The antagonist as a limitation to dialogue

Some things just seem to keep coming around; like a bad penny.

I’m not entirely sure when I first ran into the book “Antagonists in the Chuch“, by Kenneth Haugk, but I do know where. It must have been some time close to 1995 when Isaac Bonewits posted “Dealing with Religious Jerks“. I read this review in which Isaac wrote:

“If I had read this book 30 years ago, many, many mistakes might have been avoided and Neopagan Druidism would be much further along in its evolution. In fact, if this book have been read by most of our ‘old timers’ three decades ago, our community would be easily ten or twenty times its current size and far more effective at influencing the mainstream death culture. Tens of thousands of lives — and species — might have been saved and the environmental crisis significantly slowed down. Instead, we spent literally millions of hours fighting unending battles with antagonists inside our own community who never intended to ‘fight fair’ because what they really wanted was the attention we gave them and the joy of destruction for its own sake.”

It was a couple years until I actually picked up a copy of the book, but I regretted waiting for so long. In fact, I note that it was almost a decade ago, in April 2001, when I finally picked it up, but I also know that it sat in my stack of “to read” books after that for a while before I actually read it; but this clearly places my reading of the book prior to my return to college where I studied dialogue in earnest. This book, then, is a forgotten influence on my work since then, one which I did not directly include in my thesis but which had been part of my thinking.

While the book is definitely within the context of congregational Christianity, a tradition which I do not find speaks to me personally; even the parts which are explicitly Christian, such as the section of quotes from the Bible, is interesting to a certain extent. But, the overall effect of the work on me was to give me another name for something which I’d recognized to exist, and by having language with which to speak about the phenomena it becomes easier to see those phenomena in the first place; and, it becomes more possible to develop conscious and intentional responses to times when I’ve been confronted by those phenomena.

To a certain extent, I have to admit that I’ve felt like a bit of a Cassandra because of my awareness of this sort of thing. Being able to see and name a thing for myself leads to a feeling of disconnectedness with those around me about whom I find myself wondering, “Why does no one else see this happening?” And, I’ll also admit that I’ve grown exceedingly tired of dealing with this phenomenon when I run into it, especially within groups that haven’t yet developed strong personal and structural responses to such phenomena. This is an example of the overall, deeply disappointing, cycle of lowered of expectations which leads to attrition within groups. For me, in many ways, I’ve found myself responding to what seems like a deafening silence in response to naming and identifying the phenomenon with an increasing willingness to find something else to do with my time. Instead of tilting at windmills within groups that seem to not respond, I admit that I have more often of late taken a pessimistic path of somewhat selfish cost-benefit analysis, and simply chosen to confront the phenomenon to the point where I feel doing more is futile and there’s probably something else more personally satisfying I can do with my time, and then tarry no further.

Still, this topic sure does seem to keep coming up for me. Just two examples will suffice to suggest that this has, for some reason, been something that has been on my mind for as long as I’ve been mindful.

When I was a kid in elementary school, I must have been shown the animated Animal Farm a bazillion times. Okay, maybe not that many times, but for some reason that film was de rigueur. My take away from that film was quite a strong influence on my thinking, but for some reason it didn’t seem to be the same as other people; and it finally occurred to me what was going on. I reflect on this a bit, back in 2006, in “Why do the bastards hate Animal Farm so much?“:

“But, when I was a kid and the schools kept showing the animated ‘Animal Farm’ I didn’t get the message that community was bad. I got the message that the selfish, evil bastards can ruin community for the rest of the animals.”

Ostensibly, the reason I kept seeing that film in school was, I imagine, that I was to understand that Communism didn’t work. But what I got from it was that communism did work, but that Communism didn’t because it was a broken form of communism, one that had been hijacked by bastards. So, be on guard! (Yes, I’m looking at you Capitalism.)

