Community and Conflict

blocks-12-may016I almost don’t want to put this in the land dyke odyssey category. I do so because I think it’s imperative that women who are interested in the LDO, and in women’s community in general, read it. But by such placement I am not at all implying that conflict in land communities is any worse, or in fact much different, from conflict in any other group. I’ve been in all kinds of women’s groups, feminist and not, and in all of them there was strife which arose from similar sources, even if it took different forms depending on the group’s personalities, purpose and nature. However, when I first conceived of writing about my odyssey, my intention was to present as accurate a picture as I could of my experience. It’s easy, in this sophisticated urban culture and high-tech medium, to give in to the desire to prettify and romanticize rural life, or to decide that it’s more important to present the strengths and miracles of life in women’s community than to detail the problems and struggles. I really, really don’t want to do that–but I do want to be fair, and I definitely want to avoid an ass-kicking from my potential land partners. So please understand that what I’m saying here is based on my experiences in many groups, not just the group I am currently attempting to join. And even though I am writing this, you may NOT think of me as any kind of expert, because I certainly don’t. This is not intended to be a comprehensive list, or a cure-all. I will simply lay out some of the causes of conflict that I’ve witnessed, and discuss a couple of potential solutions that might help us all work together better.

Yet more disclaimers
I am writing here about in-person groups; I haven’t spent time thinking about what is similar and different about email, blogular or bulletin-board-based conflict–though, that’s a good idea for another post! I’m also assuming this is most applicable to groups with a political or practical, rather than a support, focus. I have not addressed conflict stemming from “-ist” behavior (such as racist or classist statements or actions); this is a huge topic and frankly I don’t feel that qualified to discuss it.

Some sources of conflict

  • Power dynamics. There’s a lot that’s been written on power struggles in traditional hierarchical groups, but the best piece of writing ever on power in so-called “structureless” groups–which the groups women form often tend to be–is Jo Freeman’s essay, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” Anyone who’s ever been in any “structureless” political group will recognize immediately the dynamics she’s discussing. I will just say briefly that I’ve observed different kinds of power. Jo has a great discussion of power based on affinity or friendship networks. However, competent, experienced women in a consensus-based group may also have power in the sense of influence. This is almost always earned; women take the opinions of competent, experienced members more seriously because such women usually know what they are talking about. However, this power can be lost if competent, experienced women appear to dismiss the opinions of others, or if they consistently oppose solutions that are favored by a majority of the other members, particularly when there are other accomplished women in the group who don’t appear to be on a “power trip.”There is also structural power, when a woman occupies a position created by the group which gives her access to more resources than others–she may be a contact person for the group and therefore have more information than others, or the group may pay her to perform particular duties which gives her more control over the outcome of the group’s work, for example.
  • Responsibility. In my thinking about this topic lately, the concepts that Harriet Goldhor Lerner introduces in her book The Dance of Anger have been extremely helpful. Yeah, yeah, I know, self-help book, two thumbs down, but she does actually use the word “feminism” several times, and her discussion of overfunctioning and underfunctioning alone is worth the cover price. Basically, an “overfunctioner” is the person who always knows the answer, who never needs anything or has any problems, who often likes to give other people advice or “be helpful,” and who can be counted on to get things done well and on time. An “underfunctioner” is the person who loses things, who talks a lot about personal problems and seeks a lot of advice, and who frequently has trouble showing up on time or accomplishing the things she sets out to do. Lerner points out, and I want to emphasize, that almost everyone overfunctions in certain areas of life, or certain relationships, and underfunctions in others; people can also underfunction due to illness, stress or other difficulties, even though they normally tend to overfunction in that area. These ideas were the key for me to start