5 popular ways to shut down conversations about power.

Years ago when I started speaking out against the powers-that-be about “church”, I noticed a pattern. Almost the minute something negative was shared, there would be an immediate defensiveness and responses like “be careful about being divisive”, “the church is made up of imperfect people”, “t’s not all bad”, or “I’ll pray for you.” The basic summary of the responses–“quit saying negative things, we don’t like it.”

When the events in Ferguson broke out last year, I was appalled at the comments on Facebook when people from the underside of power (or advocates for them) shared.  Almost universally, there was a rebuttal, a “but there are two sides to the story,” “#alllivesmatter”, “but what about….”, almost anything to shut down the big feelings of anger and grief.

I have noticed the same pattern in so many other conversations, too, concerning pretty much anyone on the underside of power. When we talk about poverty and the poor or women or LBGQT issues or Native American history or people of color, there’s so often a defensiveness that emerges that shuts down the conversation and somehow attempts to either put those with less power back in their place or dismiss the passion of their advocates.

It makes me crazy, but it feels fairly predictable. When I posted about Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, I got a few messages about “their alcoholism” and “there are two sides to the story.” and thought Yep, there it is, almost like clockwork. 

I respect people’s perspectives and definitely don’t want all these conversations to be one-sided but at the same time, when those with power and privilege immediately respond that way it feels like a sure-and-quick-way-to-shut-down-the-conversation.

It doesn’t open up dialogue.

It doesn’t help those on the underside of power feel heard.

It doesn’t foster healing and movement-toward-change.

In fact, it perpetuates the problem.

It seems like almost every time a controversial subject emerges from the underside of power, we hear these kinds of responses (sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly):

1. “You need to stop being so angry.”  Oh, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that one.  “They’ll listen to you when you stop being so mad.”  I am not saying that anger opens doors because I know it is scary for people, but goodness gracious, we need to learn how to let people be pissed off about the injustice they and others they know are experiencing.  We can never be polite enough, not angry enough, not _____ enough to accommodate making everyone feel comfortable in hard conversations.

2. “But remember, there are two sides to the story.”  This usually translates to: “Um, they deserve what they are getting somehow.” or “We weren’t the ones who did it, why should we have to be blamed?”  It always points to minimizing the reality of what’s being shared.

3. “You just need to be patient.”  To me, this ranks almost as high on the nails-on-a-chalkboard-meter as when married people having sex tell single women, “But God is your husband.”  Sure, there’s something to be said about the long-game on change, but I know there is never a right time to question or disrupt the status quo.

4. “God’s in control.”  I am not going to go into all of the terrible theology that goes into this statement when it comes to power and injustice but I believe these words really have a way of making people of faith feel small and unfaithful and dismissed.

5. “But what about…..”  There are always so many “what about’s” that can be part of good healthy conversations at some point, but when that is the starting point, the first thing out of the chute, what it communicates is:  “what you are saying doesn’t really matter all the way because of x, y, or z”

There are so many more, and I’d love to know what you would add or you have experienced.

It seems like the thread that runs through all of these somehow reflects,”You are making me feel uncomfortable and I don’t like it.”

Yep, change is uncomfortable.

Respecting the deep grooves of oppression and the damage its done is uncomfortable for all of us.

Honoring the realities of people on the underside of power is uncomfortable for all of us.

Listening without fixing or solving or scripturizing or minimizing is uncomfortable for all of us.

Getting in touch with our privilege is uncomfortable for all of us.

And holding space for grief and anger and depression and rage and hurt and damage is oh-so-uncomfortable for those feeling it, those hearing it.

The biggest threat to real change in our hearts, our systems, our world is our aversion to being uncomfortable. But the truth is that we have to live with it a long, long, long time in order for real change to happen.

A way forward is to create safer people who over time can help create safer spaces for important conversations that lead to collective action.

And it can start with something as simple as this: When people with power and privilege hear things from those on the underside of power, maybe we could respond with:  

“Tell me more.”

“I hear you.”

“i’d love to understand more about what you are thinking and feeling.”

“Thank you for your honesty. It helps me understand.”

“I want to learn.”

Oh, how I know this is only a start and there’s a critical need for two way conversations and deeper dignified dialogue and all kinds of ways to learn and listen together.

I just really believe that we can never get there when these 5 things keep being the first line of defense in conversations related to power.

