Privilege, Responsibility, and Nonviolence

by Miki Kashtan

When I first heard Marshall Rosenberg, back in 1994, say that the actions of another person are a stimulus, and never a cause, for my feelings, I was shocked. Little did I know that this statement would become the nucleus of my growing understanding about what has come to be called self-responsibility in the community of practice that I belong to: those who have chosen to adopt Nonviolent Communication (NVC) as a core organizing principle of our lives and work. This is a spiritual practice that is surprisingly demanding in moments when it’s so tempting to think that I am having the experience I am having, or that I am doing what I doing, because of what someone else is doing or some other force that is outside me. Locating the source of my inner experience and my choices within me has been the most difficult and most liberating aspect of my practice.

Equally liberating, and far less comfortable, has been the twin practice of taking responsibility for my actions and choices and their effects within an interdependent world. The juxtaposition of the two conjures up mystery: my actions, however harmful they may be, don’t cause the feelings of another, nor are their feelings unrelated to my actions. The nature of the relationship is elusive and complex, as all interdependence is. When you add power differences to the mix, responsibility, all around, becomes an achievement few of us can step into fully, without blame of self or other. Teasing apart this complexity is one of the ways I aim to use whatever privilege I have in the world in service of transforming the structures and effects of privilege.

Self-responsibility in the Absence of Power

When Etty Hillesum left the transitional camp near Amsterdam and went, ahead of her “turn”, to Auschwitz to die during World War II, she dropped a note from the train, the last piece of her writing we are aware of. What she wrote was: “We left the camp singing”. The published parts of her diary, titled An Interrupted Life, describe a journey towards more and more self-responsibility of the kind I am talking about here in a world that was closing in on her, giving her fewer and fewer external options. Etty understood more and more pointedly that no one could take away from her the ultimate power we each have: the choice of what we tell ourselves about what is happening. She understood and was able to demonstrate in her writings that no event “makes” us feel this way or that way; that we are the creators of our inner experience through how we make meaning of what happens. She reached the point of knowing that she could choose how to act in the most extreme of circumstances, up against the most concentrated form of hatred known. In that sense, then, Etty was no longer defined by what was happening to her; however victimized she was by the external circumstances of her living, she found ways of shaping what her life was about.

Indeed, there is plenty that any of us can do to increase self-responsibility, even in relation to those aspects of our life that relate to being members of marginalized groups. No matter the circumstances, we can always aim for ways to seek and integrate empathy; we can strive to transcend any judgments and enemy images that arise in us; we can cultivate our capacity for empathy even for those who actively harm us or members of our groups. Ultimately, no one can take away from us the power to speak and act from a grounded core within us; to be aware of our needs; to imagine the needs of others; and to take action or make requests that aim to attend to everyone’s needs.

And this is why when I engage with people who are themselves from marginalized groups and who are seeking to be on the journey of integrating nonviolence and specifically NVC, this is how I work with them. Doing this work, especially when we have had enormously difficult lives, is a doorway into freedom from any notion that we are determined by our circumstances. It allows us to see the potential for transcendence right up to the brink of existence.

And, in parallel with this, I want to also remember the limits of this approach. As liberating as this path of self-responsibility has been for me and so many others I have worked with over the years, I am profoundly worried about saying that in principle we have the power to shape our inner experience without immediately qualifying it by saying that in practice, our capacity to do this is constrained by the circumstances of our life, most especially by our position in society. Otherwise, I could easily see any of us who is in a position of privilege being seduced by this beauty into not seeing the imbalances in the world, and thus contributing to further marginalization of already marginalized groups.

The first thing I note is that the power of self-responsibility is an accomplishment that requires a bunch of inner work. Access to the resources that make inner work possible is itself mediated by privilege. People from marginalized groups tend to have less access to the resources that make this kind of inner work possible. The obstacle to self-responsibility is higher.

At the very same time that such inner work is made more challenging by social marginalization, the rate of incidents that bombard the life and consciousness of marginalized groups is far, far higher than for those in the dominant groups. In other words: this affects women more than men; global south people more than global north; lower class people more than higher class; darker skinned people more than lighter skinned… and so on across the many crisscrossing lines of division in society.

This usually results in a much larger and continually growing pile of incidents, events, and history to work through to get to full self-responsibility. As hard as it may be to face the truth, it’s there: the comfort of a middle class life in a European or North American country, for a lighter skinned person, especially if they are male, heterosexual, and able-bodied, is not the norm. I want to remain forever aware of that.

In short, what we have for marginalized groups is a larger pile with less access to resources to work through any pile. It makes it dangerously easy to believe that people from marginalized groups are not developed enough as individuals instead of seeing the systemic context within which they live. This is why recognizing self-responsibility is not a substitute for calling those of us from positions of privilege to take responsibility in our own ways.

