I’m really excited about next Tuesday. Me and a handful of other local political souls are meeting together for a special discussion about what we’ve learned from our various fallen revolutionary organizational projects. Hooray for reflection and self-evaluation! What’s especially cool about it is that we’ve carefully decided that we don’t want to focus on stories of what happened or just critiques of errors and bad personalities, but instead we want to distill our experiences into concrete lessons for the future.
Because I want to be prepared for the discussion, I’m trying to write down some of the lessons that I’ve learned over these years. Keep in mind that I’ll be editing this for awhile, so you might want to check back over the multiple parts from time to time.
HANDLING CONFLICT (I’ve put this section first, because it’s so critical to avoiding organizational implosion)
Explicitly discuss different personal communication and conflict styles. In the non-profit, corporate, and conflict mediation worlds, there is a wealth of curricula, charts, tables, and funny cartoons that help people identify their conflict and communication styles, and tips for relating across different styles. Groups should use these early and often, tailoring them as needed (with some class and cultural consciousness, for example) as a part of group formation and new member orientation. It’s amazing how much trouble we get into when we misinterpret each other’s style cues…especially across identity differences.
Groups should strongly avoid seeking one homogeneous conflict/communication style. It won’t work and all it really means is that the people with that style will dominate and everyone else will blame themselves for not measuring up to the “right way.”
Create structures for conflict mediation before problems occur. Groups should have preventative structures and channels already established to handle conflict before anything happens. Members should do internal training about how these structures work, and how to utilize them in a variety of scenarios. That way, when problems do occur, members have already internalized a sense of what it means to handle the conflict responsibly.
Create regular spaces for self-evaluation and critique. I am skeptical of the cricisim/self-criticism of the Maoists, but I do think groups should create regular spaces for self-evaluation and the airing of constructive criticism. It’s important to have an expectation in the group culture that everyone will receive criticism, so that everyone can improve our work. But this is so dependent on these other lessons being heeded as well…because otherwise these spaces for criticism are just weapons for vindictive and manipulative personalities.
Dedicate and honor time for appreciations. Organizing for social transformation is hard, especially when the opposition heats up. We need a steady stream of love and encouragement from each other, and this should be structured into the group at regular intervals…and not in a way in which the good is always accompanied by a “but.” We need spaces and times where all we hear are the good things…with a trust that our criticisms and unmet needs will also have structured spaces to be heard.
Let it out or let it go. If you have a problem with someone in the organization, it’s a simple choice: either it’s not a big enough deal to communicate out to the group–and then you need to authentically work to let it go–or you can’t let it go and you need to find a responsible channel to communicate it…ideally directly to that person. If you’re scared, or you are unpracticed in conflict resolution, that’s a real challenge…but it’s not an excuse. Be creative and find resources you can trust. Keeping it to yourself and building resentment is not a legitimate option.
Make an anti shit-talking commitment. Shit-talking is poison to movements, and it’s also a preferred channel for intentional destabilization by the powerful. If you are going to talk critically about someone without talking directly to them–or communicating through previously established group structures–then you only have one reason to do so: to constructively seek or give advice for how to eventually deal directly with said person or utilize established group structures. If weeks have passed and you’re still talking to uninvolved people about this without constructively engaging with the people directly involved in the conflict, then you are entering shit-talking territory. And if someone has been coming to you for more than a week to talk critically about someone who is not you, and they aren’t seeking or utilizing constructive advice, then you are also in shit-talking territory. We need to stop this! Period.
Seek to name conflict honestly. It’s common in radical groups to couch our conflicts in political terms, when the real problem is personal. We don’t like someone, but we say it’s their ideas. We feel threatened, but we say that it’s actually about pressing political disagreements. This stuff should be aired out honestly. Even if I think the root of a conflict is about ideas, I need to also be up front if I’m feeling insecure, threatened, jealous, etc. This isn’t about being touchy-feely, it’s about honestly naming the root of what breaks apart organizations. If a person can only frame their conflicts politically, but they clearly manifest emotional responses to those conflicts, that’s a red-flag that they aren’t fully articulating what’s going on for them. Because so many groups actually fall apart around issues of sex, relationships, violence, jealousy, and power-mongering, this is really important to hold on to.
Anger is not unprincipled behavior. Anger, defensiveness, yelling, crying, are not inherently disruptive or unprincipled behaviors. They are normal human responses and survival strategies for intense situations–even if we don’t perceive the same intensity in some situations. If members are angry or yelling, they should be given space, and they should be clearly acknowledged, and the actual conversation should be paused until they can return to a mutually respectful tone. This does not mean admonishing or shaming them, or using their yelling against them later. Sure, yelling and anger can be used to dominate and manipulate situations, and this is unprincipled behavior, but that’s not always the case. How much of a pattern is this, and how disruptive to the group? We all have a lot of internalized baggage about this based on our upbringings and cultural/class backgrounds, and we need to be careful about putting political spins on it when it’s actually pretty complicated.
