Nonviolent Communication and censorship

“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”

— John F. Kennedy

How does Nonviolent Communication (NVC) address issues of censorship, including book banning?

Censorship is the suppression or prohibition of ideas, writing, speech, or other forms of expression.

NVC is a process that emphasizes the use of dialog to create mutual understanding, cultivate good-will, and make mutually satisfying outcomes more readily attainable.

NVC can shed new light on the most contentious issues, providing new possibilities for breakthroughs.

NVC has tools in three areas:

  1. self-connection, for greater clarity about your own feelings, motivations, values, and desires;
  2. empathy, so that you and others experience being heard and understood, and;
  3. authentic self-expression — also known as honesty — which contributes to being understood as well as helping others feel connected to what is true and real for you.

Through a process of empathy and honesty, NVC helps you create mutual understanding — beyond judgments about rightness and wrongness — leading to the possibility of co- creating mutually satisfying outcomes.

Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
— Rumi, 13th Century Persian Poet

Nonviolent Communication: A tool for navigating censorship

Censorship, including book-banning, is a highly polarized topic and practice with very strong feelings on both sides.

How does NVC help us navigate such a contentious issue? The first insight is the distinction between needs and strategies.

The word “needs” is used in NVC in a very specific way, referring to Universal Human Needs.

Universal Human Needs include things like love, trust, connection, choice, intimacy, understanding, self-expression, safety and so forth. Here is a handout with lists of feelings and Universal Human Needs.

Needs can be defined in various ways:

  • Needs are how life is showing up in this moment inside you or any other person.
  • While they include survival needs (air, food, water, clothing, shelter) — Universal Human Needs are the conditions necessary for life to thrive in any human being, regardless of culture or geographic location. Beyond survival needs, we’re talking about “thrival” needs.
  • Needs are core human motivators — that which impels us to speak or act. Any time someone speaks or acts it is in the service of one or more needs, whether that person is conscious of it or not!
  • Needs are energies that want to flow, not holes to be filled!
  • A need never refers to a specific person taking a specific action — that’s why its a “universal” need. “I need love” speaks to a Universal Human Need. “I need you to love me” is not universal, and is therefore closer to what we refer to as strategies, defined next.

As differentiated from needs — strategies are very important because they are the ways we go about meeting needs!

However, strategies, by definition, are not universal!

What this means is that conflicts never happen at the level of needs because we all have the same needs.

Conflicts always happen at the level of strategies.

This is a profoundly useful insight across contexts!

When you can differentiate needs and strategies, and understand the needs underlying a particular strategy, you are closer to understanding that strategy compassionately — (which is not the same thing as agreeing with that strategy!).

You can provide someone with compassionate understanding without agreeing with them or seeing things the same way.

When you distill any conflict to the underlying needs, at that point you can connect with each others’ humanity, and many times conflicts seem to resolve themselves!

Using this lens, we can see that censorship, book-banning, and any or even no limits on free speech — these are all strategies attempting to meet needs.

You don’t have to agree with any particular strategy. Once you understand the needs behind the strategy, then you understand the deeper motivations.

This is the beginning of human-to-human connection. And it is through dialog and connection that we can find strategies, outcomes, and solutions that we can all live with.

When we only discuss the strategies, it is easy for conflicts to get stuck, for people to fixate on a limited set of outcomes, and to miss the possibility of creative strategies that could meet all or most of the needs.

Balancing free speech and censorship with NVC

How do we use NVC to balance free speech and censorship?

Censorship, again, is the suppression or prohibition of ideas, writing, speech, or other forms of expression — and the topic is treated differently in various countries and cultures.

In the United States of America, the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees, among other things, free speech.

Therefore, censorship, in principle, goes against the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

However, there are legal limitations to free speech.

Though the legal nuances are beyond the scope of this article, a simple example of speech not protected by the First Amendment would be yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater when there is indeed not a fire. This action could unnecessarily endanger peoples’ lives — for example, being trampled while the panicked crowd tries to exit — and is therefore not protected speech.

The use of NVC to balance free speech and censorship needs to occur within the bounds of the law. (Launching an NVC-based initiative to change laws is also outside the scope of this article.)

Beyond that, NVC’s approach would be to try to meet the most needs for the most people, ideally through dialog which would ensure everyone’s buy-in to the solutions.

