So as I write this it’s Black History Month. Which has me thinking again about Christian White Person Nice and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s words in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” about how “white moderates” are almost a bigger threat to equity and justice than the extremists are. (I previously talked about this here and here.) In this week’s blog post I’d like to parse some more of this out in terms of communication and conflict theory. So I’ll look again at the definition of assertiveness over and against passivity, and unpack some of the ironies around how white moderates, in the guise of Christian Nice, often end up enforcing passivity by being toxically aggressive about it. In the process, they end up becoming all, well, complicit.
Thanks for giving me a few minutes to unwrap this. I actually managed to keep it relatively short this time. 🙂
My Background and Standpoint
Okay, so as always, I’m coming at this as a pastor’s kid that was raised in a right-leaning heavily white moderate denomination in the American Midwest. As always, I’m also coming at this as a communication scholar that focuses on stress, trauma, and conflict communication. I’m also coming at this as a person recovering from Nice and the fawn response.
Ah, Growing Up in a Modern Period Drama
And yeah, as I discussed before, growing up in Christian Nice was a lot like growing up in a period drama. Usually one of those restrained British ones.
It’s SUCH a Cultural Thing Where I’m From
And I definitely was not alone in this. I still teach at a university in the Midwest, and every semester I say to the students that we all know from within the context of Nice that there are still plenty of ways to communicate aggression within the codes of Nice we all learn.
Aggression by Any Other Name…Is Still Aggression, Weirdly
Even though those modes of aggression wouldn’t be recognized as such outside of this particular cultural context, it’s still aggression.
And every semester my students nod sagely, because they know. They recognize how that works. They live it.
So yeah, every semester I teach this stuff, it goes a little deeper into my skull, which is very helpful, as I understand the concepts more fully myself.
Those Gradually Dawning Realizations
And here’s the thing I’ve come to realize through the course of teaching this stuff, living it, and working on this project: we all have stress responses when we feel threatened, because all humans do.
We all have all of them, including the fight response.
No matter how much our cultures and co-cultures may seek to deny it.
Bullies in “Nice” Clothing, As It Were
What Christian Nice and white moderates alike tend to do, though, is to feel stressed and threatened around the very idea that people have a fight response. Except, wait, when bullies have one. That’s okay somehow??? Especially the more the bully dresses themselves in Nice clothing.
Nice Getting Mean In Defense of Passivity?
Ironically, what this often means is that the pull out the fight response in defense of passivity when assertiveness challenges bullies and abusers.
Uh Huh. This is How the Fawn Response Works Systemically to Be Complicit with Bullies
As I’ve been talking about several times lately, especially here, I think this is because Christian nice and “white moderation” (in Dr. King’s terms) alike are deeply trained into the fawn stress response.
The Problems with Befriending the Threat Rather than Standing for Equity
See, as I discussed back a month or so ago, bullies socialize people into the fawn response to get them to try to keep themselves safe by befriending the bullies rather than fighting them.
What this means is that people trained up into Nice are often having their stress responses recalibrated to see the bullies as their friends and, through an unhealthy trauma bond, their protectors.
But Wait, that Means that Nice Defends Everything BUT Assertiveness
In this way, both aggressive bullies and passivity are weirdly seen to be twin “god terms,” which is to say they are concepts that are to be defended at all costs.
The whole thing, frankly, is hella authoritarian.
How do I know that? Well, because the only conflict options that are allowed in this system are competition or avoidance/accommodation. And it only allows competition responses in the following conditions: (1) if the protected bullies use it overtly; or (2) in defense of the bullies by others—in short, as the enforcers of passivity in the rest of the population.
Assertiveness as a Threat
See, as I described when here talking about militant masculinity in the important book Jesus and John Wayne, this kind of system leaves the idea of assertiveness out in the cold, as a threat. Often, in fact, and ironically, assertiveness by anyone is seen as a devil term, to be fought at all costs.
As a reminder, as I discussed here, assertiveness is about seeking solutions that care for as many parties as possible. And it’s often defined over and against both aggressiveness and passivity.
