Thursday, March 19, 2009

Table Talk for Activists, Part 6: Backbiting & Other Destructive Forms of Disagreement

This essay is contained in my new book. I'm delighted to announce that The Sojourner's Passport site has launched! You can visit it at http://www.sojournerspassport.com/.

Everyone, I can't thank you enough for your ongoing encouragement and support; I truly appreciate it. Your support is what made this possible. And here's a special shout-out to my web designers at Educo Web Design. They're nice people to deal with, and they do outstanding work!

Peace and blessings,
Khadija Nassif
____________________________________________

Backbiting Is Usually The Result of Mishandling a Disagreement

Upon reflection, I realized that backbiting is usually the result of the backbiter mishandling disagreement. It begins when the backbiter discovers that she's unable to get the other person to agree with her. The backbiter then starts going to various other venues to disparage the person who disagreed with them. I've watched this happen repeatedly with commenters on various blogs.

Here's the typical scenario for this:

The commenter is unable to get the blogger to agree with her. The commenter then tries to "flip the script," and claim that the blogger that they are backbiting is intolerant of dissent. From the scenarios that I silently observed before I even started my own blog, that's not these backbiters' true issue at all. Their REAL issue is that they were unable to get the blogger to change their position. And instead of gracefully agreeing to disagree, they skulk off to other forums to whine about how the blogger would not change their position to agree with them.

This is dysfunctional AND destructive behavior. Let's talk about the constructive management of disagreements.

Recognize That Most Disagreements Will Be Managed, and NOT Resolved

The first step is to recognize that most disagreements will be managed, and not resolved. As Frank Hecker stated in his essay Handling Disagreements in Open Collaborative Projects, he strongly believes that "in the context of open collaborative projects it is not possible to definitively resolve all disagreements to the satisfaction of those disagreeing; I believe instead that in the real world the best we can hope for is to manage disagreements well enough to get some work done."

I agree with Mr. Hecker. In the context of Black women's empowerment blogs, the point (as I see it) is to work together to pursue our broader, shared goals. NOT to convert other discussion participants to every, single tenet of our personal beliefs.

Recognize the Difference Between Critical and Non-Critical Points of Disagreement

In order to work together to pursue broader, shared goals we actually have to have shared goals. Trying to work with people who do not share one's goals automatically leads to infighting. Even if a group of people have shared goals, they also need to have shared core values in order to be able to cooperate enough to get work done. Trying to work with people who do not share one's core values automatically leads to infighting.

For example, I believe in economic empowerment for Black women. However, I would not be able to cooperate with persons who feel that it is appropriate for Black women to seek this empowerment through the sex trade.

The problem with how many of us handle disagreement is that we inflate every point of disagreement into a false core value. Through our emotions, we turn every point of disagreement into a "dealbreaker." Whether or not the disagreement is over an actual core value, we need to learn to gracefully walk away from disagreements.

Gracefully Walk Away From The Disagreement

People create a lot of unnecessary friction and strife when they refuse to gracefully walk away from a disagreement. Instead of "agreeing to disagree" and moving on, they do destructive things. Sometimes they run to other venues to backbite the person who disagreed with them. Backbiting is when the target of the verbal attack isn't present to respond.

In addition to backbiting, there's another destructive behavior that I call "the running battle." This is where the combatants openly rehash and re-fight their battles with each other over and over at a never-ending series of venues. As a result, the strife that was originally contained within one setting is spread to multiple settings.

Another destructive behavior that people sometimes engage in is to stay and fight with the person who disagreed with them.

There are two main "stay and fight" techniques that I see a lot of. The first "stay and fight" technique is to needlessly rehash the original point of disagreement. It's one thing to state one's full position on an issue when it naturally comes up in discussion (including a point of disagreement). It's something else to continuously drag the point of disagreement into unrelated conversations.

The other "stay and fight" technique is to insist upon having the last word in a disagreement. I see this a lot with commenters on blogs, which always amazes me. It would never occur to me to expect to have the last word about a topic in somebody else's "house." Especially if the person I'm disagreeing with is the blog host!

On this blog, I will at times allow dissenting readers to have the last word in a disagreement. I try to be a gracious host. However, I won't do that if I feel that the point of disagreement is of critical importance. Also, people need to understand that they are not entitled to have the last word in somebody else's house. That's a courtesy that might be extended, not a requirement.

Gracefully walking away should be the general practice whether the disagreement is about a "dealbreaker" issue or not. If it's about a "dealbreaker," engaging in destructive behavior (such as backbiting and staying to fight) will likely create an extra, unnecessary enemy. If the disagreement is about a non-essential matter, engaging in destructive behavior will make it difficult (if not impossible) to cooperate with that person in pursuit of broader, shared goals.

