Sunday, 2 October 2011

A ramble about unacceptable behaviour in activisty groups

Trigger warnings for rape, sexual abuse, violence, exploitation of power:

The other day Stef and I were having a chat about the Omar Hamed stuff that has come up here and elsewhere lately.  Neither of us know Omar at all, but sadly the theme was familiar; sexist injustice and exploitation, hidden within activist groups supposedly overwhelming in their right-on expressions of gender equality and general comradely behaviour of The Highest Order.

We both knew of examples the other was unaware of, even in groups we had both been active in around the same time. I don't know about Stef, but I kept at least one story back, one I just still cannot share with people who know the rapist even vaguely.  So often these stories feel like they are not our own to share because they happened to someone else, and we want to protect them, not the abuser.  It's difficult to know what to do; the worry that by telling what the areshole did you will open the victim up to shame and recrimination.

Which is where leadership comes in.  One of the responsibilities of leadership is dealing with the internal Hard Stuff too.

I've noticed it too many times now.  When concerns are raised about a prominent member, a "Good Guy", who is behaving in a predatory sexist manner towards others in the group, the shutters come down on the faces of the political leaders and the problem becomes not the unacceptable behaviour, but the fact that people are labelling that behaviour as unacceptable and challenging it.

The person with the problem, the person who acts unacceptably, might not be an out-front leader, they might be someone who delivers lots of leaflets, or has a great hoarding spot, or is one of the few in paid employment for the group.  Whatever role they fill there seems to be some protection afforded, some reason to not rock the boat in case they decide to jump out and take their contribution with them. 

But what about all the contributions withdrawn by others because of that person and the fact that their behaviour is tacitly accepted by the leadership?  What about the women who don't go to SlutWalk in case the man who raped them is there?  What about the men who just never come back to another planning meeting?  What about the discussions had over a few beers at the pub that a whole heap of the activists just never seem to participate in?

It terrifies me that when I start talking to people about this stuff more and more comes out.  Stories with statements like:
  • "Oh yeah, someone told me to watch out for him because I'm an attractive young blonde and apparently he has a bit of history."
  • "I always make sure I don't put any young women in a car alone with that guy, just in case."
  • "He said if I gave him a blow-job he'd back my friend in the election, but I figured he was just joking and I laughed it off.  But he never did write anything nice about my mate."
  • "The only reason he stopped following me around campus was because someone threatened to break his legs."
  • "Well he's a bit of a groper, but some young gay men like that, so I guess it's ok."
  • "Best to billet men with them."
  • "So then I said 'it's probably best I walk home with you both,' and it was alright."
  • "Everyone thinks he's so sweet and adorable but I shake whenever I see him and apparently I'm overreacting."
  • "There was this time in the carpark where I had to lock my car doors and drive away."
At heart I believe that rejection of the actual problem, the bad behaviour, is sexist.  It is unjust.  It is making a judgement call that the accused is entitled to protection from the consequences of their actions.  It enables them to continue as they were, maybe get worse, and not have to think critically about what they are doing and why.  Saying nothing, doing nothing, changes nothing.

Yes someone accused has rights; in the criminal justice system these include a presumption of innocence.  I support that.  In a legal system we do need to come from a position, most of the time, of proving guilt.  Being found guilty in the courts has massive repurcussions for the individual in the dock; not least often a serious loss of liberty.  Our society needs to be really really certain before enforcing that.*

But in activist groups we don't need to have mock trials and legal representation at the table.  The first thing we need to do is believe and trust women.  The second thing we need to do is put in place structures to address these types of concerns when they are raised.  With mechanisms already in place when something comes up there is already a clear path to follow in that immediate period when as a leader you are flailing around going "oh shit, I really wish that I hadn't heard that."  It changes the instant response from Make It Go Away *puts heads in hands* into This Needs To Go To There First *starts doing something*.

We basically rely on gossip to keep people safe in our activist groups.  That's not good enough.   When someone's behaviour is unacceptable it needs to be raised with them.  The earlier it is done the more likely it is that change will happen and harm will be lessened.  No one should have to confront an abuser alone.  Anyone should be able to approach others for support, and receive it, particularly amongst a group's leaders.

My experience to date has been male political leaders (not exclusively, but mostly) putting concerns raised by women (not exclusively, but mostly) to one side.   A sexist mathematical calculation which continues to see women's concerns about a man < the man's contribution to the cause.

This is the personal mainfestation of a broader political equation: Women's issues < so-called "mainstream" issues.  Abortion law reform, low rates of prosecutions and conviction for rape, pay equity, women's political representation.  They're all so-called "side issues."  We're told to roll our dainty sleeves up, put on the kettle, and help the fellas fix the Big Problems first, then we'll all pitch in on that other stuff.  The Cause is more important than the issues of any members within The Cause, or something.

