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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Showcase: Rachel's A Protest March is Not Dialogue


Continuing our posting of bloggers' thoughts on the dialogue between advocates and parents, here is Rachel's post from today.

A Protest March is Not Dialogue

by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

I’ve been doing some more thinking about the Self-Advocate/Parent Dialogues on The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism.


Like many people, I’ve felt frustrated, angry, and saddened by what I’ve watched go on there. And I’m realizing that it’s because, each day, I show up wanting peaceful dialogue, and each day, I find myself in the middle of a protest march that keeps turning into a brawl. It feels exactly like wandering into a demonstration and counter-demonstration in which the police barricades, put in place to keep people from tearing one another apart, keep getting overrun.
Maybe it’s just me (and judging from the events of the past week, I’m beginning to think that it may very well be just me), but there are things that I’ve always expected from a dialogue, and that I’ve always assumed were both necessary and reasonable:
  • Expressions of respect for the other party
  • Listening and responding rather than reacting
  • Speaking with civility, even in the midst of great anger
  • Asking questions that go to the heart of intent
  • Equal time and representation for both sides to express their perspectives
  • Care and concern for individuals across division
  • An ability to acknowledge errors on both sides
But here are the things that I’m seeing in the The Dialogues:
  • Yelling. And I mean yelling that happens IN ALL CAPS because otherwise, MAYBE other people won’t KNOW how WRONG they OBVIOUSLY ARE.
  • People taking their pain out on one another. I see parents doing it because they feel stressed and abandoned and get to do it everywhere else in the autism world, and I see autistics doing it because they feel stressed and abandoned and never get to do it anywhere else in the autism world. On behalf of both parties, it hurts me to watch.
  • Accusations of ill-intent along the lines of “You’re just trying to derail the conversation,” as though accusing someone of derailing the conversation — rather than bringing the conversation back on point — isn’t derailing the conversation.
  • Lots and lots of sentences beginning with “You,” such as “You just refuse to understand” and “You need to park your privilege at the door” and “You have no right to be upset about whatever it is you’re upset about, because it’s irrelevant.”
Anyone here ever try to carry on a relationship in which both parties start every sentence with “you” rather than with “I”? It doesn’t go well. Telling the other person everything he or she has done wrong, over and over, instead of talking about its impact on you and what you want to see change, usually doesn’t get you very far. It’s quite cathartic, but in the end, it damages the relationship, and then there is repair work to do on top of the problems that were there in the first place.
  • People laughing derisively at each other, judging each other, attacking each other, and accusing each other of saying things they never said and meaning things they never meant.
  • People treating one another as walking incarnations of all of life’s injustices, rather than as actual people with feelings and thoughts and tears. It’s easy to take a swipe at an incarnation of life’s injustices. It’s quite a bit more difficult to do it when you realize that a person is standing in front of you.
  • People getting their feelings trampled underfoot on the road to — what? Making life better for all of us? Excellent. But there’s one little problem: I’m not all that interested in creating change with people who think that’s the way to go about it — for the simple reason that I fear for what the world will look like when we get there.
  • People being unable to acknowledge any wrongdoing, either because they’re oppressed and the wrongs done them are so much worse than what they’ve done to others, or because as long as the cause is right, who cares? So, unlike most people who seem to have moved on as though nothing happened, I’m still pissed as hell at what happened to Emily, and I’m still waiting for someone else to sober up and say, “My God, we’re so sorry. You didn’t deserve that.” And I can feel, in my bones, just how irrelevant people seem to think that is. Who cares about Emily when we’re talking about oppression?
I do. It’s not that I think that Emily is still hurting. It’s the failure to take responsibility that concerns me so much. If we can’t engage in self-reflection and mend things that are broken in our community, how can we have a prayer of mending a broken world?
I’m having memories of my days in Berkeley, when I’d go to gatherings about social justice issues, hoping to listen to a few speakers and have a reasoned discussion, only to watch people yell and punch holes in walls and talk about how it wasn’t such a big deal because people were suffering in the world. Yeah, the wall doesn’t suffer, but the people in the room who watch it happen do. It’s scary, it’s intimidating, and it’s not conducive to dialogue.
Now, I can hear the objections to everything I’m saying here: “Well, we’re oppressed. You can’t expect us to be civil and well-spoken about it. There is too much at stake. And besides, we’re angry. And besides, why don’t you talk about what we’re saying rather than about how we’re saying it?”
All I can say is that, in a protest march, or in a diatribe, you have to yell and say what you have to say, however you want to say it. And I share your suffering, and I share your desire to be loud about it, and I want change to happen right now, just as you do. I’m a member of two minority groups that have suffered bitterly for generations upon generations, so I can hardly be accused of not getting it.
But a dialogue involves something very different. A dialogue involves saying things in a way that other people can hear them. This is not an argument from tone. This is a realistic appraisal of how to work around people’s defenses and get them to hear us so that we can make change. We can’t get people to listen to us by telling them that we’re right and they’re wrong, over and over. They’ll either put up their defenses and start beating up on us in the same way, or they’ll go away altogether. Either way, we’ve lost much-needed allies.
When I look at history, I see oppressed people creating change by forming alliances with the majority, and by doing it in a way that takes the moral high ground. The civil rights movement finally had its day because Martin Luther King, Jr. invited white folk to join him in taking that moral high ground. You had people who had watched their loved ones lynched and raped, but they came together, in the spirit of peaceful dialogue and a yearning for justice, with representatives of the privileged class whose members had done the lynching and raping.
That’s what I keep hoping for: that we carry this forward with some discipline, some respect for the perspective of the other, and some trust that we can make change by being the change we want to see. But after the events of the past week, my sense is that we’re a long, long way from there.
© 2011 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

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