Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Including the unincluding

Here is a question I've been mulling over for the past few months. How can you include people who don't believe in inclusion?

Put in other words:
  • How can you find common ground with people who do not believe in common ground?
  • How can you help people discover multiple perspectives when they firmly believe that only one perspective exists?
  • How can you tolerate the intolerant?
  • Is it possible to accept the views of people who refuse to accept other views?
I'm not making up this problem. Here's a quote from a recent New Yorker article about Hong Kong:
Last year, when the Party faced mounting complaints over deadly air pollution, Internet censorship, and rampant graft, it arrested lawyers, activists, and journalists in the harshest such measure in decades, and circulated an internal directive to senior members. The notice identified seven “unmentionable” topics: Western-style democracy, “universal values,” civil society, pro-market liberalism, a free press, “nihilist” criticisms of Party history, and questions about the pace of China’s reforms.
Is it possible to negotiate on the basis of universal values when universal values are themselves unmentionable?

I've been asking this question to everyone I meet for the past few months, and the most frequent response I've heard has been, "That's a good question."

One person I asked about this, let's call her Joan, told me a poignant story about inclusion. She said that she had been in a group, and they were talking about a military conflict. Several people said what they thought about the conflict, and then another person spoke up and said they disagreed with all of what had just been said. As the facilitator prepared to listen to the disagreeing person, one of the people who had already spoken said something like, "I can't stay here and listen to this! If this person is allowed to speak, I will have to leave." I asked Joan what happened next. She said something happened next that unexpectedly changed the subject (I forget what it was), and the person with the different view never got a chance to speak. So in a sense the excluder won, if only by accident.

The situation came up again (everything comes up if you are looking for it) when I saw a movie at the NCDD conference called Bring It to the Table. This documentary had a simple premise: asking Americans of all political persuasions to sit down at a table and talk about their views on current issues. At one point in the movie, the documentary makers asked a man on the street if he would like to contribute to the documentary. They told him that they were trying to include people of all views. He said something like, "Yeah, but the way you're saying that, I can tell you're a liberal. I'm a conservative, so I won't be part of it."

Another instance came from a person who told me about people at her church who had been eager to talk about inclusion - until she tried to help an actual homeless person, at which point they all got too busy to talk to her. After that happened, she struggled with the question of how she could include the suddenly-busy people in the inclusion she herself believed in.

So I've been brainstorming some strategies for including the unincluding. My question is: what can a group do when they want to include everyone, but some of the people they want to include are not willing to include everyone? If excluding excluders is out of the question, what else can be done?

I've worked my way up to sixteen strategies one might be able to use in this situation. And I've added three more ideas from comments, shown in green italics.

Most of these ideas (at least those I wrote) are pure speculation, since I've haven't done them in practice; but I'd rather speculate than give up. I'll explain the strategies, but I also want to ask you for help in developing this - this - whatever it is. Call it a resource. As you read the strategies, please make mental notes on things you disagree with, and on more strategies I didn't think of, so you can add them in the comments. (Thanks, people who have done this!) Maybe if we work together on this we can come up with something that can be useful to people facing this situation.

Meeting people halfway

My first category of strategies has to do with accommodating excluders in some way, not necessarily by letting them exclude others, but by taking their views seriously and trying to work with them rather than against them.

Listening. You can hear excluders out to understand in detail what they want and why they want it. It can sometimes happen that when you really listen to people, you find out that you can accommodate them without excluding others. It can also happen that when people feel fully heard, their demands can lessen to objections.

Listening more deeply. The Non-Violent Communication approach believes that all feelings, including anger, come from unmet needs. A person who wants to exclude other people from a group must need something that they feel they would get from excluding people, even if they don't know themselves what it is. Finding out what people need, deep down, might help you find ways to help them get what they want without excluding others.

Loving. You can love excluders. This may be easiest if the excluders are your own children and you realize that being an excluder is biological (like being autistic). You just have to accept them for who they are. 