My hope is we’d start noticing it–on Facebook, in real life conversations, in our hearts, in our thoughts.

Let’s start letting ourselves live with the discomfort.

It’s part of real change.

//

ps: April’s Down We Go column is up today at SheLoves Magazine. It’s called An Open Broken Heart.  In some weird way, I think both these posts somehow fit together.  Tell me what you think about that theory.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

20 Comments

  • Can I pick up on what you say about two sides to the story Kathy?

    I really want to be of help. I respect what I think is your sincerity for anyone who is advantaged through no fault of their own and I want to honour everyone’s journey whether it being in processing anger, grieving or something else. I also acknowledge with being white and male that this is often associated with privilege and with the need to be listening and sharing power. In that light I hope to comment in a sensitive and reasonable way.

    I think there is a line between doing what is consistent for justice, equality and healing and what becomes what the bible calls being complainers and fault finders. Sometimes some great work being done, and at other times action only compounding problems.

    With what is regarded as being a position of privelidge, it often feels to me more of a burden and a curse, getting to the point of exhaustion at times with trying to keep up with what expectations are and facing fear of being perceived and misogynistic, racist and unloving when what I do is perfectly fine. I’m at the point of wondering in some environments if it is better for me not to be around than to face what may come to me with retribution for things that others have done. When I have express this, a common response is “now you know how I feel”. Well, two wrongs don’t make a right.

    What I have learned is that in order to function in achieving equality and justice for women, LGBT, the poor native Americans etc is that I must be taking care of myself in order to be able to function effectively. If I am not welcomed or listened to, but rather marginalised and disapproved of I can either choose to contrive myself to fit in and not fuction well or to find something better to do.

    I think there is a danger of alienating people in power that we could otherwise be partnering with in common aims. I think of the abolitionists thinking President Lincoln was not doing enough to eradicate slavery, of him thinking they lacked charity and the amazing dignity in which Martin Luther King carried out direct action with criticisms from some of not doing enough and form others of being too militant.

    A difficult balance to “proclaim release for the oppressed” and in doing so not overcompensate and become opressive to some?

    Reply
  • Well, I see someone is ahead of me on the two sides to every story thing. I really wanted to comment on this particular one as well. Please understand that this is only my way of looking at that statement and not my expectation of anyone else. I absolutely see that for some this is the end of the conversation, but for me, I view it as a reminder. When I am on my soapbox about one of my many table pounders and someone makes this statement, in my own head it is a wake-up call. Am I choosing justice for one, at the expense of another? If so, I have then become the oppressor. NOT a place God ever called me to be. It is for me a call to check my own heart. This is also how I mean it, when I say it to someone else. I am asking them to take a step back and look again at all sides, in case they missed something.
    Having said that, this is a very hard way to live, especially because situations requiring a look at all sides are often emotionally charged. When I look at what happened in Ferguson, in my head, this looks like not only looking at the life that was lost, (indeed a tragedy on so many levels) but it also means looking at the shopkeepers in the neighborhood and the extortion, robbery and then looting (in the name of “justice”) that they have endured. Their injustices matter also. And….although it gets proverbial tomatoes thrown at me. I also look at the life of the police officer. Perhaps I have a different perspective on him than some because of my years being married to one. The relationship he had with his community and the history there all play a part in his decision. We all would like to think we would know exactly what we would do if we were in his shoes, but that fact is none of us really knows how we react in the heat of battle until we are actually in one. I don’t feel I can dismiss his perspective, whether or not I agree with his choices.
    My point is this. When told there are “two sides to every story”, I look for the kernel of truth in the statement, if there is one to be had. My goal is always to seek justice and mercy wherever I find them needed and I never want to miss someone in the process. Just my perspective. Always grateful you choose to engage these conversations.

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    • i love your thoughts, dear friend, and i totally believe that there are two sides to every story for sure and that we need to find ways to hear them and acknowledge and get the truth-of-what-we-are-feeling-and-thinking-out so healing and listening and understanding can all happen. so i am with you! i do believe, however, that right out of the chute it is a conversation-stopper when we are talking about issues of injustice. it’s a next-level conversation that usually never happens when it gets thrown out from the beginning. keep sharing!

