Abuse and Power in Activist Spaces

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Over the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of talk about toxicity or abuse in activist cultures. The overwhelming majority of this talk has been crap scapegoating some of the most vulnerable people in activism. As it turns out, when the largest space is given to privileged voices talking about social justice activism, Sturgeon’s Law is an understatement.

Still, there are good, thoughtful people doing good, thoughtful work on the topic. A few pieces worth reading:

I would argue with some of those pieces here and there, but they’re all written by activists putting in work to think about and articulate what activist spaces need from and for their members. Beyond pieces like these, there is a small world of internet writers unpacking different social interactions and general approaches to social interaction that is worth checking in on if the topic interests you. I recommend Miri’s Brute Reason Tumblr and Kate Donovan’s Monday Miscellany posts as aggregators, though both contain plenty other interesting content as well.

Composite photo of a woman pictured twice, once in the background with tape on her mouth and once in the foreground holding out her arms to shield her silent self.
“Don’t Speak” by Kristin Schmit, CC BY 2.0

Quibbles aren’t what this post is about, however. This post is about making sure we don’t underestimate what it will take to deal with abuse in communities of activists who are themselves marginalized. This is about understanding the costs of viewing abusive behavior primarily as something to be excised. It’s about recognizing the skill required to navigate desperation and conflict. It’s also about recognizing the power that good communicators have within these communities even as they remain otherwise marginalized.

Toward a Definition of Abuse

Abuse is notoriously hard to define. Many of us go the route of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when writing about pornography: “I know it when I see it.” That’s not unreasonable, as dedicated abusers tend to exploit definitions of abuse that are too rigid. At the same time, however, they also exploit the muddy water left when we throw up our hands at the prospect of defining it. Being vague gains us nothing and makes it harder to talk about the subject.

So, fully understanding that any of these definitions can be gamed, what constitutes abuse? Some examples:

  • Deliberate or negligent (repeated or egregious accidental) violation of boundaries people set for spaces they reasonably “own”, whether those boundaries are set explicitly or by common societal expectations. When people share their time, attention, audience, bodies, etc. with you, they get to determine the conditions under which this sharing happens. They also get to, barring significantly compelling reasons, decide not to share.
  • Gaslighting, defamation, and other forms of con artistry. These too can be either deliberate or negligent.
  • Theft, either of physical possessions or of credit for work, which is one of the main currencies of activism. Again, this can be either deliberate or negligent.
  • Telling people they need to vacate spaces you don’t reasonably “own”. This can range from the indirect, as with sexism and racism, to the very direct behavior of telling people to “get back in the kitchen” or kill themselves to direct physical action. It is different from making a case for exclusion to the people who do “own” a space, though this can also veer into abuse if based in falsehood.

Those cover some of the more common forms of abuse that might occur in activist spaces, though they’re hardly exhaustive. There are edge cases and places where people will reasonably disagree whether something is abuse. There are situations where determining whether something is abuse will rely on tricky determinations of what “negligent” means. Still, I think it’s helpful to know up front that these are the kinds of behavior I’m talking about.

Living With the Most Abuse

Marginalized populations are often referred to as “at risk” populations. Being marginalized means having less access to resources, family support, social support, institutional support. It means having less recourse to authorities who will help us find justice if we need help. Together, those factors give people more leverage to abuse marginalized populations and less fear of facing consequences.

Add to that the fact that we tend to come up with reasons why marginalized people deserve their marginalization, and the constant stress under which marginalized populations live, and oh, a dozen other things, and we have a recipe for people being more willing to abuse marginalized people and less willing to help them when they face abuse.

We see that heightened risk when we look at the relative frequency of child abuse and particularly when we look at sexual abuse. We see it, of course, when we look at the targets of police power and abuse of power. We see it when we look at online harassment. We see marginalized populations at greater risk of abuse often enough that when the pattern isn’t repeated, people go looking for the reason why.

This greater incidence of abuse has two major repercussions for activist movements made up of marginalized people. The first is that many of us have fewer resources to cope with being on the receiving end of abuse. We have more mental illness, including PTSD that may be triggered by further abuse, and more other disabilities. This is compounded by the fact that we experience more strains on our coping skills both due to marginalization and as knock-on effects of abuse.

