On speaking out of place

When is the right time and the right place for a challenging conversation? When there is a disagreement, or there are conflicting views being shared – views that cut close to the bone – who among the parties involved determines how the topic will be addressed: in what format and on what terms, and within what parameters?

The reason I bring it up is that I have recently observed two men of my acquaintance, both of whom I admire as intelligent men of integrity, suggesting that an online exchange with a woman would be better placed in a “face to face” setting. The first of these was a friend, speaking within a small group discussion thread; the other was Paul Kingsnorth, replying to this blog post in its comments section.

This reminded me of an incident that occurred in the 2011 Uncivilisation festival, when a woman in the audience challenged Paul (face to face) about power structures, including the aspect of gender representation among decision-makers. He replied that the topic was too complex for discussion in that forum, and must be looked at separately, at another time. Whether she would be available to contribute to the discussion at Paul’s preferred time was not clear. It didn’t appear to matter that she was attending the festival as a Dark Mountain Project supporter, and that the session was an open invitation to discuss the future of the project. Her concerns were not on the agenda and her adamance was interpreted as a disruptive hijacking of the forum’s purpose.

My own experiences and observations tell me that it is common for someone who is being challenged to reassert their own control by postponing the discussion (I do it myself when my daughter raises a complaint or criticism at bedtime – and damn if she isn’t her mother’s daughter, digging in her heels and refusing to be put off. I love her for it.) Likewise, I have noticed that when I myself am in a position of disagreement, challenge or conflict with a man, I am often dismissed with the judgment that it is not the right time or place or format.

I have exchanged comments in blog posts only to be told to move the discussion to email, where it can be thrashed through in privacy. I have been told in email exchanges that this is too direct and personal, and more appropriate in the formal, neutral space of a public forum. I too have been told that face to face exchanges are better than the impersonal sphere of cyberspace, but shushed and diverted when speaking in person. (In fact, it has frequently been me shushing myself, in obedience to my conditioning as a good, quiet, agreeable, supportive woman.) I have been in the ironic position of being told that debating is not permitted – as this taints a conversation with the machinations of negotiation, where dialogue is a more effective method of sharing views. (I don’t disagree with that ideal, but the problem is that dialogue never takes place in a vacuum of power, it takes place between individual people who are each embedded in social roles whereby negotiation is inevitable.)

I have been told – or told in as many words, in as many ways – that my concerns are peripheral, divisive; that they do not matter as much as other issues and are diverting energy away from those issues that take precedence. I’ve got it wrong, and should leave well enough alone.

All in all I’m left to wonder: when and where exactly may I share my tuppence without speaking out of place?

Perhaps my views are uncomfortably provocative, indeed some would say too critical, not constructive enough – and unsurprisingly, I don’t agree. I believe that my views are as valid and worthwhile as any other person’s, and just as important an ingredient in the soup pot of mutual learning. I’m reminded of the postcard on my kitchen billboard, quoting Rebecca West: “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat…”

15 thoughts on “On speaking out of place

  1. I’ve recently been introduced to the principle of sufficiency, that within the ebb and flow of interactions we naturally seek a space, or at least an interval, during which we can absorb that something is coming our way and have a chance to respond. In responding we have three categories available to us. We can react, we can suspend, or we can move what has come towards us along in another direction.

    This was within the context of a physical discipline related to Qi Gong, in which two people interact by “fencing” with their forearms as they circle about each other. it’s a powerful experience and its implications are immediately apparent and sobering to contemplate. Within this discipline we are suggested to look for a path of sufficiency, in which we do just enough to maintain our own integrity and to continue the flow of energy.

    It is amazing, if totally predictable, that it is difficult not to get caught-up in projections of what we assume the other is doing and not have this cause an escalation that can quickly approach real violence. It is also, at least to me, amazing how little is needed to respond sufficiently, and how this brings about a dance of interplay that is as joyful as it is rare in our lives today.

    I can only speak from my own perspective and my own experience and the results of whatever insights I’ve accrued reflecting on how my perspectives and experiences have played out. From this view point, I feel that we do make the fulfillment of our fears and frustrations more likely, if not inevitable, unless we take questions of proprioception and projection seriously.

