I attended portions of a zoom seminar this morning on “activist self-care.” Portions not because I flounced (this, as those who know me will attest, does happen) but because of technological issues and my steam-powered laptop not letting me into the break-out groups. So my “criticism” of the seminar (which was on the whole good!) is constrained by that – maybe they got to what I want to say, but it didn’t look that way. Here’s my two cents on what was “wrong” and what “we” (who that?) would need to put it “right” (and that, is, of course, a process not an event).
The structure of the seminar – and therefore the intelligent and compassionate contributions from those attending – was very much coming from an individual ‘coping’ strategy – the world is in a terrible state, and those who want to help unterribilise it are going to experience frustration, excessive demands (from others) and themselves.
The contributions (therefore) centred very much on ‘taking time away’, ‘having a buddy’, ‘delegating’, ‘breaking tasks down’ . These are ALL EXCELLENT AND ALL NECESSARY.
But also very inadequate. Because many people, for whatever reasons, can’t do those things. If they could, there’d be no need for these seminars. And in any case, there is an elephant in the room – which I mentioned in the chat function, but nobody responded to it, at least in the time I was on the call. It’s this:
There are pathological cultures and assumptions within “activism”. Until we recognise these, talk about them, and try to do something about them, then we are stuck with “coping strategies” akin to telling victims of domestic violence – “don’t do anything to set him off.” We need to think in systems here.
So, let’s take the eminently suggestible suggestion of ‘delegate’ as a way in to what I mean.
You could look at this from a psychoanalytic point of view (and I would recommend that as a starting point). Why DON’T people delegate? Well, when you delegate you lose control. And in this world, control – or the illusion of control – is something most of us struggle to have. We want to believe that we are brave, dedicated people who can rise to the challenges of being citizens in the 21st century. We know that there are many many people in far worse situations than ourselves, and we want to believe in our own power to overcome our doubts, our fears (Samuel Johnson wrote brilliantly about this in an essay called “What Have Ye Done?“)
There’s also the status issue – if you are known in your group(s) as The Person Who Does That Thing (be it the website, the lobbying, the coach-booking, the facilitating), well, delegating will lessen your status, if the delegation succeeds. And if the delegation does NOT succeed (and it often does not), your status will take a hit, as will your morale. David Rovics kinda nails it in “I’m a better anarchist than you“.
So we can’t talk about delegation, really, until we talk about the culture within most activist groups that accountability for performance, and respect for expertise, is somehow Hierarchical, Capitalistic, Oppressive, Fascistic etc. We all know people who are able to scoot along the edges (or even near the middle) of activist groups through charisma, optimism and other forms of social capital, but who either often don’t do what they said they would, or who do it badly (either through laziness/lack of focus or because they’re not actually quite as good at something as they, or others, think they are). And this can persist for… (checks notes) … indefinitely because the structures of accountability and performance assessment are essentially absent in activist groups. Until you “fix” that, only somebody who doesn’t care about their own morale or status, or the achievement of group goals, is going to delegate. Such a person is probably not really an activist, no?
Related to this – the question of breaking down a task into its component parts was suggested. YES. Good idea. But again – who is going to be the person checking in that a sub-task was actually done, in the timescale that matters, to the level required? This is going to require project management, volunteer management, time management and diplomacy skills that most of us lack most of the time, and cannot often deploy when we are tired, frustrated, etc.
Ultimately, there are few if any selection pressures (this is where the Darwin from the blogpost’s comes in). Individuals are aware that activist groups are so low on numbers, and lack accountability mechanisms that can be activated (I hesitate to type the word ‘enforced’) that a certain amount of free-riding is inevitable.
Now, the term ‘free-riding’ is of course offensive. It suggests that the “real” reason people don’t participate fully is that they have made a deliberate calculation that they will be able to get away with not doing what they are supposed to while still getting the benefits (of being in a group). In the vast majority of cases, I think, the reasons for under/non-performance are to be found in the group culture (lack of mentoring, lack of a specific job description, fear of outshining others etc) rather than in cold calculation.
So, unless groups are able to ask the following questions of themselves, and provide real answers, then the individual-coping-mechanisms stuff, while necessary, is ultimately totally insufficient.
- Does our group have a clear sense of what its mission is in the next few months?
- Is this mission realistic? (This can only be known when you know what resources – skills, knowledge, relationships, stability – your group has. Most groups don’t know this, so cannot answer this question!)
- What are the mechanisms by which our group measures whether any given task is being done effectively and efficiently?
- What are the support mechanisms in the group to help people who are struggling with the promise-delivery issue?
- Can these mechanisms be accessed by everyone, or are they really only available to the popular people in the group?
- What are the accountability mechanisms for dealing with persistent cases of under/non-performance (no, not an accusatory Star Chamber, an exercising in one-upmanship. But at some point, if someone is consistently not delivering and it is hurting the momentum, morale and credibility of the group, failure to take action is actually a decision to fail.)
- What collective resilience, collective morale maintenance mechanisms are in place for this group? (this does NOT mean compulsory singalongs).
For what it is worth, the group I am part of – Climate Emergency Manchester – is developing or has developed answers to many of these questions. We’re working on an “Active Citizenship Toolkit” to help ourselves and others with these questions, and others.