releasing my overfunctioner’s superiority complex, because I realized that I chronically underfunction in my job; I’m unreliable, not very productive, hard to get in touch with, and sometimes (gasp!) I even fail to do things I’ve said I’d do. This was not a pleasant revelation; I had a lot invested in the image of myself as always responsible, dependable and together, and in an attempt to bury my shame at failing to live up to this self-concept I was extra critical of other people’s similar failures. In the book, Harriet gives a fantastic explanation of how an overfunctioner and an underfunctioner in a relationship together can lock each other into those roles, unless one of them grows to dislike the pattern enough to try and change, and I think these roles function in groups as well. The overfunctioning/underfunctioning concept has helped me struggle much harder to see each person’s contribution instead of scathingly criticizing and dismissing people as has been my tendency since, apparently, birth.
  • Working styles. I tend to use concepts from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to think about this problem. The great thing about the MBTI is that no type is “wrong” or “bad”; each type has strengths and weaknesses, tendencies if you will, in various directions. Astrology and the Enneagram are also great for this, although it’s probably important for me to emphasize here that any system should be used as a guide only. For example, it’s useless to think, “Well, so-and-so shouldn’t be acting like that because she’s a Libra (or an INFJ)!” Systems are good when they describe people well, and ought to be abandoned when they don’t. But having said that, I’ve both observed and been in situations where a great deal of trouble was caused by women with very different styles trying to work together. For example, some people really like to plan, and schedule, and think ahead (the Js); some people enjoy being spontaneous and leaving their options open (the Ps). Some people feel terrible if they don’t arrive five minutes early; some people are chronically late, and fifteen minutes or even an hour just doesn’t mean that much to them. Some people want to complete projects well in advance; some people prefer to pull all-nighters the day before the deadline. Some people like to make to-do lists and calendars and write everything down; other people prefer to work from memory. Even though these distinctions aren’t perfectly clear-cut for most people–for example, someone might hate being late but also not be very good at writing down appointments–you get the picture.
  • More radical than thou. You can substitute any word you like for “radical” based on the circles that you move in: more feminist than thou, more religious than thou, more environmentally aware than thou, more committed than thou. Sometimes this attitude is expressed by the one who holds it, through various sarcastic/critical comments or martyr behavior–and sometimes the person who indeed is working the hardest to live what are supposedly shared values will be criticized and resented, because her efforts illuminate the failings and compromises of other members. Some people just can’t stand not being the most radical one in the room.
  • Time in service. Every single group I have ever been in–with one exception**–has had conflicts between existing members and new members. New members come in with lots of energy and ideas; existing members have usually seen several generations of enthusiastic new members come and go. New members don’t understand why their suggestions aren’t received with a round of “The Hallelujah Chorus”; existing members don’t understand why new members are reluctant to invest energy in initiating the changes they say they’d like to see.
  • Group size. Very simply, the smaller the group, the more stressed and overworked the members (depending on the tasks they’ve taken on), and the more important each member’s contribution becomes. Where larger groups have more leeway for people to fall down on the job, in a small group, people’s failures are glaringly apparent, and there is a stronger tendency to place blame, rather than recognizing that in a larger group, the extra work could be spread among several people or given to someone with only a few tasks.
  • Different abilities. This is a hard one, and particularly important in women’s groups, both because many chronic illnesses–often resulting from trauma and oppression–disproportionately affect women, and because feminist groups have placed a premium on accessibility. In addition, many of the illnesses that affect the quality or quantity of a woman’s participation are slow in onset, difficult to diagnose, and often impossible to cure. A woman can be sick for a long time before anyone is able to figure out what is wrong, and in the meantime her participation suffers because of her fatigue or other symptoms.