Bargaining. Sometimes it is possible to give excluders something they want in exchange for an agreement to include everyone. It should not be anything that gives them special treatment, but it could be something that helps them feel safer, like the option to drop out of a meeting, or the opportunity to respond in writing to something they don't like. Of course, if they get this thing, everyone should get it; but just coming up with an option that will help people feel compensated for the discomfort they feel can help people come to the table and start talking.

Collaborating. Another approach is to ask excluders to brainstorm solutions with you. Instead of participating in their black-and-white view of what can happen (those people are in, those people are out), you can say, "What are some things that might help you feel more comfortable about everyone being included?" You can ask excluders to use their imaginations to help you find creative solutions to the problem they perceive.

Giving in. Sometimes people make reasonable demands about inclusion. For example, workers might object to including their boss in a participatory workplace session, or community members might not want to include convicted felons in discussions about school plans. There are times and places in which it is not capitulation but reasonable compromise to keep some people or views out of consideration. It's important not to let your own ideas about inclusion blind you from seeing real conditions on the ground.

Reconsidering the value of inclusion. You can focus on the log in your own eye by seeing inclusion as problematic -- watering doctrines down with a spirit of inclusion makes them even worse. Also, if you take inclusion to its extreme, humanity will lose power as we work for the good of all species -- self-undermining is impractical!

Bringing people around

This category of strategies has to do with changing the way people see the project or yourself so that they will accept the inclusion of everyone.

Reframing. If people responded to your presentation of full inclusion by demanding that some people be left out, you can examine the language you used to introduce the idea. Was there a subtle bias in the words you used? Can you describe the effort in a different way? Maybe you can ask someone you know who shares views with the excluders (but understands your intent) to rewrite your invitation in a way that presses fewer hot buttons.

I saw somebody use reframing during the NCDD conference I just went to. A presenter was talking about the Exhale "pro-voice" project, which gathers stories from all perspectives about abortion. An audience member spoke up and said she was uncomfortable with the project because it seemed to be coming from the left. The presenter responded that she had heard the same hesitation from both left and right. Each side thought the project was coming from the other side, when in fact it comes from no side at all. This claim helped the audience member understand that her concern, while valid, could also be seen from the opposite point of view.

I'd like to call this method - surprising people with a view of the same project from the opposite side - mirroring, because it shows people a mirror image of their concern. So one way of reframing the effort is to show excluders a mirror image, perhaps of people who want to exclude them from the project. You could say something like, "We asked them to include you; and we'd like you to agree to include them."

Enlightening. By this I mean helping people to understand that there is more common ground between themselves and those they seek to exclude than they may have realized.  Story work is particularly useful, and in use, in this area, because showing people what life looks like through the eyes of other people is often a first step towards inclusion.

This is not a quick-and-easy solution. I'd say it's more like transferring water with a sieve. Every time someone reads or hears a story, there is a chance that the story will resonate with them in such a way as to bring them into a new world of understanding. But which story will work for which person in which context is impossible to predict. You just have to keep dragging the sieve through the water, and eventually things will happen. However, sieving stories is not as bad as it sounds. Because stories spread, the effects of resonance are not linear but multiplicative. And once a story resonates, because stories are memorable, the effect usually stays around for a long while. Using stories to enlighten people about other lives is effective work for the patient and faithful.

Sponsoring. This method depends not on arguments but on relationships. If the excluders in your group don't trust you when you say your goals are positive, they might trust someone they know better. In the above example of the man distrusting the documentary makers he thought were liberal, he might have been persuaded to participate if a conservative friend had asked him to join the project.

The sponsoring approach is often used in community projects. People go into a community and persuade the leaders to participate, then ask the leaders to help them approach everyone else. I've used this method myself in collecting stories.

I've also seen sponsorship used in a more creative way by the Living Room Conversations project, which brings together people who disagree about political matters in the US. The basic setup is simple: two friends who disagree about a political matter find a few more friends each, and they meet in somebody's living room to talk. The web site provides simple instructions for structuring the conversation around questions that get people talking. This type of effort merges sponsorship with self-organization, and I think it holds promise.

