By Embracing Our Healthy Tensions
We are thrilled to announce that in January 2022, The Horizons Project has launched under the auspices of our fiscal sponsor, the New Venture Fund. We are very grateful for the support of Humanity United and the Packard Foundation to begin this next phase of the Project’s journey.
As systems-level organizers, we are committed to proactively sharing our insights and reflections as they emerge about how peacebuilders, social justice movement leaders and democracy advocates operate and can potentially collaborate more effectively. Over the course of many insightful conversations and deep reflections with colleagues and network leaders in 2021, we have compiled some of the key tension points within that ecosystem. We hope that this evolving list may help to illuminate how we can deepen our understanding of each other’s perspectives and continue to find common cause in the future.
- Calls for understanding, “healing divisions” and unity are often criticized as not addressing the root causes of the problems we are facing as a nation (e.g., inequality, racism, rising authoritarianism, etc.), or as being disconnected from those efforts. Meanwhile, more confrontational forms of direct action (protests, boycotts, strikes, etc.) can be misunderstood or seen as overly divisive and unhelpful. It can be hard to see how these approaches can be complementary.
- Peacebuilders and bridge-builders who feel the need to maintain “neutrality” can be seen as propping up the status quo and not in solidarity with movements calling for equal rights and justice. Meanwhile, activists’ “polarize to organize” approaches can be seen as creating overly simplistic binaries and vilifying the “other.”
- Certain approaches to “calling out” those who are causing harm, or are perceived to be causing harm, can erect walls between people and create simplistic categories of “good” and “bad”. Calling in, or “calling out done with love,” can be a way to address harm in a way that centers relationships over shame while offering people onramps to changing their behaviors.
- Tactics of engaging the “exhausted middle” (where complexity of thought may still be flourishing) are criticized as a waste of time because the mythical moderate/independent voter is seen as “wishy washy.” Instead, activating the base is prioritized, with less attention paid to how to reach people beyond the base.
- Toxic polarization may be recognized as a problem across the board, but there is blame, defensiveness and othering (based on a lot of trauma on all sides) that drives us back to our ingroups and prevents intra-group self-reflection and dialogue around dehumanizing behavior and tactics. Emphasizing how polarized we are can also be a self-fulling prophesy.
- Bridgebuilding efforts to address toxic polarization can lead to greater hostility and inequality if done without paying proper attention to power relationships and wider societal factors (e.g., active disinformation efforts, historical traumas and injustices). Meanwhile, focusing on reaching out across divisions can downplay the importance of intra-group work to shift norms and behaviors.
- Many want to “focus on the future” as a way of finding common ground and coming together around shared values. This can be deeply troubling and hurtful for those who feel that we need to first recognize past injustices and harms and finally confront the painful history of white supremacy that continues to bleed into our present. Yet, the future-oriented framing can also be off-putting to those who don’t want change (or fear change) – so any call to “build back better” or for “democratic renewal” are met with resistance because of nostalgia for the way things were in a romanticized past.
- We struggle with lack of shared definitions of terms, and we don’t acknowledge that humans make sense of the world in different ways based on the multiple narrative streams flowing within the ecosystem. What does peace and peacebuilding mean? Is it finding calm and togetherness? What about “justice?” There are many negative connotations (or simple lack of understanding) of peace, peacebuilding, democracy and social justice across different groups that impede our ability to find common purpose.
- What does “democracy” mean and is it a shared goal for the US anymore? For some, the focus is on pushing for renewed civic culture and to embed the values of respectful dialogue, tolerance and empathy within society. Many hear these calls for “civility” with cynicism. They are more concerned about power imbalances around race and class and building power to participate equally in society and to push back against undemocratic forces. Others understand calls for “inclusive” democracy as only for liberals that seek to exclude more conservative perspectives.
- There is existential dread that is flowing within our country, and we see how a different sense of urgency plays out in many of these debates. While many movements are working for those who feel a daily fear for their physical safety, this is juxtaposed with those who are also expressing fear of losing their way of life and/or feeling left behind in a changing society. Some don’t feel the same sense of urgency regarding the pace of change, the threats to our democracy, and/or have the luxury of not being as directly affected on a daily basis. This leads not only to a difference in tactics, but it can also cause resentment, distrust, and the inability to hear each other’s experience or find common cause.
There is truth and need in all these various approaches and perspectives. Yet, until we name and wrestle with these tensions within the ecosystem, we won’t be able to deal effectively with our trauma, better hold space within ingroups, and lessen the criticism and resentment towards outgroups who may nevertheless be potential allies. New tools and conversations are necessary to rediscover our shared, higher-level goals of upholding democracy and to prevent the very real threat of increasing levels of violent conflict. The Horizons team looks forward to working with our partners to continue to explore and expand on the current research and tools available to hold these tensions in such a way that we can better connect with each other, encourage innovation and avoid toxicity in our relationships.
Get a quick glimpse of The Horizons Projects’ areas of work in this graphic illustration from artist Adriana Fainstein! You can find more of Adriana’s work here.