Taking Sides and Managing Self at the Protest

  • July 08, 2020
  • David Swanson, M.Div.

Turn on the news today and you will see people in the streets protesting and demonstrating. These movements are activated around the question of race and the role it plays in our society. The question has become personal for me as an opportunity to deepen my thinking and engagement around racial justice. As I have listened to the experience of people of color and reviewed the history, it has become clear to me that racism is a historical fact that can be the occasion for thoughtful response or emotional reactivity. My goal is to be thoughtful as I pursue my convictions wholeheartedly.

This commitment is complex because I do not enter political space in a politically neutral way. Bowen Theory guides one to seek emotional neutrality within relational systems. I have understood this to mean not taking sides. But, in our current moment, my core principles and thinking have led me to join with others in resisting systemic prejudice and seeking new options – they have led me to take a side. So it is an interesting and difficult work to maintain a thoughtful sense of myself amidst the intense group dynamics of political space. I have had to think carefully about how I can define and act for myself where the emotional pull of chants, call and response, and ideology take center stage. Below are the practices I have found most helpful in the anxious space of politics and protest:

Prepare: Engaging in political activism can be more an act of self if I am able to define my intention prior to engagement. Researching facts instead of repeating soundbytes, hearing from experts, and listening to the stories of those whose experience is different than mine help inform the way I choose to live out my convictions. Finding actions and movements that are led by the most mature leaders, keen in their thinking, strong in conviction, and less exploitative in their use of emotion is another important consideration.

Pay Attention: Like going home to visit family, entering intense political spaces requires the practice of observation. As someone whose pattern – set in my family system – is to absorb anxiety, it is important for me to observe the individuals around me and the emotional energy of the group while also keeping an eye on myself. In political space, I work to see how much or little I am absorbing the many anxious signals flying around pell-mell, like popcorn popping in a pan. It is important to be able to see the pressures exerted on me and others to be, say, think, and move in ways determined by the group, and to note my response.

See Participation as a Tool: Politics is anxious. In my experience there is no political movement that lacks emotional intensity. The emotionality of a rally or other political organizing is part of its power. Whether or not my own participation is more likely to be an expression of self is related to my intentionality. As a white male who has spoken at and taken leadership in social movements in the past, doing anti-racist work often means intentionally stepping back, recognizing the quality and potency of voices that have been silenced or ignored. This means that others speak before me and usually instead of me. In a strange way, deferring to the group can become an act of self-definition that pursues my own goals. In this and other ways, my political engagement has been a conscious choice to join the group dynamic.

After a month of protest, it is again evident that creative and powerful movements can spark new conversations and open doors. These outcomes, as well as my own observations, have confirmed the thought that my participation – joining the messaging and dynamic of a group – can be a useful tool ultimately guided by intention and thoughtful conviction.

David Swanson, M.Div.
WPFC Board member

8 Replies to “Taking Sides and Managing Self at the Protest”

  1. I think about this, too.
    My question is, how to get unstuck? One thing that has freed me at times is to watch and listen to the voice tone, style of phrasing, and body motions of news reporters, politicians, experts, and protesters. Though some cast themselves as neutral and thoughtful, others are taking a vehement oppositional stand. With the perspective shift of ignoring the content, I observe people who sound and position themselves so similarly. Repeating familiar patterns of joy and disparity, winning and losing, etc. They seem to be beans swimming in the pot of soup (as Paulina McCullough described family enmeshment to a class). How to get on the rim of the pot? And how much time and energy do I devote to thinking while I’m on that rim ? When do I take an action for change without losing self in the soup?

  2. Dave,
    I am impressed with the effort to define yourself in a time of such uproar. I believe that a movement will be more successful in the long run if there are those who are attempting to be a self within the intense togetherness. It is an issue that my adult son raised with me just this morning so is on the minds of others. It may be that you will not be as loud, or move as fast, but the effort to change is a longterm effort and paying attention to the choices you make early on will hopefully set you on a successful path. This is a great example of how Family Systems Theory ideas can be useful. Thank you.

  3. Hmm. Yes. So much less about what to do, but rather, one’s presence, one’s thinking, one’s guiding principles…

    I like how this read. I was noticing, what looks like, effort to clearly define thinking for self…reflected in even the layout of the post? No push and pull or emotional directives for taking sides, yet, taking a position, for self.

    1. Yes, Allison, it’s final form functioned well for me, as a way of clarifying and defining what I was only sensing to be true previously. What is powerful in my experience is that the clarification process feeds back into lending even more purpose and integrity to my involvement afterwards.

  4. Dave,

    What you describe here I find relevant to political conversations as well. I appreciate the tips of thinking before responding which supports staying with self. And, I find paying attention to both self and other(s) allows me to interrupt what is automatic in me and better figure out how I choose to respond.

    1. Thanks Sandra. Yes, throwing a wrench into either an automatic reaction or, as it had been previously for me in this case, a somewhat intentional, but largely intuitive, felt response, creates the breathing space for more clarity and intentionality. Thanks for your thought.

  5. Thanks for this, Frances. I share your observation regarding the different emotional tenors of different gatherings and groups. One of the questions I asking is “When is a ‘vehement oppositional stand’ quite appropriate, even called for? For me, it can seem counter-intuitive (vis-a-vis Bowen Theory) but I never-the-less think that strong emotional response to horrible injustice can be a vital part of a valuable overall engagement for both individuals and groups.

    This thought also reminds me that the emotional process has taken us far as a species, which perhaps makes it less surprising that one might discover it to still be potentially useful. Though it is clearly something that can run away with an “us” and strip individuals of self, I am arguing that emotional process can be used constructively, which, to your point, locates one on the rim of the pot a little bit more, even if one has one foot floating on a bean…

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