NVC, Orang Asilie

Interesting bit from Marshall Rosenberg, in which he suggests that not every culture works via domination and labeling…

That’s why in the United States we call these institutions penitentiaries. The whole idea is you have to make people realize they are evil, so you need a language that does that, you need moralistic judgment that implies evil or bad, with words like: good, bad, right, wrong, abnormal, incompetent, etc.

All kinds of words that make you wrong.

There are whole cultures that have not gone that way, where there is almost no violence. They don’t have this language.

Question: “Where are these cultures?”

Marshall: Every one wants to move there! Fortunately there are a lot of them.

Fortunately anthropologist Ruth Benedict has done a lot of research in this area. A good place to start is an article in “Psychology Today,” June 1970, entitled “Synergy—Patterns of the Good Culture”. She has written many books on the subject since the 1920s. She’s found them all over the world. When she started out she wasn’t sure she would find any. The tribe I have had some contact with is Orang Asilie tribe in Malaysia. I’ll never forget what my translator was saying before we got started. He was going over how he was going to translate. He pointed out his language has no verb to be, like [you are] good, bad, wrong, right. You can’t classified people if you take away the verb to be. How are you going to insult people? You take away ninety percent of my vocabulary! So I say what are you going to say if I say “You’re selfish”?

He responded, “It’s going to be hard. I’d translate it like this: Marshall says he sees you are taking care of your needs but not the needs of others.” He says, “In my language, you tell people what they are doing and what you like them to do differently, it would not occur to us to tell people what they are.” He then paused and he looked at me in all sincerity and said, “Why would you ever call a person a name?”

I said you have to know who to punish. Punishment is a totally foreign concept in these tribes and cultures. He looked at me and said, “If you have a plant and it isn’t growing the way you would like, do you punish it?” The whole idea of punishment is so ingrained in us that it is hard for us to imagine other options. It is totally foreign to people who haven’t been educated in domination systems culture. In many of these cultures they look at people who hurt others this way: they are not bad, they’ve just forgotten their nature. They put them in a circle and they remind them of their true nature, what it’s like to be real human beings. They’ve gotten alienated and they bring them back to life.

Question: What’s the tribe’s name again?

Marshall: The Orang Asilie. This is interesting. It’s not their name, it’s the name the surrounding cultures call them and it means “primitive people”.

People usually ask what were you doing there teaching them Giraffe [nonviolent communication] language when they have their own Giraffe language? It’s sad; they were doing quite well. They live in the forest where trees have great economic value in the outside world, so now logging companies are intruding on their space. They don’t know how to speak Giraffe with Jackal speaking people. They have one senator who represents 60,000 people. In Malaysia, they heard about my work and asked me if I could do something. He says “You know there are consultants who will show us how to use guns, there’s no shortage of these, to get our land back.” The senator hoped there is another way.

It is not fashionable, anthropologically or linguistically, to suggest that language can actually influence how people think and act (a/k/a the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis). So it might be worth pointing out that there is no particular reason the causality has to flow in the language->culture direction for the Orang Asilie, rather than the other way round.

UPDATE: Initially-forgotten link here; thanks to Ed Hand for asking for it in comments. For the record, if you go on to read the rest of the piece, it moves into some areas where I do not find myself in agreement with Dr. Rosenberg, e.g. the worries about violence in media as an indoctrination technique and the wholesale acceptance of Walter Wink’s ideas about “Domination Culture.” But I thought this Orang Asilie stuff was interesting.

Trying To Understand Mindfulnesses

I’ve been reading a couple books by Thich Nhat Hanh, including Being Peace and The Miracle of Mindfulness. I’m trying to sort out what Hanh’s Zen Buddhism means by mindfulness vis-a-vis what Ellen Langer means by mindfulness.

It’s tough, because there is a lot of overlap:

  • mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness
  • mindfulness involves being present in the moment
  • mindfulness is not about judgment
  • mindfulness means not holding on to theories, preconceptions, doctrines, ideas
  • mindfulness is about focusing on things/activities in themselves rather than as means to ends

There are differences though. The Zen mindfulness thing seems to be about transcending categories altogether, but Langer’s mindfulness is just about letting go of fixed categories; in fact, for her, mindfulness involves constantly being ready to create new categories based on new information, with a recognition that all categories are contextually bound and inadequate to capture reality fully. Hanh has an emphasis on breathing that’s not there in Langer. Hanh also has an emphasis on human connection and compassion that is not obviously there in Langer. The compassion aspects of it remind me of nonviolent communication. Zen mindfulness seems to be assumed to be something you reach in stages through assiduous hard work, while Langer assumes mindfulness is available to everyone and can in fact by elicited in experimental subjects by asking mindful questions.

