Monday, May 16, 2016

Trouble in Paradise

FIC has been publishing Communities Directory since 1990, first as a book, and then (starting in 2004) as a searchable online database. It is the thing that the Fellowship is best known for.

While FIC tries hard to be even-handed and fair in how the information is displayed, readers occasionally give us critical feedback about the listings—we get about 2-4 complaints per year. The complaints sort into two kinds: a) someone is unhappy with FIC, perhaps because they feel they've not been treated fairly or respectfully; or b) someone is unhappy with a listed community. Most feedback falls into the latter category.

When this happens we investigate and try to resolve any concerns. It might be that a reader has found the listed information to be misleading. Or it might be that their experience with he community has been upsetting and has nothing to do with the listing. In either case, we step in and try to sort things out.

Sometimes it's simply a misunderstanding. Sometimes there's a disagreement and FIC can play a role as a third party to deescalate the tension and get things proceeding again on an even keel.

Sometimes though, it's too late by the time we arrive on the scene, and the best we can hope for is an amicable parting of the ways.

This past week we fielded a complaint of this last kind and it was a challenge to work through.

We try to approach these situations in a consistent way: our first effort is to reach out to all parties and ask to hear their story about what's happened. Once we have that, we reach across to the folks on the other side and ask what portions of the story, if any, they agree with. In this case, there was precious little common ground. Sadly, both sides claimed that the other had been threatening and belligerent, yet owned none of that behavior themselves (even to the point of having made death threats!). While I did not hear any reports of physical violence having taken place, it was hard to imagine a situation more polarized.

The precipitating issue was whether investors in the community had been promised a warranty title to their property, and the extent to which the lack of a title was making it difficult for people to sell their homes.

The disgruntled folks claimed that they were misled and that their life savings were tied up in property that they could not sell. The satisfied majority claimed that everyone was informed about the title issue up front, and that many property owners have been able to buy and sell their community property even so.

So, while there was agreement that individuals were not being given warranty titles, there was no agreement about when people were apprised of that, nor about the consequences that followed from it.

It is not FIC's role, in situations like this, to act as judge, or to determine who is in the right. Instead, we simply establish where there is common ground and where there isn't. Once we have that sorted, we try to get clear what outcome is desired and help all parties work toward a workable resolution.

In the instance last week it was hard to understand why both both parties were still living together. The hurt and mistrust ran so deep that it was almost impossible to picture a reconciliation.

On both sides of this issue, it took several communications before I got anything other than an attack on the other side, in an attempt to convince me that "those folks" were evil. When I wrote a straight forward summary (something like, "The stories don't match up well, and each side is accusing the other of threatening behavior, without owning that any of that is being done by them.") what I'd get back is more "evidence" of the other side's perfidy. Further, they were starting to suspect me of being a dupe of the other side because I wasn't immediately persuaded by their condemnation. Yuck.

While it may be temping in such circumstances to despair of ever getting out of the starting gate, I think what was mainly going on was that everyone was pretty upset and my summaries were insufficient to establish that I had fully heard them. ("If I really go it how upsetting this was, I wouldn't be so goddamn calm.")

• • •
I tell this story because it illuminates one of the pitfalls encountered when publishing a Directory where we do not have the resources to investigate and vet each listing. Instead, we rely on communities to be up front and accurate in their self-descriptions, and then we rely on readers to let us know if something seems out of whack.

While this works quite well in general, it's sobering to see people ostensibly dedicated to cooperative principles and harmonious co-existence engaging in war mongering with one another. To be clear, I don't think intentional communities will eliminate conflict in the world—and neither is that the position of  FIC—yet we do think that living cooperatively can be a building block of world peace. It all hinges on how people (and the groups they create) respond to disagreement.

What is dismaying about the group I was working with last week is that everyone I communicated with (about half a dozen) seemed to be more concerned with being right than being in good relationship with one another. In fact, each went so far as to label those on the other side of the aisle as evil and irredeemable. While there is considerable room for people to have differing opinions about what constitutes the most hopeful approach to world peace, I'm pretty certain that the path being followed by this group will not lead there.

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