Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Tunnels and Bridges, Part IV: Landing Zones

by Sara Robinson

Inspiring people to take a look over the wall, then climb it, then brave the crossing is only the first half of the process. The second half is welcoming them and helping them find their feet here in the reality-based world.

Recent polls show that the rising chorus of strong progressive voices has already begun to intrigue disillusioned soon-to-be-former RWAs. When these people seek us out, and finally admit: "Yeah. I was sold a bill of goods. Now, tell me something I can believe," we should be ready to deliver the goods they need to integrate themselves into the reality-based world. This post offers some thoughts about what they're most likely to need, and how we can create landing zones that meet those needs effectively.

Culture Shock
For a while, they're going to be wobbly. In Cracks In The Wall II and III, we saw that people tend to join authoritarian groups to as a refuge from a world they find unmanageable on ther own; and they consider leaving when they start to acquire skills and discover unrealized inner strengths that restore confidence in their ability to manage. But these skills don't emerge overnight. We'll do best if we recognize and respect that the first year or two is a learning period, and deal with them gently while they're sorting out their new worldview.

Here are some of the issues we can expect to see among the newly-landed:

Information Hunger -- For many new arrivals, fresh information is the main antidote to the enforced ignorance of their old life. As they move away from an emotion-based worldview and toward a more evidence-based one, they may spend hours a day on the Web, change their TV habits from O'Reilly to Olbermann, and devour books that fill in knowledge gaps that are almost painful for them to acknowledge.

But raw data only goes so far. They also need to connect with live people who help them integrate this new information, show them the lay of the land, work through the implications of it, and make their new world friendly. The most urgent desire of my former fundie friends is simply having somebody understanding and non-judgmental to talk to while they process this avalanche of new data.

One of these friends, Karen, offers a caution: "Don't tell them it'll be easy or encourage them to chuck their past beliefs quickly. They're so used to being led, preached at, and dictated to, that reasoning and freethinking is all new - and liberating. They need to exercise that freedom little by little. (Some do plunge in all at once and come to their own conclusions quickly. But I think that's the exception, rather than the norm.)"

What our newest arrivals may need most is role models of how free-thinkers think -- how to approach the world in a way that is non-judgmental, how to put all this new information into a rational perspective, and relax and wrap the odd parts in humor rather than fretting about them. It's a skill that takes some learning -- but if they've come this far, they're already bent on mastering it.

A Craving for Community -- Careful readers of Muder will recall that new arrivals may bring with them very different expectations of family and community, which will also be under adjustment for a while. Former fundamentalists often mourn the hothouse intensity of their family and church ties -- even when they're simultaneously grateful not to be under the constant watchful eyes of all those intrusively "caring" people, and free of the manipulations used to keep them in line. On our side of the wall, that level of intimacy is harder to come by. What feels like an appropriate respect for other people's boundaries to us may feel fairly cold and uncaring to them, and it may take a while before they become accustomed to the more temperate social climate that prevails on our side of the wall.

Says my wise friend Karen, a lifelong fundamentalist who made the leap in her late 30s, "Make yourself available when they need to vent, cry, question, cower in fear and spew in anger. It's an extremely emotional process and one that is SO isolating. The person's traditional support group is no longer available for them and this may be the first time in their lives they are thinking for
themselves, so they need reinforcement."

Self-Respect and Self-Expression -- Emerging RWAs may have sublimated their own needs and desires to those of their leaders to the point that they may not know how to ask directly for things that they want and need. In fact, they may not even be aware of their own physical, emotional, or practical needs at all. This can make them easily frustrated and angry. Learning to consciously identify their own desires and express them honestly and appropriately may take some time, practice, and solid role models. This is especially true of those who grew up in authoritarian homes.

Boundary-Setting -- Authoritarian systems are, almost by definition, obsessively nosy attitude about their followers' personal lives. There's no detail so small or intimate (right down to your choice of underwear, breakfast, and sexual position) that the leaders won't attempt to make and enforce rules regarding it, and attempt surveillance to ensure the rules are followed. Right-wing authoritarian followers tend to be very submissive to these incursions -- the more intimate, the better, in fact -- and accept them as a sign that their leaders care.

Liberals, being liberals, have a much stronger respect for the place where one's personal life ends and the public sphere begins -- and thank no one to cross that line, or to try to tell them how to run their private business. They can handle that just fine on their own, thanks.

These different understandings may lead to culture clashes in the early phases. A newly-emerged leaver may make inquiries that they regard as simply pleasantly social, but we see as just plain nosy. They may respond to our misfortunes with a generosity that we find a bit unsettling; or, conversely, they may expect us to become involved with theirs to an extent that's frustrating to us and disappointing to them. It's best to remember that what's really happening here is a bit of cross-cultural miscommunication, and deal with it in that same multiculti spirit. It's something we're supposed to be good at.

Negotiation -- Authoritarian leaders do not negotiate with their followers. Leaders give commands; followers follow them. The farther down you fall on the Great Chain of Being, the less power you have to negotiate for your rights; and the harder the retribution will fall on you if you try. Which is why RWA women children, and low-status men may never learn to stand up and argue for their own interests at all.

Given this, it's not surprising that exiting RWAs are often frightened, puzzled, and astonished at the way reality-based folks negotiate with each other for things. The free and easy give-and-take we enjoy with our spouses, bosses, liberal clergy, civil authorities, and so on may be viewed as shockingly transgressive (confirming, perhaps, the belief that we're a bunch of unwashed hippies with no respect for authority or the rules of society). They can't imagine themselves having such egalitarian conversations with the authorities in their lives.