    I’ve long been marginalised. I continue to feel that way in many regards. I also believe that much of this is my own doing, by carrying on with the expectations that this is how I will be received. I could insist that this “blames the victim!” But that would mean accepting the judgement of an abusive society that I should see myself as one. I prefer to find strength in having survived whatever has been thrown at me, and feeling it has made me stronger. Combined with practicing sufficiency – a moving target if ever there was one! – I look for opportunities to meet others in open acknowledgement of shared vulnerabilities instead of throwing myself into conflicts with those who refuse any other alternative to the power-plays I see at the heart of the incoherence of thought we suffer under.

    Attention is fluid and malleable. It flows and adapts to the courses we make available to it. If we insist that we hold our attention hostage to those who see nothing but conflict and no other form of interaction but battle, then we are unable to have attention available for anything else. The opposite is equally true. If we can let go of projections and the illusion that we are fighting anything but our own shadows, we can find plenty to fill our attention that is satisfying, fulfilling, and holds the potential for creative interaction with the world and each other.

    • Wow – you write fast! 🙂 And beautifully – thank you for such a considerate post, with many good thoughts in it. I will think about this and try to respond further, but must wait to tomorrow as I’m just logging off now to arrange dinner. x

      • hi Tony

        I like what you’ve written about sufficiency, it captures very well the point that all interaction involves an exchange of energy. I suppose all our misunderstandings in the world are unharmonious expressions of energy – whether it is exerted or suppressed or misdirected. In the example I gave of my daughter and bedtime, there is often tension around whatever issue has arisen, because we are both of us tired – insufficient in our resources. We love each other dearly – we both know this full well – but the circumstances lead us both to react in patterns of irritation and conflict. And thinking more about my point in the post, I suppose I need to think more carefully in such situations about setting down and agreeing upon an alternative time and place to discuss whatever is at stake. Because it’s not that I don’t appreciate that conflict is draining and difficult for everyone involved. It’s just that the next step so often remains up in the air: ‘later, when there’s time, when we’ve got the right people assembled’ I do it too: ‘when I’m less tired, when I’m less distraught.’ This inclination to create space so often dissolves into ‘never.’ And in some cases, it is used deliberately as an avoidance tactic.

        I was reminded of something else that happened at the Unciv festival 2011. The woman who had been rebuffed in the question time approached me at the back of the marquee, as an event worker, and informed me that she wanted to speak to Paul as soon as possible, and could I arrange it. Now, my autoresponse kicked in: protect him from her insistance and her fury (because I knew full well how exausted we all of us were by that point) and put her off from her quest. Complicit, I was. Her anger was palpable, and I told her that she was much more likely to be listened to if she held off until a time when he would be able to give her his undistracted attention. And I remember what she said to me: ‘yes, I know that, but what I need is just as important as what he needs’ (or words along those lines.) I don’t know if she ever tracked him down and aired her grievances, but I have to admit that I have since grown to respect her point. I don’t think there is any one exact way for things to be, one ‘only’ right way of responding to a situation – I think our interactions with one another are far too subtle and complicated to follow a golden rule, and we do well to consider the perspectives of everyone who happens to be involved. Everyone has a slice of the story.

        Anyway that’s what your comment led me to. 🙂

  2. There’s truth and pertinence in your noticing the knack of diverting difficult conversations and challenges to some other time / place, which then somehow never materialises.

    However, I have to say that I’m with Tony in observing that where you place your attention and energy is always your choice. I’ve appreciated some of your recent thoughts on institutions and I’m glad to see you posting again, but they also read to me as constantly looping around in direct and veiled criticisms of the Dark Mountain Project and its founders, which raise some questions and issues for me.

