It is a sad irony of life that hard times make solidarity and pulling together more important at the same time that they become more difficult to achieve. "We are all in this together" comes into direct competition with, "Hey, I've got my own problems." In places with histories of significant grievance and a sense of victimization, the consequences of division can be very severe.
We are seeing an example of this play out in Guadeloupe. What started out as a labor dispute reached the level at which the word "insurrection" was being used. Bad economic times, high prices and low wages were triggers, but the scope of these events is being defined by longstanding social grievances and extreme inequality. And, as always, once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it is almost impossible to put it back in. Whatever the settlement that emerges in the French islands, a lot of harm has been done.
I am working with an extraordinary organization that moves men coming out of prison into productive lives. The men engage in meetings that explore painful issues in great depth. In one such meeting, the discussion focused on a critical question: How do you avoid defining yourself as a victim even though you have been victimized for much of your life? There was an underlying assumption behind this question. It is that, as soon as we have defined ourselves as victims, we are defeated.
And what applies to individuals applies to groups many times over. Warren Zimmerman was the last American ambassador to Yugoslavia and a witness to that country's descent into war and genocide. In describing his experience and dealings with Serbian leaders, he made an extraordinary point: Once a group or a people have defined themselves as victims, all constraints on their behavior are removed. Anything can be justified by what the "other" either has done or will do to us.
Yugoslavia and the Middle East are extreme cases of this phenomenon, but there are other examples almost everywhere. And in all cases, victimization leads to factionalism and the inability to pull together when doing so is needed the most. Years ago, an organization that I ran provided training and management support to Virgin Islands agencies. In rolling out these products and services, we ran into a regular problem on St. Croix. If we had already started the work on St. Thomas, the response was, "We know, we're always the afterthought or stepchild." If we were launching it first on St. Croix, the response was, "Oh sure, you'll test it here, and if it works, then you'll use it on St. Thomas."
These responses are familiar to many people, and they have become a kind of standing joke. But, especially in hard times, the consequences aren't funny. The sense that "we" are always being shortchanged contributes mightily to a sense of mistrust, what "they" are doing to screw "us," at a time when trust and a shared direction are critical.
These are very difficult problems to get at because they are deeply rooted, almost default positions, and people have a very hard time getting beyond "us" and "them." Like the men in our ex-offender groups who have been victimized, how do we know that "we" haven't been shortchanged by "them"? So rather than trying to get at the problem, we tend to mask it by denial and shrugs or through "celebrations of diversity."
Celebration, whether across racial and ethnic or geographic (island) lines, is sometimes just another form of denial. Diversity and difference are strengths because they help protect us from the big mistakes that come from homogeneity and group think. But they are also difficult challenges, and, as the research done by Robert Putnam (famous for Bowling Alone) demonstrates, diversity actually reduces social solidarity and trust across groups and communities. In another new book, Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War, Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn show how homogeneous units in the Civil War displayed much more solidarity than mixed fighting units. Sameness and shared experience produced group solidarity, which produced group loyalty. The reality is that these are harder to achieve in diverse settings. It is not helpful to deny this reality.
Difference makes people uncomfortable, one result being a refusal to acknowledge and deal with our discomfort. How do you get beyond this circular problem? This is a lot trickier than finding ways to have productive meetings (my previous column) because, as many consultants can tell you, attempts to address these issues can actually make them worse if they are mishandled.
But, especially in hard times when divisions often deepen and sometimes become dangerous, and when the benefits of solidarity are so easy to see, a carefully designed effort to bridge gaps can have great value. The benefits of everyone pulling in the same direction and leaders speaking with a single voice on big issues cannot be overstated. They would be transformative for the Virgin Islands. How to get there? Here is a set of principles that can be a starting point for discussion:
-- Build out from a core group of people who have standing in their communities, a willingness to learn and an openness to discussion and problem-solving. Define the best setting for this group to work in. How do we create a forum that is comfortable enough to make real progress, but not so comfortable that we don't get at real and difficult issues?
-- Produce an issue/action agenda constructed around three questions: What are the things that divide us? What happens because of these problems? What do we want to see in the place of these negative consequences?
-- Focus on trust and trust-building in the core group by being willing to accept differences and weaknesses in others. In this way, the ability to honestly discuss what separates us without blaming or blame-shifting becomes possible. Getting to this point and then expanding out beyond the core group is a critical step toward real change.
-- Don't employ feel-good tactics or avoid legitimate grievances and problems. "Relative deprivation" and a sense of unfairness are powerful negative forces. If they have a basis in reality, it is essential to address the sources of grievance.
-- Use the best available tools of organization development to build out and achieve real and sustained community change. This is difficult, but it is not rocket science. There are proven approaches to achieving these kinds of changes.
-- Communicate shared accomplishments to different groups and communities on a consistent basis.
Back to recent events in Guadeloupe and related situations. If there is a consistent lesson throughout the world, it is that the costs of repair are always far higher than the price of prevention would have been. Whatever the wage increase that is achieved, Guadeloupe will have paid a high price in the already shaky currency of trust and social solidarity. And, in retrospect, the various forms of denial -- whether simply repeating "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" over and over again or "celebrating diversity" -- contribute to jacking up that price. In the end, the best antidote to mindless action and thoughtful inaction is thoughtful action.
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