by Miki Kashtan
One of the frequent challenges faced by anyone who studies and applies Nonviolent Communication (NVC) for any length of time is how to orient to their own or others’ conviction about the indisputable wrongness of something. Even as NVC includes a fundamental move away from ascribing wrongness – or rightness! – to anything, some things may just feel beyond the pale, universally condemned, and therefore, again, wrong. Sometimes NVC is wholly dismissed by some people precisely because of this. If we are not going to say that rape, or murder, or racism, or Nazism, or communism, or child trafficking, or whatever the person in front of us believes is wrong, then we are wishy washy nonsense, says the person and walks away in a huff.
I’ve been searching for a way to bridge across this schism, or at least to make sense of it, for years. A couple of years ago I found some way of making sense of this difficulty and situating it both within interdependence and within the systemic context of what has happened to us, as a species, in the last several thousand years. In that way, this piece is written from within the tragic lens, which, to me, invites us into mourning and surrender instead of judgment.
Before delving into the details, one major caveat: all of what I discovered and put together has to do with impacts in the human-to-human realm. I haven’t explored impacts on non-human life, and even less so actions that involve states or gods as the entities that are presumed to be impacted. I may or may not come back to it at another time.
There are a few building blocks I want to explore before connecting all the dots into one conclusion. And there is a bit of complexity to at least some of them. So I hope you can take a breath and read about things that may not, initially, appear directly relevant to the question of “wrongness.”
The relationship between action and impact
One of the many provocative statements I have heard from Marshall Rosenberg, the person who formulated NVC and brought it to the world, is that other people’s actions never cause our feelings. It took a while before I fully took in that this doesn’t mean there is no relationship between someone’s action and the impact on someone else. It only means that the relationship isn’t one of cause and effect except on the material plane, where material impacts, generally speaking, are caused by the action. Aside from that, a large component of any impact is at the relational, emotional, and spiritual plane. At those levels, the relationship between action and impact is neither random nor one of cause and effect. It includes, within it, the meaning making that the person who is impacted engages in. The action is always interpreted in a particular way, and it’s the interpretation, the story we make up about what happened and why, that is the source of the impact; not the action itself.
Whatever the action is, we will feel differently depending on which story serves as the filter, and the likelihood of which story is available to us is given by some interaction between the culture we were born into, our social location within that culture, the personal circumstances of our own life within that (including any trauma we carry), and whatever we have done to liberate ourselves and expand the range of options we have for how to interpret human action.
And what is the story made up of? This is where the non-randomness begins to take shape. I think of it as a probability distribution. I can illustrate what I mean with two examples. One is a situation in which someone is expressing judgments of us and anger towards us. Most people, in most cultures, will likely filter this situation through a story that includes within it some sense of threat, attack, or assault. It’s extremely unlikely that someone would interpret it through a story of friendliness and fun that they would want to join. And, especially with some training in NVC, the possibility exists of interpreting those actions through the lens of curiosity towards whatever might be going on for the angry person that would lead them to relate in that way. The first interpretation is likely to result in fear or anger. The second, if it ever happens to anyone, is likely to result in delight. And the third may well bring up tenderness.
The second example is a situation in which a parent expresses concerns about someone their adult child is dating. In this case, the probability distribution is much different. In cultures that include certain deep codes of behavior in relation to parents, the filtering story is very likely to be one of pressure to end the relationship, resulting in guilt, internal conflict, or resignation. Where questions of dowry or bride price are involved, it would also matter whether it’s a daughter or son in terms of what the storyline would be. In cultures such as those of the global North, where individual autonomy is highly valued, the filtering story is likely to be one of seeing the parent as meddling, leading to indignation. Each of these respective stories, and the resulting impact, is going to be dramatically less likely in the other culture.
Now I am ready to connect the probability distribution theory of action and impact and where the sense of “wrongness” comes from in a first draft or approximation: the more likely an action is to lead to a negative material impact and/or to be filtered through a story that will result in a negative impact, and the more intense that impact is, the more likely it is that people will think of it as wrong.