    I can fully understand and hear where your anger comes from, given the experiences you had with Uncivilization in 2011, and equally the reasons why you didn’t attend the 2012 festival and haven’t been engaging with the project much recently. But I do believe, speaking from my own experience, that Paul and Dougald have made an honest effort since 2011 to address the concerns that were raised about the broad structures of power and responsibility within the Dark Mountain Project, and the specific sense that not enough women were involved. The results of that include Adrienne (who also publicly identifies as queer) joining the editorial board for the journal, and the devolving of curatorial responsibility for the 2012 festival to a larger group, including the whole literature strand – one of, if not the, central plank of the whole project – being selected and organised by two women poets. Also today as you’ve seen on Twitter, there’s a clear invitation been extended to bring a wider international range of voices and more women into Dark Mountain 4. As eternally, there’s always more that could be done to foster diversity and equality, but Dark Mountain is a work in progress, not a fully-realised solution to all our problems, and I think Paul and Dougald deserve more credit than you give them for tackling at least some of the concerns that were raised, and responding – perhaps in deeds more than words – to the challenge that was directed at them.

    You keep inviting Paul specifically to respond to these posts – doesn’t this in some sense reinforce him in the place of authority which you also criticise him for occupying? If he chooses to place his attention elsewhere, or if you remain unsatisfied with any responses he gives you, where then do you go with this? What will it do to you and for you to keep on articulating your anger in this public forum, if at the end of it you still don’t feel listened to by the particular people to whom you’re looking for a hearing?

    (I don’t btw mean that question to sound rhetorically pre-answered, or that you are not free to express your feelings – however messy, however challenging to others – on your own blog as part of your own process of working out where you’re at with these matters. My point is a genuine question, where does all this leave you if you don’t get the response you’re after? Is an answer possible, or is something else driving your rage too?)

    If the Dark Mountain Project isn’t organised along lines that answer your needs, if it isn’t adequately addressing your concerns, if you’re not feeling heard, you can of course choose to keep criticising it, or you can take responsibility for creating what you do want to see happen. The rub becomes, what energy is present, and what do you do with that energy, if you choose to unhook from a prevailing focus on attacking DM for what for you are its failings. Speaking for myself, I’ve slowly begun to face up to the fact that my own furious projections of the shortcomings of others have a great deal to do with simply being too insecure and cowardly to believe in, and practice, my own power and capacity to write and make art, as well as the kinds of changes I want to see in my life and the wider world. This isn’t to close down on the need for debates, dialogues, questions and challenges about power, inequality, inclusiveness and related matters; but to ask whether the main motor of such exchanges is directed creative fire or elaborated creative frustration, and what differences that might make.

    In practical terms, is there scope for you to set up a regular dialogue circle with people where you live, which could set itself basic ground rules for speaking and listening fully, honouring all voices as equally of worth, and going into rather than away from difficulty and vulnerability? Could you re-invite some of the DM Scotland community to start meeting on that basis? This seems to be on one level what you’re asking for, and while I’d love for all of us interested to, who’ve been sharing with you around these issues, to form and sustain such a group, geographically and practically we’re too dispersed. I personally don’t think on-line exchanges are any kind of substitute for this kind of ongoing face-to-face human commitment, because misunderstandings happen too readily, and one gets stuck by default in mind/word/screen mode. Skype is different, maybe – I’m allergic to it though 😉

    Anyway, that’s probably enough for the time being. Hope some at least of this helps, and like Tony, I’m looking forward to hearing more.

    With love,

    Cat x

    • Hi Cat

      Thank you for posting, I’m glad you shared your thoughts on all this. I can’t write much because I’m on my way out the door shortly, so here is a brief response and I will try to reflect more on this throughout the day and hopefully add more later.
      But in a nutshell: could I ask you, would those specific changes you mention (the DM tweets inviting women and people from other countries to submit, the inclusion of Adrienne on the editorial board, the extending of programme design to other people) – would those changes have happened without the challenges that were made to Paul and Dougald, by myself and other people?

      I agree with you that they are doing their best to respond. That is why I think that my role as critical friend has been constructive, perhaps even creative.
      Ok I truly gotta run but I’ll come back to you.
      🙂 xx

      • Hi 🙂

        No I don’t think those changes would have happened without pressure from critical voices within DM, and especially at the 2011 Festival. My point was that your recent posts didn’t seem to me to be giving any credit to Paul and Dougald for responding and being open to making the changes that have since happened. To keep being an effective critical friend, my sense would be that you’d need to keep re-engaging with where DM is at now, gather more information and get a range of perspectives (it is in my experience like the parable of the elephant in the dark: the person who get the tail defines it as the tail, the person who grabs a tusk defines it as a tusk, and so on), and intervene at that point with clear suggestions for further changes, better practices and so forth.

