The Buddhists are right, I think, about the ways in which longing and desire prevent us from learning, from seeing the world more as it is than as we would wish it to be.
This is coming from a very revealing interaction this morning online, on a Twitter account I share the running of.
The background is this – Recently someone in a political party had written an open letter with a series of observations about how that party is ruled by an unaccountable make-the-rules-up-as-we-go-along cabal. She gave examples of poor behaviour and set forth some relatively modest proposals for change.
In response to this we had written a blog post (I drafted, others edited) which echoed her points and showed how they related to the climate change issue in the city.
This blog post REALLY enraged someone, who clearly couldn’t cope with the criticism by his party colleague of the party.
Here’s what I think is behind that rage – People join political parties, or other tribes, in order to feel less powerless, less alone. And for some, it’s about ambition, about being one of the decision makers. To rise through the ranks, unless you are particularly brilliant and essential (and few of us are!), you have to show loyalty to those who can promote you. You have to not only think the right thoughts and behave in the right way, but you have to respond negatively to those who challenge the normal operating of the party.
This is always difficult, and the difficulty of this, I suspect, builds up in individuals, like a low-grade infection. When there is perceived disloyalty, from another party member, there are real dilemmas.
The other person may be saying things that the loyalist has thought but been afraid to say – even to themselves. And the criticisms are threatening, because if they are true, then they mean that the party is not what the individual needs it to be. There is work to be done! But doing that work may threaten that individual’s position and reputation as a loyalist. It may force them to confront their past complicity with bad behaviour (or actual bad behaviour themselves), their past (and present) willingness to go along to get along. Nobody likes to think of themselves as a coward.
But, of course, if you attack the other member, you can be accused of factionalism. More dangerously though, you might be giving oxygen to the whole issue. If you’re responsible for more people joining the fray, and the issue becoming one that everyone is talking about, then those who you are trying to signal loyalty to, those who hold your future in their hands, will not be impressed…
If someone else, from Outside The Party echoes the criticism, or amplifies it, then it is perhaps safer to attack. But to attack directly is to risk a further airing of the issues raised. So instead, it’s best to play the “we are very hard working, it’s wrong of you to criticise us” card. The beauty here is that the Outside the Party person may take the bait, and the whole conversation becomes about something else – anything else, aside from those awful threatening criticisms of the party, which create personal, psychological and professional risks…
In this particular instance, the attempt at de-railing was unsuccessful, though the person persisted with this tactic both in public and in Direct Messages on Twitter.
The hard work
It would be so easy to feel superior at this point. It is so easy to see someone else’s pathologies and attempts to project, to disavow. I’ve gone through life doing that. It hasn’t really helped me.
What is needed, for personal (and group) growth is to keep, as much as possible, with the discomfort, (to “stay withthe trouble” as Haraway would have it. The trick would be to have phenomenological (even hermeneuitc?) understanding and compassion; to ask yourself what issues are so hot-button for yourself, and under what conditions you respond with similar attempts to play the victim, to derail and to wilfully misunderstand and ignore.
This requires more courage and discipline than I have, most days. The invitation to not see, not not admit that the things and people we give power over us are a menace, is an invitation constantly extended, and comforting, rewarding.
The Buddhists, I think, would talk about compassion, here, for others and for ourselves. They’re probably on to something there, at least in this life.
Update – the psychologists have a name for what I am trying to talk about – “intergroup sensitivity effect” And so I’ve got a bunch of crap puns to play with for future blog posts – “ISE ISE Baby” or “ISE in the veins” etc etc.