Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Passive-aggressive or pacifist-assertive?

"Aggression comes in two styles--passive and hostile. Passive-aggressive behavior, like plain passive behavior, is failing to specifically address or make known your opinions and desires. With passive-aggressive behavior, however, rather than simply keeping one's feelings to oneself, one acts out. Fears, frustration, and anger are expressed in indirect actions such as sarcasm and other signals intended to be subtle expressions of conflict, dislike, disrespect, or disapproval. Being avoidably or habitually late for meetings and appointments, for example, is passive-aggressive behavior."
--Barbara Budjac Corvette, Conflict management: A practical guide to developing negotiation strategies, p. 155.

"I'm a combative pacifist."
--Grace Paley

Being passive aggressive is the style of those who are simply not confident in either their abilities to handle conflict or in their abilities to properly learn how to handle it. Most of us have some of those tendencies, and I think Corvette helps us most when she writes about healthy conflict avoidance accompanied by a clear explanation. When I tell a colleague that I am in disagreement with him and I'd like to learn more about why he feels the way he does, but now is not the time, then I've responded in a functional fashion that bookmarks the conflict without blurring the boundaries around our current work. He knows we will need to schedule a time to work through it; I have not been either passive or hostile, but I have avoided the conflict for 'a minute'.

If I just gunnysack my conflict it will come out at some inappropriate time and possibly toward some poor person who doesn't deserve my newfound 'courage'. Indeed, hostility is often merely analogous to referred pain and our failure to rise above passivity in the face of conflict with a more powerful party often translates into inappropriate hostility expressed toward some party who, in turn, we perceive to be less powerful than us.

Don't we wish we could all operate at a perfect conflict performance at all times? As I contemplate my own struggles to rise above the passive-aggressive or hostile-aggressive styles into the assertive and healthy realm I fully realize my own need to learn, relearn, self-forgive and get back on the horse and try that ride again with a better grip.

Now if our leaders could learn that we'd ratchet down our destructive conflict several notches. Sigh.

The confusion between passivity and pacifism is natural for anyone watching a passive-aggressive pacifist pretend to be above the fray. That confusion dissipates when a Grace Paley takes her pacifism to the party who is committing injustice or violence. Grace knew, and other assertive pacifists know, that engaged pacifism means going up to that thin but bright line demarcating assertiveness from aggression. Disengaged pacifism is sentimental and self-serving and rightly rejected by activists clamoring for action to stop militarism and injustice. But when they cross into aggression they learn that powerful oppressors will respond with brutality.

Grace showed that our ongoing challenge is to keep our eye on the line and stay as close to it as humanly possible, keeping the nonviolent and assertive pressure on the powerful, continuing to offer a healthy model to others. Of course, our methods of doing that vary and include developing alternatives as well as confronting the unhealthy power-over tyrants or tyrannical systems. Gandhi spun. Grace wrote poetry. Phil Berrigan built community. As Peter Maurin put it, our task is to build the new inside the shell of the old. Handling conflict in a healthy fashion is one of our most crucial and most difficult challenges if we wish to progress with nonviolence.

Corvette, Barbara A. Budjac (2007). Conflict management: A practical guide to developing negotiation strategies. Upper Saddle River NJ: Pearson Education Inc.

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