        Also, in case I was doing the passive-aggressive thing around anger – to ask yourself if and where there’s a difference between your specific criticism of DM and a bigger rage that’s raging for you. To honour and express the bigger rage as part of a healing process for as long as you need it: moving energy, bringing wrongs to light and so on (and you’re hardly alone at the party on this in the present world), but to watch out for the victim role if it starts to silence you, and not to expect DM to fix or take responsibility for everything.

        See you later xx

  3. For what it’s worth, I’m totally with you on most everything you say.

    Putting a discussion into a place that’s appropriate for it and directing the intent in a positive and constructive fashion is important, however, these things don’t happen in a vacuum. Within the framework of feminism–interactions happen in a world where women are frequently silenced, and men quite frequently re-centre the discussion on themselves and their own needs. I hadn’t noticed the dictation of time-and-place for this discussion as a reoccurring pattern, but now that you’ve articulated it I’m starting to see it in plenty of other places besides.

    Have you seen Derailing for Dummies? (If you haven’t, it’s here: http://www.derailingfordummies.com/) It’s basically a snarky response to a lot of derailing tactics that are used by the culturally privileged to destroy, derail, or re-centre discussions with minority groups on themselves. IMO, dictating the terms of a discussion (and where and when it takes place) is very much a part of that pattern.

    I don’t think this is being unfairly cruel, critical, or constitutes an ‘attack’ on Dark Mountain, or anything else. It’s simply pointing out a pattern so that it can be recognised and addressed, which is damned important work. Those on the other side of the equation can either see it as an attack, or can see it in context as an issue of how we deal with power disparities within our groups.

    The thing you have to remember about most people who derail discussions is that no one thinks that they do it on purpose. Well, maybe those evil man-hating feminists that I keep hearing about (but have never actually met) do, but I certainly don’t. Aiding these people in recognising unintentional ways in which their input might be derailing and discouraging to the people their speaking to in ways that they don’t intuitively understand (and which are not their fault) is the first step on the road to dealing with the problem. It also means that those that are marginalised can recognise the pattern when it occurs, and find ways of dealing with it that are constructive, and that don’t cause a breakdown in dialogue and a steamrollering of their needs.

    For what it’s worth, some of the noises I’ve been hearing out of Paul and the rest of Dark Mountain are incredibly encouraging. They give me faith that those involved in the project want to address these issues and do something about them. That’s fucking brilliant, and gives me a little more hope and faith in the world.

    It’s important to get the balance right, but I don’t think that you (or anybody else) should ever not raise a concern, or a pattern you’ve noticed, because you need to ‘focus on being more positive’. Personally, my feeling is that the positivity comes once the patterns have been recognised, the concerns have been articulated, and we’ve started talking about what we’re going to do about it.

    I’m definitely more for building new bridges and new ways of communication and interaction, rather than tearing down the old ones. But identifying the flaws and structural weaknesses in the old bridge is an important thing to do before you go off and build your own, right?

    Either way, thanks for your post. It’s given me plenty to think about.

    • thanks Cat and Allegra both, for further comments.

      Cat, I agree with you: I haven’t expressed enough recognition that DM is trying to be responsive to the concerns brought to their attention. And like Allegra, I also think it’s fucking brilliant. 😉 And I recognise too that the friction around a conflict makes it more difficult for those to move from defensiveness to constructiveness. So: gold DM star to both Paul and Dougald for their efforts to respond. It brings me to the word that Cat mentions: rage. That sort of surprised me, because when I’ve been writing lately, I don’t feel that. At least I don’t think so… it’s just what I’ve been thinking about, triggered by the inconsistencies that I keep spotting (for instance, the fact that Kat was omitted from Paul’s reference to those running the first festival, and the comment quoted in the aeon article in which Paul claimed Unciv was not a consumer experience.) However, I have in the past felt a great deal of anger – yes, rage even – at what I was experiencing and this brings me to another point you made, Cat.

