Problematic Ways of Dealing With Problematic Behavior

I think understandably, there is a lot of negativity in the radical movement. The atrocities that the system produces are on display everyday, and to varying degrees all of us have directly felt the effects of this white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, settler colonial, capitalist, ableist, sizeist, ageist society. There is so much worth fighting against, but what I have seen myself and others do too often, is take the aggressive mentality essential in challenging structural systems of oppression, and apply it to interpersonal relationships, where it is really not effective. I have seen and heard the tales of “fucked up”, privileged, ignorant behavior, to panels or presentations without the strongest analysis of power and privilege. But what I have not seen enough of are responses that recognize that mistakes are inevitable, and that help people move forward so that they will be less likely repeat those same mistakes.

Now being an extremely privileged person, there have been few times in my life that people’s language and behavior has felt personally oppressive (that they are oppressing me), and I am not here to tell anyone how to react when one’s own identity/body is marginalized, silenced, or attacked- it is not the responsibility of the oppressed to educate the oppressors. What I want to address is how those of us who share in a particular form of privilege could engage with one another when problematic behavior comes up, for example how I (a white person) could react when a white friend is considering wearing an Indian headdress for Halloween.

My most common reaction is silence, accompanied by judgment, which I then vent to others at a later point in time. This is common behavior for me at public discussions, or during the question period after panels. And when I do challenge people on problematic ways of thinking it seems to inevitably come out with a “look at how much more I know about anti-oppression politics than you do” kind of vibe. I also hear phrases such as “that was fucked up!” and “check your privilege” tossed around a fair bit. None of these strategies create meaningful dialogue, or help anyone move towards safer space and stronger movements. It is so important to realize that no one has the perfect analysis, most of us have privileges in some areas, and that we are all in the process of learning.

The ethic in these situations feels ironically similar to the (il)logic of the prison industrial complex, which so many are trying to dismantle: if I punish someone, they will learn from their mistakes. If I expose someone, the shame of their transgression will keep them from repeating their actions. Of course I’m not seriously comparing the effects of being locked in a cage to getting a few harsh words from a comrade, but what I’m getting at is that a culture of fear does not breed change. If I start a conversation in attack mode, the natural response is probably going to be defense mode, which is usually not the best mind set in which to be taking critique and making reflection. If folks coming into my circle are always afraid of saying something “fucked up” and then don’t say anything, they will most likely never get a chance to properly deconstruct the thought process that brought about the thought in the first place, and perhaps continue to think in problematic ways, hindering the work they are doing, and undermining the potential of a collective movement that benefits everyone.

What I strive for myself, and what I want from my community is a transformative justice approach to dealing with friends who act in ways we don’t agree with. Why don’t I approach people and say “I don’t know all the answers here, but what you said felt pretty weird, can we talk about it?” or “I used to think the same way, so I totally see where you’re coming from, but I think that way of thinking is problematic because…” Each person has been influenced by different contexts, and we were all exposed to radical ideas with the help of others, so expecting perfection from our comrades (or ourselves for that matter) is guaranteeing a stagnant, static movement, exiled to the sidelines of power.

The Revolution Starts at Home is a fantastic zine on the very serious issue of partner abuse within radical circles, looking at strategies to truly support survivors, while holding perpetrators accountable, which often requires a support system for the perpetrator as well. Considering the use of maintaining the humanity of all members involved in some of the most horrific of situations, with the goal being to create strategies for the perpetrator to actually change their behavior, there is absolutely no reason we cannot do the same under much lower stakes.

I do want to mention however, that as stories from The Revolution Starts at Home show, it can be extremely difficult or impossible to keep people accountable. There will be those friends who it will take many conversations to change, or will always dismiss critique from others. We have to be strategic about who we are trying to grow with, and where we put our time and physical/emotional energy.

A culture of collective education, respect and love is what revolutionary movements need, not out of liberal ideologies that the world would be a better place if we all just loved each other more, but out of the idea that these things are an integral part of becoming stronger together, and to creating radical change.

A couple brief endnotes:

1. Hand in hand with people being more strategic in their commentary, is the need for people to be open to receive commentary. Someone bringing up your mistakes does not make you a mistake. Take time to reflect on people’s comments, and try not to take it personally. In that spirit, if you have comments on this article, things you liked, completely hated, send them my way!

2. Thanks to folks from Catalyst Project for giving me pretty good real life version of these practices, and supplying me with interesting literature which influenced this piece, such as Tema Okun’s White Supremacy Culture. And thanks to the person who first exposed me to radical ideas, for the most part with impressive patience.