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The Art of Disagreement

What happens when we disagree?

Not if we disagree, but when. Because we will always disagree eventually. Always.

Photo by roya ann miller on Unsplash

Is that bad?

It depends who you ask!

Disagreement, or lack of consensus, is going to happen whenever two or more of us are interacting. Why, then, has it become so risky, this perfectly normal opportunity to show our work or learn another point of view? Why are we so insecure we can’t tolerate the slightest disagreement? Are our egos so fragile we can’t stand to be wrong or rethink a position? Does our fear of moral condemnation outweigh our ability to consider ideas and information (facts) clearly and critically and speak honestly about our conclusions?

When did differing opinions become a matter of hate and violence, and speaking our truth start leading to such brutal consequences?

Do we no longer understand how to agree to disagree?

Will authoritarianism ever lead to true agreement, or is the best we can hope for a sullen silence and mandated obedience?

(Don’t forget the French revolution.)

Certainly, it appears more and more people value power over truth, rigidity over resilience, and mindless agreement over genuine collaboration and teamwork.

If we must be in agreement all the time, there’s no hope of true cooperation and we each remain locked in our own narrow impoverished bubble, interacting only with those whose bubbles look exactly like ours. Except I don’t know of anyone who has exactly the same bubble as another. But then we’re experts at constructing believable facades.

Insisting on 100% agreement all the time guarantees cultural collapse. We can’t do it. We’re not made that way. It’s a social dead end for humanity. We cannot thrive or even survive without a healthy complex social system among our own kind as well as with countless other forms of life.

The friction of disagreement, of difference, is essential. It keeps us flexible and demands we exercise our learning and listening skills as well as use our imagination and empathy. Disagreement is a sign of respect and caring, both for ourselves and our point of view and experience, and for others. If we care enough to disagree openly and peacefully, we’re signaling our willingness to make an authentic commitment and contribution. We’re not sitting back accepting brainwashing passively, but actively participating and engaged, examining, exploring, and asking questions about whatever is in our attention.

At least some of us are.

Others demand an environment of complete agreement with no questions asked. Heavy social penalties occur if someone steps out of line. There is no negotiation, no cooperation, no discussion, no new information or showing of work. You will agree and obey. Or else.

Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

Fortunately, we humans have a wide rebellious streak, some more than others. Certain people are never going to sit down and shut up. Certain people do not worship the status quo, especially if it doesn’t serve the majority. These folks disagree, and they say so. They provide information (facts) to back up their point of view. They ask inconvenient and uncomfortable questions. They shine the clear light of critical thinking on issues and ideology.

They don’t drink the Kool-Aid.

Disagreement does not need to be a call to arms. It’s not hate. It’s not disrespect or intolerance. It’s not prejudice or bigotry. It doesn’t mean we have to cut perfectly healthy relationships out of our lives. Disagreement is a chance for connection and an expanded empathy. It’s an opportunity to learn. Disagreement is a sign of diversity, and a diverse system is a healthy one.

A system in which disagreement is forbidden cannot thrive, adapt, and grow. It’s brittle and stunted, just like the scared, shriveled human beings controlling it.

Want peace? Want tolerance, justice, and respect? Learn, demonstrate, teach, and support the kind and gentle art of disagreement.

Photo by Brigitte Tohm on Unsplash

Window of Opportunity

It’s in the moment we take our eyes off the road and the car in front of us to reach for our water bottle that it happens.

It’s in the moment we’re preoccupied with our distress over a fight we had with a loved one before we came to work that we miss something key in the meeting.

It’s the moment of emotional reaction, the moment of distraction, the moment in which we’re trying to manage our feelings that provides an opening for accident, miscommunication, injury, even violence.

Windows are openings in boundaries, in walls and barriers and closed, airless cells. They allow egress and entry, movement. Sometimes air, sunshine, and birdsong come in and our best selves go out. Sometimes monsters and demons crawl in and our worst selves go out.

Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash

Predators of all kinds look for windows, openings in our defenses, in our boundaries. Windows that can be cracked, wedged, broken, pried. Their tools are ideology, lies, personal attacks, misdirection, denial, silencing, and threats.

If our emotions can be controlled, if distrust and drama can be manufactured, if we can be put on the defensive, our windows become open holes. We are no longer able to open and close them at will, control what comes in and what goes out.

When our ability to think critically and be proactive is overwhelmed by our reactions and defenses, we cannot make thoughtful choices. We no longer have the energy and presence to look, listen, feel, and think about what we’re hearing or seeing. Our emotions hold us captive, and whoever controls our emotions has our power.

