None of us are perfect. Any of us can get on someone’s nerves. But we know that there are proven and effectives ways of addressing the stresses of normal working relationships from effective listening to external mediation. In the ebb and flow of getting along and working together to achieve common goals we normally do what is necessary to get along so that we actually accomplish something.
However there is one area that, especially within the broader progressive community, where good will and a joint desire to accomplish something can not be addressed using the skills we’ve long practiced—and that is dealing with individuals whose behaviour is damaging to the community they are a part of.
Communities that I am a part of are being torn. One is having to deal with a woman who leaves long vicious phone messages, has run websites to attack the reputation of other activists, who has repeatedly claimed persecution that has not occurred and in other ways targets a small number of activists—almost exclusively male. Another community has been harmed by a leader who has been charged with possession of child pornography, a charge that adds to the problems his alcoholism has caused.
Addressing these problems with the individuals, directly and yet compassionately, failed. Ultimately, in the case of the woman police have been called and she has been convicted of various offences as a result of her actions. Ultimately, the community leader has been removed from all levels of authority in an organisation he had worked hard to nourish.
But before we reached this point we had we contributed to the problems. We excused behaviour, we tried to ignore difficulties, we tried to be inclusive and supportive when destructive behaviours were exhibited, we justified to ourselves and others activities we knew hurt others…In short, we exacerbated the problems, helping to create the situation where lasting harm both to the individuals and to the communities they are a part of came about.
We make assumptions that progressive and faith communities are composed of individuals who can cope for the harmful behaviour of others. Clergy are expected to accept abuse from those in their pastorate; advocates of non-violence are supposed to accept being the target of abuse from others that claim to share the vision. Much of what is hidden under the label “burnout” is the erosion of one’s self confidence by being the target of abuse and harassment.
We need to consider making the difficult decisions to refuse to work with certain individuals long before their actions lead to pain and division. Firm expectations of appropriate actions and expressions of views need to be in place. The alternative is all too apparent—strong organisations that fragment because individuals use the community as a haven where what would not be acceptable behaviour by one’s opponents is justified by one’s friends and acquaintances.
Some of the more egalitarian communities, such as the Quakers, practiced shunning to ensure that the community could actually be diverse and inclusive. This may be contradictory in appearance, but if one individual is acting in a way that drives away others and limits the voices and actions of others then what is collectively possible is deliberately being undone by the actions of a destructive individual..
The broader progressive community is made up of a tapestry of organisations and movements composed of individuals who freely choose to come together. This entire fabric is frayed when we do not address the problems of difficult people.
The consequences of tolerating destructive behaviour are huge. Organisations fragment, confidence is weakened, people are hurt. The effect on the woman whose actions are tolerated should not be overlooked. If we reinforce harmful behaviour, do we not convince everyone that causing harm to others is acceptable? Do we keep justifying worse and worse behaviour until something very bad happens, a path that could have been changed if we responded earlier? Would the woman facing charges of breaching probation been helped more if 15 years ago people told her that her behaviour and views were not acceptable? Would the man whose actions lead to charges and a marring of his work avoided his current crisis if he’d been required to address his drinking problem 15 years ago, when it was known but not addressed by his friends, employers or faith community?
We do no one a favour by tolerating destructive behaviour in our communities.
We also do no one a favour by criticising those that respond to the abuse is ways such as having charges pressed after dealing with months of harassment or by removing from office someone with real substance abuse problems. The right to freely associate includes the rights of people to individually or collectively cease to freely associate with those whose behaviour is harmful.