In the last blog, I listed a self-care tip for having inclusive conversations: choosing when and where to invest your energy. Inclusive conversations are conversations where differences are seen as a resource instead of a threat. These conversations can be tricky because differences can bring up fear, hurt, or anger.
Today’s tip is also about self-care. If you’re not taking care of yourself in a conversation, or hosting yourself, and being present, as the Art of hosting’s four-fold practice would put it, then it’s unlikely that the conversation will be productive. Inclusive conversations are often hard and courageous conversations. So today’s tip: Look for allies and build support before you jump in.
I used to think I had to always speak out against any injustice, prejudice, and imperfection to be a worthy activist. Once, I was a member of a mixed activist group. The leadership was all white while most of the activists were African American. I demanded the leadership confront its own privilege and stop gatekeeping opportunities for a more diverse leadership. In a public meeting, designed just for this purpose, the leadership attacked me and attempted to taint my character. No one stood up for me. When I looked around the room, I was alone. I had no allies.
Two painful months later, one of the activists contacted me. “At the time,” she said, “I didn’t know what you meant by “gatekeeping,” but now I understand. Sorry I wasn’t ready to support you and stand up to the leadership.” See, she didn’t know because I had not built my support network. I learned from the experience that slamming my head against the wall of authority and power is not activism, it’s masochism. One is more likely to burn-out this way. It took me years to recover from the experience. I was scapegoated other times in a variety of groups, until I understood how scapegoating works and what I was doing to help it.
Scapegoating is a common group dynamic. When uncomfortable feelings arise in a group, there is a tendency to project those feelings against the person who inspired them. Truth-tellers are easy scapegoats because they say things that others try to hide. People who are very empathic are most susceptible to being scapegoated, because they can unintentionally take on the emotions of the group. By blaming the scapegoat, the group can avoid facing its own feelings of fear, discomfort, and hurt. Those feelings are projected to the scapegoat.
Scapegoating is not a right-wing thing, though we are hearing a lot of it in this presidential race. I’ve been scapegoated among conservative circles, liberal artists, radical hipster anti-racism activists, and preppy extra-educated psychologists. Scapegoating is everywhere. Just start noticing in any community how the gossip is concentrated against 1-2 people. Ladies and gentlemen, those are the scapegoats.
If you’re interested in knowing more about scapegoating and group dynamics, let me know and I’ll be happy to write more. Those of us who become scapegoats, experienced it first in our own families. A group relations conference helped me see this and set this painful experience to rest once and for all. But that’s a much longer story. For now, I just want to mention one easy tip.
Since I now know my tendency to be scapegoated, as soon as I enter a new group, I take some time to build relationships and get to know the people around me. I’m intentionally looking for allies. I’m intentionally building a support system for myself and others. I’m also learning what is perceived as “normal” in this group. I try to not step into conversations about power and privilege before I have a clear understanding of who this group is, how many people share my views, and who speaks truth to power and can offer me support.
Not pushing the envelope too soon has another effect, it helps me host the group, the fourth step in the four-fold practice, in Art of hosting terms. In other words, it helps me learn the group culture, see where the group is, get a sense of where it is going, and choose the most strategic time to make a controversial comment.
You think this is an easy cop-out? Think twice. Allies and timing are strategic. If a group is ready to be challenged and go deeper, it will be less willing to scapegoat you and your contribution can be more transformative. If you choose to oppose the larger group, doing it with allies by your side can be more effective because a group of people acting in unity are harder to scapegoat.
The newly arrived, isolated person who is quick to question what is normal for the group is the easiest scapegoat ever. These days, before I choose to do this, it better be worth it.