On their side of the wall, authority is to be feared and followed. Confronting it is always dangerous; better to shut up and deal rather than speak up and buy almost certain trouble. Defiance, if you dare, will almost always be covert and passive-aggressive. The kinds of conversations in which adults meet as moral equals to dispassionately consider and resolve a problem may very well be entirely outside of their life experience. It takes kind mentors, and a few positive experiences, to show them how it's done.

Reason Over Emotion -- One of the most important psychological traits that separates our side from theirs is that, while reality-based people tend to prefer arguments based on facts, evidence, and logic, RWA followers assess arguments on the basis of their emotional appeal. Facts just don't carry the same weight as the deeper sense of personal truth that they feel in their gut. (This is the origin of Stephen Colbert's "truthiness," which he defines as "something that isn't factually true, but feels true.") Politicians who give up on facts and speak to their emotional truth always do better with this group. Conversely, if you argue a point with them, you will likely hear an appeal that's long on passion and short on evidence -- because on their side of the wall, passion is what scores points and wins debates.

Here in the reality-based world, though, acquiring the ability to identify the real issue, separate it from the emotional content, line up the evidence, and argue calmly for it is one of the hardest lessons an ex-RWA will have to learn. For many of us, this lesson was learned in a series of examples -- meetings with enlightened authority that went extremely well, conflicts with friends or co-workers who were able to model rational resolution methods, and so on. The light goes on: there are other ways of resolving things besides avoidance, passive aggression, creating a dramatic scene (there's that love of passion again) or storming out in a huff. And the winner is not the one who can bring the most emotional persuasion to bear.

Tools for Troubled Times -- It seems likely that humans have an innate instinct to fall in behind their leaders in times of stress. (I'm expecting history to record this as the "9/11 effect," after the way Americans of all persuasions automatically lined up behind George Bush in the days following the tragedy.) From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. For a new arrival to the reality-based side of the wall, though, it's a habit that particularly hard to shake.

Among former fundies, we see people tend to return to the church in times of great personal or cultural stress. It's natural for any of us to reach into the old toolbox for the familiar coping strategies our families and churches taught us -- especially when you're overwhelmed, tired, lonely, or scared. Almost always, former fundies flirt with this for a few weeks or months before realizing that they really can't go home again. At that point, they get serious about investing in a new toolbox with better real-world coping tools that allow them to address their fears and problems more directly and effectively.

We need to expect that individual leavers will regress in times of stress, and accept this as a natural part of their process. At the same time, we do them a great service when we stick around and show them other ways of dealing with trouble.

Perhaps most important of all: we need to remain keenly aware of the human biological tendency to follow the leader during times of stress. If there should be another 9/11, the fate of the country may depend on how effectively the reality-based world can address people's fear responses, and provide them with strong models of firm, resolute calm.

Whose Job Is This?
A lot of us in the blogosphere are activists. We're eager to take the fight to the RWA leaders and their hard core, to face them down and push them to the fringes where they belong. It's an important and noble piece of the fight, and one that my friend Dave has covered with depth and thoughtfulness here and elsewhere through the years.

But the more subtle task of finding and courting would-be former RWA followers is at least as important in the long run. Without legions of the faithful supplying votes and money, the leaders quickly deflate to nothing. Going into this fall's elections, when vast numbers of Americans are reckoning with the consequences of their support for RWA leaders, we need to get good at talking to these people -- individually, in large groups, and fast.

Local groups play the front-line role here. Mainstream and liberal churches, unions and veterans' groups, parent and school groups, community and service groups, and other places where people share non-political common ground are logical landing zones for the newly-escaped. Local Democratic offices should also play a central role in this. (If you don't know where your nearest one is, find out and give them a call.)

Those of us who are active in these organizations should be keeping our eyes open for new arrivals, and have strategies in place for receiving them. We are performing a huge national service when we become enlightened witnesses to these new arrivals, and offer them safe havens where they can explore and validate their personal desires and needs, learn to draw boundaries and negotiate for them, grow in trust and skill, and learn to operate in the reality-based world.

Strategic efforts to find and engage those interested in change might focus on people in transitions -- young men and women just leaving home, newlyweds, new parents, moms at home, men and women in midlife , the lately divorced, immigrants, those who've lost their jobs, recent arrivals, those who've lost parents or spouses, the recently retired. These people are usually looking for new ways to engage with community. If we don't find a way to put their energies to work, our local fundie churches and right-wing groups very well might.

At the same time, we need to invest in restoring community, family, social, recreational, and personal support networks. It's benefited the authoritarians in our midst tremendously to have these gone. These things are essential social capital: their very existence increases the relative liberality of our culture. It's not going to be easy while we're working 60-hour weeks for falling dollars -- but these networks are valuable resources that make tough times more emotionally and financially survivable, as any oldtimer who remembers the Depression can tell you.

Finally, remember that what we're spreading here is memes -- which are, Dawkins' original formulation, a form of virus that propagates and spreads. My recovered fundie friends report that weeks, months, and years typically elapsed between the casual comment, the sudden observation, or the unignorable fact that sparked the very first doubt; and the moment they finally decided to head over the wall for good. Often, the person responsible was never aware that they'd done or said something that had changed that person's life forever.

You never know what little cognitive seed is going to take root in somebody's head and sprout like a weed long after you've gone. The ideas in this series are just a little pocketful of such germinators, to be sprinkled wherever we see someone starved for a bit of sustenance, and with a growing appetite for change. It will take time, persistence, and practice; but we will change the world only when we find ways to speak to the madness and persuade reason to answer us back.

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