Carrying Abuse Forward

At the same time, however, patterns of abusive behavior can be hard to break. Those of us who are victims of abuse can carry that behavior on even when we’re no longer experiencing abuse. While it is a truism rather than truth that someone who is abusive was themselves abused–many people abuse others from positions of power and entitlement–abuse victims often need help to break out of abusive patterns.

Those patterns include turning around and inflicting the same abuse on others, but they also include behavior that developed to protect someone from abuse. For example, few of us would argue that lying to protect yourself from abuse is bad as long as it doesn’t serve to deflect the abuse onto someone else. However, when continued into situations where it isn’t required for protection, that lying can become abuse.

Lying is a simple example, but it’s hardly alone in behavioral strategies that can become abusive when applied in something other than self-defense. Setting your own boundaries is something that is literally beaten out of many people, but when failing to do so results in people having to deal with your more extreme defensive reactions because you were pushed past your limits, that can be abuse. So can externalizing blame and shame, even though those may have been skills you needed to keep from being destroyed by your abuser. Revenge fantasies that kept you alive in extremis become abuse when voiced to those who do not have the same kind of control over you your abuser did.

The behavior required to exert any kind of control over or even to survive unhealthy situations is often unhealthy in other contexts. Sometimes, it constitutes abuse in itself.

Coping Without Contributing to Marginalization

If dealing with this problem were easy, it would be done by now. And there are simple answers, though I think they should be unacceptable to us as activists if faced squarely. After all, the easiest way to take abuse out of activism is to institute a zero-tolerance policy, even if that means excluding a large number of the people we as activists say we are working for.

Photo of boarded over doorway, with "Keep Out" sign.
“Keep Out” by Ed Schipul, CC BY-SA 2.0

The problem with allowing absolutely no abuse in activist circles, of course, is that this cuts people off from the ability to advocate for themselves, based on the “crime” of surviving abuse without proper follow-up care. I don’t think that’s really what we want to do unless we have no other choice. The people who haven’t been damaged by abuse can’t be the only people with the access to advocate.

At the same time, we still want to make it safe for those who can’t tolerate more abuse to also advocate for themselves. That means we do have to create and enforce some boundaries. I’ve seen a lot of mocking of “safe spaces” recently, even by people who consider themselves progressive activists, but if we mean to be anything other than paternalist in our advocacy, we need to make sure “fragile” people can participate, even when it means more work for us.

As I said, this isn’t going to be easy. It’s going to require multiple strategies to include people with different challenges. It will also require us to face how certain privileges work in activist spaces.

Communication and Class Privilege

Time to get personal: I was raised in a household with an abuser. Even after the abuser left (because, to his credit, he came to realize the damage his abuse was doing), the problems he caused lingered. To speak only to my own situation, I had no idea how to express anger fairly because I hadn’t been allowed to express it at all. I kept problems hidden until the situation was desperate and beyond my means of coping. I had picked up all sorts of communication skills only good for tearing another person down when I felt threatened.

Some of that I’m still working on, but I’ve made a lot of progress over time. I’ve learned better ways of communicating, both in terms of getting what I need and in terms of not abusing other people while I do it.

How? I had access to a trained communicator at home and to a lot of materials on effective, collaborative communication. I had models of healthier relationships all around me. I spent my educational career in spaces that deconstructed communication, taught me how to put it back together, and placed expectations on me to communicate well. In other words, I benefited greatly from class privilege, particularly academic privilege.

When I see academics talking about abuse in activism, I worry. I don’t mean that academics are incapable of making space for other activists to learn non-abusive communication. Many of the people who do a great job in this respect come from privileged backgrounds. However, as with any form of privilege, it is far too easy for us to underestimate what it takes for people to learn what we were given.

