Thursday, March 18, 2010

Freedom of Speech and Healthy Communication

We have had some intense discussions on our Yahoo group recently that have brought up some questions around freedom of verbal expression. I posted the following to the group today...

A member of the community asked: What sacrifices do we make to free speech in order to maintain decorum? Many would agree that some sacrifices to free speech are necessary, for example, prohibitions against hate speech. I've been in successful communities that have zero rules against speech, such communities tend to have very high amounts of individual expression but high barriers for inclusion and poor levels of group compassion (to be fair, such communities have been incidental, not intentional ones).

I am grateful you brought up this topic. I feel it's important to talk about communication in this community: particularly free speech vs. standards for healthy communication. I believe more is at stake than maintaining decorum.

Our belief is that we must hold ourselves to certain standards of behavior if we are to succeed in our mission, which is ultimately based on values of safety, inclusion, acceptance and compassion. At events, we have guidelines to facilitate physical and emotional safety. We attempt to create as free a space as possible – a space that feels more free to me than most any other public venue in Humboldt County – yet we still have rules in order to maintain a safe environment. I would advocate that having a standard for healthy communication in all Imps related environments – both online and offline – is just as necessary to facilitate emotional safety within the community.

A couple months ago I was accused of censorship as a group moderator because I requested that someone take care with expressing their opinion when they insulted another community member. Earlier this week I made the same choice, I requested that someone take care with not invalidating others’ experiences by speaking for an entire minority population or using degrading language. In both instances I spent hours agonizing about whether it was appropriate to speak up and how to do it in the kindest and least judgmental way possible (I am still not sure where I come out around being judgmental). I also sought agreement from other community members to be sure I wasn’t having an exclusive reaction. I have no interest in being perceived as the "list mother" who will give a stern talking to people who "misbehave." But more importantly, freedom of expression is vital to the Society's mission. We are passionate about holding a space where everyone not only feels free to express themselves, but also feels accepted and appreciated for their unique expression.

First I had to ask myself if I was really acting as a censor and I believe the answer is no. I did not remove anyone's words from the list. I did not tell anyone they could not participate in a conversation. I made no demands. I only asked as respectfully as I knew how that they take more care with their communication. I don't feel that is an unreasonable request based on our collective desire for inclusiveness and compassion. We can express our opinions and share our stories without insulting each other or using degrading language. We can express our understanding of words and concepts without telling other people they are wrong for understanding them differently.

I have been thinking a lot about healthy communication lately, particularly the idea of non-violent communication, not just within the Imps, but in my personal life.

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a way of relating to ourselves and others, moment to moment, free of past reactions. Nonviolent Communication helps us stay connected with what is alive in ourselves and others moment-to-moment, and enhances our ability to make life more wonderful for ourselves and others.”

I grew up with violence and I used to be a violent person when angry and afraid. I would yell and throw things. I could tear a person apart with my words. In the last couple years I have learned not to lose control in such dramatic ways. However, as I navigate the first healthy relationships of my life – not just with my life-partner, but with my business partners and my tribe – I am learning about the subtle violence that permeates my communication when I feel hurt, afraid or even exhausted. When I am triggered, I can be passive-aggressive, critical, blaming and withdraw from people. These could all be considered forms of violent communication.

"If "violent" means acting in ways that result in harm, then much of how we communicate — with moralistic judgments, criticisms, demands, coercion, or labels of “right” versus “wrong” — could indeed be called violent. Unaware of the impact, we judge, label, criticize, command, demand, threaten, blame, accuse and ridicule. Speaking and thinking in these ways often leads to inner wounds, which in turn often evolve into depression, anger or physical violence. Sadly, many of the world’s cultures teach these "violent" methods of communication as normal and useful, so many of us find our communication efforts painful and distressed, but we don't know why.”

I have been called out on my unhealthy communication by my life-partner, my business partners and my tribe-mates. I have never felt that they were attempting to censor my freedom of speech. I do not feel it is a sacrifice of my freedom-to-express- myself for my loved ones to request that I communicate with them in a non-violent way. I do not feel it is a sacrifice of my freedom of speech to process through my emotional reactions to people in the community who hurt my feelings or make me angry and wait until I can express my feelings and opinions with kindness, or at least without the subtle forms of violence mentioned above. I do not want my freedom to come at the cost of harming another person, or the community as a whole.

For the Society to succeed, most especially because we are revolutionizing sex and relationship in our culture, I believe we have to hold ourselves to a standard of healthy, non-violent behavior. I do not wish to censor anyone. However, I will speak up to enforce a standard for healthy communication in order to facilitate an emotionally safe environment in which people can be empowered to express themselves – their opinions and stories, their passions and desires, their kinks and quirks, their needs and boundaries, their love and fears. If this feels like a sacrifice of someone’s freedom of speech, I would ask them what exactly they feel is the sacrifice – their right to be violent and cause harm with their words? I would wonder if they feel it is a sacrifice that it is against the law to cause physical violence to another person? As my understanding of violence deepens, and my commitment to creating peace in our world increases, I no longer believe there is a difference between the two.

It is our intention to bring greater consciousness to the idea of non-violent communication within the community, possibly with workshops or group discussions. If there are members of the community who have experience with these ideas and practices, I would love to hear from you.


Dave Berman said...

You are such a great writer and a beautiful soul. Thank you for all you give to the Imps community and the world. I have cross-posted this here:

April Cooper said...

Thank you, Dave, for your consistent encouragement as I find my voice and develop more strength in sharing my thoughts and feelings about our community.