How does Nonviolent Communication (NVC) address the topics of Woke Politics, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), Critical Race Theory (CRT), and Cancel Culture?
By Alan Rafael Seid,
CNVC Certified Trainer
To be clear, the above are distinct and separate topics, fields of inquiry, study, and work. In this article I attempt to describe how you might view the significant overlap and common ground shared among these topics using the lens of NVC.
Before approaching the above question, here are some basic, working definitions for commonly used terms including NVC.
“Nonviolent Communication” (NVC) is a framework developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D., that excels at creating mutual understanding and a level of connection through which you can prevent and resolve misunderstandings and conflicts consistently, as well as deepen and improve both personal and professional relationships. NVC has both concrete tools, as well as an underlying intention. The underlying intention is about arriving at a high quality of connection and being willing to work toward mutually satisfying outcomes. The tools of NVC focus primarily in three areas: self-connection (interior clarity), compassionate listening (empathy), and authentic self-expression (honesty).
“Woke” comes from the word “awake” and refers to awareness of social inequality and injustice.
“Woke politics” refers to political and social movements associated with raising awareness about issues of social inequality and injustice.
“DEI” (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) is an often-used acronym usually referring to workplace diversity and social justice efforts. I also like the less-common JEDI (justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion).
“CRT” (Critical Race Theory) is an interdisciplinary academic field that attempts to apply critical thinking to the intersection of race, ethnicity, marginalization, law, media, history, and other social sciences. CRT is considered controversial in some circles due to its having been misrepresented as racist against people of Caucasian descent.
“Cancel Culture” is a term referring to the practice of boycotting or canceling individuals or organizations due to perceived wrongdoing.
“Social justice activism” is a broad term covering various aspects of advocacy and activism which attempts to raise awareness about and reverse societal trends of social unfairness and injustice.
“Identity politics” refers to how individuals and groups become involved in politics based on their social, cultural, or personal identities.
“Intersectionality” refers to looking at the overlap (or intersection) of issues — including aspects of identity — that converge and influence each other in ways that are both overt and subtle.
“Anti-racism” is the study of information and advocacy for practices that reverse a historical legacy of racism and discriminatory practices.
“Free speech vs. cancel culture” is the framing of a common debate surrounding the tension between individuals being free to say anything they want as balanced with a cultural practice of censuring and censoring individuals whose speech is considered insensitive or hurtful.
I do not use or refer to all the above terms, as a comprehensive treatment of all the issues is beyond the scope of this article. Because the literature is full of references to these terms, I include them here to support you in your further research and learning about these topics.
If the author of this article is a White male, how much of an expert can he be on these topics?
This is an important question because there are ways in which I am an expert and ways in which I am not an expert!
To clarify, I will use Brendon Burchard’s differentiation of three types of experts:
1) One type of expert is the researcher-reporter. If someone who has no personal experience in a particular topic offers to teach you about that topic you might naturally feel skeptical. But if that person — again, with no direct experience — interviews the 100 most successful or influential people in that field, and then writes a book about it, then you might have something to learn from them despite their lack of hands-on skill or prowess in that field. This is the researcher-reporter type of expert.
2) The results-getter is the type of expert who can confidently say: “I’ve gotten some great results.” They will know from personal experience some of the tips, tricks, pitfalls, and nuances on the given topic — and can show some tangible results for their knowledge and expertise.
3) The role-model is the type of expert who can confidently declare “do as I do — follow my lead!”
So for transparency and clarity, with regard to DEI, CRT, and Woke Politics I am only the researcher-reporter! Despite attending dozens of talks, classes, and workshops on anti-racism and related topics — the more I learn the more I discover there is to learn!
Despite my resistance to positioning myself as any kind of role model, with regard to Nonviolent Communication I am somewhere between the results-getter and the role model. I did take my first workshop with Dr. Marshall Rosenberg in 1995 and have been a Certified Trainer since 2003 — having used NVC not only to help others, but also to vastly improve or transform all of the most significant relationships in my life.
Though I grew up bilingual and bicultural in Mexico, I present as any other American White male — and I was born into privileged societal conditions which conferred to me many unearned advantages.
