Privilege, Responsibility, and Nonviolence


When I first heard Marshall Rosenberg, back in 1994, say that the actions of another person are a stimulus, and never a cause, for my feelings, I was shocked. Little did I know that this statement would become the nucleus of my growing understanding about what has come to be called self-responsibility in the community of practice that I belong to: those who have chosen to adopt Nonviolent Communication (NVC) as a core organizing principle of our lives and work. This is a spiritual practice that is surprisingly demanding in moments when it’s so tempting to think that I am having the experience I am having, or that I am doing what I doing, because of what someone else is doing or some other force that is outside me. Locating the source of my inner experience and my choices within me has been the most difficult and most liberating aspect of my practice.
Equally liberating, and far less comfortable, has been the twin practice of taking responsibility for my actions and choices and their effects within an interdependent world. The juxtaposition of the two conjures up mystery: my actions, however harmful they may be, don’t cause the feelings of another, nor are their feelings unrelated to my actions. The nature of the relationship is elusive and complex, as all interdependence is. When you add power differences to the mix, responsibility, all around, becomes an achievement few of us can step into fully, without blame of self or other. Teasing apart this complexity is one of the ways I aim to use whatever privilege I have in the world in service of transforming the structures and effects of privilege.

Self-responsibility in the Absence of Power

When Etty Hillesum left the transitional camp near Amsterdam and went, ahead of her “turn”, to Auschwitz to die during World War II, she dropped a note from the train, the last piece of her writing we are aware of. What she wrote was: “We left the camp singing”. The published parts of her diary, titled An Interrupted Life, describe a journey towards more and more self-responsibility of the kind I am talking about here in a world that was closing in on her, giving her fewer and fewer external options. Etty understood more and more pointedly that no one could take away from herthe ultimate power we each have: the choice of what we tell ourselves about what is happening.She understood and was able to demonstrate in her writings that no event “makes” us feel this way or that way; that we are the creators of our inner experience through how we make meaning of what happens. She reached the point of knowing that she could choose how to act in the most extreme of circumstances, up against the most concentrated form of hatred known. In that sense, then, Etty was no longer defined by what was happening to her; however victimized she was by the external circumstances of her living, she found ways of shaping what her life was about.
Indeed, there is plenty that any of us can do to increase self-responsibility, even in relation to those aspects of our life that relate to being members of marginalized groups. No matter the circumstances, we can always aim for ways to seek and integrate empathy; we can strive to transcend any judgments and enemy images that arise in us; we can cultivate our capacity for empathy even for those who actively harm us or members of our groups. Ultimately, no one can take away from us the power to speak and act from a grounded core within us; to be aware of our needs; to imagine the needs of others; and to take action or make requests that aim to attend to everyone’s needs.
And this is why when I engage with people who are themselves from marginalized groups and who are seeking to be on the journey of integrating nonviolence and specifically NVC, this is how I work with them. Doing this work, especially when we have had enormously difficult lives, is a doorway into freedom from any notion that we are determined by our circumstances. It allows us to see the potential for transcendence right up to the brink of existence.
And, in parallel with this, I want to also remember the limits of this approach. As liberating as this path of self-responsibility has been for me and so many others I have worked with over the years, I am profoundly worried about saying that in principle we have the power to shape our inner experience without immediately qualifying it by saying that in practice, our capacity to do this is constrained by the circumstances of our life, most especially by our position in society. Otherwise, I could easily see any of us who is in a position of privilege being seduced by this beauty into not seeing the imbalances in the world, and thus contributing to further marginalization of already marginalized groups.
The first thing I note is that the power of self-responsibility is an accomplishment that requires a bunch of inner work. Access to the resources that make inner work possible is itself mediated by privilege. People from marginalized groups tend to have less access to the resources that make this kind of inner work possible.The obstacle to self-responsibility is higher.
At the very same time that such inner work is made more challenging by social marginalization, the rate of incidents that bombard the life and consciousness of marginalized groups is far, far higher than for those in the dominant groups. In other words: this affects women more than men; global south people more than global north; lower class people more than higher class; darker skinned people more than lighter skinned… and so on across the many crisscrossing lines of division in society.
This usually results in a much larger and continually growing pile of incidents, events, and history to work through to get to full self-responsibility. As hard as it may be to face the truth, it’s there: the comfort of a middle class life in a European or North American country, for a lighter skinned person, especially if they are male, heterosexual, and able-bodied, isnotthe norm. I want to remain forever aware of that.
In short, what we have for marginalized groups is a larger pile with less access to resources to work through any pile. It makes it dangerously easy to believe that people from marginalized groups are not developed enoughas individuals instead of seeing the systemic context within which they live.This is why recognizing self-responsibility is not a substitute for calling those of us from positions of privilege to take responsibility in our own ways.