Creating conditions that limit damage

These strategies are for situations in which it is impossible to work with excluders or change their minds, but you do have some control over how people will interact in the group.

Censoring. It is reasonable to sometimes limit what people can say when you know that what they plan to say will destroy the inclusiveness of the group. The best strategy, I think, is to limit everyone equally by setting up ground rules that apply to all. You might say something like, "Everyone is free to say how they feel, but no one here is allowed to make personal attacks on others." If you know people will enter the group determined to campaign against the membership of some others, you can set up ground rules that forbid such campaigns, as long as they apply to everyone.

Marginalizing. If you know that some people will attempt to get other people removed from the group, you can set up multiple group roles, some of which have less power to make decisions, and not allow excluders into the "inner circle." This seems manipulative to me, but when you are doing something with inclusive goals, maybe sometimes you have to defend your vision of inclusion. Allowing people to be in the group yet not in control of the group's actions (like pushing people out) can help you to include everyone - at some level - without causing the group to splinter because of it.

Staging. What I mean by staging is creating a series of projects that slowly move from separation to inclusion. I've used this method in story projects. Let's say you have two groups, and each is unwilling to include the other in their work with stories. You can lead the two groups through the process of working with stories separately. Then, when people have developed some trust in the process, you can let the stories mediate between the two groups. Eventually, you may be able to bring people closer to a place where they are willing to work with each other in the same project. Even if the actual people never speak directly to each other, getting people to the point where they are willing to consider the stories of the other people is a step in the direction of inclusion.

Obfuscating. Another way to limit the damage caused by excluders is to make identifying information about group members difficult to find. Making information impossible to find might backfire, as people will feel they have been tricked. But if the information is not obvious, most people will not try very hard to find it.

I've been thwarted in being intolerant by obfuscation myself. When I read an article in a magazine, I've noticed that my eyes often flick to the author's name, looking for information on gender and ethnicity. I don't do this on purpose, and I don't even like that I'm doing it. But somehow I just can't help checking people out. I'll bet everyone does this. It's probably because "hearing" people "talk" in writing without seeing their faces and hearing their voices is a relatively new phenomenon in human life. We want contextual information to help us evaluate what people say, and we can't help looking for it. But I've noticed that in some magazines, the ones where I know that the person's name will be at the end of the article, I don't try to check out the writer, even though I know I could. I just read.

This makes me wonder if most of our in-group, out-group feelings are not conscious choices, on which we are prepared to spend energy, but momentary flickers of impulse. And this makes me think that it's at least possible that thwarting momentary impulses might reduce the extent to which people exclude others before listening to them. What would happen if people read stories and only found out who told the stories later? Might they, at least once in a while, learn something about the people they seek to exclude?  

On the other hand, there's a dark side to obfuscation. I've been on enough anonymous internet forums, and probably you have too, to know that being unaware of the true facts about people creates its own problems. It's hard to know who to trust when nobody is who they say they are. And it's way too easy to be hurtful when nobody can see your face.

But not all information is the same. Information on the way people behave toward others does not have to be coupled with identifying information, such as gender or sexual orientation, that might cause people to want to exclude others (without considering their behavior). I believe that the tension between thwarting prejudice and eroding trust can be managed if the system is designed to separate labeling each other from learning about each other.

I've seen (and you've probably seen) healthy online communities where people manage the tension between labeling and learning in online forums, even when the system they are using is not designed for it. People use cartoon images and movie stills for their profile images (that's obfuscation of labels), and they develop ways to denote reputations (that's learning about each other) through responses to posts (nova992 is a troll, when smartguy12 talks we listen, alex_p knows a lot, etc). But people shouldn't have to fight with the systems they use to create healthy communities. I've seen some promising signs, such as systems that replace the idiotic "like" button with more useful things like "useful," "insightful," "informative," and so on. But the bulk of online software does not yet support a healthy balance, and as long as that's true, people will have structural problems being inclusive in online environments.
Using community norms

The previous three categories had to do with using direct contact and structural design to deal with excluders. This last category uses the strengths of the community itself to fix the problem.

