When we feel mistrust in each other, fearful that the other intends us harm or simply is unable to hear and have our best interests at heart, engaging in open-hearted conflict becomes difficult. More often, particularly in Western white-influenced cultures, we retreat from the emotional engagement toward an intellectualization of the problem. Successful conflict thus looks like being technically correct, using proper grammar and argumentative structure, not making any mistakes, having correct evidence. This kind of argumentation is useful for disciplines pursuing truth, such as science and academia, but unhelpful when it comes to building relationships.
When it comes to interpersonal arguments, more often than not what’s at stake are basic human social and survival questions like—”Can I be myself? Will I be safe? Will I be included or rejected? Will I be cared for?” I think conversations about “microaggressions” bring up these questions for all participants. People who live in bodies and identities that experience violence and marginalization walk around with a certain sensitivity to signs of potential exclusion or violence.
For example—as a gay man, when I hear someone use the word “faggot” I do an automatic mental calculus about the context and meaning of that word, particularly how unsafe I should feel. When I was growing up, people used that word primarily in the context of insulting each other and threatening violence. When other queer people are using that word, I usually feel okay because I know that we share certain values and acceptance and that their use of that word typically does not suggest the risk of violence or exclusion. When I’m not sure if the people using the word are queer, or how they feel about queer people, then I feel on edge.
Thus, I understand that different groups might have strong responses to certain words. They want to feel safe and included, as do nearly all humans in social spaces. I also understand that the strong push to control, abolish, or limit the use of certain words and phrases is experienced as an aggression by others.
If I angrily respond to the person who I think is homophobic who uses the word “faggot,” and insist they can’t use that word, that person might experience their own sense of threat of exclusion or marginalization. Perhaps they think I’m being unfair because they do not consider themselves homophobic and do not see a problem with their use of the word. They might think I’m being oppressive by trying to control their language. We could get locked in mutual suspicion and escalate into greater distance. We could also share our experiences with each other in a spirit of mutual understanding and respect, and come closer together.
We don’t know how powerful we are. When it comes to interpersonal, face to face connections, we have much more influence over each others’ emotional states than we might realize. When two people are meeting, all the decades of history, systemic privilege and marginalization, economic disparity, all of that is present and yet not always fully conscious. Or so I want to believe, but often it seems the person in the position of power “forgets” their relative power and privilege until the moment they are aggrieved, and then retreats into it instead of engaging in conflict as an equal participant.
One’s boss is simply a person who makes mistakes and wants to be liked, and so may engage with their employees in a position of friendliness and equality, but the employees are very aware that they cannot have a simply human relationship with their bosses, for their economic security and job prospects depend upon staying in the boss’s good graces. Inevitably certain things stay unspoken, unaddressed.
Similarly, police officers may start a “consensual conversation” that results in the arrest of the person they are speaking with. Police officers are human beings with their own fears, hopes, strengths, and insecurities, and yet the amount of social and political power granted to them makes any interaction entirely lopsided. There is no possibility of authentic conflict. We are told to treat police officers with respect and that any disrespect we show invites punishment, but depending upon the culture and laws of the precinct, there is not necessarily a similar injunction on the officer to comport themselves with honesty and respect.
When there is no basic level of trust and safety, we turn to legalistic solutions. Rather than meet each other directly with our feelings, share our mutual experiences, name our hopes and fears, and discover the right next step—we turn toward third parties, byzantine systems of rules, authority figures to manage the conflict for us. We retreat from the basic questions of love and belonging and instead try to score points on each other. Instead of improving our sense of community and belonging, though, this leaves our resentments and fears simmering, unprocessed, unwitnessed, and any genuine expression of these ends up punished and demonized. Without open-hearted conflict, all we have is war.