Saturday, November 13, 2010

Speak Gently, Speak Firmly, Speak to be Heard

It's Not Enough to be Right: Speak Gently, Speak Firmly, Speak to be Heard

I've been writing a pieces on workplace organizing as a feminist and anti-racist activity. It's not always this kind of activity, but it can be. Feminists and anti-racists should think about ways in which organizing on the job is a part of struggling against oppression. All of these pieces are rough drafts; this piece is even less finished than the others. Comments are definitely welcome, especially comments that help me extend and flesh out the main points. In this piece I talk about another way that workplace organizing speaks to the feminist and anti-racist values that many of us hold. This in particular is connected with dealing with problematic behaviors among people we are organizing with -- the working class is full of contradictions and working class people often have problematic behavior. In our organizing we have to be ready to deal with these problems in ways that are constructive. Otherwise we don't actually address those contradictions.

As I’ve discussed before, one of the formative experiences I had early on was involvement in Take Back The Night. The group I was part of had many women and queer leaders. Growing up where, when, and how I did I had some baggage – some attitudes and behaviors and some ignorance – that I’m not proud of. Through my involvement in Take Back The Night I met some amazing people who impressed me very much. I’m lucky that these people responded to my baggage the way they did. They didn’t let me off the hook for anything, but they also didn’t attack me. I don’t know what they thought but I’d like to think that they called me out while also keeping me involved, because they saw me as having some potential.

The reason I raise all this is that I want to talk about calling people out. I’ve often heard people say things like “We have no tolerance for this sort of thing!” and so on when it comes to problem behavior. In my experience this kind of thing comes up a lot in particular with feminist men and anti-racist white people. I’m for this – people should be called out for their problematic behavior, we should not find racist and sexist behavior acceptable. At the same time, I think the way we call people out and the reason why we do so matters very much.
Sometimes people call others out for problem behavior in a self-righteous way. Some of the time we call people out in front of others in a way that embarrasses them, and/or provokes a fairly public confrontation. That can be important sometimes – particularly if a person has repeatedly done something and a group needs to communicate its disapproval to a person, or if one person is encouraging problematic behavior in others. In my opinion, we should have a series of escalating steps in how we talk with people about problem behaviors, just as we have escalation steps in the actions we take in organizing. In any case, when we act in response to problematic behavior, we should be deliberate – at least ideally so, sometimes we just can’t take it and have to say something.

Along with that, there are conditions that are more conducive to being effective in calling people out. People listen better to people they trust and respect and who trust and respect them. In my view, unless we’re already a leader in some environment (and even if we are), we build this respect and trust over time by organizing with people. My point here is that some of the time we can be right about an issue but communicate our rightness in ineffective or even counter-productive ways. It’s not enough to just say something, to absolve ourselves of responsibility for a messy situation by raising our voices. We should try to say something in a way that people will actually hear and respond to.

I am in part arguing for a level of patience here. I mentioned earlier that sometimes people take an attitude of “we don’t tolerate this behavior!” It is important that problematic behaviors are unacceptable, but we should also make decisions about certain behaviors. We can let some things slide temporarily in some circumstances if doing so sets us to more effectively address these things later. That said, with some behaviors we have to respond quickly and our responses stop being about the good of person doing the behavior (or that becomes a much lower priority compared to all our other priorities). In all of this again it’s key to be deliberate and to be clear: are we trying to move someone? Are we trying/willing to remove someone from our networks? There’s a place for both. If we’ve tried to talk to someone – really tried, by trying to say things in away that they can actually hear – and their behavior persists and become destructive, then sometimes a person just has to go. That should always and only be a last resort. Short of that, and in order to be sure that our stronger actions are warranted, we have to always work so that when we talk to someone a problem we talk in a way that they have the best chance to really hear us.


JRB said...

Great post, Nate.

If we want to build solidarity with any category of person, we have to sympathize with them on some basis.

If we have sympathy with women because of patriarchy, or the working class because of capitalism, or people of color because of racism; this sympathy is constant for these reasons.

This is the point I wanted to illustrate using the example of Christine O'Donnell, which you and Mr. Slim elaborated on in your own ways: you can challenge someone's attitudes and behaviors while at the same time extending solidarity toward them for principled reasons (as when she is attacked in a sexist manner).

Moreover, the best hope we have of organizing others with attitudes variably divergent from our own is to begin by extending solidarity to them on some legitimate basis.

Anonymous said...

Totally. And, thanks!

