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Privilege and nonviolence

I have been struggling a lot with the issues of privilege, power, justice and diversity and how to address these topics in a way that doesn't do more harm than good. A friend of mine recently introduced me to nonviolent communication and to the work of Miki Kashtan. Suddenly I began to see new opportunities for change. I regained some hope and confidence that we can bridge the gap between groups and individuals if we really want to.

I have recently read an article in two parts (part 1 and part 2 ) by Miki Kashtan about ‘The Line’. In our competitive society, we are all ranked on this invisible line and a place further ahead on the line gives us access to more resources to meet our needs. Society teaches us that in order to be valued, to be safe, to have a good life, we have to get ahead in the line. But getting ahead in the line often goes at the expense of others.

A more privileged place on the line doesn’t always feel like a blessing. All right, you have more access to resources to make life more comfortable, but it can also come with a sense of guilt and shame. With fear of being seen as belonging to ‘them’, the oppressors.

As Miki Kashtan says, none of us created the line. The line was created over thousands of years and from the moment we were born, we are on it. We can, however, choose how we relate to our position in the line and to the line in general.

Okay, so the line has something to do with privilege. Privilege is a topic that can come with many emotions, and also with many judgments about right and wrong. But judgmental thinking will divide people further and will not lead to any solutions.

I was born into a privileged social environment. As a teenager and young woman, I felt ashamed of my position on the line. I wanted everyone to have equal opportunities, to feel equally valued. I usually chose the side of the people who were in a less privileged position. It wasn’t a balanced viewpoint, however. It was very much ‘us’ against ‘them’. And even though I was born on the side of ‘them’ I wanted to belong to the side of ‘us’, the innocent. Despite my ‘noble’ intentions, it was a violent viewpoint.

When I got older, I calmed down. Didn’t think so much along the line of us and them anymore. I didn’t want to ‘fight’ anymore. I also saw the world in more shades of grey. The less privileged weren’t by definition pure and good. And the privileged weren’t by definition bad. I focused more on how I related to fellow human beings and gave up on wanting to change the system. And I suddenly started to understand how people could feel offended when they were addressed as being members of a privileged group instead of as an individual.

I suddenly started to feel for the white male, who didn’t choose his position on the line, neither his gender nor his race. But who would have to deal with being seen as the oppressor. It wouldn’t matter if he had many obstacles in his life, for many people he would fall into the category of ‘them’ instead of ‘us’. I could understand that this could be painful to experience and that it could lead to rebellion.

The whole ‘us’ vs ‘them’ is a violent viewpoint. We are all in this together. We are all in some way part of the system and of The Line. We are not guilty of that. We can, however, mourn how the line affects the lives of everyone. And once we have come to terms with our position on that line, and with the fact that we can’t change the system on our own, we can have a look at what cán be done. We don’t have to give up on life, on diversity, on fairness.

Miki Kashtan says:

when we really and fully take in that our behaviors and worldviews are deeply affected by where we are in society, we have a chance to release, or at least to dramatically diminish, our judgments of self or other for where we are in life and even for the choices we all make.

Let’s have a look at why it can be so difficult for us that hold a more privileged position on the line, to go against the system. We are used to seeing the world as a zero-sum game. So if I let you have more, then I will have less. We are used to thinking there is not enough for everyone. Scarcity thinking, in other words. And when there is not enough for everyone, we are forced to compete with each other and forced to accept that people (and animals, the environment) are going to be suffering, so that we can be safe, provided for, comfortable. We justify our competitive behavior by thinking that whoever wins, has deserved it more, was somehow better.

We don’t want to take into account the effect of the line, because that would complicate things. We can then no longer think that we deserved our comfort just by playing the game well. Acknowledging this can feel very uncomfortable, because then we could come to the conclusion that we would have to give up on our needs, in order to meet other peoples needs.

Awareness of needs is a key concept I think. Everyone has needs. The need for safety, for love, for acceptance, for respect, for food, for shelter, to name just a few. The problem is that we are not used to talking about our needs. Having needs is not weak, it is inseparable from being human. And regardless of our position on the line, regardless of gender, race, social class, we have most needs in common. When we are aware of the needs that underly behavior, I think we can empathize with most of them. However, the way people choose to meet their needs can obstruct the view of the underlying need, which makes it harder to empathize.

My awareness of needs has just recently been activated again when I came in touch with nonviolent communication. I never thought of myself as a violent communicator. I discovered that I have a big need for harmony, and that I have a tendency to avoid conflict. I feel really bad about myself if I end up raising my voice to someone or if I notice myself judging people harshly. But underneath the surface of this ‘peace’, I notice judgmental thoughts of my own about judgmental people. And in order not to violate the needs of others, I tend to violate my own needs. And when this goes on for longer than I can bear, I become resentful. So despite my need for harmony, there is also a lot of violence in myself. My fear of violence gives rise to violence. How ironic!

The framework of nonviolent communication gives me hope for the future. In essence it is simple, however, it will take a lot of practice to become fluent in a relaxed way. When practiced well and when used with the right intention (not to manipulate) it can open up tense situations, situations of conflict and it will allow us to cooperate instead of to compete, to ask for help and offer help in meeting each other’s needs. Awareness of needs, our needs and the needs of others, will allow us to search for more creative strategies to meet these needs. It will require courage and practice to express our feelings honestly and to express to each other which needs in us are wanting to be heard and seen. It will require courage to look for the needs in others, despite the behavior they chose to meet those needs and to express our understanding of those needs. When people feel seen and heard, they relax and open up. Suddenly opportunities arise for more creative strategies to meet everyone’s needs.

Miki Kashtan, who has many, many years of experience in nonviolent communication, has a vision for the future. A society where everyone’s needs matter. I want to hold that vision together with her. Whenever we are in a situation where we are more privileged, have more power to meet our needs, we can actively look for ways to share that power, to meet more needs of more people. And meanwhile stay in touch with our own needs. When we stretch ourselves, learn about our needs and feelings, when we learn to ask for what we want in a way that leaves the other person free to say yes or no, when we learn to (temporarily) live with unmet needs without giving up on our needs altogether, we can become more free of The Line.

As a female programmer, a woman in a men’s world, I am forever grateful for the men that used their position of privilege to give me opportunities to join this world of tech. I see that as an example of dealing with The Line in a positive way. My current way of dealing with The Line is seeing the need of people to feel emotionally safe and accepted despite their position on the line so that they can open up to their willingness to meet the needs of others while staying in touch with their own needs. I also want to deal with The Line by being committed to growth and learning and by staying open to my own possibilities to share power with and meet the needs of those less privileged than I am, inside the world of tech, and in society in general.

We have a long way to go as a society and we can’t do it alone, but by holding compassion for our helplessness in changing the system and for our position on the line, we can open up to new ways of thinking and acting that will be more in harmony with the needs of others and our own.

Some interesting resources

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