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Dialectical Thinking, Love Ethics, and Enduring a Strike

Dialectical Thinking, Love Ethics, and Enduring a Strike

The climate at California State Universities is uneasy. Collective bargaining negotiations between the California Faculty Association and the CSU administration have further deteriorated, and CFA plans a systemwide strike the week of January 22nd. Faculty are working double-time on non-duty days to minimize disruptions to student learning while juggling service commitments, research, and writing in a publish-or-perish environment.

As I am no expert on economics, unions, or higher education administration, I will not comment on the nature of the negotiations, proposals, or actions made by either side. I cannot offer an argument that has not already been made — nor would I want to. As an untenured assistant professor, just writing about this topic feels precarious enough. 

But as a counselor and counselor educator, I understand people within systems. From my vantage as a mental health professional, I see an immediately pressing crisis in the strike; it may lead to a resolution on proposals for salary raises and other changes, but it will almost certainly contribute to significant emotional distress for those involved. 

However, we are not powerless in the face of this stress; leading with bell hooks’ love ethic, manifested through the counseling intervention dialectical thinking, can help us weather the storm, care for ourselves, and look after each other. A love ethic is an approach to life rooted in values tantamount to connection, such as trust, care, responsibility, and commitment. All of these values stem from an awareness of self and others unclouded by the need for definitives or domination

Enter dialectical thinking: the practice of accepting that reality is subjective and created, the belief that everything is composed of seemingly contradictory opposites, and the skill of integrating these opposites to see a fuller truth. Holding tightly to any one belief prevents us from acknowledging others for fear that any differing opinion or truth inherently threatens emotional safety. Dialectical thinking is the practice of acknowledging the existence of other ideas or opinions and appropriately managing any arising emotional activation. In so doing, it becomes possible to practice the values necessary for a love ethic.

It is to be expected that emotions are running high due to the stakes of the strike, and this can result in people doubling down on their positions, even in seemingly unrelated situations. Feeling out of control in one area can lead to otherwise disproportionate responses in others. Dialectical thinking— in this instance, acknowledging the many contradictory positions one may hold—can help create emotional bandwidth to endure the larger stressors better. 

Faculty are under many stressors heading into the strike: they must manage the multiple, sometimes conflicting, roles of instructor, laborer, researcher, union member, advocate, and whole, complex person living in one of the highest-cost of living areas in the world. They may feel torn between showing solidarity and grappling with the possibility of docked pay, should they choose to strike. The decision may be even more complicated as they juggle their felt sense of responsibility for and relationships with students, who need more emotional and social support than ever due to rising mental health concerns.

Faculty may benefit from dialectical thinking as they consider how to take care of themselves during an immensely stressful time with conflicting demands. As a counselor, if I were to see a faculty member in this position, we would likely begin our work by just recognizing all of the competing emotions, motivations, and thoughts and their enormity. Some may feel dominant, but all require the privilege of acknowledgment and space to exist. We could practice dialectical thinking by identifying and accepting the contradictions of their lived experience by allowing them to exist side-by-side through language, specifically, with the use of “and” instead of “but.” 

For students, dialectical thinking strategies could help identify their frustration with disruptions to learning while recognizing their faculty as whole people, with very real financial obligations and other complex and painful feelings activated by this situation. My hope would be for students to explore what is and isn’t within their power and allow tempered expectations to guide their decision-making. 

Contrary to the pervasive consumer model of education, paying for education does not necessitate the experience many students have come to expect (i.e., on-demand, curated, and uninterrupted) because education is not a product, and it does not exist in a vacuum. Beyond honoring personhood, it is for students’ emotional and educational benefit to recognize that the quality of their education is directly linked to their faculty’s emotional, physical, and financial well-being. 

Dialectical thinking could also support CSU administrators. It would argue for examining how things got this far, without judgment. Rather than disparaging CFA to faculty for their proposals, dialectical thinking would focus on acknowledging the reality that CFA believes its requests are fair and necessary; in this vein, they reflect not greed, but an urgent need. This practice may not necessarily result in acquiescing to CFA’s proposals, but instead seeing and addressing them in a “wise” way (in counseling spaces, this means integrating emotional and cognitive information). 

As the strike looms, none of us can singularly resolve the impasse, but we maintain the power to decide how we take care of the many pieces of ourselves so that we have the bandwidth to take care of each other. In this is the power to transform our world.

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