Holy shit Charleston.
I wrote a piece that isn’t ready for the public eye, and may never be. Because holy shit.
And now I’m writing this, because the debate has devolved in many quarters into the meta debate: what is this really about anyway? Is it race or guns or the history of the Confederacy?
I think the biggest part, the thing that needs the attention, is race. But whenever any thinking person starts to address it, we end up with a lot of other conversations and a lot of side conversations. These are at root conversations about values, which is exactly what they need to be…but they’re also conversations about something else, something we’re not talking about.
so I sat down to figure it out, and here it is.
I can’t write about one thing without writing about the others anymore.
How do I talk about race without talking about gender? How do I talk about privilege of any kind without talking about class?
It doesn’t work.
But when the story about Charleston broke, I tried. I tried because the alternative feels impossible, overwhelming, absurd.
It’s like untangling a huge knot, made of about ten different kinds of yarn. If you have to find all the ends and begin at all the places all at once, you’re never going to even get started. Which is where the US has been, as a country, since….oh, Columbus and Vespucci or so.
So instead you pick ONE kind of yarn. The purple one, say. You start following all the purple threads, and let everything else blur out. A little at a time, a little at a time…until you find what you think might be an end, the origin of the purple thread. And then you start following it forward again, up and down and under and over, drawing an increasingly long and unwieldy tail behind you, slowing freeing pieces of the other yarn but ignoring them, remaining single-minded, following, following, following until you arrive at the OTHER end, and then you start over with a different color, with what is essentially a brand-new knot, dramatically changed by the removal of the purple yarn, destabilized but still definitely tangled.
Works great with yarn.
Sucks with people.
Because the whole knot relies on the whole knot. And so the yarn, which is made of both people and their ideas, the yarn fights BACK. It grips and tangles and grows thorns. It shapeshifts and becomes a writhing mass of serpents and dragons, drawing blood at every turn. The purple yarn, especially, becomes razor wire with a brain. It doesn’t want to be removed; it doesn’t want to be reduced to insignificance by being taken out of the equation. The other yarns like it; they need it; they hold on and intertwine with it. When you drop that loose end for a second it bends back and begins weaving itself into the knot again, more tightly than ever.
And because human brains are like this, when we are part of the yarn we do this without even realizing it.
So we SAY we are all for disentangling. Meanwhile we are growing fangs and claws that we can’t see and using them in ways that we don’t understand.
This is change theory, this is systems theory, this is also not theory. It is the very real answer to the question, “Why haven’t we come farther in the years since Selma?”
Take the classic family systems scenario, which conveniently has absolutely nothing to do with race.
There’s a person who’s got a long and trying history of alcoholism. He has spent years avoiding sobriety and his family has spent years complaining about his drinking. it’s clear that his drinking has caused a whole bunch of problems. The complaints are well-founded.
Then one day he figures it out. Maybe it’s a visit from God, maybe it’s getting hauled in for DUI AGAIN, but whatever it is, he gets it, all the way into his bones. He goes home, pours out all the alcohol in the house, goes to three AA meetings in his first day and 30 in his first month, and he starts getting sober. Really, truly sober. A month, two months, six months….still sober. It’s working, whatever it is. He’s a changed man. The program starts impacting his attitudes, the way he moves through the world, his choices for social activities, his values. Suddenly, one day, he comes home and there’s a bottle of vodka in the middle of the dining table. He takes a deep breath, calls his sponsor, goes out for coffee, attends an extra AA meeting. He asks his wife if she would please put the bottle away and she lashes out, has a list of a hundred and twenty seven things he did wrong when he was drinking and says she won’t have her fun curtailed by his faults. Then she pours a drink right in front of him. He takes a deep breath, calls his sponsor, and disappears for 24 hours. He stays at a friend’s house, someone in the program. He’s determined not to drink and is hurt and angry that his wife would make it so hard for him.
What’s happening here? His wife complained bitterly when he was drinking. What is this?
