Most of us in English speaking countries do not live in tight knit communities where people depend on each other to survive. As a consequence, unlike most of our ancestors we can afford not to be too invested in the idea of community. When things go wrong, we can just move on to another space. What this overlooks of course is the deep feeling of unrootedness and un-belonging that comes from changing your social context to deal with conflict. We might not need our communities to survive the winter, but we do need them for emotional wellbeing.
It’s easy to see conflict in personal terms, and understand it purely as being about those directly involved. Two people appear to fall out, and so we take the moral high ground by not getting involved, not taking sides, not asking what happened. If one of the people involved pulls away and leaves, we shrug, and say it’s a shame, and carry on with life. We all bear the losses quietly, because this is normal. We all bear the impact of the original problem, directly or indirectly.
One of the things this does is to tacitly support bullying and abuse. If one person mistreats another and we all nobly sit on the fence and refuse to pass judgement, we enable misbehaviour. It is the victim who will be pushed out. The person who was acting out will do it again, and probably get away with it again. This is not in anyone’s interests and does not make for a good community.
If we recognise that all relationships are held in a wider community context, we can look at them differently. It does not seem so acceptable for a community as a whole to react to a conflict by shrugging its shoulders. It becomes necessary for the community to find out what’s going on, make judgements and take action. These may be small measures to smooth over troubles and build bridges. There may be larger moves called for to challenge unacceptable behaviour. It may be necessary to identify what is intolerable.
If someone bullies, exploits, abuses, controls or otherwise mistreats a person, it is not because of something inherent in the victim. It is because the abusive person is an abusive person. They can and will do that again. If a person lacks the experience, empathy or insight to navigate relationships well, they will keep having the same problems – either because they don’t hold the boundaries they need, or because they don’t deal well with others. Either way, it helps when the people around them respond to this and take on some responsibility for fixing it.
I’ve been in communities that shrug shoulders over conflict. I’ve watched people leave those spaces in all kinds of states of distress and discomfort. I’ve been the person who leaves. I’ve also been in spaces with people who take responsibility for the wellbeing of the community as a whole, and who wade in when things get difficult. I’ve seen problems solved, and people challenged in good ways, to do better. I’ve seen vulnerable people supported, and socially awkward people helped. I’ve seen confidence built, and boundaries fostered. I’ve seen wellbeing improved, and the communities in question grow stronger for making the choice to act in these ways.