Over the last century, many Muslim reformers such as Hassan al-Banna (the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood) have recognized the activists' organizing principle that we should cooperate on the issues we agree upon, and excuse one another on the issues we differ on. I believe that this is good advice.

12 comments:

Chi-Chi, The Original Wombman said...

Greetings Khadija,

I know I've engaged in destructive forms of disagreement here on your blog (and you know I recognized and apologized for it). Your post is totally on point . . . it is essential to learn how to constructively disagree in all areas of our lives--online and real life, and in all our relationships to preserve them and not create enemies. It takes discipline too.

I do think that it is okay and well within a blogger's right to not want to emphasize dissenting opinions especially if he/she feels it confuses or hinders his/her original message. It behooves a dissenting commenter to understand that they are only visiting and proceed humbly. I think it's okay go back to his/her own "house" to handle the issue from his/her own perspective respectfully and positively (i.e. refraining from backbiting). Some folks don't like visitors wearing shoes in their house. Others don't want barefoot folks in their house. Instead of shouting others down for their position on shoe wearing in the house, wiser use of energy would be to go to your own house and flesh out how you'd like it there and why.

Khadija said...

Greetings, Chi-Chi!

You said, "I know I've engaged in destructive forms of disagreement here on your blog (and you know I recognized and apologized for it)."

And as you know, I've accepted your apology with gratitude and have moved on. I admire your candor. It takes a LOT of courage and maturity to publicly 'fess up and move on. It's not an easy thing to do. At least it doesn't come easy for me. So, I salute your courage and candor. {raised fist salute}

We've ALL engaged in destructive forms of disagreement at one time or another. It's a natural, common, human temptation and flaw.

Part of the problem is that a lot of folks simply don't realize how destructive backbiting, public running battles, etc. are to any sort of movement.

Another part of the problem is that it takes a lot of self-discipline to refrain from that sort of behavior. Our emotions get inflamed by disagreement because we often identify our very personhood with our positions.

Unfortunately, most Black folks do not cultivate any sort of self-discipline in our lives. In fact, we seem to have developed a cultural aversion to self-discipline. If we're going to move forward, we all need to either learn, or make more of an effort to practice, different behavior patterns. It's not easy; but it must be done.

Peace, blessings and solidarity.

Ensayn1 said...

Respect Khadija,
This post and even the previous post speaks to me about the state of mind of people. It seems to me that little work is done by our people and people in general to clear our minds of serious obscurations. I often hear the call for Black women (and anyone seeking to uplift themselves) to get out of all Black violent areas, look for a man, no matter his ethnicity, that will treat a woman the way a self respecting man should treat a self respecting woman.

But, if the person seeking to uplift themselves will not work on their own minds, to clear negative obscurations they will find themselves in the very same place they were attempting to flee or change.
They will find themselves with a loving, protective, caring man but, still having the same issues as they had with a DBRBM or when they were alone. They will find themselves in new non violent, non all Black areas in constant conflict, and backbiting still, because they have not cleared themselves from the negative thought process. Most people think and act on the negative-defeatist mind rather than the positive mind. Look how often people say "I can't" without serious indepth anaylsis of a situation? How often people we hear people "that won't happen for me" without ever making strides towards a particular goal?

We need to manifest clear and positive mind, if not, no matter where we run to, no matter who we share our lives with the same issues will arise over and over.

Guidance!

blackwomenblowthetrumpet.blogspot.com said...

Greetings, Khadija!

Gurrrrl....AMEN!!

Thanks for addressing all of these online dynamics that hinder the work of collective empowerment and destroy and sabotage community among black women who "claim" that it is so important to affirm community.

You are right that ALL of us have engaged in behaviors that have been counter-productive to what we espouse to elevate. However...some quickly CHANGE the behavior while others continue to justify their dysfunctional thinking.

This is where we must draw the line. This is why I keep saying that it's time to implement a policy of ZERO tolerance for female Chris Browns in our forums! ZERO!

There are a few erroneous perceptions that arise in our forums.

One example:
I went to a blog and noticed that a blog host linked to my blog with the title "Rev. Lisa's Debates". I don't have any interest at all in initiating debates. My blog forum has nothing AT ALL to do with creating debates on life-and-death issues. I don't even want debaters at my blog...collective introspection does NOT consist of debating each other.

This example revealed an erroneous perception that is prevalent. There is an assumption that if differing views are expressed... "they're debating".