Fast forward to my undergraduate studies at The Evergreen State College, and the continuation and expansion of that work which culminated in my Master’s thesis, The Fifth Principle of Dialogue as an answer to a specific project:

“As a student and practitioner of Dialogue, I have constantly explored the question of how can we cross our thresholds to meet with the inimical other for the purpose of creating peace. Through my exploration of this question, I have developed a unique theory of dialogue that includes a definition of dialogue as an archetypal process that occurs in an enabling space and that has a set of observable phenomenon that emerge from that process.” [via]

I’m not entirely sure I ever integrated the notion of Haugk’s “Antagonist” into my work, but I have no doubt that it was an influence. Where I speak of the Unwilling Autonomous Principle, I realize that in my own thinking I include this idea of an “Antagonist”, which is to some extent like my interpretation and extension of Rosenberg’s “Jackal” as an archetype in my model of dialogue.

“The Jackal is that Other we are willing to engage and is willing to engage with us. Even though the Jackal may not be able to be compassionate and connected, the Jackal is willing to engage, the Hyena is not. The Jackal may take bites out of each and every Giraffe but will stop feeding when it is full, when needs are met. The Hyena will take bites from every Giraffe that it meets and will continue eating until there is nothing left to eat, including attacking the Jackals. The Jackal has authentic needs that can be met by the Giraffe archetypes in order to build a bridge between them. The Hyena archetype refuses to peacefully engage even if all efforts are made to satisfy its needs.

If the project of crossing thresholds into enabling dialogical space is to engage with our own Other, then staying with the safe intramural conversations in the Giraffe herd is not enough. If there is any hope for progress toward dialogue, the Other must be engaged even if that Other will consistently take a chunk out of every Giraffe. But it cannot be the point of the project to place us in suicidally dangerous places, pointlessly offering ourselves as a free meal to the Hyenas, because this also ends the project as surely as if it were not begun at all.” [via]

I’m not sure whether I managed to fully satisfactorily signify the “Antagonist” as either “Jackal” or a kind of hybrid, a “Hyena in Jackal costume”. But Haugk’s notion of the “Antagonist” is someone who, while unwilling to engage in actuality will constantly act as if they are willing to engage in order to satisfy their needs at the expense of others.

These inimical others are the most dangerous, because they are not just lurking about outside of our social groups and structures, but rather are actively hunting. These others are violently predatory toward our constructive social groups.

Paradoxically, as such things often are, these seriously dangerous organizational psychopaths are actually very often well thought of by those with whom they interact. The natural camouflage of these predators is such that they often appear to be the center of attention, and appear to be charismatic members of the social group.

Much like the apocryphal, prototypical serial killer, they seem to have adoring fans everywhere. And, that’s one of the most surreal things for anyone that finds themselves confronted or attacked by these predators within social groups. There is constantly this sense of the bizarre at the difference between one’s own experience and the way these predators seem to be seen by the group. One constantly feels like the protagonist in John Carpenter’s “They Live”; that everyone is blind to the true nature of what is going on around them, that they are surrounded by monsters and being manipulated into docility to ease their eventual slaughter or use as a pack animal (and yes, that’s a weak joke about being made into an ass, or moreover being made into the butt, or something to do with getting screwed there).

As they say, the first step is to admit that you’ve got a problem. The first step to dealing with the existence of those who would damage social groups from the inside without any remorse, beyond the way a predator mourns when all the easy pickings are devoured, is to recognize that such people exist.

Being able to recognize the existence of these “Antagonists”, these inimical others that are quite literally hunting us down from within (or perhaps to break my own metaphoric structure these are a kind of social parasite; dare I even say vampire? And not the fluffy bunny carrot sucking kind. Don’t even get me started on sparkles!), is not enough. Beyond the really, truly transformative experience of being able to name the phenomenon, as expressed by Bonewits above, and therefore validate the experience of that phenomenon, it is also necessary to respond to the existence of those phenomena. It would be nice if merely seeing that “Antagonists” exist was enough to, like some comforting fairy tale, magically dismiss them, but unfortunately what is required is an actual active daily practice of banishing.

In the conclusion of my thesis, I observe:

“I believe that meeting the inimical other is made possible through the practice of dialogue. This practice is for the purpose of human growth on a collective level, and to transform the self, others and the world.” [via]

And, indeed, this practice of dialogue is an intentional practice of both intra- and inter-personal transformation which has many possible similarities to the personal transformative practice of magick. There is need for a daily practice, a consistent commitment to the project. There is also a need for engagement within some kind of tradition, or within some kind of social group; after all, while I do admit to the possibility of internal dialogue, it is the external variety which is the more germane, or to re-use one of my invented terms “Relephant” [via].