Receiving Feedback from People with Less Access to Resources

As part of my general commitment to nonviolence, and, specifically, to taking 100% responsibility for every relationship and every interaction, to the best of my ability, I always want to focus on my path and what I can do to support the relationship and the mutual learning rather than on the other person’s path and how they can better be on it. Unless someone has made it explicit that they want to receive feedback from me, for example on how they can express themselves more effectively and be heard more easily by others, my focus is on what I can do to hear them; not on telling them what they can do so I can hear them with more ease.

This is all the more critical when someone from a marginalized group is taking the enormous step of offering feedback, including within a community of practice, about how that very community is contributing to the marginalization of that person.

In this context, I want those of us with more resources to be willing to hear the message and to take responsibility for our part without “requiring” so much work from others before we will take their feedback seriously. Otherwise, teachings about self-responsibility, as liberating as they can be in some contexts, can in other contexts become subtle obstacles to full inclusion of people whose lives have been made horrifically more difficult because of the legacy and current applications of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism. This becomes even more painfully so given how much trauma any of those systems generates in those affected by it.

Instead of pilling obstacles and in this way reinforcing our privilege, when we receive feedback well we can actually accelerate the capacity of people from marginalized groups to move forward in their inner liberation. Those of us who have more access to resources can, as often as possible, acknowledge differences in access to resources, and take responsibility for our part in contributing to the difficulties in the lives of marginalized groups. A huge part of the heavy weight that people in marginalized groups have is the exhaustion and loneliness of having to do the work alone, without the support, empathy, and mourning of those of us in the groups that have and continue to create and sustain the conditions of difficulty for marginalized groups. Often, we do this even when we are motivated by a desire to contribute to the well-being of the marginalized.

To be more pointed, I have come to believe that any time we ask people from marginalized groups to focus on self-responsibility at the very time when they are taking the enormous risk of speaking truthfully of their experience rather than hiding it, we are reinforcing the very power differences that they are inviting us to look at.

We do this by implicitly asserting that we are the “authority” on how people are supposed to speak before we would hear them. We do this by making what’s important to us – how people speak – more important than what’s important to the person speaking to us – the content of what they want us to hear. Overall, we render their act of offering feedback impotent, because we distract attention away from taking in the feedback, regardless of form, and from showing that learning and transformation can happen on our end.

Taking Responsibility from a Position of Privilege

Taking in feedback in full rests, in part, on the capacity to take responsibility for the effect of our actions instead of focusing on being seen for our intentions. Simple conceptually, this rarely happens. Instead, a difficult dynamic frequently takes place. Its steps happen in sequence, are rarely interrupted, and are all too familiar to people in marginalized positions and to some of us who have applied ourselves over years to study the dynamics which would otherwise be invisible to us. I know this because I have been part of this kind of dynamic, more than once, and have subsequently seen it from the outside many times.

  • First, someone in a position of privilege does something that subtly or grossly, consciously or unconsciously, reinforces their position of privilege.
  • Second, a person in a marginalized position speaks up about it, likely after witnessing many such incidents before, either affecting them or someone else from their group. Perhaps because of years of holding back; perhaps because of many attempts to speak and then not being heard; perhaps because of generalized exhaustion and trauma, the speaking of the feedback is not done with the degree of care, consciousness, skillfulness, self-responsibility, or orientation to vision that, in most circumstances, we might wish.
  • Third, the person in the position of privilege reacts to what is being said by becoming upset, expressing a critique about how the feedback is spoken, and/or calling attention to their intentions.
  • Fourth, the attention in the group moves to the person in the position of privilege, leaving the person from the marginalized group alone in the very moment they are most in need of support. Most tragically, more often than not, the attention doesn’t ever go back to the person who spoke up. The content of their feedback is not addressed. Learning doesn’t occur. And the trauma of marginalization increases.

In calling attention to this dynamic, I want to stress that I find it completely clear why the person who is being given feedback wants to focus on intention. Especially because I have been that person, I know that it’s excruciatingly difficult to maintain the focus on effect when we so very much want to be seen for our intention. The tragic reality of life in our patriarchal cultures is that extremely few of us have enough of a positive, accepting, warm relationship with ourselves that can serve as an anchor for doing this difficult work.

Because this capacity is both so difficult and so vitally and critically needed to be able to transform our communities of practice, whatever they are, I have committed myself to do two things as my part in creating a shift. One is to continue to do my own work, and the other is to write and teach about what I learn both from my work and from witnessing others’ work.

