Thursday, November 12, 2015

Getting Beyond Shouting Each Other Down and Shutting Each Other Out

Principles for Developing an Effective, Intersectional C/S/X Movement [draft, in progress, comments welcome]

Part I. The Necessity of Addressing Multiple Truths

A. Shouting Each Other Down

As mad people, our hallmark is that...

  • We have diverse beliefs and perspectives among us
  • We tend to believe strongly what we believe
  • We tend to believe strongly in our right to believe it

Think about it.  If this weren't the case - if we didn't care deeply about our truths, we would never get locked up in the first place.  Instead, the first time someone said to us, "If you don't change your tune and start behaving rationally we are going to lock you up", our truth would go out the window.

In other words, the reason we that many of us judged crazy in the first place is - for many of us - a matter of core values and personal principle.  We have truths - feelings, intuitions, thoughts, beliefs about the nature of reality - that are

  1. unique (or at least non-'normative');
  2. deeply important or meaningful at the personal level; and
  3. not negotiable to some basic part of the 'primal being' that controls how we express ourselves   

 This effectively answers the Rodney King question: Why can’t we all get along?  

It also begs the question:

     How can we build a movement when there is: 

  1. So much that we see differently; and 
  2. So much passion around the differences that we do have?  

Implications/ Challenges:

1. Pragmatic:  

If we continue to simply attack each other - rather than learn how to build on the strengths of our differences - we will kill our energy and effectiveness for change.  We will also lose the benefits of our naturally diverse humanity  - including the added capacity and learning potential that this represents.

2. Political/ Historical: 

Psychiatric oppression is all about conflict and what happens when worldviews collide. Dominant culture ‘truths’ - like medical model psychiatry - are accorded a status of power, privilege and social validity.  In contrast, truths that are considered unique to individuals and our lived (‘personal’) experiences are dismissed or degraded.

Equally important, the dominant paradigm privileges certain social roles - like psychiatrists - to evaluate and overrule the truths of others.  In the medical model paradigm, doctors hold the ultimate power to determine mental truth.  Everyone else -- including identified ‘patients’, natural supports (friends, family, neighbors, co-workers) and other professional disciplines (psychologists, social workers, psych techs, police, judges, teachers) -- is expected to defer to the presumption of psychiatric expertise.  This is true even if the psychiatrist has only an hour (often much less!) experience with us on the worst day of our lives and others have known us for a life time.

In this paradigm, when disagreements arise, the normative cultural values win.  So does the person with social role that tops the cultural privilege hierarchy. As a practical matter, this means that the conversation stops the moment someone with relative social power - like family, police or a mental health provider - feels uncomfortable.  At that point, the privileged actor assumes their ‘rightful’ position as the ‘higher authority’ on true versus false.  Backed by normative privilege, the usual outcome is that their butt ends up on the protected side of the syringe, totally covered.

In contrast, the individual truth has no such comfort.  Having conflicted with socially privileged viewpoints or roles, its ass ends up on the pointy side of syringe - totally exposed and about to be needled.

The effect of these power dynamics on authentic human relationship is devastating.  Few people dare speak truth to power, and when we do, it is at our peril.  The rest of society sees what happens to us, and becomes even more compliant.  Allegiance is pledged with great fanfare to the dominant culture viewpoints. People hide or change their natural diversity in order to fit in.  Disagreement goes underground and is avoided or minimized whenever possible.

All of this gives the appearance uniformity and agreement.  Human relations look pretty and go smoothly on the surface. This in turn makes even minor questioning seem aberrational and alarming. Dissenters are met with harsh judgment and given reason to regret it.

The resulting dynamic is self-reinforcing for those in privileged roles.  Things routinely go their way. Aggressive enforcement of social norms is protected and rewarded. Contradictions are suppressed and easily disposed of. All of this reinforces their assumption that the dominant viewpoint is good, right and producing the best world possible.

In this social climate, honest exploration of human diversity in thought, feeling, expression and action becomes all but impossible.

To create real social change, we have to stop this vicious cycle. We need to balance the power between individual and social truth. We also need to challenge the cultural attitudes that privilege some actors and marginalize others based on demographic and/ or ideologic alliances.  This requires finding a principled alternative for understanding and approaching human differences.