      You are absolutely right that DM cannot solve the conundrum of discrimination and power distribution all by itself. So why have I been picking on them so much? I don’t know – their bad luck I suppose. Or perhaps it’s more that they are the straw that broke the camel’s back in my own life. The mixed messages I received were too much for me: openness, inclusiveness, the appeal to the voice of ‘notman’, the appeal to find new stories to live by, the recognition of spectacle and hubris, and the understanding of how serious a plight we are in, given the way we live now – all of these were what drew me to DM. To find the same limits and structures kicking in so quickly and holding fast despite my efforts to break through them, was one ironic disappointment too much, and it occurred at a point in my life when, as Tony has eloquently described, my resources were insufficient. There was much more going on than merely DM and there was a cumulative effect which reached its own limit when dealing with them. That experience and its repurcussions snowballed enough, as you know, to land me in a mental hospital for a number of days at the start of this year. [And for the record, I think I deserve a gold DM star too, for defending the project, its purpose and its worth, to a suspicious psychiatric assessment team. I mean, the name alone. Y’know? “It’s called the Dark Mountain Project. It’s about the end of civilisation….” My family thought it was a cult 😉 And I should add: despite everything, my family and friends stuck by me, all of them, and deserve more gold stars than anyone else in my storyline.]

      So DM and Paul and Dougald in particular have taken the brunt of it, I guess, as that’s where my attention lay at that juncture of my own when the straw landed. You start from where you’re at. I would venture to say that this happens to many people placed in a position of the system that works against them: they spend some amount of their lives absorbing the messages, some amount of time recognising it, and eventually reach a point when they begin to act. (Then again, many people don’t ever make it that far in the game, and instead spend their entire lives accepting things as they are.)

      There’s one last thing I’d like to point out in this response, and that is acknowledgment and recognition that Paul did approach me after the festival, wanting to know what was the problem and why I was so upset. And I gave some of my feedback, but then did precisely what I wrote about in this original post: backed off with the request to postpone the discussion! Why? Because I was so upset and angry and exhausted at that point that I felt at a disadvantage, and very uncomfortable in the role of vocal challenger. And the more I have thought about that, the more I have recognised my own complicity in that situation, whereby I was accepting my fear of being dismissed as a merely hysterical, overwrought woman. That the only way to defend myself was to swallow my emotion and approach it rationally (calm down, dear); that I was pushing forbidden boundaries by voicing my anger. Tony and I have talked long and much about the role of anger in our perception and in how we experience the world, and I value highly the wisdom of what he says. But again, I think there are many different routes and expressions that must be used in that “soup pot of mutual learning” – I just don’t think it is fair or right to say that anger has no place in the processes that we must go through to move forward and grow.

      And that’s as much as I can type right now, there are dirty dishes and laundry to be done! 🙂 best wishes to all and thanks for commenting on the post.

      • One last point in postscript: I take your point, Cat, about placing Paul in a position of authority by directing some of my comments to him. I guess I do that because Paul is in the formal position of being the Director of the project, and as the founders Paul and Dougald have both repeatedly presented themselves as its spokesmen, leaders and decision-makers. But you are right, the only way to fix that is to simply address myself to others in DM, as I did after the festival when I approached yourself and others in an effort to move forward without the two ‘leaders.’ And as you know, that effort led to the Light Valleys gathering a year ago – which did much to rebalance the positive side of DM for myself, not least because of your own involvement and how much good grace you brought to it!! 🙂 xx

      • Hey 🙂

        I don’t have much more to add here for now, other than to honour the courage and honesty with which you describe how all this was for you living through and inside it. Thanks for sharing all this in public. Anger is an energy (as John Lydon sings) with its light and shadow aspects. Yes, it can be destructive, inappropriate and self-imprisoning, but it can also as you say be a powerful stage of healing for anyone who’s locked in a place of subjugation that they need to escape. I’ve also got to thinking that such rage needs to spend itself, however messily, before you can get to that place where you are ready to unhook and pay attention to something else.

        With love, xx

  4. “I have noticed that when I myself am in a position of disagreement, challenge or conflict with a man, I am often dismissed with the judgment that it is not the right time or place or format.”

    It’s not about gender. It’s about power hogging. Those who wish to power hog will always find a diversion. 🙂 (But power hogging does come up more often linked to gender.)

  5. Pingback: Chiaroscuro 3/3 | the clay pit's hearth

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