When I manage to enhance my capacity to hear the contents of what people from marginalized groups share about their experiences, regardless of how it’s presented, two things happen. One is that I build more solid relationships with people who don’t have the specific privileges that I have. This, in itself, already subverts the divide-and-conquer structures that patriarchy continues to create. The second is that, both on my own and together with those whose feedback I made myself available to integrate, the community of practice as a whole becomes more conscious and more unified.

As more of us take this route, first, the community can begin to nurture and strengthen the voices that are willing to speak of marginalization. Then, with enough strength building, the community can come together to look at the effects of power on how we operate, and to mourn those experiences in community. In this way, over time, the group becomes a more conscious community that has the capacity to grapple more effectively with the horrific legacy of patriarchy and its offspring such as capitalism and white supremacy. In the end, everyone is freer.

Before ending, I want to undo any misconception that anything can be done in isolation. I would not possibly be able to reach this point of clarity and willingness to speak, first within the community and now beyond, without active support from colleagues and friends, some from predominantly privileged groups, some from predominantly marginalized groups, and some, like me, sitting uncomfortably in both worlds. We are interdependent creatures. The work of facing and transforming our privilege is nothing short of transforming our delusion of being entirely individual beings, so we can take back our place within the family of life.

INVITATION: To discuss this and other posts with me and other readers of this blog, check in to the free Fearless Heart Teleseminars. Next dates:
Sunday, July 16, 10:30am – noon, PT
Monday, July 17, 5:30 – 7:00pm, PT
Sunday, August 20, 10:30am – noon, PT
Monday, August 21, 5:30 – 7:00pm, PT

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This is a space for discussing tough subjects: both personal experiences and the massive challenges in the wider world. The culture of this blog is one of looking for the possibility of forward movement through loving engagement, even, and especially, in times of disagreement. Please practice nonviolence in your comments by combining truth and courage with care for me and others you’re in dialogue with.

Image Credits: Top: by Dave Belden for the The Fearless Heart. Below: An Interrupted Life, Pantheon Books, New York.

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10 thoughts on “Privilege, Responsibility, and Nonviolence

  1. María Marta Suárez

    As I read this article I started feeling the discomfort of also being uncomfortably sitting in both worlds…. how comforting is to realize I am not alone on this position and that someone can type out and share the words that can clarify my feelings, needs and thoughts. Thank you Miki!

    Reply
  2. aarontardos

    Hi Miki,

    This is certainly “food for thought”.

    I learned some of these principles from you before, and I noticed that it’s also useful even when there aren’t power differences to take on the practice of hearing someone’s intention before expressing the effect their actions had on me, and listening to the effect I had on someone else before clarifying my intention.

    The general principle is that:
    * “Person A” wants his or her intention to be understood
    * “Person B” wants “person A” to get the effect that “person A’s” actions had on “person B”, and “person B” wants to give feedback to “person A” so that “person A” can expand his or her awareness of the effects of his or her actions.

    So, when I am in the position of “person A” I can provide workability by hearing the effects of my actions and hearing feedback and letting it affect me before ever clarifying my intention (if ever clarifying my intention). And when I am in the position of “person B” I can provide workability by first being willing to hear “person A’s” intention and reflecting that back to them so they know that I got it. And then make a request to give feedback to “person A” (or possibly not make this request and just be complete with having their intention clarified for me).

    This way I can be responsible for providing workability when I am “person A” and when I am “person B”. Either way, I’m responsible 🙂

    Now, a question. In your post you said “It allows us to see the potential for transcendence right up to the brink of existence.”

    I don’t get what you mean by that. Can you clarify?

    Aaron

    Reply
    1. Miki Kashtan

      Hi Aaron,

      What I mean is something akin to what Viktor Frankl said to me when I wrote to him, at seventeen, about the difficult lives I thought my parents had, and how I really didn’t see how they could change anything in them. His response, which I sadly lost, and which amazed me that he even chose to respond! was something to the effect that we have the option of changing the meaning of our lives up until the very end of the life; that even when we are dying, we can retell the story of our lives to ourselves and make new sense of it.

      Similarly, even in the most extreme circumstances, even as the risks to our lives might be palpable, we can choose how we respond, and remember that we choose. SO MANY people have chosen dignity, courage, truth, and love in the face of unbelievably harsh events. Enough people died through violence of others with expressions of love for me to trust it’s possible. Whether or not any of us in the end can do it is not something we can know unless we are faced with the actual circumstance.

      Hope this helps.

      Miki

  3. Naomi Byrnes

    So excited and alive reading this exploration. One kernel that my heart sprung open to opened up to was this: what if I can free myself, with us much tenderness as I can, from the story that ‘people should speak nicely too me’?

    I love the acknowledgement of the ‘barrage’ of situations which arise in the lives of people who have less systemic power. Seems productive to accept the limitations of our human capacities.

