Dealing with conflict

In an ideal community we would fight together as well as we play together. But, because we pay rent, work shitty jobs, and struggle against the world, we are under enormous pressure. Not only do we not have a clear boundary defining what exactly our community is, but we are under the constant strain of our own personal and changing definitions of what exactly ‘radical’ is. The people who are engaged in these same questions are the ones we want with us in our combat against the world-as-it-is. We want a place to feel safe and we believe that safety lies in this shared struggle, with the kind of people who hate the same things as us.

What would a community look like that didn’t rely so much on carving out a non-reactionary safe space? Sadly, even visioning this kind of community requires using a lot of negative statements because it is so hard to imagine something worthwhile without facing what stands in our way. A real community would not be a Hot Topic-ized Norman Rockwell world of gated communities and downtown redevelopment model cities. It would be a world where trash (literally and figuratively) would never be exported; where love of place wouldn’t be the rhetoric in front of convenient practice but would be the principle guiding our meaningful choices. It would not be a static place, but it also wouldn’t be merely a depot for people passing through.

This community would have the space for the entirety of human practice, with the stability to provide people with shape and the flexibility for people to shape it for themselves. A real radical community must, like the Shakers, attract new people to survive and, like a street gang, stand the pummeling of authority that designs to cripple it. A real community would be a place broad enough to be born into, die within, test convictions, and eat fantastic food. Being in a community would, like being a Mormon, mean that you rarely felt isolated or minimized and always had the option of a casserole delivered to your door by a smiling friend who would stick around for long enough for you to cry on their shoulder.

But we would settle for less than this: much less. And we do. We have chosen to be radical in the East Bay.

While the East Bay is seen by the rest of the world as some sort of utopia, we all know it is far from that. The crushing burden of the cost of living in this somewhat-tolerant borough forces most of us to become wage-slaves as well as activists, hoping to get out from under the yoke. We seem to do everything to avoid having time to even experience community, much less do community well. This faulty self-reflection is seen most clearly in the limited responses that many of us have to intense emotional conflict in our scene.

People peripheral to a conflict commonly take one of two roles, Supporter or Advisor – both outside of the conflict, and both merely different faces of the same dynamic. The Supporter is entirely partisan. Many of us know the weaknesses of strict partisanship. It leads to simplification of issues, to good-guy/bad-guy binaries that don’t serve us in our understandings of power and autonomy. The Advisor is reasonable and balanced (or proud of being that, anyway), and has usually gotten a lot of positive feedback in our scene for that behavior, including getting called on to mediate in conflicts between other people. But it tends to lead to a disconnect from the people who are actually in the conflict, and a lack of clarity about what we value and what we don’t. If the opposite of polarities is relativist vagueness and indecisiveness, if the opposite of hating one person and placing the other one on a pedestal is having no position at all, then we are not closer to a working situation. And that is what seems to be the case. People, those few who have managed to get beyond the good/evil split, are so uncomfortable with taking a stand that they prefer to pretend that the field of conflict is level, and that all transgressions have the same value and relative significance. This isolates the conflict just as much as any other simplistic analysis of a situation. Do we understand the difference between taking a position and taking sides? It is as if people are more afraid of doing something wrong than of doing ‘nothing.’ (As if it’s possible to do nothing. Does breathing count?)

There are varied, intersecting bases for this non-committedness. The over-representation of college-educated middle and upper class people in radical circles emphasizes the tendency to avoid anger or obvious disagreement. The ‘I like to keep my options open’ motivation allows you to stand outside of conflict as an innocent bystander even when those you care for are hurt and in need. The ‘I am reasonable’ motivation pretends that the ‘truth’ of a conflict is somewhere in the middle of the people having conflict (like between Ohio and outer space). If I can find no one to stand with me, not because people think that I haven’t been attacked, or wounded, but because they are unwilling to act on that belief, then that is the other side to the coin of people over-siding with me. Critical engagement doesn’t look like leaving your people standing alone against real conflict; it looks like recognizing that the intensity of conflict isn’t necessarily related to the content of the conflict, and addressing that intensity as a more relevant issue than the specifics of the conflict.

Let’s take a well known local example, that of the split in the San Francisco Indymedia. At the heart of this conflict was a set of personal relationships, romantic, acrimonious, and complicated. The tissue of the conflict was between technical people and media people (with some overlap). The skin of the conflict was the sensational ability of people to fight with each other on-line in an environment relatively free from consequences. Seen generally this may be a poor example of community conflict because of its internet centered independent media activist orientation but real people felt isolated, hurt, and abused as a result of the actions of people that they used to work with, care for, and depend on. The creation of two different media centers out of one was probably an appropriate response to the conflict, but the heartache, vitriol, and continuing antagonism probably could have been alleviated by a periphery that was more aware and engaged than the one we have.

How could people who felt invested in the situation but not directly affected have acted differently? In the case of the IMC conflict this may be an easier situation than others, in that what has resulted (two IMC’s) is the clearest solution to the problem faced by a politically oriented group. A group with clearly irreconcilable differences can split amiably only by being clear about the different agendas, hearing everyone out but not taking sides, and embracing how emotionally connected we become to the way that things are. The Bay Area IMC conflict dragged on, publicly, for a year. Arguably there were involved parties who wanted this conflict (and the perception of the defeat of their rivals) more than they wanted a solution, but their approach can be seen for what it is: divisive and unconstructive. The members of the IMC were significant members of the community, and there should have been people who engaged with them in ways that they needed and in service of the goal of, in this case, separate IMCs.

This specific case speaks to the question about how our community, the East Bay, could become more like the community we would like to live in. As someone who was aware of the conflict (because I am on the internet a lot) and who was not personally close friends with the major participants in the conflict I felt both the great frustration at both wanting to help turn an ugly situation into something more appropriate and the knowledge that my participation was suspect because of my lack of shared vocabulary, history, or aesthetics with the two camps. How could I, or they, have done this differently?

For my part I could have risked more. Entering a situation saying “I am interested in your project” is very different than saying “I am interested in helping you through a conflict that I am fully aware of and torn by.” We, myself included, try not to make mistakes even if those mistakes would actually make our projects and interactions more interesting and dangerous (to the world at large).

For their part they could have kept a clearer distinction between the human sized problems and the political problems. We all have the experience of working with, or being, jerks. It is easy to write off someone who you find displeasing by calling them a name (asshole, not-an-anarchist, etc.) and turning off your critical facilities by shutting them out. We also recognize that how we meet each other, whether by shared friends, political projects, or social scene reflects greatly on how we perceive each other. A person’s social awkwardness is often seen as political liability.

Finally it should be understood that our own participation in conflict should be preceded by clarity rather than a need to be ‘right’ (whatever that means). Many of us, me included, are more readily equipped to march into battle rather than to honestly evaluate what it is that we want from the people who we work, love, and associate with. If we took the time and space to make these evaluations before we turned disagreements into conflicts we could make the ways in which we choose not to work with each other as interesting as the ways that we do. Because they are.

Most conflicts between people are not matters of right and wrong but of timing, transparency, and priority.

The East Bay is not utopia, but it is the most intentional, urban radical community that most of us will ever live in…