Everyone has multiple identities. For the most part identities are either peacefully nested (i.e. a Mid-Westener and an American) or separated (i.e. lawyer and PTA member). Sometimes self-identities will come into conflict, as might happen for a homosexual Mormon. Collective identities coming into competition or conflict may explode as violence or civil war. “To understand how struggles erupt, then escalate, de-escalate, and become resolved, we must recognize that identities change in content and shift in salience” (Kriesberg 55). Post WW2, a strong Yugoslav identity, rooted in pride at having resisted the USSR, held the country together for several decades. Ultimately, the primary identities shifted toward Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Muslims, and Bosnians, with tragically violent results. How the Yugoslavs saw themselves individually changed the collective narrative dramatically, creating competition among identities and escalating conflict.
My own feminist and Mormon identities have pushed and pulled against and with each other. Sometimes they feel nested, comfortably fitting as a group and sub-group. At times they feel completely separated, although this is increasingly rare for me. Sometimes they feel like they are in competition and like I will have to choose sides in a civil war. Those days are difficult. At those times I consider how identity can build or destroy communities and I have to make a decision whether my own internal conflict will be productive or violent.
Four interrelated internal characteristics determine the strength of a group identity. They are the homogeneity of members, ease of communication among members, clear boundaries of the population, and potential and ability to organize. These four factors will help determine whether a group sees itself as having a shared identity and common interests and whether they believe they have a grievance has the potential to be remedied (Kriesberg 56).
“In defining themselves, groups also define others; and in defining their opponents, they also define themselves. Each self-conscious collectivity defines non-members; indeed, identity is in good measure established in contrast to others” (Kriesberg 60). If we know who we are by whom we are not, then Mormon feminists run the risk of seeing themselves as separate from the general Church body. Mormon feminists have high levels of homogeneity (we are, after all, talking about a small sub-group of a small religion), easy communication through the internet, a bounded population group, and an increasingly strong ability to organize. While the community has been a lifeline for many of us (myself included), it is easy to tip that scale towards exclusivity and drawing lines between people.
Activists are even more inclined toward an intense identity affiliation because of the sacrifices they’ve made for their cause. The more a person puts resources into a cause, the less willing they are to walk away from it. An easy example of this is being put on hold: the longer you wait, the harder it is to hang up and lose that wasted time. The LDS Church requires a great deal of sacrifice from its members; members are correspondingly devoted and protective. Once activists have made a sacrifice for an issue, it is much more difficult to step away, even just far enough to see from a different perspective or to reconsider the rightness of the cause. Self-defense becomes standard behavior.
“People are generally inclined to evaluate their own group as superior to others. This universal tendency toward ethnocentrism contributes to the sense of each group to view relations with other as one of “us” against “them” (Kriesberg 61). Ordain Women, Exponent II, and other Mormon feminist groups have been careful to officially place their identities as nested within the LDS identity. Exponent II speaks to the variety of lived realities for Mormon women. OW’s founder Kate Kelly says, “We are not against the Church; we are the Church.” Yet in more informal, homogenous gatherings in person or on blogs, I hear and read statements that veer close to Kriesberg’s warning. Certainly I have heard orthodox Mormon women state that they feel like OW has treated them as inferior or unenlightened. This is worrisome to me.
What can be done about an escalation of conflict due to identities in competition? I have two suggestions:
1. Move the conversation from defending to suspending to dialogue. In the public forums (which are, not by coincidence, horrible platforms for dialogue), I find condescension, defensiveness, argument, and bullying to be the norm. Occasionally someone asks for genuine understanding and their partner in conflict happily supplies them with an explanation. I have never seen the responder then ask, in their turn, for understanding. These “conversations” are not about listening or about valuing relationships. The diagram below illustrates the choices we can make when listening and speaking and the consequences of what will emerge:
(The image of the chart here is a bit fuzzy. Go here for a clearer version. conversation flow chart)
I believe that activists making a sustained effort toward deliberation and suspension and refusing to engage with those who simply want debate, could revolutionize the framework of the conflict.
2. In conflicts where one party is much more powerful than the other, there is a balance between encouraging empowerment of the less-powerful group and building trust between the groups. This often seems like a difficult line to walk, as the more-powerful group may become more defensive and less trusting as the less-powerful group gathers strength and voice. I will speak more to this is the next blog post of this series. However, healthy empowerment of the self and a stronger partner in conflict are paradoxically intimately connected when viewed through the lens of building community. Conflicts can change enormously simply by understanding that “empowerment involves mutual dependence. ‘I can’ is only fully accomplished with ‘I need you’” (Lederach 21).
I have seen both Church leadership and feminist activists send the message of “We love you.” I have also heard people feel empowered enough to state, “I can.” “I need you” goes a step farther in exposing vulnerability. It also breaks down the identity barriers we may have constructed between “us” and “them”. While with some conflicts we pray merely for the negative peace of a ceasefire, we hope that conflicts involving important relationships are more productive: that they actually bring people closer together through the process of solving them.
Resolutionaries can find a calling in moving the conversation towards dialogue and preserving mutuality and community. “To listen respectfully to others, to cultivate and speak your own voice, to suspend your opinions of others—these bring out the intelligence that lives at the very center of ourselves—the intelligence that exists when we are alert to possibilities around us and thinking freshly” (Isaacs 47).
Kriesberg, Louis. Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007. Print.
Isaacs, William. Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together. New York: Currency, 1999. Print.
Lederach, John Paul. Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University, 1995. Print.