June 17, 2012

When Disputes Become Toxic

disputeFor the purposes of this post, I'd like you to imagine that you belong to a group with roughly 1,000 members. It can be a large atheist group, a political organization, or any other sort of interest group. The specifics don't matter. What does matter is that you really value the group. It has been an important part of your life for a few years, and you really enjoy your involvement. The group holds 2-3 meetings a year, and you attend whenever possible. You promote the group, encourage others to join, and hope to see it double in size over time.

If you find yourself thinking at this point that I am talking about a mega-church, I can see why. I could very easily be talking about a mega-church, but I'm not - at least not yet.

Now suppose that an incident - some sort of dispute - were to take place in the group. Some members take sides immediately and most feel pressure to do so sooner or later. Things become increasingly polarized. Nothing is resolved, and the divide deepens. Both sides of the divide strike you as irrational, and the entire conflict seems overblown. It almost seems like they are arguing about different things without recognizing it. In your opinion, this divide has the potential to destroy the group. What do you do?

Oh yes, one other important detail to note. Things have become so toxic that you fear any attempt you might make to encourage rational, constructive problem-solving will result in you being disowned by at least one (and possibly both) of the factions. You feel helpless. The group in which you have invested so much seems to be on the verge on self-destruction. You might start to ask yourself whether it is even worth saving.

If I told you now that I was talking about a mega-church, we might take the easy way out and say that one can't very well expect anyone to be rational in such a setting. Fair enough. But we might also say that someone who is really committed to such an organization might have some sort of perceived obligation to at least try to point out what is happening. It would be tough to imagine such a committed person opting to say nothing at all.

But what if I told you that I was not talking about a mega-church but an atheist/humanist/skeptical group instead? What if I told you that the incident to which I referred involved allegations of sexual harassment at a conference? Would that change conflict between feeling that it was important to talk about what was happening while simultaneously worrying about the implications of doing so?

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