Crystallize and map political conflicts with imagination and patience. A group doesn’t know if a conflict is truly political and not personal until the politics of a conflict have been thoroughly articulated, polarized, and the points on the spectrum between different sides have been identified for potential compromises. If one side of a conflict can’t clearly, respectfully paraphrase the authentic position of the other sides of the conflict–even if they thoroughly disagree–then the conflict is still personal. It’s still in the realm of not having enough trust, patience, or respect for the other sides to even clearly listen to and articulate what they are saying. A common trap here–especially around conflicts of power, privilege, and identity–is when one side of a conflict says they are tired of having to explain this over and over, and so it’s not worth their time to have to explain it again. This might be true, and that might be perfectly legitimate, but that’s personal–it’s about trust in the group…it hasn’t yet been crystallized as a political conflict, because all sides haven’t had a chance to fully be heard and articulated. Further, once the sides of a conflict have been articulated, distilled, polarized to their key components, the group should imagine what possible compromise positions could exist. The group should consider these positions carefully before any votes or splits. If the group isn’t willing to make the time to consider these compromise positions, then the conflict is probably personal, and the members really just don’t want to work together anymore. Like I said, that’s fine, but don’t call it a political conflict when it’s not.
Assume good, revolutionary intentions…and specifically name the behavior that makes you doubt those intentions. As marginalized individuals within a harsh, oppressive culture, we get into the groove of feeling like we’re alone in our revolutionary intentions and our intense hatred of injustice. It can be an almost default reaction to mistrust the commitment, ethics, and good intentions of those around us. That’s why it’s so important to consciously work to assume good intentions from our fellow group members, and only doubt those intentions when there is specific, nameable behavior that makes us doubt them. Then, we should clearly communicate those behaviors through established structures so that the individual and group can respond. If you can’t name behaviors that make you doubt someone, then seek support to more deeply explore what is making those doubts rise for you personally–beyond that the ethical thing to do is take them at their word.
Take internalized oppression seriously, but don’t project it on others. I think a lot of the conflicts and other problems that we have as individual activists and as groups comes from the ways we’ve internalized oppression as well as privilege. Whether arrogance and domination, defensiveness and a sense of perpetual crisis, or constant passivity and self-doubt. This is something that our groups should take seriously, and should put time and resources into supporting their members with. But, there is an overlapping problem of individuals projecting internalized oppression and privilege onto other members, and using that as a shortcut to keep from actually understanding or respecting other people’s emotional realities. This is really dangerous, and it tries to make us experts in something that we actually understand very little.
Same as the above, take mental health issues seriously, but don’t play psychologist. Groups should seek and develop robust politics around ableism, trauma, self-care, and mental health, and these should inform our structures, our support systems, and our approaches to conflict. However, we should not make the mistake of thinking we can diagnose and pathologize members who demonstrate behavior that we don’t like or understand.
Acknowledge the possibility of infiltration. We know it’s a real threat, and we know that they will use conflict as a constant wedge to destabilize and neutralize our groups. It’s naive to pretend that it won’t happen to our groups, and it’s also dangerous to live in permanent fear of each other. Groups should do internal training about past patterns of agents and informants in groups, and should seek to distill best practices for maintaining an open and trusting culture while still keeping strategies of destabilization in check.
Recognize the high likelihood that you’re wrong. The track record of the radical left is bad. In fact, it’s terrible. So, chances are that the make-or-break, super dire political disagreement that makes you feel like the whole revolution hinges on what your fellow members do right now…that’s probably a bullshit, self-important exaggeration. What happens too often is that we break relationships and split organizations over differences that end up being badly characterized in the first place, and 3 years later we end up all being wrong, and in the same terrible political state…just with fewer friends and more cynicism. We lose too often to act like we actually know what we’re doing. We don’t know, and we should be humble and flexible about that.
If there is an active process going on:
If you aren’t formally involved in the process, don’t insert yourself into it. It’s simple. If members of your group are in an official organizational conflict process, then it’s not your place to be informally talking with individuals about this. Period. It doesn’t matter if they are your friends, and it doesn’t matter who brings it up. Gossip and side-talking almost always feels innocent or even productive while it’s happening, but it’s toxic. Build good official group processes, and then trust and honor those processes…which means setting clear personal boundaries while those processes are going on.
If you can’t trust and commit to the process, then be clear about that. If there is an official group process going on, but you actually think it’s ineffective, or manipulative, or a straight-up witch hunt, then it’s your responsibility to be honest about that and to state clearly to what extent you are willing to honor the boundaries of the process. It is a death sentence for the integrity of a process if participants in that process are simultaneously pursuing other avenues for dealing with the conflict without informing the group. This is especially true in community accountability processes.
Set real boundaries for disruptive/hurtful behavior. Kicking members out of a group or demanding that they meet certain conditions to keep participating are real options that groups need to consider in conflicts. There really are people (not just infiltrators) who just aren’t in a position to respect group processes or commit to doing work in a respectful way, and it is a major drain on a group’s energy to focus months and months of energy just to keep members in check. Groups need to discuss this point and set boundaries around it. If a significant amount of members’ collective energy is constantly being used to respond to and intervene in one member’s behavior…then that member needs to go, and maybe be referred to some other resources. However, it is critical, so critical, that the group have developed some good politics and internal training about ableism, institutionalization, and mental health related oppression, so as not to continue oppressive cycles if working with people who have a history of such conflicts related to their mental health.
BUILDING A CULTURE OF REVOLUTIONARY PRAXIS