  • This analysis draws heavily on the work of Shery Mead and Chris Hansen of Intentional Peer Support,, and Tina Minkowitz of the Center for Users and Survivors of Psychiatry, chrusp,org.  Taken together, their work articulates the lion's share of the relational and human rights principles we rely on here. 

B. Shutting Each Other Out

Some new vocabulary:

  • Appropriation of Voice

At all levels of society, including business, academics, organizations and families, those in positions of relative social power seem to believe they have the right to speak on behalf of those who have less of it.  Everywhere we look, those at the top of conventional power hierarchies are freely appropriating the voices of those lower on the totem pole.  They are speaking to and for the needs of others.  They are deciding what is good for us and our families.  They are deciding what policies and positions are necessary, good and right for all sorts of us without ever having to be troubled to talk people of our sort.   They are deciding, literally, the directions and fate of organizations in which hundreds, thousands, even millions of us have invested our efforts, trust or lives without one wit of socially enforceable obligation to to even give a rip.  

  • Confabulated Representation

The decisions toppers make affect us every day and in every way.  Their whims affect - and radically alter - the quality of our jobs, well-being, housing, healthcare, food, environment, relationships - everything we hold dear.  Yet, under the topper rule of “toppers rule’ , toppers are largely free to do this without ever having spoken a word to us, without acknowledging our opinions as relevant, without knowing - or caring - that we exist.   To the extent that toppers claim to be speaking on our behalf in these circumstances, their actions have more in common with fraud than genuine social service.

  • Iatrogentic Leadership

The toppers rule is great for toppers -- but often devastating for everyone else.  The result is to amplify the voice, legitimacy and power that toppers already have, while effecting political and social death for the sorry-lotted rest of us.  This perpetuates - rather than alleviates- the oppression of those who are so ‘led’.

  • Organizational Guardianship

As ‘toppees’, we are considered subject to the topper’s lawfully-permitted hierarchical rule.  Vast realms of human concern are left to their discretion.  Apart from bare minimums, like paychecks, contracts or physical violence, toppees have virtually no say, no voice, no right to complain, no lawful recourse.  The social assumption is that toppers know best - no matter how outrageously we are disregarded, degraded or damaged.

While not recognised as such in many contexts, the conventionally accepted ‘toppers rule’ has much in common with the historic practice of 'guardianship’  in mental health.  In both practices, those with social power are deemed entitled to ‘substitute’ their judgment for those with less power.  The practical effect - as many have noted - is the political and social death of those represented.

Where Have All Our Voices Gone? 

Whether their funding source is public, philanthropic or for-profit, mental health organizations represent that that their purpose is to improve the lives of those who have been psychiatrically labeled.  Yet, those of us who have been psychiatrically labeled are rarely, if ever, consulted about how funds intended for our benefit should be used.

To the contrary, decisions typically are made by a privileged few (managers, directors, policymakers, clinicians) who determine - about us without us - what we need and how to get it.  This thwarts our access to the respect, dignity, meaningful voice and active participation that are essential to the personal and political self-determination of any oppressed people.

Repeating the trauma of psychiatry

The de facto practice of organizational guardianship re-enacts the essential trauma and oppression that mad people have experienced at the hands of psychiatry since its inception. The essential dynamic is one wherein a few designated 'experts' who 'know' are deemed entitled to substitute their judgment of what is in our 'best interests.'

It comes from the mistaken assumption that some people ‘know’ better than others what is ‘good’ for them.  Yet, the very social characteristics that qualify people as ‘the ones who know best’ are things like family standing, position in society, employment roles and academic credentials. These roles - and the people in them - historically have been part of the problem, not the solution, in our lives.

They were part of the existing power structure when our oppression started, yet they did nothing to stop it and may have actively used it to strip our rights.

Moreover, the same social roles that those in higher roles (toppers) now say entitle them to decide what is good for those in lesser roles (toppees) arguably are what created the social structures that oppress so many of us in the first place.  We think the conventional practice of classifying people into hierarchical categories of social worth is a big part of the problem.  It both reifies the construct of a social underclass, and validates the relative social privilege of topper roles vis-a-vis toppee roles.

These dynamics reinforce the social attitudes that perpetuate the continued vulnerability to labelling and marginalization by ‘toppers’ of ‘toppees.’