No, we are not debating.

A debate is all about intellectual fornication - and that is not what I am interested in.

The other erroneous perception I wanted to point out is that some black women have been conditioned to accept this mentality: Differing Viewpoints = Brewing Conflict

If Khadija and I express different views then they will process that exchange with: "Khadija and Lisa are having a conflict....

There's no conflict at all just because two people share their different life experiences.

The other erroneous perception is that if Person A has a different view than Person B and expresses their position... then Person A is disrespecting Person B or is disapproving of Person B.

Pure stupidity. It also reflects an extreme level of childish thinking.

We have to also realize that there ARE some women who visit our forums who have never learned correct and healthy methods of communication.

There are some people who were brought up in environments where yelling, cursing and hurling hostile retorts was the NORM. Demonstrating mutual respect and honor was not a norm; it was an exception.

Quite often, I see black women snapping and yelling and swearing at their children while I am out in public. They don't even see that they are the ones who are being inappropriate - even if the child has misbehaved.

There are some women sitting at keyboards who think that being rude and nasty and hostile is justified just because they feel upset about whatever has been said. We need to ELIMINATE this dysfunctional behavior at all black women's empowerment forums.

It is a shame that I had to have a rule implemented at my blog forum that "if you can not present a differing view without making negative comments about me or others, your comment will be deleted."

Adults actually needed to be TOLD this? Demonstrating exemplary manners with others is not valued and is not a norm?

What does that say about black women in general if we do not make it a norm as we relate to one another?

I agree with Victor...we must deal with negative and dysfunctional thought processes.

One commenter came to my blog long ago launching a baseless accusation that I was calling people "low class" when the term I used was lower class (which refers to one specific class tier). Some women just WANT to "create" offenses just to justify their negative reactions.

I see this alot and we have mentioned this in other discussions.


All of this reflects what Victor referred to when he mentioned the condition of the mind.

These conversations are very valuable and I believe that they address many dynamics that continue to surface at many blogs and ALL of us need to be highly vigilant about them.

This has been a wonderful, wonderful week of discussion here, Khadija. Thanks for your skilled faciliation of the group exchange!

Peace, blessings and DUNAMIS!
Lisa

Whiteboy "L" said...

Khadija,
Nicely said! Very concise. And so true. I ought to use this for our management group meetings! The stupid, petty things people stick on sometimes make me think “Huh? Just WHY are we going to stop on THAT point and hash this out?”
Thanks.

Khadija said...

Greetings, Ensayn1/Victor!

You said, "But, if the person seeking to uplift themselves will not work on their own minds, to clear negative obscurations they will find themselves in the very same place they were attempting to flee or change."

I agree. Such people will also BRING threats to new environments, such as when women move their abusive, criminally-inclined boyfriends, nephews, sons, etc. into their homes in previously-safe places.

As you know, it's all connected. However, I would set an initial priority on escaping external threats to one's life. A person can't work on their mind or character if they are dead. Once peole get out from under life-threatening environments, then they can spend more effort on cleansing their hearts and minds.

Because it's all connected, distorted thought patterns will hinder one's ability to escape life-threatening environments.

For example, there may very well be people that are already telling the person life-saving information, but they can't receive the information because they're too busy "hating on" that person.
_________________

Greetings, Lisa!

You said, "You are right that ALL of us have engaged in behaviors that have been counter-productive to what we espouse to elevate. However...some quickly CHANGE the behavior while others continue to justify their dysfunctional thinking.

This is where we must draw the line. This is why I keep saying that it's time to implement a policy of ZERO tolerance for female Chris Browns in our forums! ZERO!"


I agree. I believe that it is essential that we purify our ranks of hardened reprobates. As you noted, that sort of behavior hinders the work of collective empowerment and destroys and sabotages community. Indulging this type of behavior is a luxury that we CAN'T afford.

You said, "A debate is all about intellectual fornication..."

{loud laughter}

You went on to say, " - and that is not what I am interested in."

I'm not interested in that either. It's a waste of my time.

You said, "The other erroneous perception I wanted to point out is that some black women have been conditioned to accept this mentality: Differing Viewpoints = Brewing Conflict"

I think that part of this is due to people identifying their very personhood with their viewpoints. This leads to them interpreting disagreement as disrespect or disapproval of THEM.

You were also correct when you said, "We have to also realize that there ARE some women who visit our forums who have never learned correct and healthy methods of communication.

There are some people who were brought up in environments where yelling, cursing and hurling hostile retorts was the NORM. Demonstrating mutual respect and honor was not a norm; it was an exception."


