On public conflict.

4 Apr

let’s get it on in public
– Kelis

My lover and I argue often, and often in public. We’re both kind of combative and whatever is the opposite of conflict-averse – trigger-happy, perhaps, or just straight-out aggressive. So a conversation about biscuits can easily turn into “I can’t believe you like white chocolate, that’s the most disgusting thing ever and even worse than your taste in men for example BRUCE WILLIS” and “yeah well YOUR FACE and your mum’s face and your blog’s typeface BOOM ps I hate your dress, it’s not ironic it’s just ugly”.

That’s an absurd example but you get the idea. I don’t think it’s better or worse than other ways to communicate, but for us I think it’s effective, intuitive and pretty fair because we’re evenly matched. I’m aware it can be threatening or at least uncomfortable for bystanders, and sometimes we’ll defer an argument or step inside. I appreciate that there are situations where it’s not fair on other people to make them party to our shouting match, and even if we know it’s all in good faith, it doesn’t necessarily appear so.

But I think there can also be this sort of genteel aversion to fighting in public which I dislike and distrust. It enshrines very specific cultural norms, prioritising values of discretion, pride and composure over passion, vulnerability, and spontaneity. It assumes access to more appropriate spaces, usually private property. And I think ultimately it can be dangerous because it hides away interactions that could sometimes use a witness and the accountability  that provides.

I attended a workshop recently on alternatives to police and responses to conflict. The participants talked about the different situations in which they might intervene, how, and what would help them to take action. I think it’s worth asking whether you have a problem with the behaviour at hand, or with it being in public, and sometimes that’s a difficult question to answer. And of course I know some behaviour is made unacceptable by its context, and especially by being inflicted upon a non-consenting audience.

I want to hear your thoughts:
• If you’re aware of a conflict between two people you know, what would it take for you to intervene?
• Does it make a difference if you witness the conflict directly?
• Where is the line between being a witness to abuse and being subjected to it?

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3 Responses to “On public conflict.”

  1. midge Monday 4 April, 2011 at 6:53 pm #

    I’ve seen you two fight in public and it made me less uncomfortable than hearing the couple I lived with in Berlin fighting in their room. Maybe because when two people are fighting behind a closed door and all you can hear is the arguing (even: yelling) you can’t be sure whether or not physical violence is also involved. And maybe because I grew up witnessing domestic violence, domestics in the home are pretty much just automatically triggering and can feel less easy to escape from. It feels easier to leave a cafe or bar or whatever a little earlier, or to duck in somewhere else, than to be uncomfortable in my own space. I think that’s when being witness to someone else’s dispute just encroaches too much on me.

  2. gauchesinister Thursday 7 April, 2011 at 11:01 pm #

    Mmm, thanks for your comment. I’ll keep that in mind when fighting at home or in situations that are inescapable for bystanders.

  3. quis Tuesday 3 July, 2012 at 10:04 pm #

    I enjoy fair arguments with close friends who also enjoy such. I know that for outside observers this can be distressing. Especially for those who are not aware that mutual consent has been given for the exchange, or who find confrontation triggering.

    I agree with your point that public confrontation can often be frowned upon simply because it is public. I do not like other people trying to ‘fix’ my conflicts or trying to limit my interpersonal relationships to those that are appropriate. Also, I don’t think that I am distressed by witnessing interpersonal arguments, so perhaps I would react differently if it was directly impacting me. As such, I think I am generally hesitant about involving myself in other people’s relationships.

    Like you mentioned, the content of the conflict is really important. If someone is in distress I would be concerned and want to intervene. I think that usually I wouldn’t intervene unless one of the participants indicated that help or support was wanted, and if this was unclear I would try find an non-confrontational way to find out. If the conflict is over something academic or hypothetical I would generally not Intervene. If the conflict is over something personal I would also be very hesitant to intervene because there are too many things that it’s not possible to know as an outsider and, in cases where there is problematic dynamics, I know that directly intervening can sometimes make the situation worse later.

    It should be said, however, that this the hand’s off approach has its own assumptions and problems. For example, the assumption that the issue is ‘private’ (even if occurring in public), ‘not my business’, and ‘too complex to get involved’ can all be used as disengaging from actually helping if required.

    Thanks for getting me to think more about it.

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