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Activist Communique: Activists really know how to hurt each other

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Activists really know how to hurt each other.

Yes, there, I said it. Within our community, we have the amazing ability to be critically aware of our surroundings, the ability to analyze and discriminate between subtle differences, and tear each other to shreds with as much ease as we attack the likes of Stephen Harper. Same weapon, same intent.

It’s tragic to have to watch someone being attacked by their community and to be able to feel that people feel they can’t stop it for fear of retaliation. The smaller or more tight-knit the community, the greater the pressure drop when someone is attacked through the use of lateral violence.

These toxic attacks often include false assumptions about a person, which are stretched and twisted out of proportion, that there are times when the original charges have been forgotten over time.

And it’s not something that people within communities want to publically admit. For example, again within the activist community, that while trying to save the world, activists can be extremely cruel to one another.

It’s like they can’t turn their critical minds off. Or they can’t moderate the use of such a weapon against the people closest to them. Sure, it’s fun to score Zing Points against the likes of Stephen Harper. It’s not fun to be the target.

Even as a journalist, I have felt both the debilitating pain of being the one attacked by my community and the undignified helplessness of watching someone else from the community get attacked.

The term for this type of bullying within a community is “lateral violence.”

According to the Indigenous community group KweyKwey Consulting, “Lateral Violence occurs within marginalized groups where members strike out at each other as a result of being oppressed. The oppressed become the oppressors of themselves and each other. Common behaviours that prevent positive change from occurring include gossiping, bullying, finger-pointing, backstabbing and shunning.”

In the smaller, subgroup of Indigenous sovereignty and resistance, lateral violence is understood as, “Inter-generational wounding caused by residential school, oppression and marginalization has caused a hardening amongst people that is evidenced by the way we communicate and relate to each other and our children.”

That’s a really good way to describe it; that within a community there must be constantly hyper-vigilant against oppression so the community does not fall prey to the very thing it seeks to protect itself against.

Because lateral violence is a personal problem as well as a community problem, it needs to be dealt with from those two perspectives. Often the bullying is done in private and the aggressor will actually react with a nervous defensiveness when the victim/survivor seeks help from the larger community and brings the abuse into the light of day.

Often, the perpetrator will hide behind the excuse that they are the only ones willing to ‘tell the truth’ about a certain community member or about a risky situation. They will clothe themselves in a righteousness or at least the sense that they are just ‘doing their job’ by exposing a person’s faults to public scrutiny, potentially ruining lives.

As a journalist, I firmly believe that, “you can say what you mean without being mean,” but I’ve seen and heard really audacious comments about people splattered across Facebook walls or attempts at undermining someone at a meeting where they are actually present.

Regarding current activist organizing, in December of 2012, I witnessed a small group of women attempt to marginalize and discredit a demonstration/round dance being held in the Eaton Centre; to the point where these women went around alleging that participants of the demonstration would get beat up and arrested by mall security and the Toronto police.

These women went on to publically and privately urge people to not attend the round dance; which ironically was one of the strongest moments of the Idle No More movement as more than 800 people attended. No one was arrested and it was a beautiful display of passion and solidarity. As an ally, it was a beautiful moment. Thank the sky that truth and goodness prevailed. 

Communities are alive and represent the people who create and support them.

This is true regarding the myth within the activist community that activists are all moral, selfless creatures. They have the strong desire to create a narrative that includes casting themselves as great warriors and their political foes as the enemy.

They are used to hunting and bringing their political opponents to their knees -- whether a CEO of a major bank or a member of a white supremacist group.

As passively violent these accusations are towards those that warrant them, perpetrators will often use the same techniques to bring down internal political rivals. Sometimes, this jealousy can last for years as both sides battle using lateral violence as the strategy of choice.

In all actuality, long time activists can easily slip into a pattern of either being desensitized to aggressive, hurtful behavior or actually view the ability to shame and destroy their opponents as important assets and a skill they should hone.

It’s this ‘othering’ within a community that is dangerous and can lead to the participant being more and more socially isolated or even being exiled.

I can count on both hands the names of activists who have fallen out of favour with their community that eventually led to their forced or self-imposed exile. This is an extremely traumatic experience, and hopefully used only as a last resort when mediation fails.  

This mean-spirited behaviour, the consequences of lateral violence, start to add up over time, and begin to poison the community as a whole; adding another potential threat to a community as hostilities arise.

There is a good reason why I don’t refer to events as protests but as demonstrations. Protest implies conflict while demonstration (or manifestations as they are referred to in Quebecois) implies a manifestation or awakening of a public towards issues that affect them.   

It also seems that the less physically active or engaged the community is -- holding speaker series, demonstrations and other community events that keep them busy -- the more likely they are to turn that idle time to extreme introspection, which then can trigger the all-to-familiar cry for justice and righting wrongs.

Instead, a public commitment to stamp out lateral violence from the heart of communities is crucial for the health and vitality of any community around the world.

There are too many necessary battles that social justice activists have to fight that there is no time left to engage in lateral violence or social status maneuvering.

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