In Season 4 of the early 2000s HBO series Six Feet Under, one of the protagonists, David, is carjacked by an unassuming hitchhiker who winds up exploiting David’s generosity and tortures him before covering him with gas and leaving him beaten and bruised in a Long Beach alley. A few episodes later, David, suffering from PTSD, goes to church and watches a sermon encouraging the congregation to forgive and love their enemies. He imagines the reverend being brutally assaulted by the carjacker, thrown to the ground and a gun pointed to his head, and David leaps up to help before things snap back to reality.
I happened to watch that chain of episodes this week right after I saw the astonishingly bad “Resolving Liberal vs. Conservative Conflict in the Workplace: Lessons from the Rwandan Genocide” webinar sponsored by HomelessLibrary.com. I’d seen the concept of it getting dragged on Twitter some weeks back, and signed up to watch it because I felt it was important to catch what looked like a trainwreck unfolding on a library education platform that has a good deal of influence. Ryan Dowd’s “Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness” has swept the profession in the past few years, mostly with the best of intentions and in some cases with positive results. But there’s also been a significant amount of criticism of Dowd’s approach, including alarmingly sexist language in some of his recommendations. I hope that library leaders take the time to consider the other ideas and advice he’s peddling on his platform, especially after the jaw-droppingly bad session this week.
Dowd wasn’t the main speaker at the talk, but he did share a good amount of the spotlight with the presenter, Carl Wilkens. Wilkens was a missionary working in Rwanda during the genocide and authored a book about being the only American who stayed in the country during it. I don’t want to belittle Wilkens’s pain and trauma, both made very clear in his introduction to the talk, but he should have spent more time interrogating his positionality and privilege before deciding to sell his particular experience as a learning opportunity for others. He kept encouraging us to take a look at what we could learn from Rwandans about forgiveness, but proceeded to talk only about how he leveraged his secure status as a white male American to establish a relationship with some of the most powerful leaders committing genocide. The only Rwandans we heard anything substantial about were the people doing the killing.
Wilkens went whole hog with this idea of reaching out to and forgiving your enemies, presumably even if those people happen to brutally murder your family members. Throughout the talk, he (and Dowd) not only encouraged finding empathy for abusers and murderers, but also telling victims that the onus is on them to re-establish relationships with those that have hurt them (“the victim does well to examine gratitude and cynicism”). Wilkens talked about considering the relationship between God and a man who had murdered multiple people during the genocide, musing about the importance of considering what the murderer was going through. I asked a question that was answered live on air about how safe it is to advise a room full of public servants to “reach across the aisle” or “sit at the table” with violent people, and Dowd informed us that violence is overblown by the media and we shouldn’t be as worried about it as we are. This would have been a tough hang even if it hadn’t happened a week after January 6 and we didn’t currently have National Guard troops sleeping on the floors of the Capitol, but this kind of dismissal coming when it did was shocking.
There were several times when wearing a MAGA hat and having a BLM pin or “being antifa” were equated with one another. There was a lot of “good people on all sides” talk – the whole “there are no good guys and no bad guys” sort of thing. Wilkens and Dowd, two white men, agreed it’s cynical to say someone is a racist, and apparently that all of us who are distancing ourselves from harmful, hateful people (especially if they’ve directly hurt us) are “cynics.” Dowd said the words “it’s not okay if you yell at people; it’s not okay if you commit genocide” while he was describing why we should separate our judgment of a person’s “goodness or badness” from their behavior. At one point, Wilkens suggested we engage in a service project outside the workplace with colleagues we disagree with. As a friend quipped, “oh great, an MLK service day with your racist co-workers.”
Wilkens had a multi-step methodology he was trying to explain during the webinar, but it was exceedingly difficult to pay attention to it given the constant gaslighting, victim blaming, and white privilege. We got “sent home” with a booklet that advises us to stop being so cynical, journal about our emotions, avoid defining people with the one thing we don’t like about them (even if it’s that they murder people or want to destabilize the government), find the good in everyone, focus on shared goals, and “find the deeper why.” This was targeted at resolving workplace conflict among colleagues and some of it is fine within that limited context–considering the most significant workplace conflicts at libraries are often not the ones between coworkers–but why was it wrapped up in the Rwandan genocide? Why was the graphic for this a jacked up blue donkey and a ripped red elephant threatening fisticuffs?
Some of the audience members were eating it up, if the Q&A was any indication. One person quipped that their friends and colleagues “seem to take pleasure in popping people for racist or insensitive remarks.” A handful of participants kept saying we needed to show this training to everyone in the U.S. government. The organizers turned off the chat on Zoom, but people were still using the Q&A function to express this appreciation.
I felt exhausted and ashamed to be in the field after I watched this. Some folks on Twitter called it “peak male whiteness in the library” and I’ll say it probably was, and I’m only saying probably because there’s enough of this baseline logic, plus rapid reproduction of shitty ideas, in our profession that there may well be something worse out there. If anything comes out of this “training,” I hope it’s what I said before, that libraries look a little harder at what Ryan Dowd is selling before they buy it. Turning the other cheek no matter what seems like a good way to eventually get shot in the face.