I think overall I find Langer’s discussions of mindfulness more helpful to me in the context of creativity, but I find Hanh’s more helpful in connection with NVC and emotions and people.

And there’s something important with that breathing thing. Not necessarily the “following a regimen, learning to breathe a special Zen way that’s better than normal breathing” thing, but being in contact with your breathing. Breathing = spirit, literally/etymologically speaking. There is a way in which letting your mind get in touch with your breathing can help you out of being trapped in negative thoughts and feelings and into the present moment. That’s something important I’ve gotten from Hanh.

Despite them both saying they’re against judgment, I get a more nonjudgmental vibe off Langer than Hanh. (Though both are pretty great that way.)

I guess I’m glad I’ve read them both.

I’ll add Hanh to the list of people whose ideas interrelate in complex and interesting ways, including Ellen Langer, Marshall Rosenberg, Carl Rogers, Alfie Kohn, Gerard “Killing Monsters” Jones… that’s all I can think of right now. :)


I’m interested right now in Marshall Rosenberg’s work on “Non-Violent Communication” or NVC. It has roots in Rogerian psychotherapy and Gandhi’s nonviolent work. Rosenberg spends most of his time teaching this stuff worldwide in conflict spots to try and bring people together, working with Hutus and Tutsis, Palestinians and Israelis, Serbs and Bosnians, Irish Catholics and Protestants, gangs and policemen, and so on. He’s got a lot of experience talking peace with people who have literally killed each other’s relatives and countrymen, so it’s not airy theory.

Anyway, he shares Gandhi’s idea that physical violence is only a logical end product, symptom, or reaction to violent communication: interaction between people which manipulates, judges, dominates, belittles, stereotypes, coerces, all that sort of thing. If you can get people relating to each other in a nonviolent manner in their communication, then ending physical violence will be easy; if you can’t, it will be impossible.

I’ve been participating (sometimes in ways I like, sometimes in ways I’m not thrilled with) in some ongoing discussions in various gaming-related blogs about violence. A lot of it was off in realms of hypothesis that precluded much useful from being said, but there were some important things said by people that I might have on the surface been in disagreement with, that I want to acknowledge the truth of.

In the comments here the massively important point was made that violence comes from inside people, and that violence against self and violence against other have the same roots. I have become convinced lately that you can’t judge yourself harshly without judging others harshly, and vice versa. “Judge not, that ye be not judged” is not just a statement about theology, it’s a statement about psychology.

In the same set of comments I said:

That whole “self-hate ==> violence” thing is totally what it is all about. Physical violence is just the symptom or end product of violence between human souls by many other means – injustice, blame, labelling, belittling, all that kind of thing. You can’t stop the one while ignoring the other. The physical violence is often the least damaging kind of violence going on, and compared to some of the emotional violence going on the physical act of violence may in compaision be honest, freeing, and purifying, because it’s at least *explicit*. That doesn’t make it a thing to be desired. But looking just at the physical stuff and not where it comes from is not helpful, I don’t think.

And also looking just at the physical and not the places where it comes from makes things just a little too easy for people like me who are lucky enough to have avoided giving or receiving much physical violence in our lives, not necessarily through any virtue of our own – but who have as much to learn as anyone about the emotional, interpersonal kind.

That’s really important to me. One of the things about the NVC thing is that it challenges me where I’m at. I’m lucky enough not to be in a situation where I’m threatened with, or feel the need to use, physical violence, at all. That would make it really easy for me to advocate “non-violence” in the same way that it is easy for a eunuch to preach chastity. I can see the resentment that someone who by choice or by chance is in a position where physical violence is a part of their lives would have for someone like me who dares to judge them for it from a position of suburban safety. (N.B.: I don’t want to judge people, including people who use violence.)

I’ve engaged in a lot of communicative violence in my life, including in this blog (including a lot of posts that aren’t here anymore because at one point I was so discouraged about where the blog was going that I trashed it). I still do — look at this post from yesterday. Despite my disclaimers about it just being a look inside my head, arguably it belittles people I was disagreeing with. That ain’t nonviolent. It’s part of the problem.