In the wake of an impact
Some impacts are impossible to repair, especially material ones. Still, life, in its astonishing resilience, pulls forward towards regeneration, even against gigantic odds. In some places, it takes only years, not centuries, for forests to regenerate when it seems they are entirely gone. Some women in the Congo who have been subject to horrific violence regenerate through being supported to take leadership. The deep impulse to heal and live is everywhere.
And, simultaneously, it is never a foregone conclusion that regeneration is possible. We are living during a time when the degree and pervasiveness of impacts may be outstripping the capacity to regenerate for human life and possibly even all of life on planet Earth. Although we really can’t know what started us on this destructive path, the story as Heide Goettner-Abendroth puts it together is the one that makes the most sense to me. In this story, at least in its West Asian and European chapter1, the seed of our current concentrated extractive pressure on all life came from the patriarchal turn in the Eurasian steppes. And the patriarchal turn itself was the result of climatic impacts that outstripped humans’ capacity to subsist and led to massive trauma.2 From there, we’ve been passing on the impacts and trauma through endless cycles of invasions and the establishment of progressively more entrenched domination systems passed on intergenerationally through patriarchal conditioning. At this point, these systems cover the entire planet and operate on a deep logic of accumulation and exchange that appears normal to the overwhelming majority of humans. How we can ever recover from all of this and realign with life is the biggest puzzle ever. This isn’t the topic of this piece, nor is there anyone who actually has an answer, because even if some of us see clearly what is possible, imposing vision on others results in more of the same. So I will only include here the briefest summary of my current “advice” to anyone who feels called to contribute to such realignment: to mourn the gap, to surrender to the humility of not knowing, and to do what is ours to do, no more and no less.
With that, I want to look at what happens with simpler, more localized impacts, because I believe another clue about this move to call things “wrong” is related to how, as humans, we sustain the interdependent field between us and how we restore it when impacts have occurred.
To help illustrate this, I will start with a simple example from my own personal experience. I have quite a bit of sensitivity to people disconnecting. Over the years, I have noticed many times that when a person disconnects, they work out what led to their disconnection, or it just goes away, and they are ready to play again, without engaging with me about what led to the nor how it was experienced by them and by me. For me, this rarely works. I usually need to connect about the impact before being ready to play, at least most of the time. And if the other person isn’t available to co-hold the impact and learn from it together, there is some subtle reduction in connection that stays, and could even build up over time, even if the other person believes that it’s over and doesn’t need to be spoken about.
My hunch is that my sensitivity to this isn’t simply a personal anomaly. I believe it’s actually baked into our DNA as humans and is related to what my friend and colleague Sarah Peyton calls “alarmed aloneness,” which refers to a significant survival threat pathway for humans that hasn’t been sufficiently acknowledged or explored. And it’s still the case that most people I know don’t have nearly as much sensitivity to it as I do, which is why I am leaning on personal experience in this instance.
The field of human togetherness, as I see it, requires metabolizing impacts together in order to sustain itself and grow capacity. This is because we are interdependent beings living within separation, and we feel the gap even if we don’t know it. If we don’t tend to impacts with both reverence and commitment, the general conditioning from society will gradually eat away at our togetherness and intimacy. One form this can happen is that we start judging each other and distancing ourselves from each other more and more the less we metabolize impacts and learn from them. This is how I understand the very painful and demoralizing phenomenon of so many relationships, both romantic and not, starting out with immense love and openness and then, after some years, turning into a shell of a relationship that no longer has vibrancy, trust, or flow. I contrast this with the field of three which has been my life for the last few years where, despite overwhelming challenges in our lives (we have not been able to find a place where we can stay for more than a few months at a time, for example) and significant impacts within us, we are continually growing in intimacy and commitment to each other and to our shared purpose. One key difference I see is that we are deeply dedicated to a daily practice of impact sharing. And we now see several others within our wider network adopting this practice and also growing in intimacy and commitment.