      Reply
  • ‘God is in control’ has been articulated to me as ‘That’s not where God is moving us right now.’ I’ve then asked, ‘Where, then, is God moving us? Does our God ignore or validate the hypocrisy’s in our thinking?’ I’ve heard, ‘Why are you so angry about this? No one else is.’ Which means that it’s just not important since the masses don’t see (or have been shielded from) the injustices. We haven’t learned well in some
    church-cultures to hold ‘space for grief and anger and depression and rage and hurt and damage.’ At times, it feels like our best solution is to say, ‘We’ll be over there when you’re finished with your time-out.’ Ignoring the strong emotional reactions to injustice and hypocrisy, we are teaching that ‘You don’t want to be THAT person. Those emotions are not valid or from God. They are your ‘old’ self and need crucifying on the cross.’ How many have we ‘crucified’ in churches to perpetuate the myth of ‘happily-ever-after-with-Jesus?

    And, yes!, your Open Broken Heart pairs well with this post. Too often, we can digress into arrogance without letting ‘the words fall in’. Thank you for holding space and tension between passionately calling out injustice and humbly recognizing big cultural changes don’t happen overnight. Thank you for helping us to hold that tension with you.

    Reply
  • We’re old enough to have good responses to most of these “conversation killers”. Really the best response is not to allow the people who say such things to be in a position of power over us. Let them know we don’t accept these responses, and neither do many, many others.

    Many social groups, and this especially includes religious groups, encourage the members to build their strongest relationships with other group members. Once that takes place, one must agree with group-think on all matters, or risk the loss of one’s most important relationships. That can be a powerful motivator to keep one’s mouth shut. Independent thinkers are rarely well accepted, since they usually don’t accept the status quo.

    Reply
  • I got, “What’s your righteous response?” Subtext: it doesn’t matter what has been done or said, you need to respond by playing nice and submitting to it! Makes me want to throw up!

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  • #6: “What is your righteous response?”

    Which is code for: you just need to ‘forgive and move on’. We’re not interested in the abuse you suffered, and we’re certainly not going to deal with it.

    Reply
  • A conversation long overdue… Our neurobiology is programed to keep status quo…so much about survival. Lots of Christians I sit with as a therapist have forfeited their capacity to be present in the moment, present to how their body feels, or how to attune to another. “Flesh” has been labeled BAD and we disavow it. Soooo much of this goes back to “at all cost keep daddy/mommy happy.” They are gods to their children and our brain programs accordingly. For real they kept us alive. And that is how strong we see the responses. FOR GOD”S SAKE DO NOT MAKE THE GODS ANGRY!!!! We give up our prefrontal cortex thinking when emotion gets stirred and we function out of the limbic or the part of our brain that formed early attachments. It is subconscious, very strong and not connected to present reality. People who were securely attached to kind thoughtful, empowering parents can tolerate threatening conversations as can those of us whose “gods” were just not there at all.

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    • such amazing thoughts, nita, and how our brain is so connected and so programmed-to-go-to-shame because of our experiences….and how much healing can take place when we work on re-wiring. but as you know, that’s a tough and painful process but oh so worth it!

      Reply
  • I’ve had “two sides to every story” used to shut me down. I think it might be a very different thing when it is used as a gentle reminder that we may be having a rant. In this case it was used to imply that my story was no longer valid… my story of being manipulated and bullied by my church leader and boss… his side meant that it didn’t happen therefore I was divisive and bitter because I said it did.
    Thank you Kathy…I feel comforted by your writing xx.

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    • thank you for sharing. i truly believe there are always two sides to the story and it is true that we need to have spaces and places that are safe enough to be able to share freely, but i am so with you how it gets used as a shut-down right out of the get-go. glad you are here.

      Reply
  • It seems when we shut down conversations on hospitality, simplicity, vulnerability, reconciliation, solidarity and being honest with our shared pain, our common humanity that we advocate for power over humility. It seems the biggest ways to shut down conversations on power is to practice an individualism that supports the status quo. This always suggest an apathetic, judgmental, arrogant way of life that always says “God isn’t calling me to that.” As if humility, vulnerability, reconciliation and love do not apply to everyone. It is the most common way to justify our North American privileged comfort zones we live in. And this also justifies our violence, exploitation, mobility, consumerism and laziness. North Americans love their addiction to money and power and until we give this up we will never listen to anyone and will live into an apathetic arrogance.

    Reply
    • that is such a great point, mark, the “God isn’t calling me to that” reality. i have heard that one a lot and it’s sometimes a way to stay comfortable and protected and not have to engage.