So I write this article from the perspective of deep expertise in NVC — as well as from the position of a privileged White male who has grappled deeply with issues of my own unearned advantage, the racial inequity I see all around me, collective and generational trauma, and a profound desire to turn around conditions of injustice and inequality on Planet Earth.
I am still learning about racism and anti-racism, decolonization, and DEI — and will probably be a lifelong student, trying to surface and examine my own blind spots and unquestioned core beliefs as I go.
So how does NVC approach Critical Race Theory, Woke Politics, DEI, Anti-Racism, and related topics?
Because these are nuanced topics, in order to answer the above question first I will unpack two significant and distinct paradigms — or ways of understanding ourselves, relationships, and the world — that NVC works with.
The Paradigm of the “Jackal”
One paradigm NVC refers to is known as Life-Disconnected, Life- Alienated Thinking and Language. This parallels the use of the metaphor of the Jackal and is an approach to life Dr. Rosenberg referred to as focused on “who’s right and who’s wrong?”
This way of thinking and speaking criticizes and judges others, pigeon-holes them and puts them in boxes. This way of thinking and speaking involves diagnosing others (“What’s wrong with you is ______!”), avoiding responsibility, expressing demands rather than requests, justifying punishment for those we see as “wrong,” and sees no problem in motivating others through fear, guilt, shame, and other similar energies that destroy trust and good-will between people.
You can think of Life-Disconnected, Life-Alienated Thinking and Language (Jackal) as, in some ways, the opposite of NVC.
The Paradigm of the “Giraffe”
The other paradigm is known as Life-Connected, Life-Serving Thinking and Language. This parallels the use of the metaphor of the Giraffe and is an approach to life Dr. Rosenberg referred to as focused on the question “how can I make life more wonderful?” This is a way of thinking and speaking that is aligned with NVC.
Can NVC help us create a more just society?
Dr. Marshall Rosenberg saw the potential of what society could become if people truly opened their hearts and engaged with each other with empathy and honesty.
He saw how a system in which the few control most of the resources and have power over the many — had become entrenched and institutionalized in various systems and structures throughout society.
He also seemed cognizant of the fact that people who have an unearned advantage in society are often unaware that they have that unearned advantage (commonly referred to as privilege).
He thought NVC could contribute to a more just and compassionate society, and one in which systems of power-over hierarchy, oppression, and domination could be dismantled and replaced by systems and structures that support all people to fulfill their potential.
This was Dr. Rosenberg’s larger dream for NVC!
The pitfall facing social justice movements
Creating a more humane and equitable society is a noble cause — there is no question!
That said, there is a trap — and it is one that to many remains invisible. And this trap threatens to undo much of the progress that is possible!
Simply put, approaches to dismantle oppressive societal structures and create a more equitable culture, can express themselves in ways that are giraffe or jackal! In other words, they can unconsciously and unintentionally find themselves rooted in a right/wrong, good/bad approach that would engender more violence and be fundamentally counter-productive.
The underlying intention is clearly life-serving — and even so, advocates can still have unprocessed pain and unconsciously come from a good/bad, right/wrong consciousness-and-language which judges, demonizes, or dehumanizes others.
Expressed slightly differently, people of any race who emphasize CRT, DEI, and anti-racism can unconsciously and unintentionally succumb to the pitfall of rigid right/wrong thinking which leads to demonizing and dehumanizing others — in this case, for example, all White people or even more specifically White males.
From the perspective of NVC, “hurt people hurt people.”
In other words, lashing out, demonizing and dehumanizing others, attacking others — this comes from unprocessed pain and a deep empathy deficit.
After all, that is the tragedy of the old habit called “jackal”. When I am hurting emotionally the old tendency is to lash out or withdraw. In other words, when I most need someone else’s love, care, and compassion is when I tend to act in ways that make it least likely that I am going to receive that love, care, and compassion.
This tendency to lash out and make others wrong that can happen in any field, is usually due to a deep empathy deficit. Unresolved pain and trauma that have not had a space to be cathartically and healthily expressed then fester and become toxic, both to the bearers and to the targets of that pain.
So — to summarize:
I believe that the intentions and consciousness behind CRT, DEI, and anti-racism work are noble and just — and it is work that merits being supported and elevated in importance.
