Nonviolent Communication is for the Privileged

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by Raffi Marhaba

I am a lover of words. I speak 7 languages, hold a BA in Translation, write and perform poetry and am deeply fascinated with the power and impact of language. When I first heard of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), I was curious and intrigued about it, especially because it was becoming so popular among some of the activists I engage with.

As someone who has done primarily nonviolent forms of activism, it made sense to pick up Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall B. Rosenberg. Like anything I commit to learning, I also heavily critique it. Although high-risk (nonviolent) activism has been at the center of my work, I have written about how “Direct Action is for the Privileged,” and nonviolent communication is not a special case that doesn’t deserve to be critiqued.  

The process of reading the book brought up a lot of feelings. And I sat with those feelings. For every chapter I tried to be as open as I could, taking notes of things I thought were positive and applicable to someone with my background, experiences and identities. When I finished the book, I realized very little of it seemed applicable to me.

“Embellishing language with neo-liberal-feel-good words doesn’t actually investigate root issues and changes behaviors.”

Now, let me say that I’m happy that it added some improvement to my style of communication and I’m also very critical of the damages this style can cause. Here’s 7 reasons why I found that NVC is for the privileged.

  1. It reduces people to a homogeneous block. The author doesn’t take into account that people come from all sorts of different backgrounds, have cultural differences and express things in a plethora of ways. There’s an assumption that we all start from the same place (and thus can “end” in the same place) and all value similar “universal” things. The problem with universal is that it doesn’t work for everybody and to erase those differences is like saying “I don’t see color.” The concept of universal also tends to consist of things that white, cis, hetero, able-bodied folks see as universal.
  2. It’s victim-blaming. “We deny responsibility for our actions when we attribute their cause to factors outside ourselves.”; “We can replace language that implies lack of choice with language that acknowledges choice,” are just a few examples of the foundational idea in the book that we, and only we are the ones in control and are responsible for doing all the labor. While I may agree with those statements for small interpersonal issues of communication, they read to me as an attempt to deny that the environment we live in and all sorts of external factors also determine our actions. Surely we are the ones externalizing our actions, however, factors outsides ourselves can sometimes be much bigger and powerful than us, thus not leaving us with much of a choice. It’s dangerous and violent to ask victims to investigate why things happened the way they did by looking at their actions rather than focusing on and trying to change systemic issues by highlighting perpetrators.
  3. It’s classist. It assumes all people have access to language in the same way and hypervalues people who have more awareness of grammar, word choices and sintaxe construction. After reading the book I engaged in many NVC opportunities to test it out.

    I found myself frustrated because of the hyperattention and hypervigilance of NVC practitioners, which translates to “If you’re not meeting my standards, then you’re failing at NVC,” and the discussions ended up being more about why I chose XYZ word rather than actually addressing the issues.Although my English is fluent and technical in a variety of subjects, native speakers do have a different access to their mother-tongue than non-native speakers do. Any linguist will tell you that it’s not just language that matters, but its context, cultural experiences and the environment. For someone like me, who has lived most of their life in a Latinx culture and is biracial Arab, English comes to me with all those layers. The choosing of a word may not be indicative of a particular problematic behavior but rather a product of the so many layers that form our own individual expression.
  4. It doesn’t embrace nonverbal communication. There’s a lot of debate on the percentage humans use for verbal vs nonverbal communication. Nonetheless, everyone agrees that nonverbal communication is a crucial part of how we communicate. I’m interested in how NVC could work in conjunction with nonverbal communication and not substitute it or dismiss it. The word “nonverbal” appears only 4 times in the entire book and not in contexts that honor its importance.
  5. It gives the oppressor the tools to appear more loving, kind, and thus morally superior, while not having to do any work on the actions that precedes language. Embellishing language with neo-liberal-feel-good words doesn’t actually investigate root issues and changes behaviors.

    In the article “
    Nonviolent Communication can be Emotionally Violent,” the author writes:

    For instance, an NVC advocate with power over someone might say in response to a conflict with that person: I can see that this interaction is very difficult for you. I’m sensing a lot of anger. I’m saddened that your experiences with authority figures have been so negative. (Expectant pause). I think you are experiencing a lot of anger right now, is that right?
    That is not ok. When you have power over someone, it is abusive to pressure them to discuss their intimate feelings rather than the thing they object to in your behavior towards them. Emotional intimacy requires consent; it is not ok to force it on someone as a way of deflecting conflict. And when you have a lot of power over someone and they aren’t in a position to assert a boundary unilaterally, you have a much greater obligation to be careful about consent.
  6. It’s another way to capitalize on things that already exist. White people have a gift when it comes to capitalizing on and appropriating ideas and practices from PoC’s – from veganism to Yoga, from Shamanism to music, the list is infinite. NVC was practiced in so many activist circles I’ve been part of since I was 13, without it being called NVC. Community agreements such as the following are a way of practicing nonviolent communication:
    Speak from I statements
    Avoid making generalizations
    Listen to understand
    Connect with and identify our feelings
    Communicate compassionately

    From Buddhists to freedom fighters, people have been communicating nonviolently in all sorts of ways, ways in which I personally feel more connected to.
  7. It claims to work for systemic issues. The entire book feels like a big marketing campaign that sells NVC at every chapter. The most dangerous ad is claiming that NVC can be used to fix world and systemic problems, such as racism. It almost feels like that Heineken ad or that Pepsi ad, where all we need to do is just talk to each other in a respectful way and ta-da… 30 minutes of NVC solved racism!

    Multi-million companies already know that this idea appeals to well-intended (and I’m rolling my eyes a bit here) people who want to see a better world, aka liberals, this is why such ads exist. But my main concern is when social justice organizations fall into that trap and start relying on band-aid strategies rather than shaking up the foundations of centuries of oppression. Violence is never my first to-go suggestion, however there’s a fundamental difference between the violence of the oppressed and the violence of the oppressor.

In conclusion, NVC can be a useful tool to resolve interpersonal conflict, to explore what our feelings mean, to take accountability for our actions, to improve ourselves and the way we communicate and it can also be a dangerous and violent tool that allows for people in power to feel good about themselves while benefiting from oppressed people.

Raffi is a trans nonbinary (they pronouns) vegan animal liberation activist, proud Arab, co-founder of Collectively Free, art director, poet, DJ in some past life and most importantly… a big dreamer who makes things happen.