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.