It is in developing a social system which is adapted to respond by individuals invested in a fundamental social bond, in recognizing “an inescapable, essential connection between people that is bigger than any of us” [via]; in this is the foundation of meeting the challenge of “Antagonists” as a limitation to dialogue. But, it is also essential to recognize that the implication of not developing an adaptable social system is to be at the mercy of those who will, no doubt, happily take advantage of every opportunity to feed off of the essential vitality in any group in which they are allowed to hunt for food, or in which they are allowed to suck, for several meanings of that term.

It may in fact be possible, as I suggest in my thesis, to develop systems within organizations, founded on personal willingness and ability, to develop enabling dialogical environments where confronting inimical others is both possible and constructive; but, doing so very likely will require a strong dynamic archetypal engagement, one which may require intermediaries, mediation of one kind or another. But, it may also require something which I didn’t fully develop in my thesis, and about which I’ve apparently only spoken about in passing elsewhere: enclaving [Look for “enclave” or “enclaving”: see, also, et, et, et]. But, in essence, it may be necessary, not to abandon the project of crossing our thresholds, but to be willing to exclude when necessary those that stand in the way of dialogue in order to have any hope of progress:

“Dynamic balance within dialogical space as part of the dialogic process includes the notion of balance between inclusion and exclusion, a dynamic balance between collective and autonomous principles. This is one of the qualities of the boundary between the circles of engagement. Including the truly inimical is something that can be fatal, so exclusion is an essential function of creating a boundary at the edge of a dialogical environment. In my thinking is the notion of ‘enclaving’ where groups determine their useful and necessary boundaries. But, it’s also essential to the overall dialogical environment that these boundaries, which create enclaves, have the possibility for permeability. It is not necessary to take in the inimical, but it seems necessary to have an open invitation to those willing, and moreover to those that become willing in the future as the dialogic process builds and then permeates the surrounding larger environment, to come willingly into a more interior circle of engagement. Further, it also must remain possible for a group to hive itself off from a larger group when the larger group does not offer an enabling dialogical environment.

Thus a sub-group choosing to enclave with those actually willing can become the catalyst for future change in the larger group because they’ve excluded disabling or inimical entities, until such time as it becomes possible to re-cross their group boundary to further, ongoing inclusion. But, even if it does not happen obviously that further inclusion becomes possible, in the meanwhile the emergence of dialogue can create change in the environments within and without the circles of engagement.” [via a response to a comment]

So, it turns out that I’ve ended up recommending Haugk’s “Antagonists in the Church” to people I care about in every social group I’ve been in since I finally picked up a copy and read it. It is a very quick read, but I think it has the potential for catalyzing some very important conversations within organizations, and perhaps also the potential for helping to develop an environment in which true dialogue can emerge.

While I admitted to a certain loss of faith, if you will, in the necessity for the project; I have had recent occasion to have the seemingly surreal experience of having a social group, in which I was heavily invested but from which I had distanced myself due to disappointment, suddenly have, if you will allow the unexplained irony, a “come to Jesus” moment with Haugk’s book. Apparently, the book has spread like wildfire and it seems that the topic of “Antagonists” will be included within several of the internal organizational development structures of the organization in relatively short order. Huz-freakin-zah!

I had one long time member of that organization echo in a private conversation with me the sentiment expressed by Bonewits, saying “If only I had read this ten years ago, so much pain could have been avoided!”

So, I’ve recommended this book to people in every organization I’ve been in since running into it, and now I’d like to recommend it to you, and to the people in whatever organizations you are in. There’s something that is both seriously validating that comes from reading this material, but also, I hope, and moreover, contained within is something that will catalyze your next step toward both personal and organizational change.

Antagonists in the Church by Kenneth Haugk
Augsburg Books
January, 1988
ISBN: 0806623101 (ISBN-13: 9780806623108)
Paperback, 192 pages