Sunday, June 20, 2010

Referred pain and nonviolent communication

In the 2000 census there were 181 reported incidents of violence or threatened violence to census takers. In 2010 that number more than doubled to 379. Upon learning that a person had come to their door from the government, people shot, stabbed, threw chairs, loosed dogs, and threatened these workers, most of whom make about $15 per hour for this episodic canvas.
What did these workers do to deserve such horrific treatment? They were available and they were from the government. Were they spies, collecting evidence to prosecute someone? Were they agents from criminal investigative agencies or were they undercover mind control specialists from the al-Qa'ida-communist-Obama enslavement project? Apparently, in the minds of these poor deluded enraged Americans. One would think it was an army of Tutsis sent to command the Hutu masses and the brave few rose up with machetes to try to trigger a righteous Tea-for-Terrorist spy-icide.
We have become such a coarse people. When Gandhi was asked by a reporter, "What do you think of Western Civilization?" he responded, "That sounds like a good idea." No doubt Gandhi gave a small smile and other signs of respect as he gently chided the British rulers and slowly removed the pillars of their support. His approach won, but we seem to believe now that someone who acts like Gandhi is a wimpy loser. We need to emulate the Tea Party and stand up to King George by dumping census workers and civil discourse into the harbor.
What do we expect? We invade countries illegally and unilaterally. We treat guns like a human right and health care like a privilege. We bail out Wall Street financiers and bail on average Americans. The fat privileged elite are too porcine to stop supporting and the poor--the bottom 20 percent of humankind whose income is so flat that the richest 20 percent make 82 times more, the worst disparity in human history--the poor are too small to notice.
Thus we come 'round to the theories of nonviolent communication and constructive conflict communication. People will be heard. They will speak. They will ask for justice. If ignored or redirected, they will speak again, using different phrasing or speaking louder. Finally, they resort to violence. It is the ultima ratio regum, the final logic of the king--that is, war. Or, writ tiny, it is the renter sending the pit bull after the census taker in the name of standing up to the government.
Are census workers taught to deal with such exigencies? They aren't even allowed to carry pepperspray against pit bulls, so clearly the entire approach hasn't been worked through very carefully. But beyond the symbolic doubling of these attacks in the last decade is the question of civil discourse and simple civility in our society. The prongs of incivility range from the frustration of economic insecurity to encouragement of rage to the overcrowding of our land to the lionizing of the violent path of the warrior and the lack of training and education toward civil discourse in our schools. Parenting is poor. Teaching is inadequate. Media heaps it on daily--Glenn Beck is just the point of the spear--and the comments section of our online news sources are a minefield of ad hominem attack and vulgarity. In short, the erosion of our civilization is underway.
Countering this will take a personal and cultural approach. On the Portland State University campus we are launching our version of training for civil discourse. Oregon State University already has done this. Our K12 peace educators, many of whom work in special charter schools devoted to raising gentle and effective little communicators, work on this in more and more places. More and more media are moderating comments to encourage civility. We need this kind of effort in all our institutions, in our homes, in our media and in our public spaces real and virtual.
We will see how we have done by 2020. Perhaps by then we will not see the pain of people so easily referred from justified anger at oppression to rage at an innocent census worker. If that is so, we all will have done good work of our own on this. This is only one metric of many, but it's one that will come predictably every decade and is worth examination and action.

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