Advocates Need More Relational Literacy
All injustices—such as racism, patriarchy, animal exploitation, environmental degradation, and domestic abuse—share a common denominator.
This common denominator is relational dysfunction, or dysfunctional ways of relating: to other individuals, between social groups, and to nonhuman animals and the environment.
Given that relational dysfunction is a common denominator driving injustices, a common denominator in ending these problems is building relational literacy, the understanding of and ability to practice healthy ways of relating.
In many ways, relational dysfunction is a metaproblem (an overarching problem that drives other problems) facing our world today. So relational literacy is a metasolution.
Relational literacy isn’t the only solution to ending injustice, but it’s a fundamental part of all other solutions. If we want to end injustice, we need to change the way we relate.
All of us working toward creating a more just world—for humans, animals, or the environment—are, in fact, working toward the same goal. Whatever our specific mission, we all share the same metamission—to create a more relational world. If we’re not aware of this metamission, we can and often do adopt attitudes and behaviors that prevent us from moving closer to this ultimate goal.
Relational dysfunction is widespread, because most people have not learned how to build relational literacy. So perhaps not surprisingly, relational dysfunction is a key cause of infighting.
Injustice is a relational problem
In general, we tend to look at injustice through the lens of politics, sociology, economics, or philosophy.
But if we want to bring about full and lasting transformation, we also need to look at injustice through the lens of relationships. The research of relational cultural theorists, among others, shows that, at a deep level, injustice is a relational phenomenon.
Think about it: if our collective level of relational literacy weren’t so low, if we weren’t still living in the relational dark ages, we wouldn’t elect relationally dysfunctional leaders or support relationally dysfunctional policies.
The formula for healthy relating
Relational literacy is informed by a number of principles and tools, but all are based on the formula for healthy relating.
This formula applies to all interactions and relationships, including to how we relate collectively (as social groups), interpersonally (to other people), to nonhuman animals and the environment, and even to ourselves (through, for example, our self-talk and the choices we make that impact our future selves).
It also applies to how we communicate, since communication is the primary way we relate.
In a healthy interaction or relationship, we practice integrity and honor dignity. This leads to a greater sense of connection and security.
Integrity is the alignment of our behaviors with our core moral values of compassion and justice. We practice integrity when we act according to these values.
Put simply, when we practice integrity, we treat others the way we would want to be treated if we were in their position; we treat them with respect.
Dignity is our sense of inherent worth. When we honor someone’s dignity, we perceive and treat them as no less worthy of being treated with respect than anyone else.
The spectrum of healthy relating
Like most things in life, relating isn’t an all-or-nothing phenomenon. It exists on a spectrum. Rarely is an interaction or relationship fully healthy or dysfunctional. Rather, it’s more or less so.
On the healthy side of the spectrum are relational attitudes and behaviors. On the dysfunctional, or unhealthy, side are nonrelational attitudes and behaviors. Nonrelational behaviors violate integrity and harm dignity, leading to a sense of insecurity and disconnection.
All behaviors and all systems are on this relational health spectrum. A system is an entity made up of two or more individuals, such as a couple, a family, an organization, or a social movement. A relational system is one in which its members practice the formula for healthy relating and therefore feel more secure and connected.
A nonrelational system is the opposite. Nonrelational systems are oppressive systems, such as racism, genderism, and carnism. A nonrelational system can also be a dysfunctional workplace or an abusive relationship. These systems are structured to create and grow an imbalance of power among the individuals within them.
Think about a relationship in your life that you feel is good. Chances are the other person practices integrity in their interactions with you and honors your dignity: you feel that they see you as no less worthy of being treated with respect than anyone else, and you feel secure and connected with them.
Now think of a relationship in your life that’s not good. Chances are the other person violates their integrity when they interact with you: they don’t treat you with respect, nor do they seem to perceive you as worthy of respect. And you probably feel a sense of insecurity and disconnection in your relationship with them.
Relational literacy and resilience
Resilience is the ability to withstand and bounce back from stress. A system is resilient when its proponents relate to each other relationally, in ways that increase their sense of security and connection. And the more resilient a system is, the more impactful it is.
Think about how you feel in a group, or in any system that you’re a part of. When you feel secure and connected with others within a system, your productivity probably increases, you feel a sense of agency and belief in yourself, and you want to support the others’ efforts. You feel motivated and inspired, and more able and willing to practice integrity—to align your behavior with your values.
In contrast, when you feel insecure and disconnected from the other(s) within that system, you’re probably less willing to listen to their ideas, share your own ideas (for fear of being put down), try new things (for fear of being judged), support them, and so on.
The more we build relational literacy, the less infighting we’ll experience and the more resilient and impactful our groups and movements for justice will be.