Central PA's LGBT News Source


Doing difficult discussions

By Trum Simmons

Recently I had a tough conversation with a good friend. It was tough because he thought I would agree with his basic premise, which I didn’t. This surprised him and he initially couldn’t understand why I argued against his position.

We were discussing a very complex subject that led us down many paths, and at times he was upset when I took a different point of view. It was complicated. Thankfully, we agreed that this would be only part one of an ongoing conversation.

Much has been written about the problems people are having communicating with one another about all the issues raised by the 2016 presidential campaign. And recently the #MeToo movement has provoked fierce discussion.

One example includes dueling columns by literary critic Daphne Merkin and Slate writer Christina Cauterucci regarding whether the #MeToo furor would end up making the workplace one where interrelationships would be scrutinized in a way that would make it completely joyless.

Soon thereafter on Morning Joe, co-hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough had an excellent conversation with their guests about these columns. Strong feelings were evident all around in what was one of the most thoughtful and deep discussions I’ve heard on this type of TV show.

You could see in the eyes of the participants their struggle to say as clearly as possible what they were thinking and feeling. And it was obvious that they were carefully listening to one another. I loved it. So when my editor asked if I was familiar with writer, professor and lesbian activist Sarah Schulman’s 2016 book Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and The Duty of Repair, I checked it out.

The book covers a host of communication problems we can’t go into here, but a key idea Schulman promotes is that people in conflict should communicate openly and in person, not on the phone or otherwise—such as texting—especially when one person feels threatened by the other.

According to Schulman, conflating conflict with abuse encourages people to embrace victimhood. “Confusing being mortal with being threatened can occur in any realm,” she writes. “Experiencing anxiety does not mean that anyone is doing anything to us that is unjust.”

Schulman also believes we need to be careful about “trigger warnings” in college classrooms, because they permit individuals with unprocessed trauma to blame other people in the present for past violations. It’s more complex than that, but her point is that these warnings may preclude knowledge building that might actually help prevent future violations.

The responsibility of each individual “is to learn how to differentiate between the past and the present so that they are not blaming, scapegoating or attacking people today for pain that they have not caused but was inflicted by others long gone.”

My wife, Michelle, and I have been having difficult but rewarding conversations about the #MeToo movement over the past few months. Actually, we have been having intense discussions for a long time, but they have increased in the Trump era.

We have similar worldviews in many ways, and in others the views are rather different. Michelle is biracial and was born in Hong Kong in 1966; she came to the United States when she was 6 years old, not knowing a word of English, and ended up in central Pennsylvania by fourth grade.

In 1966 I was beginning my graduate work in Tennessee and ended up in Harrisburg at about the same time as Michelle. I am a white boy who was born in New Hampshire in 1944 and spent much of the first half of my life in New England.

When it comes to race, class and gender issues, we do not see everything the same way. Michelle has done more than any other one person to educate me about what American culture looks like from the point of view of women and minorities, and sometimes her schooling of me has been a bit painful.

She says she has learned quite a few things from me as well. Perhaps we should record one of our more potent dialogues so you can get the whole picture!

So I know firsthand what it’s like to engage in hard conversations. Before Michelle and before my arrival in Harrisburg I survived the years 1963-71, during which I started to become “woke.” Teaching at HACC for 40 years and finding Michelle I became even more so.

Perhaps this column will spark some difficult conversations. The good news is they can be had, and they can be well worth it.