Tenemos: boundaries for meaningful conversations about difficult things

July 16th, 2013

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.

10 Responses to “Tenemos: boundaries for meaningful conversations about difficult things”

  1. Noelle says:

    The funniest part of all of it was that most of those involved completely misinterpreted what I had to say, to a degree, you included, if your response to something I said was WHOA. But yeah, the snark was completely unnecessary.

  2. Kyran says:

    Tough to talk (and more to the point, listen) about these things in the best of times, let alone when feelings are running so high. Very glad to hear from you. :-)

  3. Pat Hammond says:

    Everyone I talk to feels it was a travesty of justice for Zimmerman to have been acquitted. You were raised in a free thinking family but that isn’t always the case with others, even good friends. It’s a shame, isn’t it?

  4. Kath Hale says:

    A jury labored hard to find the correct answer within parameters set by the laws of the state of Florida. When people have a problem with verdicts, they would do well to look for fault within themselves, because their elected legislatures have enacted the laws governing the prosecution, and in this case, the exoneration, of people charged with crimes. Who elects the legislature? The citizens of a state. Want to complain? Do so with your own willingness to vote for people who think like you. Better yet, run for office. Make a difference by putting yourself in a position to effect change directly by becoming a member of the body that makes the laws. The members of this jury worked with what they had. I admire them. I ache for Travon Martin’s parents. I hope for better resolutions to such grievous events in years to come. I applaud the workings of a real democracy that make unpopular decisions possible, so long as they are based on the rule of law. Did anyone listen to the legal commentary before, during, and after this case played out? No lawyer I heard speak on the facts of Travon’s death thought this case could result in a conviction, based on Florida’s laws. I despise the reactions of people who choose to loot and riot in the “name” of justice. That’s not justice. That’s hooliganism.
    Kyran, your thoughts are well-put and worthy of deep reflection. I don’t Facebook, but I hope that those who do will treat your site with the respect that you accord others, even (and especially) those who don’t agree with you.

    • Kyran says:

      I wasn’t aware that there had been looting or rioting in connection with the verdict, but if there has, I would suggest that an unjust law undermines the authority of all law. And yes, the law and lawmakers must be changed. Thanks for weighing in, Kath!

      • Amy B. says:

        “…an unjust law undermines the authority of all law.”

        I like what you said there. Thanks for putting into words what I’ve been trying to sort out in my head.

    • Lee Cockrum says:

      I think this is very eloquently put. I agree that from what information I have read or heard, the jury made the correct decision with what they had. As you said above.

  5. I love this post, Kyran. Many times over the last few days I have wanted to post something about the Zimmerman trial, but I have sat on my hands because no, I don’t think Facebook offers the kind of place where these discussions can happen in a rational, fair way and I don’t want to be misinterpreted or misunderstood, or for people who join the discussion to be misinterpreted or misunderstood. And I don’t want to pile on in a knee-jerk way, without fully understanding both the details of the incident and the details of the trial, either. So I have been silent online, and fear that my silence may have been interpreted as not caring, or having an opinion I fear voicing. But in my inner circles – with my husband, my family, my friends, my nephew, who is a young black man – there has been a lot of discussion of this case and I have been surprised at how much more we’ve all had in common while discussing it, despite the fact that we all hold vastly different political views, than what I’ve seen online. I think you’re right – it’s that the rules of engagement in my home are different, and the in-person conversation allows for so much more context and demands critical thinking, kindness and an attempt to understand.

    That’s all my long-winded way of saying I’m glad I kept my mouth shut on Facebook. We can’t all have an informed opinion about every single issue, and if I’m going to discuss a relatively uniformed, or still-forming opinion, I’d rather do it in the safety and privacy of my home rather than on a very public platform.

  6. Marie says:

    You’ve put your finger on why I don’t share as much on FB any more. When innocuous sharings are so misinterpreted and run off with (in the manner of someone highjacking the conversation), I don’t have much hope that one could have truly deep conversations. Sometimes it all feels like drive-by snark. We want those deeper conversations, but we spend more and more time in these online formats. I’ve concluded that FB is not a “big” enough marketplace to do that well. Your blog is a better starting point, IMHO.

    One blogger I read was arguing for a “clean verdict” or justice without going outside the process, but I saw many people arguing that it wasn’t giving true justice, and I’d have to agree. I think the case revealed the flaws in our legal system and our society. It also revealed (yet again) that what some people think are flaws in the system, other people think are features. I can’t understand some people’s crass and self-serving perspectives. *sigh*

  7. I love this. So much I could say – but I’ll leave it there. Love these thoughts. Thanks.

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