#11: How do I choose which activist to trust?

Dear Ally (Skills Teacher),

I’m a feminist woman in tech, and I recently turned down an invitation to appear on a panel with another feminist activist. The reason I turned it down is that I don’t trust the other activist, don’t want to give them my social capital by appearing on the same panel, and I don’t want to end up arguing with them on a stage. I felt bad for the person who invited me, because from their perspective they invited two feminist activists with a great deal in common, one who refused to be on a panel with the other for reasons they couldn’t really understand. They had to pick which person to invite and didn’t know how to choose. And to be clear, I declined the invitation to try to make this situation less awkward.

My question is, what advice do you give to people when they are trying to decide which activist to trust in this situation? I’ve developed a gut feeling for who to trust over the years, but I don’t know how to explain it to other people.

—Awkwardly Avoiding Activists

This question goes deeper into the problem I wrote about in a previous column, about how to decide which marginalized people to listen to when they disagree about how to fight oppression against their group. This is a more advanced version of the same problem: instead of marginalized people disagreeing, it is activists fighting marginalization who refuse to work with each other. When the two people involved are both respected leaders in the field, and you have to pick just one to work with, what do you do?

My recommendation is to look at the overall pattern of behavior of each activist over a period of several years, and choose to work with the activist who seems to be better at advancing the activist cause you care about. While this may result in some short-term conflict, over the long run it both reduces the amount of conflict you experience and more effectively furthers the activist cause in question.

Identifying abusive behavior

Let’s start with the obvious: you shouldn’t work with people who tend to behave in abusive ways. I’ve written a great deal about identifying abusive behavior of various sorts, along with my co-authors Mary Gardiner and Leigh Honeywell. This is a tough topic and far too large to cover in a single column, so I’ll just link to what we have written before:

The major problem with detecting people with a pattern of abusive behavior is that many of them are successful at manipulating and deceiving others. One form this takes is called DARVO: Deny, Accuse, Reverse Victim and Offender. For more on detecting this situation, read the sections on “DARVO” and “Distinguishing between good intent from bad intent” in “How to Respond to Code of Conduct Reports.”

People sometimes use “abusive” to describe people they just don’t get along with or had some conflict with. I tend to use the word “abusive” for a long-term pattern of similar abusive actions repeated over and over, such as repeatedly touching women without consent over a period of several years. I am much less concerned when about a grab-bag of different incidents which could be a collection of everyday mistakes interpreted in the most unflattering manner. The first situation is a pattern of behavior revealing an underlying belief (e.g., women don’t control their bodies); the second is a “blooper reel” of a regular person’s ordinary mistakes and misunderstandings.

When it comes to a “blooper reel,” the more well-known and famous an activist is, and the higher the expectations for their behavior, the longer the list of all the mistakes they ever made will grow. It’s important to distinguish between people sharing about a continuing pattern of abusive behavior to protect others, and people sharing a person’s every past error solely to harm someone they dislike. I am reminded of the Jewish tradition of discouraging lashon hara—literally, “evil tongue”—which asks people to only share negative (but true) information about a person when it is intended to help or improve matters, not purely to harm that person.

Two gray-green film reels with misspelled labels
CC BY Siaron James https://flic.kr/p/pxDCJk

What do effective activists look like?

Leaving aside the difficult task of detecting abusive people and master manipulators, here’s what I’ve noticed over more than 18 years of activism: I always regret working with activists who focus more on self-promotion or criticizing others than on praising and supporting others (especially those with less privilege or power than themselves). Don’t get me wrong—effective activism requires naming problems and calling out mistakes, and that requires some criticism. Self-promotion is also necessary, in order to build a platform and become more effective as an activist. What I am talking about is the proportion of time an activist spends on criticizing others and self-promotion, relative to the time they spend sharing solutions and promoting things that benefit others.

