Challenging Toxic Cultural Norms: Shifting From Solely Thinking and Adding Feelings

Challenging Toxic Cultural Norms: Shifting from solely thinking and adding feelings.
By Layel Camargo

As a culture shifter from punishment to accountability, I have become familiar to some cultural norms that make it almost impossible for individuals to transform their harmful behavior. I have been consciously and intentionally supporting the practice of accountability for a humble 3 years now, which has mainly been through my involvement with the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective. Through this work I’ve been approached by bystanders, survivors and people who have harmed alike.

In politically engaged communities, when supporting people who have caused harm, it has become clear to me that we are unequipped to respond to incidents of harm and violence in our liberatory organizing spaces/communities. Regardless of how politicized our communities are we simply fall short in one way or another at how we respond to these incidents. I have yet to understand the totality of why our movements have shortcomings at responding to incidents of violence and harm. However, I strongly believe that there are cultural norms established by imperialistic, colonial and capitalistic ideals that have seeped there way into our movements and contribute to these shortcomings.

what do we do when intimate partner violence exists in our collectives? what do we do when community organizers verbally abuse each other? what happens when the people we march the streets with, hurt the people we are fighting for? how do we continue our liberatory work when our comrades abuse and harm each other?

Imagining and feeling the responses to questions like these will help us understand not the specifics of how to respond but what cultural norms exist in our movements that hinder the possibility of creative and innovative responses outside of the prison industrial complex. This is where I believe our liberatory work needs to move. When talking to folks who are seeking to be accountable in their communities the narrative is more often than not the same, “I tried to find support in my community but …” followed by some explanation of how they were ignored/there wasn’t capacity for them to be accountable or told to literally or figuratively leave the community.

Being accountable for harm or violence does not require a collective of people to respond but responding alone is neither radical nor new. This is why it pains me to accept that in our movements, we struggle to foster relationships that will show up for each other when we are seeking to be accountable or need support when we are victimized. For example, as a college student I was in an abusive intimate relationship that escalated to physical violence that was visible to our community members and comrades. Even though, my ex and I met in an organizing space and at the time were seen as leaders in our community, at the time I struggled to find one person who could validate the ways I was victimized. If finding validation was difficult for me I doubt my ex had space to process and transform her behavior. How does this dismissal of violence happen? What are the unspoken cultural norms that we have accepted in our movements that make ignoring violence so prevalent?

Unfortunately, in our fast paced world the opportunity to practice compassion and humanity feels unaccessible and overwhelming, and our liberatory work is not exempt from that fast pace of life. This is one of the reasons why we rely heavily on fast thinking and less feeling, it’s what keeps us moving forward. And even though our radical communities are politicized we have allowed what I have come to call, toxic cultural norms to saturate the foundation of our movements. These toxic cultural norms such as individualism, professionalism, disposability, fear of scarcity, binary thinking, competition, criminalization, othering and many more, do not allow us to be creative or innovative in responding to violence and harm within our movement/liberatory work. Thus perpetuating the lack of practice for compassion and humanity and in my experience we don’t respond any better because we’re politicized, we respond better when we hold compassion and humanity during incidents of violence and harm. This is one of the biggest struggles of my work as a culture shifter and this is our work as movers and shakers against the prison industrial complex.

In no way am I saying that we must stop the encouragement of analysis or fast thinking, because it is this practice that has liberated many of us and interrupted the generational imperialistic, colonial and capitalistic brainwashing. However I do want to emphasize that the ideals of such oppressive systems are not only ideals but are cultural norms that we have accepted and negotiate constantly. The reliance on analysis and fast thinking alone will not liberate us and will not dismantle toxic cultural norms that harm us and perpetuate violence. It’s the allowance and permission we give each other to feel the pain, grief, sorrow, joy, confusion, guilt and many more of emotions that occur at our most difficult of times.

It is especially important that during difficult times it’s important to ask questions like: Why do I feel like I have to face my problems alone? Why do I want to cover up my actions when I hurt someone else? Why can’t I accept that I hurt someone as much as they hurt me? Who am I if I am harmed and have harmed? I think that in order for us to strengthen our movements we must begin to look at the cultural norms we have unconsciously accepted that limit our ability, time and space to feel.

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