There’s a wonderful scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which the titular character meets the People’s Front of Judea. Or, at least, that’s what he thinks. It’s best to let the scene speak for itself:
My book in progress about animal rights activists who open rescue animals from factory farms looks at how a social movement seeking to transform the law uses its own criminalization as landmark litigation for animal liberation. You’d think their major challenges would come from outside the organization itself–say, from a society habituated to the exploitation of animals, ridiculous criminal charges, a hefty lobbying machine, and the like. But these pressures seem matched by destructive conflict from within–not so much between different animal rights organizations, though that’s a factor, of course, but between the existing leadership and disillusioned former members turned fierce opponents.
I have a lot of thoughts about the particulars of the conflicts I’m seeing in my case study, but it made me ponder the role that bitter personal acrimonies play in the life of progressive organizations. It’s hard to keep a movement going with allegations flung back and forth. Some folks soldier on; just a few months ago we saw DeRay Mckesson trash Shaun King and King publicly reply. It’s hard to tell how much damage these accusations do to an organization that overall does very laudable work.
The interpersonal conflict aspect doesn’t get enough attention in social movement literature, and I think we should remedy that, because accusations, hatreds, gossip, and splintering cause real harm: it deprives movements of valuable contributions. As Jo Freeman noted in her legendary essay about trashing in second-wave feminism, people who survive this sort of vicious interpersonal stuff tend to “hang around the fringes of the movement” or peel off, often internalizing the effects of the harsh interpersonal burn. Of the women she met after she was trashed, who met up later and vowed to get together more often, she says: “Instead we each slipped back into our own isolation, and dealt with the problem only on a personal level. The result was that most of the women at that meeting dropped out as I had done. Two ended up in the hospital with nervous breakdowns. Although all remained dedicated feminists, none have really contributed their talents to the Movement as they might have. Though we never met again, our numbers grew as the disease of self-destructiveness slowly engulfed the Movement.” That is such a shame, and I suspect that today this is exacerbated because everything is publicly aired on social media, as Jill Filipovic discusses here. Cancel culture can flatten the often complex backgrounds for these acrimonies and cause real havoc in organizing. They also tend to linger in awful ways: I’m reading and appreciating Starhawk’s The Empowerment Manual, which addresses the interpersonal conflict as a big part of what happens in collaborative spaces. Starhawk has decades of experience with cohousing, progressive spiritual organizing, and other collaborative movements, and it’s telling that she prefaces her case studies by saying that “[m]ost will have names and details changed to protect the privacy of all involved – and to keep me from spending my golden years dealing with hurt feelings and bitter attacks from those I might offend.” Which, even as she is optimistic about the possibility of overcoming these difficulties, tells you something about how resentments over this stuff can fester for decades.
It’s important to think about where these conflicts come from, why they happen, and whether they are inevitable. Because so much of our organizing these days is identity driven, many of the internal conflicts within movements and organizations have to do with identities. Here are a few grounds for conflict that I’m noticing in the organizations around me:
Perceived betrayals of the cause. These often have to do with some members or leaders compromising over values that other members perceive as essential to maintain without compromise, such as coalitions with moderates or conservatives, seeking personal comforts when others are making sacrifices, or eschewing a personal habit that some members perceive as essential to the movement.
Identity revelations and authenticity issues. I’ve seen this come up a lot in context of race and sexuality, where even organizations who ostensibly declare that identity is not a barrier for entry become Petri dishes for criticisms about members and spokespeople who are “not black enough” or “not queer enough” to speak for the membership. I’ve also seen versions of this crop up in organizing around sex worker labor rights.
Not giving credit where credit’s due. This becomes especially objectionable when a member takes credit for an idea or a contribution of someone from a disadvantaged group.
#metoo accusations. This deserves a category of its own, because I often see accusations of sexual misbehavior–not necessarily criminal offenses, even being a jerk in a romantic context suffices–flung on both sides of interpersonal conflicts. The “allegation-as-fact” characteristic of some of the #metoo discourse amplifies the serious nature of this, because to dispute the allegations is to incur an additional negative mark, that of minimizing and disbelieving women.
Financial malfeasance. Organizations that are driven by vision and charisma are not always 100% clear, to begin with, on how raised funds will be allocated, and as a consequence there could be bitter disputes about how the money was spent or shared.
This mini-typology is just the beginning–I’m hoping to come up with a more comprehensive framework for understanding this. I’m also hoping to figure out whether this stuff is inevitable, and is simply part of the life cycle of any collaborative effort.
Part of the issue with these identity-driven conflicts is that, in progressive organizing, we tend to subscribe to the notion that “the personal is political.” But if that’s the case, aren’t personal conflicts and their destructive aftermaths also political? They certainly have political impact, in terms of splintering organizations and paralyzing progressive action. As many folks have observed, shaping political action through identity is a mixed bag, in that it can stand in the way of diversity. Starhawk writes:
Some kinds of diversity are not meant to work together: if our goal is to ban the growing of genetically engineered crops in our county, we’re not going to work well with Monsanto. Yet we should also beware of drawing too tight a circle. If everyone in our group has to be a vegan, polyam-orous, non-gender-specific advocate for peace, we’re going to lose. To win, we need a coalition of conventional farmers, organic growers, ranchers, vineyard owners and environmentalists who might hold widely divergent views on gender bending, gay marriage and foreign policy but agree on the food system they want to see.Starhawk. The Empowerment Manual (p. 32). New Society Publishers. Kindle Edition.
This seems like an application of the more general problem that Francesca Poletta discusses in Freedom Is an Endless Meeting, which looks at participatory democracy through a historical lens. While Poletta is overall sanguine about the potential of collaborative processes to produce real change–she discusses the real successes of depression-era labor educators and Mississippi voting registration workers–she finds that when organizations model their political structure and process after cultural models that don’t work–“familiar nonpolitical relationships such as friendship, tutelage, and religious fellowship”–they face the sort of issues that are a bug, not a feature, for these relationships, but become a bug if one wants to be politically influential: problems of inclusivity and procedural murkiness.
But I suspect there’s another reason why these conflicts become so acrimonious. Working for many progressive causes, such as environmental and social justice, comes with a heaping helping of despair. It is draining to see the suffering and destruction on such a massive scale, and it often feels insurmountable even to the most committed activists. Without solid resourcing tools to contain and sit with the sorrows of the world, a lot of this frustration and despair can fester, looking for a “hook”, and attaching itself, tragically, to the people who might be closest to the sufferer. I don’t mean to suggest that the complaints are always or often baseless. Regardless of their credibility, they evince some channeling of more general, existential despair. It’s the sort of thing that makes all of us, in these scary times, channel our inchoate fears toward lashing at each other for noncompliance. Imagine this happening to a group of people who, on a permanent basis, are facing boulders of fear and grief about the planet as political “first responders” to the griefs of environmental destruction, economic inequality, racism and injustice. That this is deeply upsetting stuff goes without saying.
Which brings me to the real question: Is any of this inevitable? Can we learn to process our grief and outrage, with ourselves and others, in a way that brings about growth and prevents long-term resentments? Is it possible–if not in all cases, than at least in some–to overcome these conflicts and bring people back into the fold? Or is it just the nature of human collaborations that they have a life cycle, and personal stuff poisons the well at some point?
I don’t have an answer yet. I’m thinking about this as I see this unfold in my case study and elsewhere. I want to believe that nothing is insurmountable, but I see a lot of negative examples. Tell me the story of your organization, and how you overcame (or didn’t) a season of interpersonal anger and strife.