, because I used to talk about it a lot), they’d been around for all this and it wasn’t news to them. But since I hadn’t been discussing it much recently, there was this entire bizarre theory that I was hiding this stuff from people, and it was only people who’d heard of me relatively recently who even thought of believing it. I got to watch people I thought I knew writing bizarre things about what my motivations were for things that were totally unrelated to the motivations they put on them, and I got to watch people who’d in reality known me for very short periods of time (measured in months) claiming great amounts of knowledge of my life based on having interacted with me for brief periods during the time they knew me.

Which I guess should serve as some sort of warning about judging people too hastily. There are people convinced Larry is a showoff narcissist with no thought or care for other people, and who will explain minutae of his actions in terms of that. There are people who believe I’m a fake autistic or something, and who will explain minutae of my actions in terms of that. It’s disturbing to watch people create such elaborate descriptions of what is going on in other people’s heads, based largely on the fact that they don’t like what the other person is saying. It’s a human tendency to if you don’t like someone or are mad at them, assume the worst in everything they’re doing. I’m not sure it’s a good human tendency though, seems like one that ought to be fought. And maybe there’s something about knowing someone awhile that means you know enough about them to, even if you disagree with them, have a little more respect for them. I don’t know.

And ultimately it seems like an evasion of the real issues. It’s really easy to fling mud at someone. It’s harder to grapple with the sort of power issues that Larry and I are always (in our very different styles, but I am convinced we are dealing with and aware of roughly the same issues) bringing up. It’s a lot of heat and very little light going on. And just as Larry and I are not unfamiliar to each other, none of the dynamics or details of this argument are anything but tiresomely and depressingly familiar to anyone who’s spent very long in communities fighting various kinds of oppression, especially but not even limited to disability-based ones.

A few thoughts on dissent and communities and crap.

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I’m still dealing with asthma problems and those are my top priority at the moment. It’s been difficult to turn my ideas into words lately, except in direct response to others, and even that is incomplete. But a few things:

Working within an organization and critiquing its power structures, even harshly, are not mutually exclusive.

Communities that can’t handle dissenters aren’t real communities, but can certainly grow into them if they learn to handle dissent by doing something other than a Chicken Little routine.

Good allies don’t threaten to cut off their support every time they hear something that makes them uncomfortable.

Conflict won’t destroy a community, but thinking it will just might. So will incessant pettiness.

Critiquing the priorities and power of a group that someone belongs to might just be a sign they care about that group, not a sign that they are evil incarnate or “infighting” or all that crap.

Critiquing power structures that benefit certain people above others is not the same thing as saying these are bad people who must go away and leave us alone and that we don’t appreciate them.

Having impure motives doesn’t make someone wrong or wholly evil or to be castigated for those motives while ignoring some of their real points, focusing entirely on speculating about people’s motives is a good way to avoid issues though.

At the same time, it’s not always our job to reassure you that you’re not evil and awful and stuff. At some point just decide that as axiomatic and move on to something constructive like figuring out what’s right and wrong and trying to do what’s right.

Disagreeing on how things should be done doesn’t mean people can’t work together or that the entire community is falling apart at the seams.

Sometimes a person’s disagreement comes out forcefully because they’ve been hiding it for a long time, knowing what kind of reaction they’d get if they said anything. Doesn’t make it less valid.

Anyone who thinks the web is or should be a comfortable safe place like their living room hasn’t been paying attention. (Edited to add: Anyone who thinks everyone even has a living room, or that everyone’s living room is comfortable and safe, hasn’t been paying attention either.)

Communities aren’t about liking each other, they’re about bothering to do things for and/or with each other even if you don’t like them. Likewise advocacy involves sometimes gritting your teeth and doing things alongside people you don’t like, rather than sitting there grumbling about why you don’t like them (and by “don’t like” I’m talking personality conflicts here). Even if they’re grumbling pettily about you.

Just because someone agrees with you on one issue doesn’t mean they have to agree with you on everything.

Nobody has a right to be comfortable, for certain values of ‘comfortable’ anyway. Your feelings being hurt shouldn’t determine large-scale political stuff.

Someone disagreeing with you doesn’t suddenly mean they’ve taken every single stance against you that is possible to take, it just means they’ve taken at least one stance that might conflict with some things you believe in.

Disagreement won’t tear apart a community. “You’re with us or against us” thinking will. Responding to disagreement in a Chicken Little sort of manner will. The sort of thinking that gives rise to “You’re with us or against us” and “The sky is falling” was in existence before the dissenter in question ever opened his mouth, and is a serious problem that needs to be worked on if you want your community to last. And the very existence, magnitude, and nature of the reaction he got, proves he had a point, and you don’t have to agree with him (or anyone else) 100% to notice that.

This sort of thing is too petty and stupid to make lasting enemies over (although some people sure seem to be trying, and it ain’t Larry who seems to be trying the hardest to make enemies here), and it’s why the autistic community doesn’t stand a chance until people move beyond petty personality conflicts and into shared principles.

I’ve seen this all before. I’m not at my most articulate right now, I’ve mostly been struggling with breathing all day in between trying to comment sometimes. But all I’m struck by is how Larry saying one little thing seems to have set off something that already existed within this community and that was just waiting to ignite. And that thing that existed worries me a whole lot more than anything Larry said. Don’t see dissent as a threat, see it as a source of strength. Don’t issue with-us-or-against-us ultimatums and lash out and bicker yourselves to death about who said what. Otherwise you’re doomed even if you never do get open dissent of this nature again: If this community is that fragile it’ll be ineffective in ever getting things done.

Breathing trouble has a funny way of shaping one’s priorities really fast. And I know that I would rather not literally waste my breath trashing people I’m mad at on a petty personal level and feeding the flames. I’d rather respond to the parts of this that I can find that are constructive and get on with trying to do the right thing. I have limited energy and I’m not going to waste it either lashing out at people or coddling and reassuring people who as a whole have some combination of more air, more energy, and more political power than I have at the moment. They can do that for themselves. You can turn this into a constructive discussion to make this community stronger. Or deal with the consequences of not doing so. It’s your choice. I have to go to bed.