It is through dialog that people can connect to the deeper needs, and then co-create strategies that meet the most needs.

In practical terms, the set of debates and conversations around censorship and book banning is much more messy and complicated.

Sometimes the debate around censorship becomes less clear by whether people are speaking as private citizens or acting within a public role.

Author Wendell Berry points out that “public life” versus “private life” is a false dichotomy.

“Public life” could include the way a politician is under scrutiny as they do their job — and yet they also have a “private life” (for example attending their child’s birthday party) which is intended to be out of the public eye.

Berry says that these represent a false dichotomy because in between private life and public life is community. And he argues that in our hyper-individualistic and corporate-driven society, communities should have more of a say around the things that impact them.

A few questions, some tangential and some directly pertinent to censorship or book-banning, may shed light on the issue:

Should a community be able to have a voice as to whether a giant corporate feedlot for cows or pigs — with its smells, groundwater impacts, and other downsides — can be placed in their community?

What about a chemical plant or a nuclear power plant? Should a local community be able to have a say over these types of facilities in their midst?

Is a Black community entitled to remove from its local library books that promote racism?

Is a Jewish community entitled to remove from its local library books that promote antisemitism?

Certain groups in the Unites States have banned or attempted to ban books because they don’t agree with what the books say or what they perceive the books to be promoting.

Though at times spearheaded by parents whose intentions are to protect their children from content they consider harmful, very often these groups do not represent their whole community.

What would it look like to have a facilitated, NVC-based dialog in a particular community between a group that wants to ban certain books and another that does not?

Would they be able to get beyond the strategy of banning/not- banning, listen to the underlying needs, and work together for an outcome both sides can be OK with?

With a skilled facilitator it’s certainly possible! (In most cases, the average person does not have the skills to conduct this type of facilitation.)

How do we determine the strategies that don’t work for us, and identify the underlying needs so that we can express them and have a greater chance of creating connection? NVC gives you these tools!

How do we hear the needs of the people who have a different view from us — and without agreeing or disagreeing, simply try to understand? NVC teaches you how.

What role does a community play in the things that affect that community, and how do we navigate the degree to which there are or aren’t shared values in that particular community? (There are practices within NVC, as well as community-level approaches which are consistent with NVC, that can contribute to breakthroughs in this area. We highlight one such, below.)

None of these are easy questions, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

If we can separate the needs from the strategies and nurture connection and dialog, we are more likely to come up with better solutions that serve more people than if we keep the issue in an adversarial, win-lose frame.

The role of NVC in promoting open dialogue and common ground amidst censorship

NVC promotes open dialog in the midst of censorship by emphasizing human-to-human connection through honesty and empathy.

In particular, when we rely on rigid concepts of rightness and wrongness, and insist on being right or winning — that will short- circuit attempts at shared understanding and mutually beneficial solutions.

By availing ourselves of empathy for both sides, we open up new possibilities. How? When people feel heard they are more open to hearing others. When people trust that their needs matter (which is different than people agreeing with a particular strategy) they are much more open to other strategies they had not previously considered.

What are the needs censorship and book-banning are trying to meet?

So far we’ve looked at censorship and book-banning in more neutral terms and in terms of strategies that attempt to meet needs.

If censorship and banning books are strategies that attempt to meet needs, what are the needs?

To be clear, this is all context-dependent!

In local school districts throughout the US, the debate around banning books has largely become about parental rights. Parents want to be able to limit or control the content their children are exposed to. We can imagine in this context that some of the needs are choice, safety, and protection.

However, though parents should be able to have a say in what their young children are exposed to — the issue becomes imposing a book ban on other parents and families!

Any time censorship is employed it is because the person or people behind the censoring find certain information threatening or dangerous. Again, the need might be safety and protection — but we need to ask: who is trying to protect whom, from what, and at what cost?

Do you need to be protected from information about Hunter Biden’s laptop?

Do you need to be protected from information about Donald Trump trying to overturn the 2020 election

An important set of voices in this conversation is that of experts in education. What do the experts say about banning books? We look at that next.

What are the concrete impacts of banning books?

Experts in education tell us that when books are banned from the classroom it generates fear and insecurity in teachers. Teachers fear that the powers-that-be will keep changing the curriculum leading to more stress for teachers, the people we need to be grounded and present with our children.