For example, when I look at an activist’s Twitter feed, I scroll down the last few hundred tweets and ask myself some questions: How often do they retweet calls to action which don’t benefit them directly? If they promote other people’s work, do they only promote a few people closely allied to them, or many different people? How often do they write their own tweet on the hot Twitter topic of the day, and how often do they retweet another, more qualified person’s take on it? How often did they give explicit credit by name to other people? Do they promote valuable but unpopular causes, or do they only support a cause when it becomes trendy? Do they ever “spend” their social capital, or do they only do things that grow their personal brand?

You can ask yourself these questions about an activist’s writing, talks, podcasts, video appearances, or other output. I pay particular attention to how often an activist gives credit by name to others. An especially positive sign is when an activist corrects others when they give the activist inappropriate credit. For example, when people complimented Craig Mazin, writer and producer of the Chernobyl TV series, for elements of the TV series he wasn’t primarily responsible for, he consistently gave credit by name to the people directly responsible.

Choosing an activist to work with

Back to the original question: when an activist tells me they can’t work with another activist, how do I decide which one to work with? I recommend looking at the overall pattern of each activist’s behavior over a period of years, and evaluating them on two factors: do they display a pattern of abusive behavior, and do they spend more time on self-promotion and criticism than on supporting and promoting others? How they behave with regard to this specific conflict can also be useful information. Are they scrupulous with the truth and careful to avoid exaggeration, or do they seem careless of the facts? Are they regretfully informing you about the decision they have made over their own behavior and the things they control, or are they threatening or coercing you in an authoritarian manner?

Be careful not to confuse someone informing you of the likely consequences of your behavior with someone making coercive threats; saying “When a conference invites a serial sexual predator to speak, many people will boycott the conference because they don’t want to enable sexual abuse,” is entirely different than “If you don’t do what I want, I will make a false accusation against you.” One is the natural consequence of your behavior, the other is coercion. (Sometimes threats and coercion come from desperation or fear; more often they come from a place of entitlement or sadism.)

Communicating your decision to others

To get back to your question about communicating your decision not to work with an activist to other people, I tend to say things like:

  • “Based on previous negative experiences with this person, I find it is not rewarding for me to work with them. I hope you can find other folks to do this!”
  • “Ethically, I can no longer give my social capital to this person because of [PATTERN OF BEHAVIOR], and here are five other people who have talked about experiencing the same pattern of behavior.”
  • “I can’t go into detail, but I am no longer willing to work with this person. I appreciate you reaching out to me! Let me know if we can work together on another project.”

One of the decisions I make early on is whether I’m just going to set my own boundaries, or if I will put any effort into explaining my decision. If the other activist has a specific repeated pattern of abusive behavior, I may put more effort in to sharing my reasons for not working them in an attempt to protect others, if I have energy and social capital to burn. If they are just unpleasant or untrustworthy, I will probably be more vague (“It’s me, not them!”) and allow the other person to figure it out on their own. If there’s a lot of trust between me and the other person, I may explain more. It’s up to you how much effort you want to put in to helping the other person understand your reasoning. (It might be helpful to read Ijeoma Oluo talk about the personal cost of trying to change other people’s minds.)

When I am in this situation, I try to focus on holding firm on my personal boundaries, continuing to act in alignment with my values, and letting go of any specific outcomes beyond that. If I am patient for a few months, the activist I disagree with will often act in a way that proves my point.

A wooden fence in a misty green field
CC BY Anton Novosolev https://flic.kr/p/agdrwH

Ally skill: Learn to identify activists whose behavior supports your cause

Activism is like any other field: it includes both people working hard to support those who have the least, and people who behave in self-centered, power-obsessed, or abusive ways—and people who are a mix of all of these behaviors. Being able to identify effective activists who contribute to the overall cause and activists who are a net drain on their professed cause will help you be a better ally. To do this, look at the pattern of a person’s behavior over a period of years and ask what proportion of time they spend doing things that help themselves or tear down others compared to the proportion of time they promote other people’s work and support others (especially those with the least power and privilege). While every activist needs to self-promote or criticize others sometimes, they should more often be acting in solidarity with marginalized people.

Featured image CC BY Robert Couse-Baker https://flic.kr/p/WJ9cgJ

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