Some extremely tentative suggestions for perhaps considering moving towards solutions

  • Power dynamics. Read Jo Freeman’s essay. I’m serious. Go read it right now. I’ll wait.Okay. It’s my opinion that groups using consensus or another “anti-hierarchical” method of decision-making should read her piece together and give it serious thought and discussion at least once a year, including talking about who has power, who doesn’t, why, how it is concentrated or spread out by the structure (formal or informal) of the group, what changes would be desirable and how to approach them. If a woman has a lot of influence in a group–and trust me, other members are a better judge of this than the woman herself–she can work hard at being aware of exactly when and how she uses it. If she’s always criticizing other women’s ideas, rather than using her experience and influence to encourage others and to help shape new ideas into forms that are useful for the group, resentment can definitely develop and fester. The whole group can also work to put their money where their mouth is–that is, to make real the claim that no woman has more power than another. I have seen it happen that, even though the group may have one or several influential members, when it comes to decisions where there are strong feelings and differences of opinion, women really do act as if their opinion matters just as much, and they are not willing to be led by an influential member if they don’t agree with her. If this happens within an ongoing commitment to the group and to the process of resolution, it is really beautiful to see and leads to some amazing and creative problem-solving.If a woman doesn’t have influence, but wants it, she might think about ways to become more valuable in the eyes of the group by taking initiative on a project or developing competence in an area that is important in the group’s work. Structural conditions that support concentration of power, like paid positions or positions outsiders might interpret as representative of the group, ought to be carefully scrutinized for necessity, and if they can’t be handled any other way, ought to be rotated or otherwise distributed in such a way as to minimize any one woman’s control over group function or productivity. Jo says all this much better than me, so seriously, read her piece.
  • Responsibility. I’ve been in groups where otherwise mild-mannered members hissed like vipers at any mention of this word. For those of us who’ve been enculturated in patriarchal hierarchies (which is pretty much all of us), talking about responsibility can raise specters of being shamed and punished. However, the basis of lesbian-feminist politics and community has been joy in the work itself, and accountability to one another. We like to know that, in a group context, when we say we will do something, we will do it, because we want to. This is often accomplished by a group process of identifying shared goals and values (rather than the creation and imposition of things like lists of rules or bylaws). If a woman isn’t committed to the goals of the group, if she doesn’t care about participating in projects the group has taken on, then what is she there for? And if someone isn’t completing tasks she has agreed to, open discussion of this fact, and any group dynamics that are contributing to it, seems completely reasonable to me. Unfortunately, in some groups there are unholy deals along the line of “If you don’t call me on my shit, I won’t call you on yours,” and any talk about who’s actually doing what becomes incredibly threatening. This can lead to a situation where one person consistently fails to meet her commitments to the group, and since open discussion of group functioning is tacitly prohibited, the other members think, “Well, if she’s not doing what she said she would do, then I don’t have to do what I said I’d do.”  The group can become inefficient and spiral toward resentment, burnout, and collapse. No one has been able to explain to my satisfaction what is wrong with saying, “Hey, so-and-so, I notice you said you’d do X by last Wednesday, and it’s now Monday, and X isn’t done. This has happened three times now. What’s up with that? Is there some change the group could make that would help you meet your commitments? Would you rather have someone else take on some of X? What needs to happen so that X gets done?”  Too many groups want to jettison external rules without realizing that, to accomplish their goals, something must be put in the place of the rewards and punishments of capitalist patriarchy. To me, that something is a willingness to be accountable to our sisters and to put the welfare of the group or project at least on a par with our own personal comfort and happiness.As far as underfunctioning/overfunctioning goes, if I’m having a conflict, I try to identify how I am behaving in that situation or relationship. Do I think I know better than others how to do something? Do I think that gives me the right to boss them? (Clue: It doesn’t.) Or am I feeling helpless, whiny and defensive, taking up group time with my personal problems and feelings, and wanting someone to take care of me and fix things? These are indications of whether I am overfunctioning or underfunctioning, respectively. What factors in the group dynamic are contributing to how I’m acting? For example, is someone overfunctioning by telling me what to do or criticizing my ideas, keeping me in an underfunctioning, one-down position? Or am I not being honest about my own shortcomings and failures, and instead giving advice to others about how to proceed? Harriet rightly points out that for many of us, these mindsets are situation-dependent and often temporary. Everyone has times when she fails to do something she said she’d do. If it’s a one-time or occasional thing, it’s easy enough to say, “Gee, I’m really sorry, I know I said I’d do X and I didn’t/can’t. I know I’m really letting you all down. Here’s what I will do instead.” What’s important is to watch for patterns. If someone is always late, misses deadlines, skips meetings, and doesn’t do things she said she would do, other members are going to be resentful and frustrated, because the work she’s not doing will fall on them. Sometimes people consciously or unconsciously sabotage the productivity of others; if recognizing our own areas of underfunctioning is too painful, others’ competence can seem like a threat. Sometimes people are so enculturated into systems of dominance and submission that they are unable to conceive of a situation where no one is exercising control over anyone else; if they feel out of control, if another person is resisting their attempts at manipulation, they assume that person must be trying to control them. The fact that it’s possible to work cooperatively to solve problems doesn’t occur to them.If a frank discussion about accountability doesn’t help, or isn’t possible, Harriet’s solution to breaking out of an overfunctioning/underfunctioning pattern is for overfunctioners to stop overfunctioning. That is, the group can let the person who’s underfunctioning know that they believe she has the ability and strength to make good decisions without always getting advice and support from others–and then let her do so. There’s an excellent and oft-quoted example of this in Anne Cameron’s book Daughters of Copper Woman:

    A woman would come to the circle as often as she needed, but the circle wasn’t there to encourage a woman to only talk about her problems. The first three times you came with the same story, the women would listen and try to help. But if you showed up a fourth time, and it was just the same old tired thing, the others in the circle would just get up and move and re-form the circle somewhere else. They didn’t say the problem wasn’t important, they just said, by movin’, that it was your problem and it was time you did somethin’ about it, you’d taken up all the time in other people’s lives as was goin’ to be given to you, and it was time to stop talkin’ and do something.

    I don’t know if this is true, but it’s a lovely antidote to the current climate of endless emotional processing that so many women’s groups seem to fall into.

