Conflict, Abuse and Privilege

Links to an article entitled “Activist Scenes are No Safe Space for Women: On Abuse of Activist Women by Activist Men,” have been passed around various progressive and activist email lists in the last few weeks. I finally had a chance to read it today, and I was very affected, impressed and disturbed.

I was disturbed because I’ve seen or heard many of the behaviors and rationalizations that the author, Tamara K. Nopper, details.

Tamara Knopper very accurately points out ways that people who experience the abuse are minimized and their abusers escape responsibility. Here’s just a few passages that resonated as too familiar:

WhatÂ’s scary is that I know activist men who were abusing and manipulating female activist and at the same time, writing position papers on sexism and competition between women. …

Not only do activist women have to confront and negotiate their abuser in activist circles, they must usually do so in a political community that talks a good game but in the end could give a shit about the victimsÂ’ emotional and physical safety. …

For example, when I was sharing with an activist male my concerns about how an activist female was being treated by an activist male who held a prominent position in a political group, the man “listening” to my story said in that voice, “Oh, sheÂ’s probably just mad ‘cause he started dating someone else” and went on to make fun of her. … More, his comments revealed an attitude that assumes that if activist women take issue with activist men, they are “crying abuse” to cover up hidden sexual desires and anger over being rejected by men who “wonÂ’t fuck them.” …

I have even seen some situations where abusive men become adopted, so to speak, by other activists, who see rehabilitating the man as part of their project and think little about what this means for the women who are trying to recover. In some cases, the male activist abuser was adopted while the woman was shunned as “unstable,” “crazy” or “too emotional.” …

More, many of these abusers use the language, tools of activism and support by other activists as means to abuse women and conceal their behavior. And unfortunately, in a lot of political circles, regardless of how much we talk about patriarchy or misogyny, women are sacrificed in order to keep up “the work” or save the organization.

The positive thing I can say is that our IMC is actively working on our mediation and conflict resolution procedures, learning from our experiences and trying to improve them in general. We are trying to address the fact that there are issues and instances of immediate safety and welfare that need to be dealt with quickly and with sensitivity to people who are threatened or in danger.

Our IMC also has a group working on climate issues — recognizing that policies and procedures alone will not solve problems that stem from sexism, misogyny and racism. That group is trying to address the fact that attitudes, behaviors and conduct have to reflect the principles of equality, anti-racism and anti-patriarchy. They’re working to explore how good attitudes, behciors and actions can be fostered and encouraged.

Those things are good, but they alone can’t be enough.

That’s the reason for my final point: Privilege.

Most of us in activist and independent media circles are pretty privleged people, especially white, middle-class American men like myself. It’s incumbent upon all people of privilege to examine it and recognize our responsibility for the harm it causes for those with less privilege, whether we want, endorse or personally create that harm.

Unforunately, all my talk here is kind of abstract. However, I just read a zine that I think really does a good job of putting some of these ideas into words. That zine is titled “Excuse Me, Can You Please Pass teh Privilege,” by Josh Russell. My partner ordered us a copy from Microcosm Distro, and I’m glad she did. I can’t recommend it enough.

Confronting your own privilege and attempting to deal with it is a personal struggle, but it is also a public and political one.

The reason I’ve combined these topics–conflict, abuse and privilege–is that I’m seeing more every day how privilege, especially the exploitation of privilege, is a base element in so many situations of abuse and conflict.

I think many activists see this dynamic as it plays out in politics, but do not take a hard enough look at how it plays out in their own lives and communities. Or how much they take advantage of privilege’s power themselves in ways that are exploitive and harmful to the people around them.

Abusers have privilege, which gives them power, which they exploit and use to manipulate and control. If we question privilege itself, I think it’s one notch we can take out of this toxic formula.