What to do with the garbage people?

Oscar the Grouch wearing sunglasses with the text "Just because you're trash doesn't mean you can't do great things. It is called Garbage Can, not Garbage Cannot."

The kind of inspirational message we can all get behind

In the past year and a half, since the whole Trump thing, #MeToo, and all the concomitant social upheavals that have taken place, we all have seen changes in our personal lives. Old friendships have ended, family members with whom we could keep the peace are now out of our lives, or at least much more distant, and artists and creators we used to love are too tainted by their behaviour for their work to appeal. It’s all too easy to end relationships and kick people, ideas, and influences out of our lives when they no longer fit.

This isn’t always bad. I don’t need to keep up a relationship with that dude I went to high school with who keeps posting glowing things about Jordan Peterson on Facebook. I have enough uncles around that if I don’t talk to the racist ones for a while, I’m good. There is a whole universe of books and movies and music and visual arts that aren’t created by sexual predators and racists, we can read and watch and listen and look to those. The world is full of amazing people and opportunities to create new and better worlds. That’s good, right?

But then what do we do with the terrible people we have loved and we need to leave behind? What to do with the so-called ‘garbage’ people – within ourselves and with us?

I don’t mean us, personally. It’s not my job or yours to deprogram that Jordan Peterson fan or explain systemic racism to every member of my family tree. I mean “us” as a culture, as a group which share and are more or less affected by the same conscious and unconscious forces which shape our beliefs and behaviour.

It’s very, very easy to try to create a better world for yourself by kicking people out of it. Group relations theory and our purpose at ICI describes this as the basic assumption of fight/flight – an external threat, even if it is seemingly within, is identified, the unacceptable qualities of the group projected on it, and the other either attacked or avoided. And sometimes, yeah, you really are under threat and need to defend yourself, or relationships are so broken and/or individuals so toxic that there is no other choice but to remove yourself from them.

But that denies the unacceptable and often unconscious core in ourselves, that we are all capable of prejudice, meanness, and violence, and maybe our fear of those parts of ourselves makes it more difficult to metabolize the problematic, the violent, the hateful parts of our communities. At ICI, where we’ve been running an advanced training group, a member wondered if we could help this ‘problem’ by doing more work on our own hate.

Lately I’ve been reading more about prison abolition movement, which challenges us to create visions of justice that don’t include the many abuses and injustices of the prison system, and it’s making me wonder how we can create vibrant, just, and safe communities (as safe as possible, anyway) for everyone without falling into this in-group/out-group trap. And I don’t know how we’d get there. But I hold a tentative and critical hope that we can.

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