Any of us may recover our capacity to function and live in the wake of a significant impact, without engaging interdependently with the person whose actions resulted in the impact. We can get enormous relief from being heard by anyone who has the capacity to listen with love. We can get deeper healing from understanding the experiences in our past or the systemic context that would lead to the impact. We can also increase our freedom again from seeing and questioning the narratives through which we filtered the actions. And all that capacity is going to be limited without the reweaving of interdependence and the settling in our own and the other person’s humanity without which we end up with less trust – just about always in the other person, and sometimes also in ourselves or in life.
This is perhaps why Marshall Rosenberg put so much care and effort into developing a method of healing role plays that he demonstrated repeatedly for those instances when people were carrying absorbed impacts they wouldn’t ever be able to bring to the actual person. A role play, when entered with reverence and curiosity, breaks out of the individual and into an interdependent field even though the actual person isn’t there. Like many NVC practitioners, I also worked with this form repeatedly, very often then witnessing astonishing transformation unfolding in front of me. I documented one such experience in an early blog post called “Finding Unexpected Humanity”; a time when I stepped into the role of a carpenter who molested an eight-year-old while doing work in the house her family lived in at the time. Many of the healing role-plays I participated in, and definitely this one, were about actions that would surely fall into the category of “wrong” if such a category exists. And each time, the completion of the healing occurred only when an actual alternative story emerged that could explain what could possibly have led a human being to take the actions that result in so much impact. That said, such healing cannot happen if the explanation comes before being fully received and before the impact is fully co-held, because otherwise it is all too likely to be tainted with defensiveness.
When my late sister Inbal and I codified what we learned from Marshall Rosenberg about reconciliation, we recognized that the three parts of the process that Marshall used and was speaking about corresponded to three primal questions that consistently arise for anyone who has been significantly impacted as a result of another person’s actions. They are all present in the piece I just referenced. Offering empathy and taking in the impact is a way of responding to the question “Do you get it?” Expressing regret and mourning the impact is a way of responding to the question “Does it matter?” And sharing the actual (or imagined) human story of what led to the action is a way of responding to the question “Why did you do it?” (If interested, the process is described in detail in the “Working with individuals for liberation“ learning packet.)
The rigor of this is intense and demanding, which those of us who engage in the serious and loving art of ongoing impact sharing know very deeply. The more intense the impact, the more spiritual strength is needed on the part of the actor to be able to face the impact without collapsing into shame or reacting with defensiveness, and the more necessary it is for that strength to be there in order for the restoration to actually happen.
This brings me to the second draft of musing about where “wrongness” comes from: something is more likely to be called “wrong” the more unlikely it is that the relationship that was affected can be restored.
Here is where I begin to touch directly on the tragedy that I see: as the severity of impact grows, so does what is required of the original actor to do the monumental work of attending to the impact fully enough that the person affected can reintegrate themselves and be in relationship with them again. And, simultaneously, taking actions that result in serious impact on others more often than not emerges from deep disconnection that makes such spiritual strength less reachable. This is one of those moments where I wish to call for a pause, to take this in fully before moving to the next section.
Punishment, separation, and accountability
Another aspect of the tragedy of “wrongness” is that calling an action “wrong” is not going to support anyone in engaging with impacts, neither those they inflict on others nor those they experience at the hands of others, because calling something “wrong” only increases separation.
“Wrongness” points to a ritual for attending to impacts that doesn’t work at all and yet has been baked into almost all cultures: punishment of the “wrongdoer.” An overwhelming majority of us have internalized the belief that finding out whose fault this or that impact is, and punishing them, attends to the situation even though punishment does nothing to care for impacted people. I am emphasizing this, because I find it harder and harder to grasp the sense of satisfaction that anyone has from punishing people given that it focuses only on the actor and does nothing to care for the impacted person. I now see this as an expression of powerlessness in the face of our collective low capacity to face and transform impacts. As James Gilligan documented in Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes, punishment, especially state-sanctioned punishment, often takes gruesome forms and only deepens the cycles of violence. I am quietly convinced that if we collectively found, again, ways of attending to impacts in a direct and loving way that could bring people back together, we would leave punishment behind. The evidence arising from experimentation in restorative justice demonstrates that even when the shift into it is incomplete and “wrongness,” “victim,” and “perpetrator” categories are still part of it, weaves communities back together and reduces repeat actions on the part of people whose actions have led to significant harm.