Experts in education say that banning books hurts children’s learning — including critical thinking skills when considering a variety of perspectives.

Both libraries and librarians have received threats throughout the United States for their policies in favor of free access to information and against banning books.

Consider what Nicole Cooke, Augusta Baker Endowed Chair at the University of South Carolina, writes in her article, How book- banning campaigns have changed the lives and education of librarians:

“Neither policies nor book reviews nor professional expertise are keeping library workers from being called pedophiles, groomers, indoctrinators, and pornographers. They are being harassed, receiving death threats and being fired. Libraries have been sued and library workers are so threatened and harassed that they are getting sick and leaving their careers.” –The Conversation

There are two factors that seem important to mention at this point:

The US has been going through what pundits describe as “culture wars” — differing worldviews competing to achieve prominence in US culture.

One particular set has been targeting books on race, gender, and sexuality — ostensibly because it threatens their worldview, and all the needs underlying it.

The other factor involves social media, the siloing of interest- based groups, and the passive consumption of information. We have a culture and a society that have structural impediments to engaging in civil dialog on important issues. If this is a topic that is important to you, check out the National Coalition For Dialogue & Deliberation.

As Tom Atlee, of the Co-Intelligence Institute has pointed out, our society’s way of collectively perceiving information, processing that information, and then collectively making decisions based on that information, is broken. NVC-based modalities, such as Convergent Facilitation, which we look at next, can help tremendously if we can find the political will to implement them.

An additional resource highlighting the impacts of banning books is the Banned Book Club podcast, in which Canadian journalist Ari Velshi interviews authors whose books have been banned.

Along with all the other challenges humanity faces in which NVC is an effective ally and tool, shifting systems and structures to be more life-serving — and in this case, to facilitating dialog for mutually beneficial solutions — is an essential application!

Effective NVC techniques for handling censorship and for engaging in constructive conversations about book banning

There is one application of Nonviolent Communication that holds some promise for transforming how local communities and policy- makers address the issues of censorship and book-banning.

This method is called Convergent Facilitation, and it was developed by NVC trainer Miki Kashtan.

You can see case studies on how people have used NVC-based Convergent Facilitation to achieve breakthroughs in contentious and seemingly intractable issues, here:

NVC-based modalities, such as Convergent Facilitation, can help tremendously — but only when and if we implement them.

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg on NVC and censorship

Dr. Marshall Rosenberg was in favor of self-expression and the free exchange of ideas.

He understood that any act forced on anyone — including, for example, the suppression of speech or the banning of a book — should only be done as a last resort, and only when necessary to protect life.

The issue with forcing a decision on someone — versus taking the time to collaboratively arrive at a mutually satisfactory outcome — is that it breeds resentment, and often disconnection and mistrust.

When relationships are impacted in this way it usually makes future efforts at collaboration more challenging.

When we prioritize the quality of the relationships and together find solutions that we can live with, those solutions are more durable and future possibilities for working together are preserved.

These possibilities and potentials are part of the legacy bequeathed to us by Dr. Rosenberg.

PuddleDancer Press Books on NVC and free speech

PuddleDancer Press is the foremost proponent and publisher of books on Nonviolent Communication and free speech.

NVC has shown time and again that people can arrive at previously unimagined and creative solutions through dialog that includes empathy and honesty.

This is no different with regard to free speech, censorship, and book-banning.

Because of the rapport-building process involved, and the fact that the solutions include everyone’s buy-in, using NVC for contentious issues — such as free speech and censorship — predictably results in outcomes that meet a greater number of needs and are more durable.

Our books on NVC and free speech can help you:

  • Create exceptional personal and professional relationships,
  • Offer compassionate understanding to others,
  • Know when and how to ask for that same understanding for yourself,
  • Prevent and resolve misunderstandings and conflicts,
  • Speak your truth in a clear, powerful way more likely to lead to harmony than conflict, and
  • Create mutual understanding without coercion.

Whether you are a long-time student — or are brand new to NVC — PuddleDancer Press has the educational resources, including the books on free speech, to help you grow your emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and communication prowess.

Check out our catalog of books on free speech… and give yourself the gift of Compassionate Communication!