Monday, August 9, 2010

Problems Are Just a Stone's Throw Away

I just got an email from a friend, who was in a quandry about how to handle an incident at her community. She wrote:

One night about a month ago, X was walking near the carports after dark and saw the silhouette of someone standing near a small rock pile next to the gardens, throwing rocks. She then heard a sound of something being hit but was too frightened to stop and find out what it was. A day or two later, it was discovered that a rock had gone through the rear window of the pickup truck that X shares with another neighbor couple. [X wasn't certain who the person was, so could not go and talk to him, but had a fair idea about who it might be from the little she had seen.]

X sent out an email to all describing the incident as most likely accidental and saying she would like to hear from the person who did the damage—in strictest confidentiality.

There was a plenary a few days later, and X had not heard from anyone about the damage. In the part of the plenary where short topics can be introduced, I brought up the incident and said that I thought the community should pay to replace the truck window as a matter of principle. (I don't think anyone understood this and it was hard for me to explain what I meant—something about the responsibility for something like this belongs to all of us.) My motivation had nothing to do with the actual expenditure as I am sure the three owners could easily afford whatever the deductible amounted to. The discussion in plenary was brief and took no particular direction. I did not want to say much, and X didn't either so I am not even sure if everyone understood that it was most likely a member of the community who did this.

Now, it is several weeks later (no one has come forward; the truck is repaired) and I asked the truck owners if it was OK with them if I bring this up as a general community issue. They all want to drop it since it is "a one-time thing." I think this would set a bad precedent—of sweeping uncomfortable things under the rug. I would like to see a general discussion of the implications for the community. I have given up on the idea of the community paying for the repair.

I am not interested in who did it or why, though I have an educated guess. My hunch is that the damage was accidental and that the person was "blowing off steam." He is probably suffering his embarrassment in silence.

If you have any thoughts about where this type of thing fits into community life and how it should be handled, I would love to hear them.

This is an interesting sequence, that can be usefully broken into two parts.

Part One: When Stories Don't Align
It's not at all uncommon that Person A thinks that Person B—both members of the same group—did something inappropriate but Person B does not own responsibility for it. Given the vagaries of the circumstances (including poorly lighting on the night that the windshield was cracked, complicating a positive identification), there are a large number of possible reasons for Person B's position:

o Person B really didn't do it (it was someone else, perhaps someone who wasn't a member of the community and thus never saw Person A's email request to come forward).
o Person B did throw stones but doesn't think they hit the windshield of the pickup, and thus are not culpable.
o Person B did it, and knows that they did it, but is too embarrassed to admit it publicly.
o Person B has admitted it privately to the truck owner(s) and has taken care of it outside the public arena, which Person A doesn't know about.
o Person B is upset with the owner of the pickup and thinks that they "deserved" to have a cracked windshield.

My essential point is that there are many possibilities, including innocence. One of the factors in this is that Person A, perhaps unwittingly, has raised the ante by bringing the matter into the public spotlight. If Person A's main concern was to get the windshield fixed by the person responsible and they thought that it was Person B, then I think the course of action that was most apt to have worked well was for Person A to have approached Person B directly and asked about it (it could go something like, "Hey Person B, I'd like to have a conversation with you about something that happened in the parking lot the other night and that may involve you, is this a good time?").

This particular incident generalizes to all situations where one member thinks another has acted inappropriately and the other person denies it—because a) they think that the behavior falls below the level of what's appropriate for group-level attention (the accuser is nitpicking and/or being a busybody); b) they don't agree that a bad thing has happened; b) they deny that they did the bad thing.

In these situations, it is often the best you can do to get agreement on whether the purported action is indeed inappropriate and whether it's significant enough to warrant group attention. This at least sets the table for how it can go differently if it happens again (which may go a long way toward eliminating the behavior, even if there's no agreement about how to handle the precipitating event).

Part Two: The Vague Boundary Between Public & Private
The other major challenge of group living that this incident illuminates has to do with the boundary between personal and group responsibility. In particular, you tried to make the case that anomalous damage to private possessions stored in common spaces should be borne by the group rather than the owner. (Note that this is different than damage incurred while a privately owned possession is being used for a group purpose, in which case I think the group would likely support the notion that the group cover the repair.)

I think groups can go either way on this. It sounds like your community was not persuaded by your line of argument, but I don't think they were obliged to. Assuming everyone understood what was being asked (you seem unsure whether the lack of enthusiasm in support of your proposal was due to unclarity about what was being asked, or to disagreement with the principle that you wanted to establish), this may simply be something about which you and the rest of the group are not in agreement.

In most groups there tends to be considerable fuzziness about the boundary between public and private, and it appears that this incident has highlighted a portion of the gray area.

Having said all this, it's worth mentioning that the second conversation is complicated by the overlayment of the first and that part of the what you experienced as unsatisfying about asking the group to cover the windshield expense may be that people were wary of the unresolved energy around Person A's unattributed accusation. That is, Person A would not have posted the email to the whole group unless they felt it was likely that the rock had been thrown by a member, and this hangs like a dark cloud over the group and tends to stifle a discussion about principles until that tension is resolved.

Did anyone say that living with others was easy?

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