Sooooo Yeah, THAT’s Why “They” Call Nice Complicit and Almost Worse Than the Extremists
Ultimately, what happens when aggressive authoritarianism is the reigning system, and Nice becomes complicit with that kind of supremacy culture, is that passivity becomes complicit with aggressiveness to attack the very idea of assertiveness.
When Fawning to Bullies Involves Being Mean to Assertive Folx And the Vulnerable
So yeah, what often ends up happening is that when those who are raised with fawn responses to supremacy culture, be it militant masculinity, white supremacy, churchy exceptionalism, etc. etc. etc. end up pulling out their fight responses mostly when people are trying to stand up on behalf of the vulnerable and the common good.
None of this is great, folks.
How This Happened After the Civil War
And yeah, if you were wondering, as Ta-Nehisi Coates, Heather Cox Richardson and others have essentially noted, this is what happened after the Civil War. White people from the winning side tried so hard to befriend the bullying folx in the South that they failed to look out for Black folx in the process.
This happening during Reconstruction–the fawning in the place of assertiveness–as many experts have pointed out, is a huge part of why we still have racial problems. The Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King is one in the long line of people that have rightfully pointed out this complicity by “white moderates” is one of the big reasons for that.
This Principle Works in Other Situations of Abuse and Such as Well
And the same, unfortunately, goes for a lot of types of “reconciliation” procedures that only pretend to love neighbor as self. Instead of truly reaching out for equity, those who have been raised in Nice work to tamp down the conflict in the name of defending passivity.
In the process they end up causing more pain to already traumatized vulnerable and marginalized folx.
The Big Lie (No, Not THAT ONE, Though Those People Have This Problem Too)
So yeah. All of this unhealthiness is premised on a deeply disturbing lie. Which is ultimately that only aggressiveness or passivity are the only “righteous” options (and aggressiveness is only allowable to a select few in power).
Loving One’s Neighbor as Self as a Devil Term???
In short, it’s assertiveness—you know, the very idea of loving your neighbor as yourself and especially taking care of the vulnerable and marginalized toward equity—that comes to be seen as the heretic, and even as the devil, in this kind of system.
I’ll say that again. In the world of fawn-based Nice, assertiveness (which is the main tenet of pretty much every world religion including Christianity, and has also been shown to be the most effective mode for dealing with conflict the large majority of the time) is seen to be the devil.
Choose Then Today and All That
I hate to get all biblical on you too often here, but the words “choose you today whom you will serve” rise up in my mind as I write that.
Because yeah, while a wide variety of stress responses and conflict styles are appropriate to different situations, and I think assertiveness itself looks differently in different situations, the absolute best approach, whatever the stress response or conflict style, is that of assertiveness.
Seeking a More Assertive World for Us All
See, looking out for the needs of as many people as possible ought not go out of style. It should certainly not be demonized.
And healthy systems and cultures don’t privilege bullies at the expense of others.
Um Yeah, WWJD and Such
This, all of this, is why I believe Jesus privileged the “least of these” when calling for a law of love.
And this is why I believe the Bible as a whole focuses so much on taking care of the poor and outsiders and casting down the exploiters and bullies.
Why there are verses on valleys being raised up and mountains be made low.
Because assertiveness—seeking equity for all as much as possible—is the rule of loving our neighbor as yourself.
And I don’t know about you, but I hope you believe that’s worth continuing to stand up for. May we all take the energy and resources we have to continue to do that, as we’re able.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to assertively stand up against both the bullies and the aggressively Nice folks that are defending bullying for some and passivity for everyone else. It’s the only actual way to love our neighbors as ourselves. We can do this thing.
Looking for more resources toward speaking up for what’s right and dealing with the conflict that results?
Boy, do we have got a free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” for you. It actually helps you with conflict both online and off. To get it, sign up for our email newsletter (either in the top bar or by checking the appropriate box when commenting on this article). Once you’ve confirmed your email address, we’ll send you the link to the guide in your final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around for our weekly email updates. As soon as we feasibly can we’re hoping to offer more online courses and other support resources for those advocating for the common good, and if you stay subscribed, you’ll be the first to know about these types of things when they pop up.