Emotional manipulation is seductive. We become attached to exercising our outrage. Our fear is addictive, so addictive we employ denial and cling frantically to what we want to believe, what we want to hear.

Predators need not show their work, cite their sources, or back up their assertions. They need not tell the truth or undergo the tension of collaboration and cooperation. They don’t need to waste their time with civil discourse, learning new information, or considering other points of view.

All they need is a lust for power and an open window. Like the screen you’re reading this on.

Oppositional energy and inflammatory language are short cuts, toxic mimics for true discourse and contribution. They provide a hiding place for those hunting for power and control, those unable to think critically or master information.

If we’re busy arguing, defending, and being distracted by our emotional hijack, we can’t evaluate situations and people clearly. If we can’t get a grip on a situation, perhaps somewhere in the background a predator has jimmied a window or two and successfully invaded our house.

Toss them out.

And then let’s repair our windows.

Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash

Doing Things We Don’t Want to Do

Probably every child is told we all have to do things we don’t want to do.

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

Children are concrete, and I was no exception. When I heard we all have to do things we don’t want to do, I thought it meant that’s what life was supposed to be about, a kind of slavery to all those things we don’t want to do. No one talked to me about balance, or doing the things we do want to do.

It made life seem like an unhappy business, years and years of unending duty, responsibility, and doing what I didn’t want to do. No recess. Or maybe what I really wanted to do was bad and wrong? Maybe I should want to do what I didn’t want to do. I wasn’t sure. A part of me went underground. I didn’t want anyone to know how bad I was, how flawed. I worked hard at the things I didn’t want to do and hid the things I did want to do, in case they were wrong.

But I couldn’t conceal the feeling of wanting and not wanting from myself. I used to make hidey holes in whatever house we were living in at the time and go to ground with a book, but I always felt guilty. I wanted to read. Doing what I wanted to do was bad. I should have been helping my mom do all the things she didn’t want to do.

The pronouncement that we all have to do things we don’t want to do is stated as a Cosmic Truth, especially as an adult tells it to a child. It’s loaded with feelings and experience a child can’t possibly understand, but the subtext was clear to me:

Life is not much fun.

I can’t resist picking apart Cosmic Truths as an adult, and as I think about this one it occurs to me it really has to do with personal power more than wanting or not wanting. It’s not framed in terms of personal power because our emotional intelligence is so low. Making choices based on whether we want to do something or not is childish. Power resides in the act of choice, not in the wanting or not wanting.

Steering our lives solely by our desires is hedonism, a belief that satisfaction of desires is the purpose of life. Desire, though, is so shallow, so fleeting. And it’s never permanently satisfied. No matter how well and pleasurably we’ve eaten, we’ll be hungry again. Desire is a treadmill we can never get off.

This is not to say we shouldn’t ever choose something we want or say no to something we don’t want, but our desire is easily manipulated. That’s why advertising works. If we can be easily manipulated, we’re not standing in our power. Addiction is based, at least in the beginning, on wanting and not wanting.

A more useful question than What do I want to do? is What would be the most powerful thing to do? We might want to eat a carton of ice cream, but a walk feeds our health, well-being, and thus personal power much better. After all, one carton of ice cream leads nowhere but to another. Personal power can lead us to joy and experience a carton of ice cream never dreamed of.

  • If we don’t choose to do difficult, frightening, or new things, we’ll never grow.
  • If we don’t choose to take care of our bodies, they won’t function well.
  • If we don’t choose to be self-sufficient and resilient, we’ll be dependent.
  • If we don’t choose to learn anything, we’ll remain ignorant.
  • If we don’t choose to plan ahead, prepare, or manage consequences, we diminish our choices, waste resource, and weaken the contribution we’re capable of making.
  • If we don’t choose the responsibility of commitment and making choices, someone else will make our choices for us.

And so on.

I’m changing the frame. I’m less interested in what I want and what I don’t want and more interested in how my choices affect my power, and the power of those around me. I’m willing to do what I don’t want to do if it’s a step on a road leading to integrity, power, healthy relationship, or anything else important to me. At the same time, I can exercise my right to say no to things that won’t take me where I want to go.

It’s about power, not desire. Any three-year-old can want and not want. It takes an adult to manage a healthy balance of personal power.

Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash

Problem Solving

Image by Bob Dmyt from Pixabay

I’ve always enjoyed problem solving. It’s surely one of life’s most important skills. However, I’ve often felt blocked by others when I set out to solve a problem that includes someone else, and this brief piece by Seth Godin may have just helped me see why.

Godin makes a distinction between a problem (implying a solution(s)) and a situation, something outside our power to change.

He points out the first step in solving a problem is to agree a problem exists.

Whoops!

I learned as a child to be deeply self-reliant and as independent as possible. More often than not, asking for help or understanding made whatever situation I was struggling with much, much worse. So I learned not to. I don’t deny problems to myself, but I don’t share them readily, either. Being honest about what’s not working makes us vulnerable. It means we have to come out of hiding. It’s risky. I don’t want to be that direct and clear about my experience, because it feels disempowering and dangerous.

Learning curves are messy, and as I’ve worked on being more connected with others, I’ve gradually risked sharing problems involving others.

Sometimes I’ve received support and understanding, along with good advice and questions to help me better define whatever I’m dealing with.

Sometimes I’ve felt shut down and silenced.

I’ve never started with an objective discussion in which I clearly state the nature of my problem and ask for another point of view. Is it a problem for anyone else in the picture, or is it a situation? Do others involved feel it’s a problem worth solving? Can we agree to move forward together to seek a solution, even if there’s no easy or certain one right now?

I leap directly to problem solving before I’ve had any agreement that anyone else experiences a problem. I change my behavior, come up with strategies, and start tackling the problem. When my problem-solving strategies cause friction with others, I’m hurt and angry. This is a problem, right? I’m trying to solve my problem. I’m not asking you to solve it, I’m solving it. Why can’t you let me take care of my needs?

It would work if we all lived in bubbles instead of a web of interconnection, but inevitably, if I change my behavior, those connected to me are affected. And we don’t like it when people rock our boats, especially if we don’t believe in the problem they’re trying to manage.

Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

Like, say, coping with a global health crisis. The last three years have been a marvelous illustration of what happens when people disagree about problems and solutions (or at least mitigations). Chaos. Undermining. Disinformation. Division. Even violence.

When we can’t find validation for our feeling of urgency around a problem, then what?

I can’t answer for anyone else, but I set out to ease or solve the problem with solutions I have the power to implement. Sometimes they’re small tweaks. Sometimes they’re extreme, scorched-earth, desperate choices because I saw no other way.

Sometimes my problem is someone else’s convenience, pleasure, or deliberate choice.

Sometimes, and this is worth mentioning loudly, I tackle problems not belonging to me. I do it out of good intentions, with a desire to strengthen connection, but it rarely works out well. The problems of others are not mine to solve. It’s hard for me to understand mild bitching is not a plea for assistance in solving a problem. This is an area in which I continue to work on healthy boundaries.

Refusing to help, stalling, or obstructing problem-solving doesn’t stop me from going forward with solutions to my own challenges. It simply sends me underground, which is where I work most comfortably anyway.

Another block to solving problems: The Status Quo. Good old SQ.

If, and it’s a big if, we can agree on the problem, the SQ will immediately spring to life and block every attempt to make different choices. The SQ is comfortable. It knows what to expect. It understands how current systems and dynamics work. If something changes, the problem might become worse. It might multiply into several other problems. Change is hard. It might cost too much money. We don’t have time and energy for it right now. We’re not focused. We’ll forget. We’re too distracted. It’s not that big a problem, after all. In fact, why are you making such a fuss over nothing? Are you tired? Or sick? Or about to get your period? Are you in menopause? Are you having a bad day, sweetheart? Why don’t you relax and have a drink? Or a pint of ice cream? Or a pill? Or a cigarette? You’ll feel better then.

Don’t you think you’re being a little dramatic?

The SQ, you see, doesn’t want to lose any power, especially power it stole from others on the way to becoming the SQ. If you solve your problem, the SQ might lose ground. Not acceptable. You wouldn’t want to solve your problem at the expense of the SQ, would you?

I’ve written before about Bill Eddy’s work on high-conflict personalities. One of his strategies is to ask people who are dissatisfied or actively complaining for a plan. This acknowledges the perceived problem, invites ideas about solving it, and helps the high-conflict person feel heard and validated. It also asks them to take responsibility for changing the situation in such a way that a refusal is obvious and public. It forces active contribution rather than passive trouble-making. Are they complaining as a habit, or are they serious about creating a better way to do things?