Ignoring. As any parent or pet owner will tell you, sometimes the best way to deal with difficult behavior is to simply ignore it. Sometimes it works to pretend that people didn't try to exclude anyone, and hope that they will use the space your silence gives them to come around to inclusion while saving face. When people object to other people or views being included, you can change the subject or get too busy to respond, and hope the problem goes away. If the group is an ongoing one, ignoring exclusion might give people time to reflect quietly and perhaps act differently the next time the issue comes up.

Modeling. If you are the leader in your project, even if you are not a leader in your community, people will take their cues from you. Within reason, what you do and how you speak to people will have an impact on what other people think is acceptable. So you can model inclusion as you speak to people about the project. And you can hope that excluders, and everyone else in the group, will notice what you are doing.

Modelling can also be combined with sponsorship. If you can get people who disagree with you on some important things to agree that the group should be inclusive, each person can model that behavior to others who respect their opinions more.

Exposing. Sometimes it's useful to simply make it known to everyone in a group that some people want to exclude others. I've noticed that when people want to change a group in ways that they think will not be popular, they tend to pull the leader aside and whisper in their ear. If someone is singling you out with demands that the group should exclude some people, you can repeat their demands to the full group and see if they still want to insist on them. This is also a good way to test your own biases, because once the full group knows about the demands, they will be able to provide a variety of perspectives on them. You may find that you are not as aware of what the entire community wants as you thought you were.

Restoring. It's natural to look at attempts to exclude people as hostile acts. But there is another way to look at it. From the point of view of restorative justice, attempts to exclude people are signs that the entire community has a problem. What if you were to view excluders not as obstacles to progress but as indicators, as canaries in your coal mine?

The Wikipedia page on restorative justice says, "Restorative justice involves both victim and offender and focuses on their personal needs." You know that you see your excluders as offenders, but in what ways do they see themselves as victims? What can you learn from looking at the problem in that way? Can you create a dialogue between the excluders and others, even if it's only an indirect one, about why they want to exclude people, and what that means about the community? Can you heal the rift in your community that is causing some people to want to exclude others, so that you can all begin to work together?

But what if your attempt to form an inclusive group was an attempt to heal rifts in your community? Then it's not the right time for that kind of solution yet. There are many methods that address community problems, and not all of them involve everyone speaking to each other. You can include people in a project without including them in a group. I've done lots of story projects where we heard from different groups without pressuring them to include each other in anything. It's not an ideal situation, but you have match your methods to the conditions on the ground. If you don't know the conditions on the ground before you start trying to include people in something, you had better do some separated, parallel listening before you attempt to bring people together.

Seen in that way, excluders are enablers, because they can help you see more clearly what you need to do to bring people together when the time is right. In fact, I would go so far as to seek out views on exclusion during parallel listening. If I wanted to bring people in my community together into one inclusive group, I might ask people a question like, "If you were in a group session, and the presence of somebody in the room made you want to leave, who would that be? What would they say or do that would make you want to leave the session?"  That way I might avoid some unpleasant surprises later on.

Maintaining balance. Balance can be maintained through a monitoring feedback loop as in ecosystem management. This does not require predators to stop being predators, nor does it require prey to stop fleeing. It will not require inclusion nor exclusion.

In conclusion

What have I learned by doing this little exercise? I feel that I now have a deeper set of resources to call on when (not if) I encounter this situation in the future. I also feel that my original assessment of the situation - excluders are unpleasant obstacles - has changed over the past few months of mulling over this idea. Now I can see that, not only might excluders be real people with real concerns, but they might even be helpful (in a not very nice, but still useful, way).

In general, I think that if we got into the habit of always coming up with lots of strategies to deal with difficult situations - even if we already have one we particularly like, or maybe especially so - we might be able to respond in more creative ways to whatever comes next. If the goal changed from "let's find a solution" to "let's think of as many solutions as we can," we might be better able to put together something that works.

As I said above, if you think of any more strategies, or if you think of any flaws in the ones I have listed here, please let me know in the comments section. Comments make the world go round!