html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: I'll show you "tediously long".

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

I'll show you "tediously long".

In a post I otherwise agree with, I think Digby got a tangential point wrong in an important way. I keep telling you that Senator Obama has steeped in mediation, that the precepts and practices of mediation come naturally to him now. If I am right about that, Digby read this line of his speech wrong:

Obama: …It's all around culture wars and it's all ... even when you discuss war the frame of reference is all Vietnam. Well that's not my frame of reference. My frame of reference is "what works."…

Digby: …I certainly understood why Senator Obama would take the technocratic approach and say he was about "what works" rather than about ideology or civil rights. …

I don’t think Obama is talking about a technocratic “what works”. I think he’s talking about a far more difficult “what works”. I think he is talking about the state you get into when the conflict is so intractable and so urgent that the stories that people have been telling themselves about right and wrong stop being interesting. You stop trying to judge fairness or weigh grievances, because that is some long, knotty, unresolvable work. Not only is it maddening work, but you only have to do that work if you intend to punish. If you don’t have the authority for or the interest in punishment, or if your goal instead is to make things better, the real substance starts with “what will work?”.1

The more you listen to every side, the less patience you have for people’s rock hard notions of fairness. People tell a good story to themselves and to you, about the way that thing was totally unfair. They’re often right. That was really unfair. But you go talk to the next person, who offers another perspective on how it happened, and who thinks that the important part was when an unfair thing happened to them. Wow. That was unfair too. You know, there’s a whole lot of unfairness here, unfairness enough for all the players to wallow in forever. Which they do. When people start telling you about the unfair things, they almost always get a tone2. Their voice gets rehearsed because they are walking the rut that injustice has carved in their mind. They have thought it and thought it and made complicated reasons for every piece of it and they understand every single tendril of all the ways it hurt them. They tell you this in this closed, justifying, inauthentic voice that is recognizable as soon as it starts. As soon as it clicks in, you know you’re dealing with someone’s self-protective righteousness. Everyone loves their own precious jewels of mistreatment, but when you see a few of them from the outside, they start to look remarkably alike. When you’ve seen a lot of them, they get repetitive, predictable and eventually uninteresting.

As long as people are in that mode, that thinking and justifying and accusing mode, you cannot get anywhere new. You can’t argue them out of it, because they have been thinking of every possible angle on it for years. They will tell you the most convoluted explanation for why they were right and those people were villains. They will simply disregard contradictions in their story or facts that don’t support them or reasoning that challenges them. You do not reach people in defensive mode by argument. Instead, you lift them out of that mode by listening and showing them they were heard. Only after their story, the one they’ve polished in long nights of thinking, has been heard can you move past it to the real problems.

That, in fact, is what happened after Obama gave his speech on race. He showed white people2.5 that he had heard their story; he quoted their emotions and content back to them3:
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
And some people were so shocked they’d been heard that for the first time in a long time, they openly went on to the next part4.
On the other hand, I am sick to death of black people as a group. The truth. That is part of the conversation Obama is asking for, isn't it? I live in an eastern state almost exactly on the fabled Mason-Dixon line. Every day I see young black males wearing tee shirts down to their knees -- and jeans belted just above their knees. I'm an old guy. I want to smack them. All of them. They are egregious stereotypes. It's impossible not to think the unthinkable N-Word when they roll up beside you at a stoplight in their trashed old Hondas with 19-inch spinner wheels and rap recordings that shake the foundations of the buildings. . . .

Here's the dirty secret all of us know and no one will admit to. There ARE n*****s.

Perhaps you are revolted. Maybe you are offended by the open racism. But my reaction was “Oh thank god. Now we’re getting somewhere. If this is the real problem, we can work with this.” Look, in his howl, this dude finally told us his real problem. But they wear their pants funny! They listen to the wrong music! Too loud!! Dude, this is the heart of it?5 Oh mister, you’re on. This deal is done. If I had two sides sitting down, both wanting a new reality, this one is ready to go. So, in exchange for an end to discriminatory sentencing guidelines and the over-incarceration of black men and an end to predatory lending and free college for any black takers, our young black men will pull up their pants and listen to Mozart once a week? I think I can sell that deal to both sides. Toss in a program to reverse the effects of redlining and I bet I could get them to tuck in their shirts. This is so do-able. The break-through came from the new emotional information. The rest is details and negotiation.