Receiving Feedback from People with Less Access to Resources

As part of my general commitment to nonviolence, and, specifically, to taking 100% responsibility for every relationship and every interaction, to the best of my ability, I always want to focus on my path and what I can do to support the relationship and the mutual learning rather than on the other person’s path and how they can better be on it. Unless someone has made it explicit that they want to receive feedback from me, for example on how they can express themselves more effectively and be heard more easily by others, my focus is on what I can do to hear them; not on telling them what they can do so I can hear them with more ease.
This is all the more critical when someone from a marginalized group is taking the enormous step of offering feedback, including within a community of practice, about how that very community is contributing to the marginalization of that person.
In this context, I want those of us with more resources to be willing to hear the message and to take responsibility for our part without “requiring” so much work from others before we will take their feedback seriously. Otherwise,teachings about self-responsibility, as liberating as they can be in some contexts, can in other contexts become subtle obstacles to full inclusion of people whose lives have been made horrifically more difficult because of the legacy and current applications of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism.This becomes even more painfully so given how much trauma any of those systems generates in those affected by it.
Instead of pilling obstacles and in this way reinforcing our privilege, when we receive feedback well we can actually accelerate the capacity of people from marginalized groups to move forward in their inner liberation. Those of us who have more access to resources can, as often as possible, acknowledge differences in access to resources, and take responsibility for our part in contributing to the difficulties in the lives of marginalized groups.A huge part of the heavy weight that people in marginalized groups have is the exhaustion and loneliness of having to do the work alone, without the support, empathy, and mourning of those of us in the groups that have and continue to create and sustain the conditions of difficulty for marginalized groups.Often, we do this even when we are motivated by a desire to contribute to the well-being of the marginalized.
To be more pointed,I have come to believe that any time we ask people from marginalized groups to focus on self-responsibility at the very time when they are taking the enormous risk of speaking truthfully of their experience rather than hiding it, we are reinforcing the very power differences that they are inviting us to look at.
We do this by implicitly asserting that we are the “authority” on how people are supposed to speak before we would hear them. We do this by making what’s important to us – how people speak – more important than what’s important to the person speaking to us – the content of what they want us to hear. Overall, we render their act of offering feedback impotent, because we distract attention away from taking in the feedback, regardless of form, and from showing that learning and transformation can happen on our end.

Taking Responsibility from a Position of Privilege

Taking in feedback in full rests, in part, on the capacity to take responsibility for the effect of our actions instead of focusing on being seen for our intentions. Simple conceptually, this rarely happens. Instead, a difficult dynamic frequently takes place. Its steps happen in sequence, are rarely interrupted, and are all too familiar to people in marginalized positions and to some of us who have applied ourselves over years to study the dynamics which would otherwise be invisible to us. I know this because I have been part of this kind of dynamic, more than once, and have subsequently seen it from the outside many times.

  • First, someone in a position of privilege does something that subtly or grossly, consciously or unconsciously, reinforces their position of privilege.
  • Second, a person in a marginalized position speaks up about it, likely after witnessing many such incidents before, either affecting them or someone else from their group. Perhaps because of years of holding back; perhaps because of many attempts to speak and then not being heard; perhaps because of generalized exhaustion and trauma, the speaking of the feedback is not done with the degree of care, consciousness, skillfulness, self-responsibility, or orientation to vision that, in most circumstances, we might wish.
  • Third, the person in the position of privilege reacts to what is being said by becoming upset, expressing a critique about how the feedback is spoken, and/or calling attention to their intentions.
  • Fourth, the attention in the group moves to the person in the position of privilege, leaving the person from the marginalized group alone in the very moment they are most in need of support. Most tragically, more often than not, the attention doesn’t ever go back to the person who spoke up. The content of their feedback is not addressed. Learning doesn’t occur. And the trauma of marginalization increases.

In calling attention to this dynamic, I want to stress that I find it completely clear why the person who is being given feedback wants to focus on intention. Especially because I have been that person, I know that it’s excruciatingly difficult to maintain the focus on effect when we so very much want to be seen for our intention. The tragic reality of life in our patriarchal cultures is that extremely few of us have enough of a positive, accepting, warm relationship with ourselves that can serve as an anchor for doing this difficult work.
Because this capacity is both so difficult and so vitally and critically needed to be able to transform our communities of practice, whatever they are, I have committed myself to do two things as my part in creating a shift. One is to continue to do my own work, and the other is to write and teach about what I learn both from my work and from witnessing others’ work.
When I manage to enhance my capacity to hear the contents of what people from marginalized groups share about their experiences, regardless of how it’s presented, two things happen. One is that I build more solid relationships with people who don’t have the specific privileges that I have. This, in itself, already subverts the divide-and-conquer structures that patriarchy continues to create. The second is that, both on my own and together with those whose feedback I made myself available to integrate, the community of practice as a whole becomes more conscious and more unified.
As more of us take this route, first, the community can begin to nurture and strengthen the voices that are willing to speak of marginalization. Then, with enough strength building, the community can come together to look at the effects of power on how we operate, and to mourn those experiences in community. In this way, over time, the group becomes a more conscious community that has the capacity to grapple more effectively with the horrific legacy of patriarchy and its offspring such as capitalism and white supremacy. In the end, everyone is freer.
Before ending, I want to undo any misconception that anything can be done in isolation. I would not possibly be able to reach this point of clarity and willingness to speak, first within the community and now beyond, without active support from colleagues and friends, some from predominantly privileged groups, some from predominantly marginalized groups, and some, like me, sitting uncomfortably in both worlds. We are interdependent creatures. The work of facing and transforming our privilege is nothing short of transforming our delusion of being entirely individual beings, so we can take back our place within the family of life.
Image Credits: Top: by Dave Belden for the The Fearless Heart. Below: An Interrupted Life, Pantheon Books, New York.

One thought on “Privilege, Responsibility, and Nonviolence

  1. A difficult balancing act, indeed, to listen to the other person, and even though the voice inside you is screaming “But that’s not what I meant and that’s not how I feel!” to instead, breathe, pause, and as a great teacher once taught me, simply say something like “Wow.” Process what you’ve heard, see if you can repeat it back to the person, showing that you really heard what he or she had to say, and then working together to figure out how to move forward, together.
    Thanks for sharing this and the work you do on NVC. Important work!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *