08 : Essays and Organisational Culture and Mental Health

Be Good to Your Comrades: Why Being a Prick is Counterrevolutionary

Submitted by jef costello on August 17, 2018

Is it just me or do anarchists have a tendency to be a bunch of pricks?

Actually, I know it’s not just me. Because I’ve had this conversation, in whispered tones, with a few other anarchists. And they agree.

Let me back up. Anarchists can also be some of the nicest people I know. Many pour their time and energy, sweat and tears, into building revolution— driven by the deep desire to make the world a better place. On the whole they are caring, altruistic, generous, and giving. But my goodness, can they also be harsh, condescending, and sometimes downright bullies.

This hurtful behavior mostly arises in political disagreements. Which means it arises quite regularly. Because anarchists get into a lot of political disagreements. Not least of all with each other.

I have a feeling, dear comrade, that you will be all too familiar with what I’m talking about. You see it in your own organization. You see it on the internet forums. Maybe you’ve seen it in yourself.

Why is this type of behavior so common? Is it because anarchists are used to having our ideas attacked so it’s put us in the habit of lashing out defensively? Is it because many anarchists are thick skinned (a helpful asset when you base much of your life on an unpopular view) and so we don’t realize that words and tones which wouldn’t phase us will hurt our thinner skinned comrades? Is it because we’re so full of bitterness about the current state of the world that we take it out on others? For some of us, maybe it’s that we have such distaste for hippies that we strive to be as unlike them as we can, including by disregarding all concern with (gag) “feelings”?

Whatever the reason, it’s got to stop. It hurts people. It can wound and even scar people. I know two anarchists who are seriously depressed in large part due to the pattern of interpersonal brutality in their organization. One frequently considers quitting because of it. I know of two others who refuse to join the organization because of bullying they either experienced or witnessed.

And so it is that interpersonal meanness by anarchists can, should, and must be recognized for what it is: counterrevolutionary. Why? Because it sabotages our efforts to create revolution.

When anarchists act like pricks they drive others away from revolutionary organizing. Nobody likes being around people who make them feel like crap. For those not driven away, this subtle bullying can beat us into a pit of depression and injured self-confidence, and it’s damn hard to meet the responsibilities of revolutionary activity when you’re depressed, or share your ideas in meetings or volunteer for challenging tasks if your self-confidence is in the toilet.

Meanness causes our numbers to be fewer and our comrades to be less effective.

Successful revolution requires that the vast majority of the working class embrace anarchism. This won’t happen if the extremely tiny minority who currently have anarchist politics push everyone else away because we don’t know how to have a political disagreement without resorting to humiliation or intimidation, or because we ridicule and ostracize those with political views we (rightly or wrongly) look down on.

This doesn’t mean we should not express criticism or disagreements. This is the only way to change minds. But always be friendly and respectful even— no, especially—during debate.

One way to deal with this problem is the anarchist principle of collective responsibility. If members of an organization see that someone is beginning to speak or act in a disrespectful way, it should be an obligation to intervene by pointing this out.

This need not have any purpose except to bring it to everyone’s attention. But formal consequences can be used if desired. Perhaps the second time someone is called-out they should be required to stop speaking and be bumped down a spot on the speaker’s list (giving them a chance to calm down and reflect before finishing whatever point they were making). A third warning could require being bumped down two spots, and so on—although at some point, if it isn’t letting up, perhaps they should be asked to leave the meeting.

If consequences are used, there might be a risk that calling-out the disrespectfulness of others be used dishonestly just to interrupt what someone was saying. In that case, a rule can be made that at least one other person must agree that disrespect is present.

It helps if someone is assigned the prime responsibility of being watchful of the respect level during a meeting. (This person should be someone other than the chair, because chairs have other things they need to pay attention to.) But anyone in the meeting should call-out disrespect as soon as they see it. And, like any role of importance, the role of respect-watcher should be rotated.

Things become more difficult outside of meetings during informal hang-outs, especially if they involve alcohol. With the respect-watcher off duty, the collective responsibility of the group to make sure interactions are friendly and respectful must be at the forefront of everyone’s mind.

If someone has a pattern of intimidating or humiliating others and it doesn’t show signs of going away even after ongoing intervention, this person should be expelled from the organization or at least suspended. Whatever assets they bring to the organization, it does more harm than good to keep a bully around.

This collection of articles is meant, in part, to help guide us in how we, as anarchists, can support our comrades who might be depressed or otherwise dealing with mental health issues. I believe the number one thing we can do is simply be good to each other. Let’s stop giving our comrades yet another
reason to be depressed.

A Proposal for Collective Accommodation

I am one of many class struggle anarchists with mental illness. I am a member of an anarchist political organization and have been for the past five years. In recent months, we have begun discussing developing a 'code of conduct' around member behaviour. Because my particular mental illness involves some pretty disruptive and inappropriate behaviour at times, I would like to explore some ideas on how organizations can accommodate people like me, while also maintaining the functioning of the organization. In my experience, this is generally not done well. So, for this piece, I would first like to lay out some of the pitfalls I have noticed organizations have come up against in addressing this. I would then like to make a proposal for 'collective accommodation' and explain why it might offer a better structure for support.

First of all, I would like to be very clear that I in no way wish to reinforce any stereotypes around people with a mental illness being disruptive or having behaviour that is problematic to others. For many, many people, this is not the case. For me, however, I am diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Briefly, BPD involves very extreme emotions, which tend to last very short periods of time. Due to painful and intense emotions, and often a tendency toward impulsiveness, many people with BPD struggle with issues such as self-injury, suicide ideation, drug/alcohol abuse, etc. For me, many of the issues and conflicts that come with being in an organization can be very difficult, and at times I have used these types of negative behaviours as ways of coping, with detrimental effects on others. So again, I would like to be clear that the ideas I'm proposing are in no way relevant to everyone who deals with mental health issues—but are to me, and potentially to other situations in various activist groups.

In my experience, anarchist/activist groups generally do a pretty poor job of dealing with disruptive behaviour, particularly when some aspect of mental health is involved. Generally, the trajectory I have seen is that groups tend to start out without any formal standards around behaviour, but more of an implied norm that everyone is expected to follow. When issues do emerge, groups tend to go one of two ways. One is to create some sort of 'code of conduct' setting out expectations around behaviour. Often, these conversations are presented as general, but are really in reference to a few members who are seen to demonstrate some sort of behavioural issue disruptive to the group. When a mental health issue is raised, little real support or understanding seems to be available.

Another way is to "accommodate" members who have disruptive behaviour by allowing them to remain in the group. Often, this accommodation looks like tolerating someone without truly including them (politically and/or in the social life of the group) or listening to their ideas. At times, it takes a very negative direction, when individuals who act in aggressive, demeaning ways toward others are allowed to continue to so, simply because these behaviours are attributed to a mental health issue. In the worst cases, I have seen individuals attempt to excuse oppressive (sexist, racist, etc) behaviour as a mental health issue, and get a pass—while alienating and oppressing others in the group.

In my view, both these approaches are flawed. Rather than addressing the complex balance of group and individual needs, they take an all or nothing approach—either the entire responsibility is on the individual to meet the standard or it is on the group to accommodate. They ignore the complexity of interactions—that the group itself may be a stressor, or that individuals may have other complex things going on in their lives. While different, both these approaches tend to have the same result of failing to offer real support and accountability.

I propose that, as anarchists, we can do better. Although it can be difficult at times, I think that 'letting the politics lead' with regards to what initially appear like personal topics—such as mental health—can be useful. In this case, I would draw on mutual aid and collective responsibility to propose a form of 'collective accommodation'. The model I propose would balance personal and collective responsibility to support members who struggle with selfregulation to meet standards that are realistic for them. It would also take into account that the organization itself and other members may act as stressors, and that a person's behaviour is not all on them. Finally, I believe it offers an ultimately positive view of people who struggle with mental illness, as it is both compassionate to their struggles and respectful of their strengths.

So, rather than a code of conduct approach—or perhaps, written in with it— the group would also allow individuals to take leadership in defining and getting support for their own participation. This would allow members to set realistic goals that don't expect perfect behaviour and accept and work with complex factors such as mental health. Some examples of issues that could be included might be:

1) Understanding: How does the individual understand their own behaviour and situation? What is important for other members to know? I think explaining what is behind certain behaviours might help other members be more sensitive to potential triggers, as well as understand generally what is at play.

2) Meeting strategies: Meetings can often be difficult. What are our expectations around conduct in meetings? What can the group put in place to better accommodate members who might be more easily overwhelmed? For example, changing meeting structures to allow for breaks during stressful topics. It is important here to talk about responsibility—is the individual responsible for deciding what they can or can't deal with? What role do other group members have?

3) Expectations around conflict: Conflict can be very triggering for many people. What can be put in place to make sure we are addressing the real political/strategic issues, without creating an unhealthy or unsafe situation for members? What responsibilities do different members take on in ensuring conflict is handled in productive ways?

4) Expectations around political work: Sometimes those with real barriers to participation, such as mental health concerns, are perceived as 'flaking out' when they don't complete tasks. At the same time, having to pick up extra responsibilities or dealing with the repercussions of important work not getting done can be stressful for other members. How do we manage this? What channels are available if we need to shift things around? How do we make sure everyone isn't stretched to their limit, so there is someone extra to take things on if it is too much?

There may be many others, depending on the particular individuals and situations involved. Generally, however, the principles would be to be realistic and not expect perfection; to try to understand and accommodate individuals; and to talk about sharing responsibility—accommodation doesn't mean making excuses, and having a mental illness doesn't mean that people are incapable. It may just mean we need support to participate. Implementing this model would also mean having difficult discussions around our limitations—potentially suggesting people seek professional support if needed, as well as looking at what behaviours—such as those that are overtly oppressive to others—we really can't tolerate, regardless of factors involved, and would require us to ask people to leave.

In most cases, however, the goal would be to offer support so that members not only remain in political organizations, but thrive in them. Despite some unique challenges that come as an anarchists who deal with mental illness, we also bring a whole lot of resilience, insight, sensitivity, dedication, and bravery from our life experiences to our groups and our political work. And all anarchists have a lot we can learn from creatively supporting and accommodating each other, lessons that will hopefully carry over into broader struggles.