    I also love the tip that the most self/compassionate and connecting thing I can do is wonder how I can better hear them without trying to change them. Not for the sake of ‘doing nvc right’ … but for the joy of emotional freedom. Such tenderness for the deep wounds and conditioning within us that can make it so hard to hear another heart without terror or despair.

    I’m feeling something like ‘excitedly daunted’! Thank you so much for reflecting and synthesising all this experience. Looking forward to beginning another new branch of neural pathways … even if it takes a lifetime. If Etty found it nourishing to do from the train before she breathed her last … then that speaks volumes to me about the joy and power of choosing how I interpret my world.

    Reply
  4. Franca N Onyibor

    I feel relived and thrilled reading this post. This is because the clarity I have been seeking regarding the relationship between Marshall’s path of self responsibility and privilege is now clear to me. As a person from the global south, Miki’s clarity, courage and humility is inspiring for me. I long to grow in such humility, courage with compassion as I live and share non violent community in my community in Nigeria. I celebrate this post because it offers me (and others of the nvc family) the path for continuing to share non violent communication in way that empowers (not dis empower.) our people. Thank you Miki.
    Franca – Nigeria

    Reply
  5. Jonathan Cowan

    Hi Miki,

    Please design a Convergent Facilitation course, after CF consultation, for use by the NVC community to promote maximum inclusion of any and all groups marginalized. The idea to advise on ‘best practice’. It seems like it is needed.

    I offer to create a kickstarter campaign, to fund the exercise. I might even consider to fund it myself, at a pinch.

    I am serious! (I wrote a longer post, but the system would not have it. I can supply.)

    Reply
  6. anthotaylo

    Today on a conference call with Miki, I expressed a concern (using many words) that Miki was able to summarize in reflecting back to me simply as “Is there unintended harm in identifying a group of people as having less access to inner work?” Just hearing Miki reflect that back to me so succinctly was very helpful for me. I posed that question because identifying one’s self as more privileged and more highly evolved as a human being than another person (because of increased access to inner work) could unintentionally serve systems of inequality. I am wondering if the part of the blog post where claims about people from marginalized groups are made is removed, and the framing of a situation where a privileged person receives feedback is changed, to just say that we cannot assume the reasons why a person may or may not have done inner work, is there anything lost in the overall point being made? If so, wouldn’t that have the advantage of the avoiding the chance that harm that could be done by making that comparison?

    Reply
  7. Jonathan Cowan

    Dear Miki,

    I fully expect your intention in posting is to stimulate debate to promote inclusion, to make for a ‘fairer’ world. Please do not hesitate to correct or qualify my attempt at understanding! 🙂 … I agree with you that oftentimes we can mitigate significantly the effect of negative outcomes, through inner work. My worry is that marginalized people need and want more choice, than choosing how to react to poor outcomes they are presented with. …. Let us as the NVC community ask marginalized people how we can give them more choice, so they can avoid poor outcomes in the first place, I suggest! (You probably mean that implicitly.) with respect, Johnny

    Reply
  8. Michael Bush

    Wonderful – thanks Miki. I am thinking of a time when a friend of mine told me I was being “irresponsible” about something and that I was “flakey” and my reaction was to tell him I was not ok with his judging me and telling him to cut it out or I would stop communicating with him. Although I am grateful to have the power to “protect” myself in a situation when someone is doing something I’m not ok with and I’m not in touch with my internal resources for reflecting back what I’m hearing, I am also saddened by the impact of privilege and the resulting disconnection from this person. Interested in hearing/speaking more about this.

    Reply
  9. Loretta

    Wow. Tonight I was struggling to articulate in myself about what was unerving and frightening for me, as I reflect on limits I am having to external resources to take care of my rent, teeth and mind. I see how collateral the damage can be , of expecting more out of my internal resouces than there is. This blog gives me hope that the core vision I have viewed since as long back as I recall, is that we are all interconnected. It is difficult to realize that I am marginalized, because of two things: 1) I don’t want to be 2) My childhood memories are formed around the beauty of nature- the concept of poverty had to be taught to me by humans and how they related to one another- berries grew on bushes, mushrooms on the ground and water in a river for free where I grew up. And it also meant many indigenous people were killed and displaced for my life then and now. I am sad when I try to convey how, by design, classicism/colonialism and capitalism leave me and a world of people out of access to the resouces to gain self- responsibility..I feel scared people, and at times, I , won’t see how, if we all don’ t grow- no- one really grows. If my teeth don’t work, I cannot support more Nvc access in my community. Thank you Miki for some medicine in your writing tonight. I can sleep with more ease that shared reality and shared understanding can be explored in community and through those reached by this blog.

    Reply

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