How We Make Room

So what does fixing this problem look like? I don’t entirely know, but here are a few ways I think we can move toward solutions:

  • Firmly and consistently differentiate between abuse and anger.
  • Recognize that this is, by and large, not a question of a few bad actors. Bad actors do exist, but this is a broader problem.
  • Acknowledge abusive behavior wherever it happens instead of only in certain people deemed abusive.
  • View non-abusive communication as a set of skills, not a basic assumption.
  • Value the skills required to set boundaries and to own them as personal instead of universal as much as we value the ability to honor boundaries.
  • Treat building all these skills–learning or teaching–as worthwhile activist work serving marginalized populations.
  • Realize that much of this work must by necessity fall to relatively privileged people who don’t have histories of abuse that make them vulnerable.
  • Understand that while saying, “tone policing”, doesn’t end the problem, neither does pointing to abuse absolve us of our collective responsibility to work to understand people’s concerns. We can’t hold empowerment back from people until they’re perfect.
  • Create environments in which it is easier for abusive people’s concerns to be heard–as one step along a path to building relationships in which we are both accountable to each other and can set appropriate boundaries. It’s harder to learn in high-pressure environments.
  • Build conventions that reward improvement rather than treating past behavior like a criminal record.
  • Accept that mismatches between people’s capabilities to generate communication and others’ capabilities to receive that communication without harm are not always situations in which one person must be “bad” and another “good”. We can avoid people when we’re bad for each other without excuses or recriminations.
  • Recognize that this will be an ongoing problem of activism, not something we can fix with an intensive push.

If that looks like a lot of work, that’s because it is. But it is work that will get us closer to activist spaces that serve the entirety of their constituents.

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Abuse and Power in Activist Spaces

2 thoughts on “Abuse and Power in Activist Spaces

  1. 2

    Thank you for writing this and introducing those articles and the topic.

    I have been wanting to see a discussion on expanding the number of methods that activists use to address mistakes and the presence of bad beliefs/behavior in people who are or could be allies. I’m pretty good at fighting, shaming and other negative ways of influencing behavior, but I don’t want to stagnate and only using the same tools all of the time is unwise. There are four categories of ways of changing behavior. Only two of them are negative and only two of them are for making people stop a behavior. It’s time we started using them all and knowing when to use them. These things are complex, but they have structure and that lets us work with them.

    I like those definitions of abuse. Are these a useful paraphrase? Or am I missing something?
    Abuse is knowing or unknowing:
    *Violation of a person’s boundaries of body, personal space, attention or property.
    *Emotional manipulation directly or through proxies.
    *Actions that that force people from shared public spaces.

    I think some positive suggestions to habitually avoid being abusive to be paired with the definitions might also be a good idea.
    *Always accept a person’s feelings as legitimate and real. Making them feel the way you want is abuse. Changing how a person’s emotions are bound to reality requires letting them show you how they are arranged now, why they are arranged that way, and allowing you to show you a better way to arrange them.

    “Zero tolerance” is ultimately bad because it leaves us unable to deal with the complexity of society. It’s better to have a goal and get used to continually adjusting the ethics until you have a useful and versatile social tool. I too am convinced that safe spaces can be made compatible with a lack of zero tolerance approaches.

    One useful way to start would be to define several kinds of safe spaces and the ones that currently exist can continue to do so without feeling threatened. Methods for dealing with trouble in other kinds of spaces are worked on and techniques can be spread as they are discovered. There are many features that can be considered. I can think of a couple.
    *Is this a place for “ally training”?
    *Is this a place that is willing to answer questions and challenges from well-meaning people that are often part of the social problem?
    *Are there limitations on how negative emotion is expressed?

    Some comments expanding your “How we make room” information.
    *Abuse is an action, anger is the emotions that recalls the action when reacting.
    *To learn to recognize and address a problem in one’s own community it may be necessary to socially ritualize periodic expression of beliefs, thoughts and actions that bother community members for skill and prevention of collected problems.
    *Learn to focus on belief, thought and action so that abuse is easier to recognize. Responding to a whole person is imprecise and risks stereotyping.
    *Easily accessible and user-friendly online spaces need to be created that focus on acquiring these skills, the theory they are based on, and implementing them successfully in practice. If privileged people need to help they also need training.
    *On “tone policing”. At its most neutral tone is about expressing a social signal. The use of tone is where the problems appear. Learning why someone does not like a tone is important so that we can learn who is using tone to hide and propagate abuse, and who is using tone to abuse.
    *Specialized safe spaces or online “ally training spaces” would be good places for abusers to be able to have what they say and feel honestly addressed so that they can become better people. Such spaces could establish informal “reward systems”. These would be places where problems in communication can also be specifically addressed. Gamification is a thing that might help.

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