Know How You Handle Conflict

Know How You Handle Conflict November 18, 2016

In order to be effective allies and activists, we should have a handle on how we react when confronted with tense or even threatening situations.

Photo from Unsplash by Ming Jun Tan.
Photo from Unsplash by Ming Jun Tan.

If someone shouts at you, how do you respond? What about if they come at you? As activists and potential allies, we should know this about ourselves before we engage, in order to reduce the chance of situations escalating.*

I know that I’m pretty conflict-averse, and some of that is due to me being a shy introvert, and some of it’s related to how I’ve been pretty sheltered from serious danger (thanks to a combination of white, middle-class privilege and dumb luck). But when I’m in a situation where shit hits the fan, what happens? I’m still learning the answer. If I get mad enough, I might yell or say something scathing. It doesn’t seem to get much worse than that.

But I’ve never been physically assaulted. I’ve never had someone screaming threats or insults mere inches from my face. I’ve never been jailed.

So, a lot of us want to do something productive, something to protect those who are being threatened. I think that’s laudable, and I think we need to move forward prepared with a good amount of self-knowledge. This is so that we can try to be strategic about the situations we place ourselves in, playing to our strengths (and I get that this is also related to privilege; marginalized folks don’t always have that choice) but also so that if we end up in dangerous situations, we’ll have some sense of how we’ll react, and can maybe evade harm, or help others evade harm.

Take, for example, the safety pin trend. PBS describes it as arising in the UK after Brexit, and spreading to the U.S. after the election results. It’s supposed to symbolize that you are a safe person for marginalized folks to turn to for help if they’re being threatened. It’s essentially a form of coding, which I cover in a this #FolkloreThursday blog post (in short, a cultural communication meant to minimize risk while still conveying a relevant message). Since it arrived on the political scene, I’ve continued to see arguments both for and against it.

The most compelling blog post about it I’ve read thus far, So You Want to Wear a Safety Pin at What A Witch, makes the argument that if you want to wear the safety pin, you should have a plan for when things get violent, and a sense of how much you’re willing to risk. The whole article’s worth a read, but I especially liked these segments:

Before you get involved, you have to decide how much you are willing to risk in the interaction. Depending on how privileged and/or sheltered you are, you may be unaware that these kind of interactions can get violent and they can get that way fast.

Are you willing to have violence in your life? Are you willing to be violent in defense of the marginalized? If you’re not willing, that’s fine. Not everyone is. But you need to be realistic. If you wear the safety pin, you are telling people you are willing to confront violence on their behalf. And if you’re not willing to do that, don’t wear the pin. […]

Don’t get me wrong, the safety pin is a good idea but if you are going to wear it, you need to know that it is more than an idea. It is a visible, tangible announcement of your commitment to defend the rights and dignity of your fellow human. If you are not willing to follow that announcement up with action, rethink making the announcement.

So, should we wear safety pins? I’m generally in favor, but I’m not going to tell others what to do or define anyone else’s experiences for them. My sense is that I’ll be working to make myself a safe person no matter what I’m wearing. My friend Jain (who it may be salient to note is trans) sums up her opinion as: “In general, it’s a good idea to wear symbols that show that we are not Nazis.”

But to return to the main point of this post, I know that I’m not necessarily going to be that good in a fight. My martial arts training is from a long time ago. On the other hand, I could leverage some of that privilege on my side to help me win bystander sympathy; if I stand up to a big dude threatening a person or color or Muslim or LGBTQ+ person, well, it’s going to look pretty bad when said big dude hits me, a not-big cis woman.

(of course, given that a male Trump supporter punched a woman in the face in public for having a political discussion that dissed Trump, I don’t know how much I can rely on dumb and outdated sexist ideas to keep me safe, but it might be worth a shot)

I know that I don’t always handle conflict well. I’m trying to walk myself through scenarios where I prepare de-escalating statements, where I make myself look vulnerable and not threatening so I can continue talking and maybe give the person being threatened a chance to slip away. I can use my calm-teacher-voice to try to reach people where they’re at and have discussions about culture for daaaaays without getting fatigued or freaked out. I can be kind in my dealings with others, even people I disagree with, both because it’s usually the right thing to do and because it’s disarming. I don’t have much of a trauma history, so I probably won’t get triggered, and can continue to engage where others might need to step away.

I don’t have a ton of answers, because I know myself well enough to know that how I react in tense situations depends on a lot of contextual factors that may not be known in advance. What I’m advocating here is for everyone who wants to help to run themselves through a few scenarios, and try to get a sense of how you might respond if you’re trying to help and things begin to escalate. Will you get angry? Will you run away? Will you burst into furious tears? (I’ve been known to do that) All of these are valid emotional responses – the main thing is to not escalate the situation through your actions.

Feel your feels; take care of yourself and your emotions. Take care of those around you if/when it’s appropriate (the safety pin blog post I linked to reminded us that it’s not always appropriate to intervene; some folks may not want our help, and that’s okay). When we’re trying to help others, it’s more likely to be effective if we’re not getting in our own way by trying to be someone or something that we’re not.


*To briefly unpack a few things from this sentence, I say “potential allies” because it’s on us to try to be the best allies we can to marginalized people…but it’s they who get to decide if we’re doing a good job of it, not us. Being an ally is not a feel-good endeavor. You do it because it’s the right thing to do, not so you get to pat yourself on your back. It’s quite likely going to be uncomfortable at times, and maybe dangerous. And I also want to be clear that if and when things escalate, it’s never the fault of the people being attacked or threatened. All blame lies with the aggressors, and if someone who’s being targeted has a slightly different reaction (fight vs. flight vs. freeze, for example), that shift could provoke the aggressors even more, which is not right or fair… but it still could happen so we should be aware of it. I just didn’t want to sound like I was promoting victim-blaming in that instance.

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