I should also say, make sure I was clear on this - sometimes someone has to get bounced out of a room or an organization or a workplace, we have standards and people have a right to protection from unacceptable behavior. My friend Abbey put it this way once - free association includes the right not to associate. I just think that it's important to be clear on what we're doing and why. There's punishing unacceptable behavior up to and including dissociation is valid (in general, provided it's principled) and there's association in service of transforming people, also valid (and also limited, sometimes it's the wrong thing to do, particularly since we're talking about balancing multiple priorities in organizations that involve multiple people's needs). And there's a link between these too I think in that at least some of the time transformation through association is made more likely or requires the threat of dissociation. But we should be clear on what we're doing. I think sometimes people mean to do one but are more like doing the other, or at least are perceived as doing the other - part of being clear (which I'm not really succeeding at here) is communicating what the goal is: putting someone on notice is different than asking them to change, even if we do both in the same sentence they're still different things.
take care,

Katie said...

I've been giving some thought to the whole "how to speak up effectively so as not to end up supporting bad behavior by staying silent" issue that has been written about several times here.

That is an issue that I've mulled over myself many times. I remember a fever-pitch activist era of mine where I was going to organizing meetings many nights a week out of a crushing feeling of responsibility to be part of the solution, not a bystander. In my mind at that time, to bystand for even a minute was like being a Nazi for that minute.

But 15 years later, on reflection, I realized that out of my desperate feeling not to do wrong, I was actually throwing myself at projects that were not effective and were not good use of my effort. Not all of them. We were able to change a few things. But a few organizations were going nowhere and I knew it, or change was impossible in certain situations, etc.

My take away there was that, Yes, it's important not to collude with harm being done by standing passively by. That is a responsibility. But there is no one prescribed way that one is responsible for responding. I feel it is important for the response to be effective, and that I am not obligated to do futile things just because it makes me look like a good activist to other people or to myself.

Confronting individual people about sexist or racist behavior can be effective in stopping them, in sending a message that discourages other people from joining in, or in reducing isolation for the person being harmed. Maybe there are some other things speaking up does I'm not thinking about right at this moment. If you can effectively do those things with speaking up, then I think it's potentially the right thing to do.

But personally confronting individuals I feel is of limited value generally. Kind of like conscientious consumerism. An individual action outside of an organized movement.

I think it's great that you feel moved not to tolerate other people being treated badly, and perhaps speaking up will help, I'm not sure.

What I'm getting at here is that if you are feeling responsible to contribute, I think some of your other work that is more about contributing to a group movement is a powerful response that has more potential to be effective.

I've come to believe that we do have a responsibility to contribute, but because direct resistance at the point of injury is not always effective, it's ok to choose a direction for your efforts where you can really create a change.

Also, as an aside, I'd like to say that the way the whole "calling people out" thing within radical communities can be harmful to the community if it is not done in a productive way. I understand the good intentions behind groups learning about not reenacting oppression by confronting each other in an effort to make the group more inclusive, empowering, just, effective, etc. Good stuff there of course.

I just wish there were some guidelines on how to do this so the confrontation part does not become used as part of creating a power dynamic. For example, I've been called out for being a bad revolutionary by animal rights people because I was wearing leather or wool. Or by enviros for throwing away plastic containers occasionally. At which point I was like "How am I supposed to stay a part of this movement when my cohorts are so critical and think I'm terrible when I'm trying so hard to be a good person?"

Anonymous said...

hi Katie,
Thanks for this. Much of what you say really resonates with my experiences. About the talking-to-individuals stuff, I meant this specifically in the context of ongoing organization. I've been involved in several efforts to build organization in workplaces, my own and others. In those efforts, sometimes people do messed up stuff. I think those cases, when we're talking about relationships and organizations we're building, which are intended as long term ones, we do have to be conscious of individuals' behavior, for both principled reasons and pragmatic ones. I think that's different than in a scene or with random strangers (I'm not sure if that's what you had in mind or not when you were talking about not being sure about calling out individuals).

I think your point about guidelines is a really good idea. I wonder if something like that could be usefully accompanied by a reflection piece on why people call people out -- I feel like some of the "call people out" stuff can be really self righteous at the same that it can encourage an intense self-doubt ("check your privilege" etc). I wonder if it could be useful to push folk to be clear about their motivations, to be really sure the whole "call someone out" thing isn't motivated by self-righteousness or other forms of point-scoring, and to orient people toward what the goals really ought to be. I tried to get into some of this in this piece, not sure how successfully.
take care,

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