Saturday, October 09, 2010

Join the Natural Guard

"Conflict prevention is a less costly policy than intervention after the onset of armed conflicts," from Contemporary conflict resolution (Ramsbotham, Woodhouse, & Miall, 2005, 2nd ed., p. 125).
This morning I went to church. For those who might know me, that's kind of a punchline, since I usually describe the forest as my temple, and in fact the Sequoia sempervirens as the most holy meditative church for me. Indeed, that should be the slogan of the Natural Guard: Sempervirens! Hoo hah!

But the church I went to was really a complex of church, school, community center and, in the church basement, a Severe Weather Shelter serving homeless folks when the temperature plummets hereabouts in the winter. Every year at this time they bring volunteers together to ready them for the shelter season--the frigid, freezy, snowy, freezing rain time of year here in western Oregon, where the conditions can kill because first they soak and then they freeze. Straightforward deep cold is also lethal, but the relatively easy conditions in western Oregon are still very dangerous in their combinations.

So my section of the training is de-escalation for the volunteers. Homeless folks are most often in pain, emotionally and physically. They feel disrespected all day long. They are a part of an economic system predicated upon a background rate of unemployed, in which corporate elites profit from unemployment because it makes workers desperate and afraid to organize or bargain with vigor. Workers know that feeding their families will be possible with lower wages and poor benefits but impossible if they have no job, so they shrink from that confrontation as unemployment sends more hungry workers into the job-seeking ranks. People sometimes fall into cycles of substance abuse to self-medicate, which causes relational breakups, which can also contribute to sending them onto the streets. No money, no partner, no respect. Sometimes the stress can produce depression and other mental challenges that can fairly quickly send a person into homeless status, creating a positive feedback loop of negative consequence.

If the volunteers encounter a person just looking for a confrontation, they need to know that handling that is usually quite possible. I teach that, indeed, the costs of a humble cheerfulness in the face of rudeness are small in contrast to the costs of allowing the conflict to escalate. Letting go of ego, getting centered and grounded, and projecting an image of calm in the face of the worst storms--these are the small costs. Getting defensive or hostile, escalating toward a zero-sum outcome can produce very high costs indeed. The confrontation is usually more likely to get physical when a volunteer mirrors angry behavior or begins to get in touch with his Inner Tyrant.

Key is being authoritative without being authoritarian, in control without being controlling, helpful with being patronizing (or matronizing), and seeking common understanding. This is essentially the same skill set required of nonviolent actionists as they take to the field confronting oppressors. Center. Get grounded. You are on spiritual duty in these instances.

Some folks were born beatific. Good for Gandhi. For the rest of us, training is key. When a member of the military or police is brutalizing anyone, our goal is to confront and calm them. I've been badly beaten by police and both times it followed my own escalatory behavior. Were the police correct to beat me? No. I was no threat to anyone in either case. Pacifists, however, can still exhibit dysfunctional escalation and I did. I paid high costs for my lack of competence combined with their lack of professionalism, and I learned deep and personal lessons. I recall my friend Doctor Dave when I told him my nose might be broken. He laughed. "Might be? My friend, they broke it well and truly." My nose is forever crooked from the fists of the deputies and I am very lucky indeed to have vision in both eyes, since they required more than 30 stitches in one case. My technique was so poor that I even abandoned my first enraged reaction, to sue them.

Youth. Sigh... I was 19 in one case and 25 in the other. I was a pacifist, but an ill-trained one. Mixing provocation with pacifism is flat stupid, and I was.

So when I train now, I stress the alternatives and tell the trainees that listening instead of talking, asking instead of demanding, inquiring instead of interrogating and compassion instead of judgment are the ways of the Catholic Worker and the best of the shelter workers too. "Catholic Workers are not officially part of the Catholic church," I told my Catholic trainees. "We won't call police because they have guns. We work without a net." Blame it on Dorothy Day; she started it. I tell them of little CW women evicting big belligerent drunken men using techniques that have very low costs and very high success rates. Stack that against the possibility of police violence or violence on the part of the enraged person who knows you've called the police, and you can imagine that cost-benefit analysis.

It's helpful to think about all conflict with a mix of morals and rational CBA; I believe we will increase the peace and the skills to gain it when we do.

Ramsbotham, Oliver, Woodhouse, Tom, and Miall, Hugh (2005). Contemporary conflict resolution (2nd ed.). Malden, MA: Polity Press.

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