I think a lot of the reaction against people who object to violence tends to come from a dislike for that kind of hypocrisy, and a perception that physical violence is not different on a deep level from many kinds of interaction that few think to condemn.

It’s certainly true that the reason that more privileged folk can avoid being personally involved in physical violence is that other people are doing it for them. I don’t think that means it has to or should be that way, but it’s sure true that “that way” is deeply embedded in the fabric of society, and denying it doesn’t help.

OK, that’s all that’s running through my head for now. Gonna publish and come back to this if I think of more to say later.

CNN.com – Ex-hostage: ‘I wanted to gain his trust’ – Mar 14, 2005

CNN.com – Ex-hostage: ‘I wanted to gain his trust’ – Mar 14, 2005

And at one point, he said, “You know, I’d rather you shoot — the guns are laying in there — I’d rather you shoot me than them.” I said, “I don’t want anyone else to die, not even you.”

Talk about nonviolent communication! Who knows how many people’s lives (including her own) this woman saved by talking to this man — who had just shot and killed several people in cold blood — like he was a human being?

Via the nvc-parenting yahoo group.

Violence, Nonviolence, Real, Imaginary, Powers, Principalities

I am still deeply grooving on Nonviolent Communication. Joined the NVC parenting yahoo group. Working on it in my own life. Finding it helpful.

Got a couple books tonight. The Powers That Be by Walter Wink. It’s a condensation/popularization of his Powers series. It was referred to by Marshall Rosenberg in some of his NVC writings. I’m just barely beginning it but so far I really like it. It’s a kind of theologizing that I can really appreciate.

Also, Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence. I read this a few years back and gave away my copy of it. I’d like to read it again, now that I’m reading a lot about nonviolence.

I think it might actually dovetail well with NVC. One of the things I like about NVC is that while it is studiously nonviolent, it doesn’t take a violent attitude towards violent people, so to speak. It’s about compassion, not about condemnation. It often involves finding the positive things that lie underneath objectionable, violent communication and actions, and finding ways to bring them out in ways that aren’t hurtful. In a sense it is not about avoidance of violence but about redemption from violence. About moving past it, not shrinking back from it. “I would like to suggest that killing people is too superficial,” says Rosenberg.

Killing Monsters is largely about the idea that imaginary worlds don’t play by the same rules as the real world, and things that would be harmful in the real world can be harmless or even helpful in an imaginary world, for people who can tell the real and imaginary worlds apart. Which is most people, even most little children.

In both NVC and KM I see the notion of looking beyond violence to see what positive thing is there. In NVC you’re in the real world and you’re trying to find a way to avoid the violence and get the positive thing anyway. In KM you’re talking about imaginary worlds, where the violence is not real, and can safely serve as a dramatic symbolization of the things that underlie it (power, passion, self-protection, confidence, fear, whatever else).

In both cases you have an openness to see what positive thing lies behind the violence.

And Wink apparently discusses the “Myth of Redemptive Violence” which he says underpins domination culture. I wonder how that will interact with all this?

Good reading ahead of me.

UPDATE: Read a good chunk of Wink. Looks like Wink is in direct contradiction to KM on the media issue. As far as Wink is concerned, everyone from the Enuma Elish to X-Men to Popeye is complicit in purveying the Myth of Redemptive Violence, the founding myth of Domination culture, which is what we’ve been living under for 8,000 years, since the rise of horse-oriented conquest cultures. I can’t really follow him writing off all of known human culture and artistic production for all of known history as an evil myth.

There were some things I liked a lot about what he’s saying, so I’m going to keep reading. But I have a grain of salt ready.

UPDATE: Finished Wink. It was a book with a lot of great information on topics I care a lot about, and with a lot of stuff that really made me think, and a lot of stuff I really agree with. However, the book as a whole didn’t make me go yes, yes, YES! the way some do. I like the book a lot, and huge parts of it I’m totally on board for, and I learned a lot of cool thigns from it, but there is enough in it that doesn’t quite work for me that it’s not on my list of “wonderful turn-your-mind-inside-out books.”

The Powers that Be is described as a condensation and popularization of Wink’s trilogy of more academic theological works on the Powers, and I might or might not like those better.