Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Inappropriate Silence

A woman with her mouth covered in an "X" of tape, holding her finger to her lips.
Silence is important to Quakers. Yet there are times when it isn't appropriate. We are at peril of taking the peace and silence of our Meetings for Worship and extending that silence into places and situations in which it does not belong.
We have no problem speaking out, as Meetings and organisations, and as individuals, when we see things wrong in the world. Friends have opposed apartheid in South Africa, many support BDS in relation to Israel. Friends organisations have lobbied governments in many countries on many issues, from same sex marriage to tax and social security (welfare) policy. Friends are out every week protesting arms sales, fracking, and military escapades of all sorts. We have no problem confronting what we see as wrong out in the world.
Why, then, are we so slow to confront problems among ourselves?
I am not going to get very specific about the tales I tell in this post. Everything here is based on what I have witnessed, or heard from trusted Friends, but I don't want anything to be traced back to its origin, so things will be a bit vague, and the odd detail fudged. You shouldn't be able to tell which stories are from my own experience, and which are from reports. The important point is to recognise what has happened, and to try to understand why Friends have handled things in the way they have – and what lessons we can learn from it.
To my mind, it is normal, even desirable, that the Quaker religious experience should make us uncomfortable at times – vulnerable, sometimes shaken to our core. However, what might be normal for the religious experience should not be normal for the social experience. We might find ourselves mixing with people who are different from those in our general experience, but that sort of discomfort is only the difficult of dealing with the new or different. There are some sorts of behaviour that we should not simply put up with, however.
I have heard tell of Meetings in which the behaviour of one regular participant ended up driving away younger (adult) women, and it took years for the Meeting to act. This might have been due to obliviousness, or a reticence to act. After all, it is easy to fail to notice predatory or creepy behaviour that doesn't cross the line into obviously illegality. Even so, some people notice it – especially the young women directly affected. Yet when this behaviour is raised, you will tend to see scepticism or doubt, or a reluctance to do anything about it. A desire to not have fuss, to not make waves, can lead to us tamping out the waves being created by real problems, and not dealing with the problem itself.
In that case, you might think that this is part of the same cultural phenomenon behind the “#metoo” movement, of a tendency to dismiss or ignore women's reports of mistreatment, and the resulting reluctance to come forward. I don't doubt that's part of it, but the fact we can see similar problems in different dynamics, not related to gender or sexual misbehaviour, suggests that it's not all of it. For instance, I'm sure many of us have experienced a Meeting where there's someone who attends from time to time, who tends to be disruptive. Not necessarily in any major way; they don't have to be standing on tables and ranting at people, or making passes at everyone that draws their eye. Maybe just that little bit insistent on their own opinion, or unusually forthright in their disapproval of the way some deliver ministry. Friends nod, they smile, they turn away and shake their head. Perhaps the awkward person starts attending more reliably, and suddenly some other Friends starts attending less often. We may not make the connection, and they may not say why, but that Friend has driven away others.
Some Meetings openly try to practice “radical welcome”, an idea that is rooted in the intention to include those who are “othered” by your faith community, the dominant socio-economic group within that faith community, or the wider community. It is a desire to be welcoming, accepting, and embracing of those who are marginalised – the economically disadvantaged, the foreigner, those who suffer from systemic homophobia or transphobia or racism. It's an absolutely laudable goal. However, taking it to mean “we should never do anything, as an organisation, that would exclude someone” is taking it too far. Yes, you remove systemic barriers to participation of various groups, but that does not mean that you must tolerate every individual in all of their uniqueness. It would be nice if we could, but on a practical level this is absolutely impossible.
It is impossible not just because the things we would need to do to include everyone are so huge and multifarious, not to mention sometimes contradictory, that it is simply impossible. It is also impossible because welcoming some people will exclude others. Now, it can seem a little awkward how to work this out. After all, radical welcome means preferring the excluded over their excluders – in a more conventional Christian church, preferring people of gender and sexual minorities, rather than the homophobes and transphobes that would exclude them. But surely it does not take divine revelation to see that welcoming someone whose behaviour drives others away, and welcoming them uncritically, is not enhancing welcome. This is not that these people are driven away because they are prejudiced towards those who are creeps or obnoxious. It's that people don't want to be around creeps and obnoxious people.
Even if, in some cases, the behaviour is the result of, say, a developmental or neurodegenerative condition, the way to welcome these people is not to give them carte blanche to act as they will. Not only is this potentially harmful to others, and to the community, but it can be harmful to the individual as well. Some developmental or intellectual impairments mean that individuals benefit from reinforcement of expected behaviour whenever they overstep acceptable boundaries, and their behaviour will become more transgressive if not addressed. People with neurodegenerative conditions, or their carers, need to know about changes in behaviour in order to track the progression of their illness. While it is inappropriate to berate a person with an autism-spectrum condition to force them to make eye contact or engage in social touching that they are uncomfortable with, it does them no favours to ignore, or otherwise be permissive regarding behaviour that makes others uncomfortable in an active way – such as unwelcome touching, be it of a sexual nature or not, or turning every conversation to a pet topic and not allowing others proper opportunity to speak. Addressing these issues is harder than ignoring them, and certainly harder than just driving these people away, but welcoming people in these situations does not mean ignoring their behaviour – it means reacting to it appropriately.
There are even whispered, non-specific stories that do the rounds, of outright sexual misconduct among Quaker Meetings. Things that were hushed up, not through the centralised power of a hierarchy, but by the quiet work of individual Friends not wanting to rock the Quaker boat. Given the number of Quakers and Meetings, and the general lessons of modern history, we would be fools to suppose this wasn't the case.
There are other things that happen, and even when they are witnessed are not spoken of. It defies belief that so many occasions of bullying and harassment in Meetings go unnoticed – but the experience of many Friends suggests that many go unhandled until they reach a particular peak, and even then the resolution generally seems to by one seeking to produce the minimum of fuss. I have even heard tales, mostly uncorroborated but not always – and lack of corroboration can be a symptom as well as a cause for scepticism – of behaviour that amounts to a Meeting silently supporting the gaslighting of one or more Friends by a dominant clique.
Role-holders can find their goodwill abused, their concerns about how they are forced to conduct their role waved off with blithe comments about how much faith the Meeting or committee has in them. A treasurer raising concerns about financial governance, or an overseer raising the same points as in this post, waved off with hollow reassurances about good will and the fact the Meeting trusts them.
It's important to talk about these things now, in the abstract, because that's a first step to getting people to talk about them concretely when they occur. In the UK, the rise of safeguarding expectations should be a real help in this area, but only if Friends and Meetings take them seriously. You might think that I'm scaremongering, making much out of rare occurrences. You might be thinking “gosh, this is overblown, I've never seen anything like this!” All I can say, to anyone with that reaction who's spent much time around Quaker organisations and events and thinks that, is that you've either been incredibly lucky, or not been paying enough attention.
While I appreciate, as always, comment and discussion, please don't relate incidents in the comments in which any individual but yourself is identifiable. This includes if it's easy for people who don't already know about it to join the dots as to who you are talking about. Also, if you think you recognise any story, in the post or in any comments, and disagree with how it has been presented, please don't start an argument about it in public.
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