Anybody who wants to move forward in life will have to learn new behavior patterns.

You said, "Some women just WANT to "create" offenses just to justify their negative reactions."

Yep. Unfortunately, there are a LOT of people who actively search for, collect and cherish perceived slights against them. Their personal pile of accumulated, perceived slights over the years is one of their most treasured possessions. They look for opportunities to polish and add on to this pile everyday. Especially with people that they are jealous of.

You said, "This has been a wonderful, wonderful week of discussion here, Khadija. Thanks for your skilled faciliation of the group exchange!"

Thank you for your kind words about these conversations. I truly appreciate it!
__________________

Greetings, Whiteboy "L"!

Thank you for your kind words about the post. I truly appreciate it.

Peace, blessings and solidarity.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate this post and the insightful comments thus far. I just wanted to add that it is not always the case that people run off to other blogs to "backbite" when they disagree with a blog author on their own blog. I have seen it happen where commenters on one blog were picked out for criticism by the author of a different blog. These commenters had not commented at the second blog owner's blog or previously disagreed with this blogger.

I do not need to rehash the details but this incident made bitter enemies out of people who were really just on a different page of the same book. For this reason, I don't think it is appropriate for one blogger to air their personal grievances against commenters on someone else's blog. In my view, that is one blogger trying to police and play overlord over other blogs.

I think if someone thinks there is a problem with commenters on another blog, they should message the blog author in private and let them deal with it as they see fit. No need for publicly "calling people out". It just makes for a hostile unwelcoming atmosphere.

I also hope that blog authors reading this will take care to differentiate from people who may actually be asking for clarification and not be so quick to dismiss them as "dissenters". It's true that there are those who want to derail the message but it's also true that no philosophy should be above examination.

Khadija said...

Greetings, Anonymous!

There are many, many destructive forms of disagreement. It's impossible to write an exhaustive list of them.

You said, "I also hope that blog authors reading this will take care to differentiate from people who may actually be asking for clarification and not be so quick to dismiss them as "dissenters". It's true that there are those who want to derail the message but it's also true that no philosophy should be above examination."

There's nothing wrong with dissent. There's nothing wrong with expressing one's dissent from a particular position, as long as it's done in a productive manner. The problems start when folks want to express their dissent in ways that are non-productive.

Such as using destructive styles of disagreement. Also such as expressing their dissent with the bad-faith purpose of derailing the discussion (which is what the Ikes want to do).

Since I don't believe that there's anything inherently wrong with dissent, I don't view describing people as "dissenters" as "dismissing" them.

Peace, blessings and solidarity.

Sister Seeking/Miriam/MaryAnn said...

Salaam Khadija,

As a result of reading, and reflecting on your table talk series ( including readers comments and various teachable moments lol) I'm now on the take action part:

Sister, this essay here has forced me to sit back and focus on boundaries. I just realized why I have experienced being "had" so many times.

Ma'sha'Allah.

Salaam

Khadija said...

Wa Alaikum As Salaam, SisterSeeking/Miriam!

I'm delighted to hear that you've found the Table Talk series and conversations to be helpful! Alhamdulilah! That's what I was hoping for.

Peace, blessings and solidarity.

Aphrodite said...

Hello Khadija,

This is another good post.

I have thought/felt about this- particularly the part about 'managing' disagreements versus resolving them. That makes a lot of sense and again is something that I have never heard. I was always taught that you are to seek 'resolution', but like your post stated that can be unrealistic as all parties are not going to be happy with the outcome. How do you neutralize any bitter feelings so that they can gracefully walk away or is that even possible re: feelings?


I love this quote:

"Even if a group of people have shared goals, they also need to have shared core values in order to be able to cooperate enough to get work done."


I had a hint of a feeling of this a few years ago except it was in the context of relationships. I was talking to someone - who had been married 5 times - and he was telling me that all I needed was someone who understood me. I was saying how would someone understand me if they didn't share my values?


How do you vet for values?

Khadija said...

Hello there, Aphrodite!

You asked, " How do you neutralize any bitter feelings so that they can gracefully walk away or is that even possible re: feelings?"

I think that it's important for whoever's facilitating a discussion to keep it focused on solutions and points of agreement. Other than that, people are responsible for their own feelings. If folks want to be hostile and belligerent, nobody else can "make" them not feel that way.

All a facilitator can do is enforce boundaries for the conversation; and eject them from the discussion if they persist in being belligerent and disruptive.

You asked, "How do you vet for values?"

The same way you screen for anything. You carefully watch people's ACTIONS.

Peace, blessings and solidarity.