Peer-on-peer oppression and opportunism

Many people see paid peer roles and so-called peer-run organizations as signs of progress.  However, very few of these organizations actually represent the interests of the larger peer communities the claim to serve.  For the most part, these organizations continue to make the same hierarchical role distinctions - paid/ unpaid/ manager/ worker/ volunteer/ recipient - as traditional organizations.

Many peer organizations also adopt and perpetuate the same dominant culture attitudes and practices that inspired the mad rights movement in the first place. Hence, in far too many cases, the major difference between peer and non-peer services is that it is us doing it to us - and then calling it social progress because we got paid to do it.

To many of us, however, this does not look like social progress.  We suspect, in actuality, it is more akin to the psychiatric equivalent of plantation overseers and house slaves.  While some may disagree, to our way of thinking, this is about the system finding a way perpetuate the same social order for less money -- by using our people to run it and then laughing at us all the way to the bank.

It is also about needing to make a living and support a family and having no better options.  It is about socio-economic conditions that make us so desperate that we stoop to oppressing each other in return for the proverbial pat on the head and a piece of institution-shaped pie.

Appropriation of Opportunity in the Name of Advocacy 

This guardianship dynamic is even more painful when it manifests in the so-called advocacy organizations that purport to work on our behalf.  These people have jobs because mad people paid the price.  We advocated tirelessly for countless years without compensation to bring our oppression to social awareness.

Now so-called advocates make a living from our cause. They say they are working for us - that they represent us and our best interests. They give away our rights - and decide what we can live with.

Yet, they make no meaningful effort to reach out to us, engage us, ask what we want or what would make our lives better.  They consider it our responsibility to seek them out if we want to have a voice with them on our own issues.

In what other business could you operate this way?  It’s like:  You hear a rumor that Joe Peer needs help. So you write up a grant, get Uncle Sam to fund it, do what you feel like doing, collect a paycheck every week and then tell everybody what a sad case Joe Peer is and how much he loves what you are doing for him.  Uncle Sam keeps the paychecks coming.  No one knows you’ve never even met Joe Peer. This is self-promotion not advocacy.  It’s also fraud.  

Do You Have Authority to Exercise Authority? 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes clear that authority for governance derives from the governed.  The Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities expressly rejects a ‘guardianship’ approach to governance. (Art. 12).  Thus, appointed leaders may not simply substitute their judgment for that of the constituency they claim to serve.  Rather, they may only represent individuals who have requested their assistance.  Moreover, the scope of their authority is to ascertain and support the 'rights, will and preferences' of any such persons.

Let’s be clear here: So far as a lot of us are concerned:  We didn’t ask you. You don’t know us.  You make your living catering to the system that oppresses us. You are abusing your power and calling it ‘help’. If don’t see how that’s happening or your part in it, you’ve just proved our point. 

Part II: A Human Rights Framework for Finding Common Ground Across Multiple Truths

Historically and intuitively psychiatric survivors have drawn on human rights principles to validate and articulate our concerns in  the dominant culture.  We can draw on this same framework - and it's profound, radical, socially transformative implications - to overcome the challenges that exist among us and to find common ground for connecting across them.

Part A: Core Principles for Negotiating Multiple Truths (from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [UDHR] of 1948): 

  • We are all equal in dignity and rights.  (Art. 1)

Dignity means that we all have inherent worth and value.  It further hope for mutuality and developing shared vision. In effect, dignity says, “By virtue of the fact that we are both human beings, I trust that there is something about each other that we will find we both value.”

Respect for human rights means that we all share in the birthright of cultural regard - simply by the fact of being human.  In this sense, rights are not essentially an individual concept, but rather something we hold in trust for each other.

At core, rights are really about human needs.  They reflect the consensus of the human community that some needs are so important that no one does well without them.

  • We are endowed with reason and conscience.  (Art. 1) 

Reason means we are all capable of learning from our experiences.  We can recognize cause and effect.  We can use what we already know to make new connections that lead to new awareness.
Conscience means that, by nature, human beings are caring animals. We can get beyond self-interest and take into account how our actions affect others.  We are inspired by values - and prioritize some over others - based on our lived experiences.