You do three things to get to a new stable arrangement that gives all sides what they want most. You listen, to move people past their reinforced defensive stories. You offer them a vision of a new reality that is even more tempting than self-pity, one that addresses their core wrongs. You change your frame of reference from judging right and wrong to “what works”. Sen. Obama is absolutely consistent on those three fronts. He’s going at our problems in a way that American politics has never tried before. He is doing it in a way that works. I think you’re going to like it.

1 You parents know this. When your daughters are squabbling and you ask what happened and the stories of hair-pulling and line-crossing and doll-touching and book-stealing and ball-slamming and seat-taking go back to the cradle (when they were so sweet and quiet!), you come to the realization that justice simply isn’t an issue here. The issue is the current resolution and please god, make it last a few hours.
2Sometimes they don’t. When they don’t, when they sound as shocked and hurt and raw as when it first happened, pay even closer attention. This could well be a rare thing in extended conflicts: an innocent. The other roles, of redress and punishment could apply here.
2.5He told the black stories as well, but I ignore them because of white privilege don’t trust my understanding of black worldviews enough to try to articulatewrite them up in public.
3Look how elegantly he did that. For those of you who thought I was talking crazy talk, go back to that quote and look at all the words about emotions: anger, “don’t feel … privileged”, anxious, “feel their dreams slipping away”, resentment. He nailed that and because he got both parts, the emotion and the content right, everyone knew he’d understood them.
4I haven’t read or clicked on the original. I’d be more worried about libeling that guy if I thought such a thing were possible. Instead, I’m linking to a woman who quoted him. I’d like to point out that her gut response, a sincere one that I agree with, does two things that won’t help the problem at all. First, she tells him his feelings don’t matter, because they are despicable. I agree that his feelings are despicable, but unless we intend to wait until he’s dead, to solve racism by generational replacement, his feelings are the ones we have to work with. They matter a lot. Second, she argues with him. You can’t argue. Remember? There is no persuading people in the defensive mindset. Every instant spent in the realm of arguing defensive thinkiness is wasted time. Feels satisfying for a while, but it is waste.
5This is probably not the real heart of it. The real heart of it is probably fear of black men, immediate physical fear and fear of them being with white women. That is some fucked up shit. I owe you another painfully long post on fear and trust. Sadly, I’m pondering yet another equally abstract post on grace.


Blogger George said...

Of all the blogs I read, your posts are the longest ones that I read to the end.

8:59 PM  
Blogger Generic said...

Your mediation thesis keeps reminding me of a paragraph in this article about Obama's tactics. (Apologies if you're already familiar with the piece.)

One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that's not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists -- it's a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict. It's how you deal with people with intractable demands -- put ‘em on a committee. Then define the committee's mission your way.

Experience: Woke up today with the lingering effects of a cold and meant to take a Sudafed. Made the mistake of swallowing one of my emergency Lunesta® pills instead. And lordy, has the day been some rough going, lemme tell you. Walking is like trying to cross-county ski through invisible jello. My eyelids feel as though they have 2lb. weights attached. Caffeine is utterly ineffectual.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

That's a great article, which I hadn't seen. Thanks. My read, which is informed by nothing but my guesses? Sen. Obama is aware of his change framework, and using it very deliberately.

Sweet sticky coconut bar, white. Makes me want coconut juice, which makes me want Vietnamese food. I've never had banh mi.

1:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I've never had banh mi."

Now I want Bahn Mi for lunch. Nowhere near the loop to get it. Sigh.

Experience (very real, but sadly not recent): Crispy crust, soft inside. Carrot crunch. Spicy jalepeno. Savory meatyness. Cool mayo. Delicious banh mi.

9:04 AM  

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