This is human systems at work. The very short breakdown is that he changed. He is connected to his wife. When he changes, she has to change, too, because he is no longer playing his old role in her life. She subconsciously doesn’t want to change. So she starts acting out in ways that might draw him back into his old role, so she can go back to what she’s used to. Human brains and human systems don’t like change. When we’re interconnected, our change affects everyone around us. The system we’re in is going to resist that change. It’s adapted to who we were, not who we are trying to become.
This theory of human behavior has its origins as Family Systems Theory but in fact it could be called Any Humans Connected to Any Other Humans theory. It has been reconfigured for use in religious organizations, in business situations, and even in internal family systems, which is more or less the set of voices you carry around in your head that comment on everything you do (the movie Inside Out makes this kind of thing visible).
So with regard to social change, the cultural and political system, along with our family and friend networks AND our internal systems, are all adapted to our various biases and prejudices. We use them. When we try and change them, we change the system, and the system fights back.
So we can’t untangle everything at once. And when we try to untangle just one thing, we get stuck with yarn that bites. Now what?
The answer is simple but not easy. The answer is fear. Fear of a lot of things, but it almost doesn’t matter.
Fear is what makes the yarn come to life and twist and twine and grow spikes. Fear is what makes the wife bring home the vodka. Fear is what drives stasis. It might be uncomfortable to be the way we were, but we know what to expect. As long as the discomfort is tolerable, we let fear run the show.
A year that starts with Ferguson and ends with Charleston is not tolerable, and that’s why things are starting to change.
When we address the need for change in a way that induces more fear than necessary, we make the pushback worse.
This goes to a bit of neurobiology that, vastly summarized, works like this: when you’re scared your brain shuts down all the higher-order thinking: creativity, complex reasoning, gray areas, sense of humor, gone. Those parts of your brain get taken offline so you can’t get distracted from the central work of survival. You become a very, very unsophisticated survival machine. This happens to everyone. Fear shuts down the useful parts of the brain. You are left with breathing, running, fighting, and staying very, very still. That’s fight-flight-freeze.
So if you’re arguing with someone and they get scared, the conversation is effectively over. And the more often this reaction gets triggered by this conversation, the easier it is for the trigger to get tripped again. The brain learns. And if you’re arguing with someone and YOU get scared, the same thing happens. No one is immune.
So we changemakers are walking this fine line between tolerating discomfort and putting the very people we want to have think creatively into an anti-creativity panic that’s biological and unavoidable.
And that’s where building relationships comes in. If you know a person and you have a good relationship, the panic doesn’t kick in as readily. When the panic doesn’t kick in, conversation, change, and compromise are possible.
[A word about where you come from: if you’re in one or more marginalized groups, you are accustomed to much higher levels of discomfort than the unmarginalized people around you. You operate better under higher levels of dissonance and change, and you have learned to moderate your responses to specific kinds of stress, including prejudice. You shouldn’t have to, but that’s the world we live in. You may even have come to associate moderate levels of dissonance with healthy stretching-of-brain and growth. When your standards are substantially different from the people you’re interacting with, the low threshold has to take precedence, because one panicked person means the whole conversation ends. And just because you can tolerate high levels of stress on one topic doesn’t mean you are necessarily similarly equipped on other topics. You may be used to talking about poverty but totally unprepared to talk about race, for example. Also, your level of discomfort and therefore your willingness to tolerate it is almost certainly different from that of the people around you.]
When you can relax, the yarn relaxes. The knot loosens. Everything gets easier. (Not usually EASY, just easier.)
That’s the third path. Loosen the whole knot, gradually, unweave ends when they show up, and keep tugging gently, gently, gently.
They are all connected to each other, all held in place by fear of change.
Of course race and class and gun control and the history of the Confederacy and mental health are all connected. Of course they are.
And of course, we will feel much better when we’ve untangled the whole messy thing. But that’s going to take time. Meanwhile, see what you can do about fear. Your fear. Find it, ferret it out, and unwind it. That’s where this whole thing starts.