Image by Valeria Lo Iacono from Pixabay

I’ve tried this, and in real life some people will simply shrug and say, “I dunno.” They have no plan. They have no interest in a plan. I don’t know if they don’t see a problem needing a solution, or they’re lazy, or simply deeply invested in complaining and don’t want to lose the source of their complaint. For whatever reason, they stonewall the process of problem solving.

Some folks will respond to a request for a plan. Often, people do have ideas about what might work better, what might be worth trying, or are interested in coming up with a new system. They only want an invitation.

A third response is the most problematic. These are the people who refuse to be clear. They won’t admit there is a problem, but there might be. They won’t admit it needs to be, might be, or could be solved. They won’t take any responsibility for the problem, even if they’re an involved stakeholder. They refuse to consider solutions and possible outcomes. They stall, obstruct, and speak for the status quo.

They don’t openly refuse to cooperate, but their noncooperation makes the message clear: It’s not who I am. I won’t remember. It’s silly. It’s too much trouble. It’s inconvenient. I’m not doing that!

I’ve drawn a new map for problem solving:

  • Define the problem. Be sure it belongs to me.
  • Seek agreement on the defined problem from others directly involved with or affected by it.
  • Ask everyone involved (including myself) for a plan. Consider each plan. Think about why, how and if it might or might not work. Come up with possible outcomes, positive and negative, for each plan.
  • Choose a plan, or to delay, or redefine the problem as a situation, at least for now.

I can’t help feeling it’s far easier to just solve problems on my own. Seriously.

On the other hand, I’m not alone in my house, my workplace, my community, or my life. Probably a good thing. Problems are inevitable, and solving them can be a team sport.

But not with everyone.

Part 2: In Praise of Rudeness and Unity

For part 1 of this post, please go here.

I’ve been exploring this quote from Priscilla Shirer:

“Unity does not mean sameness. It means oneness of purpose.

It’s interesting, how a one-line quote can trigger so much contemplation and so many questions.

Photo by Bewakoof.com Official on Unsplash

I’ve had two conversations with two different friends in the last week about how hopeless we feel to bring about positive change in the current political and social climate because people in general seem unable to unify and work together. A clear leader has not stepped forward. We are increasingly split into factions and too busy with in-groups and out-groups to step back and consider the whole picture.

This is not an accident. Unity is a distinct social advantage and a powerful strategy. It’s also apolitical, which is easy to see on the nightly news. Traditionally large groups are fragmenting into smaller and smaller units. Small groups, by means of forced teaming and other manipulations, are usurping power from established organizations. Current political leaders on both sides of the aisle are losing their followers. As traditional boundaries and frameworks dissolve, chaos and confusion sweep us into a new national and political reality, and it is not unity.

And then there’s capitalism. What we all have in common is an assault on our personhood, the subsummation of a human being into a cash commodity. In other words, how much money are we worth? Can we be manipulated into spending money or persuaded to prostitute for marketers and algorithms, politicians and bloated corporations?

Here, let me bend over and pick up that “free” soap for you.

For years, various people have told me I will never be “successful” if I don’t get on Facebook.

For years, I’ve resisted that assertion. Who made that rule? What is the evidence for that? Who benefits from me being on social media when it’s something I absolutely do not want to do?

I am fortunate to have a central pillar of support for my writing in a close relationship. That person is on FB and consistently, week after week, posts links to my work on his page. A couple of weeks ago, upon posting links to my latest Substack posts, FB threatened to suspend him. Why? Because the image that happened to be grabbed with one of those linked posts was a black and white picture of a nude pregnant woman. Nudity. Horrors. (You can go look at the pic here. Scroll down. You’ll know it when you see it.)

So, here’s the thing. An algorithm did that. It was instantaneous.

I’m not writing for algorithms. I’m writing for people.

Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash

The hypocrisy staggers me. One can spread whatever mis- and disinformation one likes on FB’s platform. Stalkers and doxxers use it. Hate groups and insurrectionists plan to overthrow the government and kill people on it. Ideologues of all stripes churn out toxic poison on a daily basis. Bots and bad actors, both overseas and home grown, are free to roam, and every single keystroke users make is carefully recorded and mined so everyone can receive exactly the information they want to hear along with advertising they’re most likely to respond to.

The platform has grown and grown, become richer and richer, more and more influential, and less and less about connecting people on a healthy individual level. It’s now a sprawling, unmanageable mess. Users are leaving, and the company cannot adequately police and monitor itself or the activity taking place on the platform. So they look for ways to get even bigger and make more money (by making it more addictive and persuading the culture at large everyone needs an account to be “successful”) and write more algorithms to deal with “inappropriate” content (as defined by the company).