  • We are members of a human family and should treat each other that way (Art. 1)

Family is what we want to come home to.   It means having each other’s backs instead of stabbing someone in the back.  As human family, we support each other to access to the material, social and developmental resources that everyone needs to live and be well.  

According the UDHR, recognizing these principles is key. They represent our hope for foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.   They can help us create a world that this is free from fear and want. (Preamble.)

Bringing about this new world order is the highest aspiration of humankind. We are all charged with a non-delegable responsibility to become aware of these principles, promote them, and to work for a world where they are respected and realized by everyone everywhere. (Preamble, Art. 29)

Part B: Core Tasks for Finding Common Ground: 

  • Meeting each other as human beings instead of from positions of power and privilege

This necessitates moving beyond thinking of 'peer' status as something that derives from mental health or organizational roles.  Rather, our essential 'peerness' is a function of our shared humanity, our common birthright as human beings, and the common needs, challenges and aspirations this implies.

The long-term implications of failing to do negotiate through our differences are dramatic and dire.
As human beings, we have inherited a 10,000 year legacy of intergenerational trauma, including literally centuries cultural and relational wounding from the dynamics of predator-prey.

Thus, our collective need for healing and transformation is vast.  The alternative to this is to continue on our current course of traumatic reactivity.  If allowed to continue uninterrupted, the latter is our ticket to mutually assured destruction - as a species and a planet.

  • Finding ways to communicate and integrate our multiple truths

The alternative to mutually assured destruction is finding a way to make our differences work for us instead of against us. Our differences stem from our natural diversity and contribute to our robustness as a species.  Our hope of doing this necessitates learning to listen for gifts and strengths - instead of threats and faults.  It also entails learning to get beyond factual details and listen for the core meanings and values that we are trying to get across to each other.

The idea of listening for meanings (instead of 'just the facts maam') comes out of Hearing Voices Movement.  They insist that voices are real and must be taken seriously.  At a minimum, there are two important implications of this:

  1. Voices (people) wouldn’t be bothering to communicate unless there was something they a lot cared about. This is therefore is worth others of goodwill and conscience paying attention to.
  2. Moreover, the bigger the feelings, the more intense the reaction, the more deeply (we should assume) that voices (people) care about being heard.  This is therefore is worth others of goodwill and conscience holding in increasingly high regard, versus writing off as too biased, unbalanced or 'crazy'.    

Beyond this, there are pragmatic reasons to learn to listen for meanings and metaphor.  Moreover, this is true for a broad variety of human conversations, not just 'mad' ones.

Learning to listen for meanings and metaphor helps us to find shared values and interests that we can build on to bridge human differences.  From there, we can explore options and resources for getting where we want to go.  In the end, these understandings will support us to develop a shared vision that includes what is most important to each person; and doesn't include anything that someone just can’t live with.

To do this, however, we have to stay in conversation long enough to get to really know each other. There will probably be a lot of discomfort and uncertainty along the way.   When this comes up, it can help if we focus on trying to really ‘see’ where the other person is coming from,  We also can focus on listening to understand instead of just trying to make our point. (Shery Mead, Chris Hansen, Intentional Peer Support).

The critical meta-task in all of this (from Shery Mead of Intentional Peer Support)  is learning to continually hold the following question in mind as we’re listening and sharing:  How is what I am saying, thinking or doing here contributing to the quality of the relationship that I would like to build?

Resourcing our Development: 

There are several useful approaches/ human resources available to us for learning how to do this, including:

  • Intentional Peer Support (Shery Mead, Chris Hansen, Steven Morgan, Eva Dech), 
  • eCPR (Dan Fisher, Lauren Spiro, Ann Rider, Oryx Cohen) 
  • Hearing Voices Movement (Intervoice, US Hearing Voices Network, Western Mass RLC)
  • Icarus Project (Sasha DeBrul, Jacks Ashley McNamara, Will Hall)
  • Non-Violent Communication (Marshall Rosenberg, Phil Shulman) 
  • Asset Based Community Development (Eva Dech), 
  • Appreciative Inquiry (who knows this well?).  