This leads me to want to look at the most extreme example, killing. The impact is so directly related to the action and so irreversible, that repair isn’t possible (though restoration might be with those who were connected with the person killed). And, indeed, just about all cultures as far as I know call killing wrong. And the burden is on those of us who won’t call it “wrong” to have something else meaningful to say, beyond just invoking this or that need, to explain why we won’t use the word “wrong” when we speak about killing.
The novel that I wrote some years ago, Without Flinching, is about a man who killed a woman in a fit of rage. He is not caught, and as a result he has years and years of his life in which he tries to heal from having done it. (That’s not how he himself thinks about it, at least not initially.) That novel grappled with some other aspects of the question of killing, not the wrongness, and it gave me, through getting to know my character, a possible visceral understanding of where killing may come from.
What I see is that those things which most often will be deemed “wrong,” including killing, likely originate from some form of separation within the actor, without which the actor would not be able to take the action. Even small acts of not taking into consideration the needs of another person, including the likely impact of that on the person whose needs are not being considered, would not be possible without, first, at least slightly separating from that other person. I think that separation is one of the main reasons for the strength of an impact, even if the material impact isn’t big. This is because even though we are habituated to separation and can function in it, we are still wounded by it when it happens.
This brings me to my third and last draft about designations of “wrongness” for this piece, seeing them as a response both to the likely presence of separation within the action and to the impacts of the action, and seeing the intensity and frequency of calling certain actions “wrong” as pointing to how much effort it would take to come back from the consequences of what happened as a result of the separation.
This also helps me understand what to do with “accountability,” a concept I usually find very troubling, because I always hear “wrongness” and “punishment” at the tail end of it. I can now see the possibility of redefining it to mean some agreement that, for example, taking on a certain role in an organization requires the willingness to rise to the occasion of facing the impact of actions taken from within that role, even if done without any intention to negatively affect anyone. I can easily resonate with the immensity of that need from within my own place of leadership and the limits of my own capacity to rise to so many such occasions.
Landing again in the tragic lens
In my previous post, which I now see is not entirely unrelated, I wrote a bit about the book A Human Being Died that Night, where Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a member of the Truth and Reconciliation committee in South Africa, writes about her encounters with Eugene de Kock, who was also called “prime evil” during Apartheid. Here I want to briefly revisit these encounters through the understanding I wove here about “wrongness.” If anyone’s actions could be named “wrong,” the massive amounts of torture, killing, and other actions he took during many years would certainly fall into that category. These are actions that led to such severe impacts, that metabolizing them would require major spiritual strength, precisely what someone like him would lack. This is, perhaps, why the moments in which she could see him slightly opening to, grasping, and taking in the impact are so deeply moving. It brought tenderness to me, because it made it so clear how difficult it would be for someone who has created so much harm to open his heart and soul to it. Through writing in full these insights, it’s now clearer to me how deep our collective predicament is. It’s no longer surprising to me why we, the entire human family, haven’t recovered from millennia of atrocities: who would have the moral and spiritual fortitude for this when we find it hard to take in the impact of even small actions?
This is all tragic beyond words. And in that sense of tragedy, I find a soft landing.
1 The story is told in her latest book to appear in English: Matriarchal Societies of the Past and the Rise of Patriarchy: West Asia and Europe. The book is meticulously documented, relying on anthropological, archeological, and other forms of evidence. It is not the dominant version of the story that has come to us and is dismissed by many within the mainstream.
2 Desertification of previously hospitable land is one example of what this looked like. Another example that some believe happened is the flooding of what was a lake and then became the Black Sea when water started seeping from the Mediterranean.
Photo of Miki, Emma, and Fox by Yaren Kose
All other images created by Leslie Becknell Marx using images with permission from pexels.com
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