Like most people I know, the verdict in the case against Trayvon Martin’s killer has me thinking a lot about the incredibly tangled history of racism in America. Last night, I offered a point of view on my personal Facebook page (that economic justice might be the widest path toward racial justice), and invited others to share their thoughts.
I know. What was I thinking?
An acquaintance jumped in right away with a very different perspective. By “very different,” I mean pretty much opposite to everything I believe today about race and poverty. The substance of her argument offended my sensibilities. I knew it would offend others. But it wasn’t some crazy hate speech. I had asked for thoughts, and she gave hers.
I’m sure things I’ve posted have caused this acquaintance to think OMFG FOR REAL? many times, so I don’t mind her knowing that my first thoughts were along the lines of WHOA. It was tempting, for a second, to react from that place.
But what would that do, except demonstrate that I’m a smartass? We know this already. I chose to respond instead of react, talking about my own evolving understanding of privilege and bias. She responded in turn, expanding on her position. Someone smarter than us both jumped in with additional perspective. Everybody was being pushed to think about what we think. It was uncomfortable, and I was really, really wishing I had just posted pictures of kittens instead, but I was at least learning something about commonly held biases (in myself as well as others) and how to challenge them. Maybe others were, too.
When it started to feel a little heated, I walked away for a while to let the argument cool down, or hopefully shift direction. When I came back a little while later, there was just a smoking crater. Others had come along and tossed in a couple of snark grenades. Boom.
I shut down was what left, and went to bed, feeling angry and hopeless that we can ever have a conversation about race and class that doesn’t just drive everyone back deeper into their trenches. I was also conflicted, because the points behind the snark were valid, though they came in stink bombs. Was it fair to take greater offense at the form of one argument, than at the substance of the other?
I hate people, I thought. I’m sticking with kittens.
This morning, I saw right away that problem wasn’t with people. The problem was context. Can we have meaningful conversations about difficult things? Yes. Can we have meaningful conversations about difficult things on Facebook? Maybe. Maybe not. It depends.
What it depends on is something called tenemos, a greek word for sanctuary that Carl Jung adopted to mean the boundaries you draw to create a safe spot where transformation can take place. If you’ve ever been to a twelve-step meeting and heard the traditions recited, or been given a set of guidelines at the beginning of a group therapy session, you’ve been under the protection of tenemos.
Tenemos provides rules of engagement for transformative conversation. Good tenemos keeps an individual from dominating the discussion. It prevents a mob pile-on. It creates space for thinking and listening. It may not assure comfort, but it communicates safety. It invites people to be honest and vulnerable, without fear of being personally attacked. It defines clear expectations around privacy and confidentiality. It tells us how to enter the space of transformation, and how to leave it.
Does that sound anything like an average Facebook thread to you?
Me either. I was formally trained and worked as a group facilitator for several years–I should have known better than to think I could throw out an extremely volatile topic and assume everyone would be guided by the same understanding, or even enter the conversation with the same goal as mine.
I witnessed an egregious example of that kind of recklessness at a conference workshop earlier this year, when the breakout session turned into a pseudo-pyschotherapeutic altar call, with the session leader urging participants to share their deepest, and most raw traumas in the twenty minutes or so allotted for discussion. No statement of confidentiality. No plan for aftercare for people who might be triggered by someone’s else’s story of incest or miscarriage. No resource referral. No tenemos. I was appalled. I was literally shaking with anger when I left the session room that anyone in position of leadership, however temporarily, would be so irresponsible. It felt manipulative, but I’ll allow that it may have been naivete.
Everyone has a town hall now. Everybody has the mic. Everybody has a circle of chairs. If we want to convene meaningful conversations about difficult things on our platforms, we need to think about tenemos, and what the best context is for the discussion we hope to have.
Tenemos doesn’t apply to every form of engagement. Not every discussion has to be transformative or even polite. Some people are into intellectual blood sport. I get that. I come from a family full of mental gladiators, and I enjoy a match of wits in the proper arena. Ask my husband. There’s a place for the killer comeback, the well-timed zinger. Maybe there’s a place for snark and sarcasm, too.
But it’s not in the same place where minds stay open and soul-searching might happen. It’s not in my tenemos.