Social Diplomacy, Part 7: Find a Position of Strength

  • Find a position of strength

Without strength, diplomacy is not much different than being a doormat. We end up placating people for the sake of placation, of a false peace that does not adequately address underlying problems. It’s the facile “I just want everyone to get along” instead of “I want there to be justice.” 

Great leaders and reformers embrace displays of power to put their goals on the agenda and push them forward. Laborers engage in strikes to demonstrate their power and compel their employers to take their demands seriously. Civil Rights activists and anti-slavery abolitionists used every means at their disposal to protect the oppressed and demonstrate strength. Even Martin Luther King Jr., who is held up in mainstream culture for his nonviolent approach, said: “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

Image of a stag in a forest.
Image of a stag in a forest. Photo b Teddy Kelley.

We need a willingness to stand tall and face the issues clearly and with power. We need to know our strength. Nonviolent protestors in the Civil Rights Movement practiced direct action and emotional self-control, as in they literally subjected themselves to emotionally stressful practice drills so that they were prepared to face the violence of the State. Their actions confronted the State with its injustice and compelled appallingly violent responses that engendered outrage and coverage which supported their causes. There was nothing passive about this. 

I have seen people and organizations in positions of leadership, or people of the majority population, respond to challenges with complaining, defensiveness, and attitudes of victimization. The examples are almost too many to mention, but generally any time someone uses the phrase, “PC culture run amok,” that is an excellent opportunity to question this dynamic. What established structures of power and dominance have been challenged? Who is challenging them? How do those structures hurt the marginalized culture, and how does challenging them hurt the dominant culture?

On a personal level, the complaining, defensiveness, and victimization make sense. Few of us experience ourselves as numb to criticism. Privileged folks in general do not understand what it’s like not to have their privilege. As an analogy, I worked as a barista for about four years. Sometimes during the course of a work day I spilled water upwards of 200 degrees Fahrenheit on my skin. Toward the end of my tenure, I was able to respond quickly, shake off the pain of it, and keep doing my job. My skin had toughened and my nerves dulled. My skin had become inured to the pain. Now that I have the privilege of working a job that’s not manual labor, in which I am not regularly subjected to these minor trauma, I would be more sensitive and reactive.

Privileged and powerful people feel sensitive, hurt, and outraged because we do not experience ourselves as powerful. Oddly enough, however, we project our hurt and outrage onto the challenging person and say they’re the one who’s being “too sensitive” since their criticism upsets us. On the most cynical level, it is an effort to co-opt the experienced of the oppressed to shore up one’s place. Either way, it is generally counterproductive and disrespectful to all involved.

We all have potential for strength and power, particularly when joined in community. It is worth taking stock of your assets, strengths, and allies. What are you good at? Speaking up, identifying problems, building relationships? What is something that you consider a weakness that you’d like to develop? What practices could strengthen that weakness? How is that weakness useful at times? Who’s in your corner? Who would provide you direct and trustworthy feedback? What practices do you have to care for yourself? What resources do you need?

To bolster our strength, we also need safe spaces to feel vulnerable and vent our frustrations. This will be the topic of the next post.