    Sometimes people screw up because they just don’t want to do whatever it is–they don’t want to write that paper, plan that demonstration, be a part of the group. Maybe they’re burned out. Harriet has advice for underfunctioners in breaking the pattern as well–if you’re feeling resentful that everyone else is always telling you what to do, stop asking for advice and take action to solve your own problems. This is an area where I struggle for compassion, because often people take a long time to decide to leave a situation that isn’t working for them, and in the meantime they can bring a whole bunch of negativity and disillusion to the functioning of the entire group. I’ve even seen conflict generated between other members about their different ways of relating to the person who’s reaping the benefits of group or community membership without contributing to it. At the same time, given our very valuable unwillingness to force women to do things they don’t want to, it’s also important for anyone who’s overfunctioning–who’s feeling angry, resentful, bossy, and overloaded–to step back and identify exactly what work is imperative, and let the rest go. If so-and-so reneges on her commitment to participate in a particular project, it’s better to scale that project down than to let the members who remain engaged overwhelm themselves with work. Of course, the influence of therapy and other new-age belief systems on feminist and lesbian communities often provides those who are chronic underfunctioners with justification to “take care of themselves” at the expense of honoring their commitments and contributing to the productive work of groups that they belong to–in other words, it’s easy for underfunctioners to think they’re overfunctioners, while the overfunctioners work their asses off! I haven’t figured out a constructive solution to that problem, though I have lots of unconstructive ones.

  • Working styles. Do you know what your working style is? Do you know the basic working styles of the other members of your group? I find it so helpful to have clear answers to both of these questions for every group I’m a part of. If you’re a planner, why would you volunteer to work with someone who doesn’t like to plan? If you like to start on time, why work with someone you know is always late? That’s a one-way ticket to Yellsville. If there’s absolutely no alternative to collaborating with someone I know works differently than me, my favorite way to proceed is to ask the other person to think of very specific tasks that need to be completed and to allow me to take responsibility for some of them. I am then free to complete them in the way that I prefer. It’s the committee-within-a-committee approach, if you will, and it works pretty well if I can give up my desire to create, my way, the absolutely most perfect widget conference or birthday cake or law review article ever.
  • More radical than thou. Get over it. All of you. If you’re sighing, “Well, I guess I’ll do X because no one else will do it,” or making sarcastic comments about other people’s political shortcomings, knock it off. We all started somewhere, even you, and learning and growing into political participation ought to be a joyful process of solidarity and self-discovery instead of something you do because someone else thinks you’re not good enough. And if you’re threatened by someone else’s personal politics, that’s your problem. Figure out why you’re not doing whatever it is you’re feeling bad for not doing, and see what you can do to change. If nothing else, just saying, “Wow, I really admire so-and-so for her separatism/taking public transportation/recycling/living on women’s land” can clear your pipe so your own wishes and dreams can rise to the surface. By the way, this goes for those of you who read my blog and think I’m being all high and mighty on your asses. I’m not; I’m living my principles to the best of my ability, and if you’re not living yours, that’s neither my fault nor my problem. If you are living the way you want to, why does my writing pose such a threat to you?
  • Time in service. Ah, well. This seems to me to be one of those divides that will be eternal. Kat Kinkade talks about this in her book, Is It Utopia Yet?, about the mixed-gender community of Twin Oaks in Virginia. However. New members need to be aware that groups have a history. They’ve tried a lot of things, and those things haven’t worked, so they’ve been abandoned. The processes in place are there because, through trial and error, they’ve been found to work. It may be true that your slightly different take on something would be the kicker, but it’s not really fair to expect other members to work on implementing your ideas. The two complaints I hear most often about new members are that they jump in too fast wanting to change things, and they want the group to dedicate all its energy and attention to their ideas. So give yourself time to observe the functioning and learn the history of the group before making suggestions for change. When the time seems right to suggest new projects, be willing to do the work. Don’t say, “Wouldn’t it be great if we did X? while looking around brightly and expecting others to leap up, smack their foreheads, shout “Eureka!” and run out the door to start implementing your idea. Understand that this culture fosters feelings of powerlessness in us; capitalist hierarchy depends upon our willingness to expect someone else to solve our problems. Therefore, it may seem completely foreign to take charge without getting “permission” from someone. You may have no idea how to initiate your own project–but it’s absolutely imperative you challenge this internalized incompetence.  Say, “I’d really like to do X, and I can contribute Y and Z to that end. Does anyone want to work with me on this? I could use help with P and Q.” This indicates to existing members that you’ve thought about what your project requires and that you’re not going to ditch it in the middle.Which is not to say that existing members have it all together either. Groups that have been around for a long time, particularly if they have been struggling, can fall into a culture of negativity that can be extremely unappealing for newcomers. Even if you think new women’s enthusiasm is naive, appreciate it, don’t squash it with cynical comments. Even if you think their ideas won’t work, offer suggestions or a small amount of help rather than dismissing them out of hand. Say, “Here’s what I question about this idea. Do you have any thoughts about how to get around that problem?” rather than, “Oh, that won’t work because…” At the very least, get out of the way and let new women learn their own lessons instead of stopping them before they start. And recognize that smart, observant new members can provide a fresh perspective on the functioning of the group. If they have demonstrated themselves to be competent and trustworthy, consider actually listening when they talk about what the group could do better. It’s very likely they can see shortcomings that you, with your insider’s view and long-term investment, will overlook. If the group is having trouble attracting or keeping new members, don’t sigh and say, “Oh, they’re just not dedicated to the work.” (See “more radical than thou.”) They could be seeing problems you’re not, and it may be worth tracking down members who aren’t coming around anymore and asking them why.

