The next afternoon’s panel brought home the American dynamics, as Sarah Brazaitis, Debra Noumair, and Matthew Tye came from Teachers College and held a World Café participatory activity entitled, “Democracy at Risk: How Group Relations Illuminates.”
Indeed, they began by echoing Olya Khaleelee’s questions about what conditions make unconscious processes available for recruitment and abuse. But rather than wrestling with the question in the abstract– or only lodged in the other–they set the stage for us to ask the questions of ourselves.
Matthew Tye interrogated his own thinking, pointing out how easy it is to lose hold of complexity and nuance. Rather, when stressed, we regress to binaries and splits, and we allow our categories to be confirmed by biases of selection and reinforced by social media and its curation. In fact, our defensiveness against complexity causes us to package the other in easy categories, all the while bristling at the stereotyped categories into which the other packages us. In this way, he urged us to question the ways that our own unconscious processes (especially the ways that we buttress ourselves against complexity) are themselves obstacles to dialogue.
Sarah Brazaitis suggested that our own unconscious processes may in turn be recruited by our own self-interest—our own comfort in our privilege, or the safety of dependency (experienced as helpless indignation). She focused on the uncomfortable position of white women in the US: bitterly offended by our sexual-harasser-in-chief, yet belonging to a demographic who preferred him to the first woman presidential candidate from a major party.
Finally, Debra Noumair told the flashback-inducing story of her Election Night Watch Party, complete with champagne on ice for the moment it became a Hillary Clinton victory party. Offering her personal experience of this dark night, she described how her students were able to apply their learning–appreciating multiple perspectives and resisting black-and-white thinking–while she herself remained attached to the split and felt the keen challenge of holding complexity and of taking responsibility for one’s own complicity. After laying bare her own experience, Noumair zoomed outward, to the charge given by the Secretary General of the United Nations to address challenges that are larger than any one of us. This set the stage for our collaboration, in the here-and-now of the World Café event, which she framed with a simple bit of wisdom,
“No container, no dialogue.”
As with any experiential event, the World Café is hard to write about or summarize. Instead, here are some of the notes I scribbled on the butcher paper on the Complicity table.
I’d never been part of a World Café event before, but I’m deeply curious about experiential learning opportunities that we (the GR community) can offer on a smaller scale than conferences (e.g., Trilogy Events, Embedded Groups Program, etc.). I found the World Café to offer an intense process component, and I thought it accomplished a lot in a short 90 minutes.
As a whole, I found the event to be one of the most productive dialogues I’ve had in the year since the election. It took as given the fact that our new normal is replete with echo-chambered social media feeds, righteous anger and near-traumatic levels of stress, and all the defense mechanisms (on both sides) that this level of threat and arousal would naturally engender. And from there, it asked deep questions about how we, as a GR community, take what we know—about defense mechanisms, basic assumptions, projective dynamics, paranoid-schizoid positions, etc—and deploy our learning to a new way of being in our political present. Answers were hard to come by, but as a place for dialogue and exploration, it was a ray of hope in bleak times.