      Reply
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  • HM being silence is something I experience in the church. First I did not share the experience of abuse to begin with. My ex shared it when I realized it was not of God for me to suffered the abuse. I stay quiet in hopes someone would revealed to him the problem with it. When he shared it in one church the Head pastors split . Either you were on his side and I was a rebellious woman who should be forced to return to the marriage or they said nothing. It took some time for me to realized that he was sharing the abuse he perpetuated against me. I had several members come and tell me off about ruining this great man’s reputation. My response was what are you talking about? Then I also had one member who was chosen to come tell me to lie and say I had an affair hm I was not going to do that. I moved to another church after being called a freak and a flake. I never share my side because I forgave him and just wanted to be left alone safe to live my life. The new church the story got out by some who had connections with the previous church. it is a strange thing when people come tell you your story and ask for help with their situation. Ah all of it was to discredit me and isolate me. Some were there telling me that it was some kind of romance story. They were reporting back to my exhusband. I heard all of things you would not expect to hear from pastors and leaders. Dealing with my own healing with Jesus as i walked through this time , things got harder. I had people tell me I was against marriages, I was seeking to steal people’s husbands oh then also I hated men. The thing that hurt me the most was when the head pastor stood on the alter talking about me as I was the only female the only one in seminary at the time how I hated God because of the abuse noone should listen to me about anything. I moved on to another church. Instantly I heard the rumours slander and gossip from people I did not know. I forgave and ignore it. When i would go to share praise reports I would be stop. I was told because I was abuse others should be able to abuse me or make fun of me. I was told that I had little faith. I was told that I saw God as my abuser. HM that is why certain leaders needed to avoid me. I shared some with those who needed to hear the story or parts of the story to heal from their own abuse experiences. I share my story of Jesus rescueing me from that situation in the Baptist seminary years later and found they did not judge me but applauded God Grace to me in the healing…… But I was sad I could not share this story in my church. I also was sad that I could not share any praise reports because of those who felt they were better than me because I experience abuse. I did speak up about their techniques with dealing with the abuse. Sorry I do not think it is of God to tell those who were abuse they need to seek forgiveness because it was not them that was abuse but Jesus. UM yeah as well as some other things people called me about. But then I realized my protests no matter how I said it did not matter as those stuck in leadership decided I was unacceptable because of the abuse i experience. I am in a beautiful church now but I have had conversations with a few who had made comments . There have been a few who question my faith and they make the strangest comments well I wont say. But I know some have question where I am with my faith. My faith in God is strong. I had stop defending it mos tof the time because the Lord brought me to a place where he showed me if someone can not see who you are in me and yes I had some tell me this that they could not see where i was or how I was a treasure in Christ as they were , that it was their lost. But it does sadden me. it also sadden me when I share things with others seeking to help people who are abused and hear well all those who suffered abuse will hurt you are mean are bitter. or that all those abuse see God this way. ahhhhhhhhh the last thing just burns me because I know numerous times when people said this to me I shut up stop speaking. U also know that some will go along hoping top find some healing through the person. And I know from talking to others that many of us who survive this do not see God nor did we ever see God that way. it is frustrating to have people tell us we have little faith or we see God in a negative way especially for someone like me whose healing came from God . How could I ever see God as that. anyway I could go on and on. The truth is I am passed those things that were said to me I am even past those thinking they are better than me. I began to speak out for those struggling with healing. The voice of those who experience this is the beginning process of healing but when others come with a superior know it all arrirude of what someone is like or how they view God or their level of faith they will shut down not say a word. They already live with someone who they loved who showed them the same treatment and gave all the reasons why they thought they needed to try harder and was less . They do not need good church people telling them the same. Oh about the whole thing with Jesus well I still will tell people and some back away from me when i said this to them Jesus was there comforting me I do not need to take him back into the memory nor do I want to pin the pain someone place oin me. After all he already gave his life for me . I love him more than i can express. Besides I do not need to place pain on him for him to cleanse me. Cleanse means a washing away not a hading over to someone to place on someone else. I believe he cleanse me of the pain meaning it is gone I need not place it on him…., Because I think this way I am told I do not have a clear understanding of thing and am if little faith. HMMMMMM The truth is my level of faith is known by God so what they think or what they say does not matter. However I will avoid those who see me as less because I experience abuse. I also avoid those who gossip about me…..

    Reply

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