Part C: Core Strategies for Finding Common Ground 

Some principles we could stand on together:

  1. We speak for ourselves.
  2. The expertise we value is lived experience.  
  3. The value of experience by training (about populations and norms - developed about people without them - is determined by end users.  End users are privileged to decide, on a case by case basis, whether and to what extent so-called normative data applies and/ or make sense to them in the context of their real lives. 
  4. The role of allies and supporters is to facilitate our quest - individually and collectively - for self-determination. 
    • We don’t expect others to be our servants.  
    • But they also do not get to pressure us, decide for us or to substitute their vision or experience for ours. 
    • Rather, the intention is to listen and learn. Should others choose, they can also use their power to open doors - when that is the way we decide we want to go. 
  5. The authority of those in positions of trust derives from the people they claim to represent.  
  6. To be valid, representation requires:
    • making every effort to find and engage every single person who falls within the constituency that is claimed to be represented.  
    • consulting all of us directly.
    • getting to know us well enough to understand what we care about as human beings
    • accurately representing our diverse needs, values and viewpoints on a public and policy level
    • actively working to incorporate the core essence of what we care about into every negotiation that affects our wellbeing, whether directly or indirectly 
    • making absolutely clear who you were not able to reach - or reach agreement with 
    • being extremely clear that your representation does not extend to those particular people or groups. 


  • Thank you Tina Minkowitz, Pat Risser, Eva Dech, Dan Hazen, Lauren Tenney, Darby Penney, George Ebert and so many others for insisting that the core issues in our movement are matters of human rights, not matters of medicine, and can and should be conceptualized as such.  
  • Thank you Shery Mead, Chris Hansen and Intentional Peer Support for proposing a clear, practical, principled relational vision of how we can do this. 

Part III: Exploring and Finding A Common Vision

Some questions we could ask each other:

  1. What do you care about most?
  2. What social attitudes, practices, policies, or barriers do you personally find most distressing or destructive to your well being?
  3. What social changes (attitudes, practices, policies, access to resources) would, if realized,  most contribute to your personal well-being? 
  4. In your lived experience, what contributes most distress or crisis for you?
  5. What relational qualities of human beings are most harmful or damaging?
  6. What other kinds of issues most contribute to or exacerbate distress or crisis for you?
  7. What helps the most when you are vulnerable on in distress?  
  8. What relational qualities that human beings have or could offer are most important? 
  9. What other kinds of support do or could help the most in trying to move forward?


  • Mary Ellen Copeland, Wellness Recovery Action Planning,
  • Shery Mead/ Chris Hansen, Intentional Peer Support (Focus Plan),

Part IV: Developing a Plan & Making It Real

Some questions we could ask each other:

  1. What could we do - individually and collectively - to move toward this vision between now and when we get together next year? 
  2. What do you personally feel most passionate about trying to achieve between now and when we meet again next year?
  3. How, specifically, do you want to work on this? 
    • What tasks are you willing to do?
    • How much time do you have for this work & how often?
    • Where will you do it?
    • With whom?
    • What first is your first step?
    • When will you take it?
  4. What support do you need from each others to do this work?
    • What gifts, strengths, know-how, resources do you need access to? 
    • Who is willing to help? 
    • How much can they help?
    • How can you get / stay in touch with them? 
  5. How will we stay connected and keep accountable to our vision during the upcoming year?
    • What ways do you like to connect/ work on stuff? 
    • How much time do you have for connecting around this work & how often?
    • What are gifts, strengths, know-how, access to resources are you willing/ able to contribute to stuff other people are working on?
    • What a
    • venues or social media do you most like to use?
    • What do you want others to do if you disappear or seem to go off track?
    • Who do you want to hear from and what should they say or do?


  • Mary Ellen Copeland, Wellness Recovery Action Planning,
  • Shery Mead/ Chris Hansen, Intentional Peer Support (Focus Plan),

About This Document:

This document came together as a result of conversations between: Lauren Tenney (; Eva Dech (; and Sarah Knutson (  It expresses our lived experience and hopes for the future. With regard to lived experience, this includes not only our painful experiences resulting dominant culture oppression, but also from the ways our movement has reflected the dominant culture and perpetuated the same kinds of harmful dynamics around power and privilege that led to our labeling by psychiatry in the first place.  Our hope here is to state our concerns, raise consciousness, generate discussion and find a principled way forward to a world that is worthy of our hearts and minds, and that, potentially, we all might want to live in.  

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