These were questions that the Fellowship for Intentional Community Board wrestled with at its recent semi-annual organizational meetings, held Oct 23-26 at Dancing Rabbit.
FIC has been around for 27 years and is best known for its comprehensive Communities Directory, which was first published as a book in 1990 and continues today both in print and as a searchable online database. We only have three boundaries around being included in the Directory:
a) That you tell the truth (no misrepresentation).
b) That you don't advocate violent practices.
c) That you don't interfere with members freely disassociating from the community if they no longer wish to be a part of it.
While we receive few complaints about listed groups—about 2-4 annually—mostly these amount to someone not liking what a group is doing and urging us to drop their listing based on their personal distaste. If it's nothing more than that we don't act. Our job is not to tell people what they should like; it's to give them options and let them choose for themselves.
However, if the complainant believes that the group has crossed one of our three boundaries above and is willing to stand by their position in a direct communication with the community, then we're willing to open a dialog with the community. Sometimes this amounts to clearing up a misunderstanding, occasionally this leads to a modified listing, and every now and then it leads to our pulling a listing down.
We received a complaint this summer from someone who claimed a listed community had a policy of abusing children in the name of Biblically-inspired discipline, and he was perfectly willing to discuss this with the community.
Realizing that this was not going to be simple to resolve, I brought the issue to the Board.
We had two issues to consider: 1) is the group misrepresenting its practices in its listing; and 2) is it advocating violent practices?
1. What's Happening and Is There Misrepresentation?
The complainant stated that community children are regularly disciplined by adults using reeds or sticks sufficient to raise welts and cause pain, though not enough to break the skin. Investigation shows that there are a number of ex-members who have testified publicly that this occurs. In television interviews, reporters asking for verification of the community's discipline practices are consistently rebuffed. On the one hand current members do not deny the practice, yet neither do they confirm it.
However, further research uncovered a website supported by the community in which the community admits to this practice. That resolved the question of what's happening and that it's a community practice, yet still left open whether there's been misrepresentation because this controversial practice is not mentioned in their listing. It would probably satisfy FIC's standard for honesty if the community explicitly included in their listing that the community condones disciplining children with a reed or switch that inflicts pain.
2. What constitutes violent practices?
When we first articulated our policy about violence, we distinguished between an act committed in the heat of the moment (while it may be no less traumatizing, acts of passion are easier to forgive than a policy of violence—such as regularly siccing attack dogs on unwanted visitors, or threatening people with guns).
Years later, we further refined our position by determining that hate speech is considered violence and grounds for being excluded from our listings. We had not, however, previously come to any conclusions about spanking children.
While a number of FIC Board members found the community's discipline practices personally abhorrent, the community claims that their practice is inspired by Old Testament Bible passages and discipline is done in the name of love. To what extent, if any, is it acceptable that a practice that is otherwise unacceptable be allowed because it's rooted in spiritual interpretation?
We needed to thread the needle around our commitments to: a) nonviolence; b) freedom of spiritual practices; and c) diversity of parenting philosophies. What a pickle!
What's more, one Board member wondered if this approach to discipline—however repugnant it is when considered in isolation—might actually be an effective deterrent to worse practices, helping to keep parents and other adults more disciplined about how they administer discipline. Who knows?
As FIC's main administrator (and the first monkey in the barrel when fielding critical feedback about listings), I needed a position that I could clearly delineate. If we took the view that striking children in the name of discipline was violent, how slippery was that slope? What about communities that take no position about disciplining children, leaving that wholly up to parents (which is what most communities do, so long as practices are acceptable within the eyes of the law)? Were we saying that any community that condoned spanking would be excluded on the basis of violating our boundary around violence? That could be quite a few.
After a thorough discussion we had narrowed our options down to:
Deleting the community on the basis of their advocating violent practices. Some Board members felt this was a straight forward extension of our commitment to nonviolence. As they found the community's discipline practices unacceptable, its listing was unacceptable. If there are other groups that condone striking children in the name of discipline—even implicitly, knowing that it occurs on a regular basis and not acting to stop it—then we should take down their listings as well.
Allowing the listing to continue if modified by the community to explicitly disclose information about their child discipline practices, accompanied by a statement from FIC that we are allowing this listing in the name of diversity and spiritual freedom, even though many of our Board believe this practice to be a form of child abuse. The argument here is that this might do a better job of balancing all the factors in play and it may be a more effective social change strategy because it attempts to educate about the issue, instead of turn our backs to it.
In the end, there was no consensus among the Board about where to draw the line, and it falls to me to do more investigating. By opening up a conversation with the community it may become clearer which way to proceed.
It was one of those moments where I hated the issue and loved the process, and an excellent example of using Board time appropriately—figuring out the best course of action in those awkward moments when our core values don't play nice with each other.