And, I worry that sometimes the concerns inherent in these fields are expressed through a filter of unprocessed pain and trauma that can lead to a dehumanizing and demonizing of “the other” — thereby leading to a counter-productive approach.
So, what to do?
Handling the empathy deficit and taking responsibility
My perspective is that these topics related to injustice need to be worked on on all levels simultaneously as well as with an intention to address root causes rather than only symptoms.
As a White male with a lot of unearned advantage in this society, the burden is on me to be open to the challenging conversations.
It is on me to both be willing to express myself vulnerably and to be willing to be quiet and listen. And there is a time for each.
When I listen to people from a different background than mine, from a different ethnic/racial/cultural experience than mine, I open myself both to learning and to pain that is ready to be transmuted.
At first, the pain simply bears witnessing. The pain wants to be heard and held. And I let it affect me — I allow myself to be changed by it. The only reason not to would be fear.
There is a difference between situational pain and trauma and generational pain and trauma. I personally do not know what it’s like to live with generations’ worth of societal disadvantage — and what that does to a family’s ability to create financial stability or to the intergenerational transmission of things like self-esteem or sense of safety in the world.
But I can be present and offer to co-hold the pain, so that we can see each other as humans wanting to be allies in making life more wonderful.
And I have the opportunity to use my societal advantages and structural power to help elevate and empower those with less.
When I am asked about racism, I need to recognize the parts in me that have snickered at a racist joke — about any ethnicity — or times I have crossed the street when I see a Black man walking in my direction. It’s on me to recognize the years of imprinting that ‘Black men are to be feared’ that I received from some of my elders as well as from, mostly, television media.
Humble self-inquiry and self-awareness are part of the medicine here.
When I am asked about racism, I need to take myself out of the equation in the sense of not taking it personally. I have an opportunity to recognize that someone may be talking about “The White Man” in a general way to refer to systems of oppression under which they have lived — and simply be present to their experience with empathy and curiosity rather than with defensiveness!
I have friends who have been under the influence of the right- wing, anti-woke media ecosystem. They experience the mention of ‘woke-ness’ as something to be feared and reviled — something that is itself life-alienated!
Part of my concern is that much of the push-back and defensiveness pro-woke people experience is a direct result of Woke/DEI/CRT being expressed in jackal terms.
As we raise the general level of consciousness in society — and increasing numbers of people develop tools for compassion and vulnerable honesty — we move the culture further in the direction of love as well as liberty and justice for all.
Marshall Rosenberg on Social Justice
When I met Dr. Rosenberg in 1995, he had been traveling the world for several decades mediating conflicts and training people in NVC.
He stated that everywhere he went in the world, in every culture, people were playing one of two games.
These games are called:
1) Who is right and who is wrong?
2) How can I make life more wonderful?
These are another way of describing Life-Alienated, Life- Disconnected Thinking and Language, on the one hand, and Life- Connected, Life-Serving Thinking and Language, on the other.
These also map onto the two metaphors we use in NVC of the Jackal and the Giraffe — metaphors Dr. Rosenberg referred to as dangerous.
Why did he say these metaphors were “dangerous?”
For two reasons:
One, because “Jackal” is based on static language, and static ideas about people, and we can fall into the trap of thinking that some people are giraffes and other people are jackals — and then we’re back in that Jackal Thinking.
Secondly, because “Jackal” is based on rigid concepts of good/ bad, right/wrong — we can fall into the trap of thinking “giraffe is good and jackal is bad” — and once again we’ve fallen back into that Jackal Thinking!
Dr. Rosenberg’s deeper dream with Nonviolent Communication was that it could help dismantle what he called the “Dominator System” — in other words, the structural and systemic elements that perpetuate inequality and injustice.
He also had the insight that the means matter — not just the ends.
If we attempt to call out racism and injustice in a way that alienates and dehumanizes a whole group people (or people we have lumped into a group) then we are not solving the problem, but perpetuating it in a different form.
How to recognize the pain of situational and generational trauma — and how to hold it with care and compassion in order to humanize each other — these are elements of the work ahead if we are to create a more humane and sustainable culture.
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