    A corollary to this is the problem of any history of conflict between existing group members. This can be extremely bewildering for newcomers, especially if they don’t have an “in” within the group, someone who will discuss past problems and fractures honestly. It’s really disconcerting to be a new person sitting in a meeting feeling all kinds of tension but having absolutely no information about its source. That’s why one of the most important things a group can do is resolve conflict as much as possible. (Yes, that means you letting go of some of the resentments you’re harboring.) Sometimes resolution isn’t possible, and then I think it’s only fair to explain some of the history to new members in as unpartisan a way as you can so they’re not wading unawares into a minefield.

  • Group size. How to attract new members? Most feminist groups would love to know the answer to this question. A couple ideas: It’s important to make this an explicit focus if the group is clearly struggling to accomplish its tasks at its present size; in fact, it might be more useful to focus on finding appropriate members even if it means putting aside for the time being other projects the group wants to take on. Attracting new members may involve paying some attention to behaviors or dynamics in the group that make it undesirable, unwelcoming, or inaccessible to newcomers, as well as developing specific guidelines about group values and functions so that new members can be educated openly and explicitly about what group membership asks and offers.
  • Different abilities. This is one of my greatest challenges. Theoretically I believe in communities giving to members according to their needs, and allowing each member to determine how much she can contribute. Practically, I get very frustrated when it seems to me that someone is slacking. This is a struggle when interacting with women who have so-called invisible disabilities that can cause incredible fatigue in otherwise healthy-appearing women, and also women with mental illness (of which I am one). Celia Kitzinger and Rachel Perkins have done some excellent writing about what they call “social accessibility” in their book, Changing Our Minds: Lesbian Feminism and Psychology. Different kinds of impairments can make it difficult for certain women to behave in productive ways and it’s important to be aware of and empathetic towards that. And yet, I have also seen groups destroyed by members whose social functioning is impaired for various reasons. I was in a group once where members, one by one, mysteriously stopped showing up; after a few weeks of this, I tried to find out what was going on, and it turned out one woman in the group had been calling other members, keeping them on the phone for hours to discuss her personal problems, and screaming and calling names when they tried to end the conversation. Needless to say, this group was unable to fulfill its potential. I think there’s a lot more work to be done in this area. There are probably a lot of social rules that can be discarded (and believe me, landdykes in particular have done away with a lot of mainstream conventions about acceptable clothing, nudity, body sounds and processes, and personal hygiene) but I am also unwilling, for example, to be in groups that tolerate verbally or physically abusive behavior. Women have been forced for centuries to tolerate assaults on our bodies and psyches, and I don’t want feminist and lesbian groups to perpetuate that dynamic. Unfortunately, I don’t have any good suggestions for how to make a group accessible to someone who is unable to abide by the the group’s agreements about acceptable behavior.

The major problem in this culture with conflict is that we’re not trained in handling it; we rarely hear about the potential it provides for growth and change, and we rarely witness people working through conflict together. But I know that when I’ve gotten through an argument with someone, I am definitely closer to that person, and the relationship is stronger for it. There’s a very interesting section in the book When Anger Hurts: Quieting the Storm Within (McKay, Rogers, and McKay), which I picked up at a yard sale for a dollar the last time I was fighting with my girlfriend. The book has a lot of very practical suggestions on dealing with anger, and the chapter I’m referring to discusses the concepts of “aversive chains.” You know, you’re crabby, you snap at your girlfriend, she yells, you yell back, or you withdraw into icy silence, doors slam, or you continue eating and pretend nothing’s wrong but you both get indigestion, and nothing gets resolved. What interested me about the take on such exchanges in this book, though, was the emphasis, not on figuring out who started it or who’s wrong, but on identifying various points in the chain of escalation where either participant could have behaved differently to defuse the situation.


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