Nudity has been judged as inappropriate content, and because of an image grab over which neither the person posting nor I had any control (there were several other non-naked images in those posts), links to my content were deleted and suspension threatened.

That’ll teach us.

What it taught me is I’ve been right all along. Right to create my own blog and website. Right to find a platform like Substack that does not censor my work. Right to write for readers rather than clicks, stats, and algorithms.

My friend on FB has undoubtedly done much to get my work out there and find readers. No question about it, and I’m grateful every week for his efforts on my behalf.

On the other hand, if the price of “success” is participation on FB, it’s too high. I’m not interested. Not even a little bit. In fact, I feel vaguely I must be doing something absolutely right in order to be banned by an algorithm. I tried to squeeze out a tear of fear and self-pity, but I couldn’t manage it. There’s an ever-growing club of thoughtful, intelligent, science-based, talented people who have been suspended or banned (or both) from FB. I’d be proud to hang with them and I’m glad to read them elsewhere.

What does this have to do with unity? Well, FB was originally about connection, yes? First it was a dating hub. (All right, a getting laid hub. Whatever.) Then it was a way to maintain connections over long distance. Then it grew into a monster that presented every user with a way to maximize a “friends” list while allowing bullying, silencing, stalking, deplatforming, identity theft, hacking, and other behavior people feel they can get away with behind the privacy of their screen and keyboard.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Where is the unity now? What is our oneness of purpose? Oh, right. We’re unified in being income streams for FB. Lucky old FB.

FB lives because we animate it. Never forget that. We’re the ones who decide no one can be “successful” without it.

Oneness of purpose is a great phrase, but what does it really mean, and how do we get there? Is there any such thing as oneness of purpose anymore? Is our world too complicated for that? Can we come up with a simple overarching statement of purpose, or are we too tangled up in our ridiculous labels and ideologies, too distracted by our outrage and all the people wrong on FB and other social media, to raise our heads and look at the bigger picture?

Do we want our culture to be run by entities like FB that pay lip service to “friends” and “connection” but in actuality work to make money off discord, fear, and disconnection? Do we want our country to be run by authoritarians and corporations? What’s stronger, a handful of small sticks bound together or a handful of splinters? We the people are not powerful enough to make sweeping change individually. Our power, the power of democracy, is in unity of purpose. If we lose our ability and willingness to unify, we’re at the mercy of whatever bloated, narcissistic, moronic, power-mad, lying clown and his train of minions and hangers-on comes along.

And that’s worked out so well.

What I know is I’m writing for you, whoever you are, reading this page. I’m sitting in my green suede chaise with a cat above my right shoulder on the back, the blinds drawn against the heat, the laptop in my lap, writing for you. I’m not writing for FB or an algorithm. I’m not battering you with advertising. I’m not collecting your data. I’m not writing clickbait. I’m not thinking about success, beyond writing a good post, editing it, and publishing it today. Because that’s what I do on Saturdays. I’m not thinking about the money I’ll make, because all my content both here and on Substack is free at this point.

I have no interest in what you’re wearing, what color you are, to whom you pray, how you vote, if you’re vaccinated, what your biological sex or gender expression is. I don’t care where you live. I don’t care how much money you make or have. I don’t care who you love, but I hope one person you love is yourself. I don’t care how old you are, or what you eat, or what your health status is, or what language and culture you were born into.

If you’re reading this, I’m writing for you. If you find anything of value in my work, I’ve succeeded and we’ve made a connection.

There’s no need to hit a like button for an algorithm.

On the other hand, if you find an artistic black-and-white photograph of a nude pregnant woman offensive, you might appreciate FB’s censorship of “inappropriate” material, and you probably won’t enjoy my work.

And that’s okay, too. You won’t find me polluting the pages of Facebook with my obscene pornography.

Those of you who come to me through C. Leo’s Facebook page may want to consider subscribing directly through Harvesting Stones and/or Substack. I don’t know if he’ll continue to try to post links to me and risk suspension or not.

I’m going to continue to write what I write and use the images I like. I’ll let other people worry about whether I’m a “success” or not.

My oneness of purpose: To connect, to think critically, to explore, to question, to discuss, to create, to make a positive contribution.

What’s yours?

Photo by Morgan Sessions on Unsplash