It's bullshit. 

The very fact that we've been having a public conversation about these matters shows a commitment to change.  The bravery of those raising these issues (as they multitask and work on heaps of other great stuff too) gives me heart.  This is change we can make, we must make, and we are starting to make.  Let's keep going.

*  Actually I'm pretty dubious about how our criminal justice system approaches sentencing, but that's a bit off topic.


Anonymous said...

Just saying:

Thank you for not giving up with this issue. This kind of thing has been going on for years, and years, and little (if anything) changes.

The message is clear - women (and girls) don't matter except when our issues actually affect men. So we've got to make it affect men. By not buckling under, and god knows it's really hard on the women who bravely hold the line. I was there myself in the past. Shit pours down from all directions, including, sadly, sometimes from some of the other women in the activist movements. Victim-blaming won the day when I was young, and in the end when we failed to stop it, we moved away, sadder, and with our energy and strength sapped - and consequently, our energy and strength which was also removed from the causes we were fighting for.

In this latest example, I've been deeply disappointed in Joe Carolan and Matt McCarten. I've even come back to see if, finally, they've come here to answer for their actions and inactions, and I'm enormously disappointed that they haven't seen fit to.

You might think you are keeping quiet, but actually you're speaking volumes. And people are listening.

Anonymous said...

Well obviously sexism is just a capitalist thing, ergo Good Left Men cannot be sexist, or if they are, they'll stop once the Revolution comes.

Anonymous said...

I'm male and was involved in an activist group that disintegrated 20 years ago because we had 4 Omars in quick succession. (Omar part 1, The Pilot, Omar part 2, and Omar part 3). The group was one of those ones founded by an ever present individual with a very strong personality and a group of friends. The rank and file seemed to stay for a year or two before moving on.

I'd been recruited a year or so before by W (female) who I knew from overlapping social circles. I was on the periphery (having a job was sort of frowned upon and viewed as establishment but that is another story). Then I moved city and was only involved as a cheerleader.

W visited me in the new city and told me about her and The Pilot and said nobody was taking her seriously. I went ballistic and wrote (on paper - it was a long time ago) to the movers and shakers. All said mostly the same thing. Three comments in particular stuck with me.

B (male) said that The Pilot had given the group a computer and printer (a moderately big deal back then) so they needed him.

M (male) said that The Pilot and my friend had a previous history so 'it' probably was nothing.

K (female) said that The Pilot had a job and a car and said that was why she (K) had told W to be 'friends' with The Pilot.

W and I had also had a very brief fling and were now 'just friends' and that was why she'd come to couch surf (we later chastely flatted for the rest of the year). W told me she'd been 'instructed' to recruit me by whatever means necessary but assured me that it hadn't been entirely unpleasant. Ouch - there no salve for wounded male dignity.

Omar part 1 had happened just before my time and lead to an exodus and explained the need for the recruitment drive that had included me. People had left because the group founder has downplayed the seriousness of the 'incident' and convinced enough people to give Omar another chance leaving those who opposed this no option except to leave.

Soon after W visited, Omar part 2 happened. This time attempts to deal with Omar were thwarted because the group founder and several others had carried out some actions that were technically illegal. Omar threatened to go to the police unless he was allowed to remain.

Omar remained as a senior person and a core group of women (not in the group but sharing the social circle) made it a mission to warn all potential partners of Omar that he behaved poorly towards partners. Sadly one new recruit ignored the advice and the inevitable happened (Omar part 3). She later said she had thought the guards were just jealous of her and lying about wonderful Omar.

This final incident (more serious than previous ones) was the final straw. A short lived breakaway group formed but most people went on to other small groups. The group limped on fitfully for another year or so before settling down to a handful of men who issued the occasional press release for a further 5 years or so. I haven't heard anything for some time now.

What happened? A group leader was reluctant to take action against a long time friend and used the pretence of police action as a cover for inaction. Because there was such a strong leader nobody else was able to act decisively. Too many were too keen on The Cause to want to disrupt the group and besides, didn't we all support free love anyhow? I confess that this reputation was part of what had made me so eager to accept W's offer of recruitment and I confess that W was in fact my first lover so I had a strong attachment to the group ideology.

But since then I never got deeply involved in any group unless it had a diffuse structure – that is it wasn't driven by a small number of personalities and unless it had a clear policy to exclude people for poor behaviour. I found few groups and so I have been mostly inactive for the last 20 years.