Power Dynamics, Abuse, and Violence, Inside Relationships and Inside Our Movements
I’ve been planning for a bit to share the link to this important article, by Courtney Desiree Morris and originally published at make/shift (try this link if the first one doesn’t work).I know that some of you have seen it shared previously, as have I, multiple times and from multiple continents and by people inside various movements — because the issue is that important and the problem is that common (even if not known to many of us, even if hidden, even if not talked about). Abuse — emotional, physical, and/or sexual — is a horrendous, debilitating experience for so many people on a personal level, whoever they are, whatever their background is, regardless of whether they ever open up about it, and regardless of whether they’re part of some kind of activist community. But as the in-depth make/shift article points out, there are also problems with the handling and dynamics of abuse that are specific to radical movements and the power structures within them. Inside branches of the animal rights movement at the moment, this is not a theoretical problem; it’s a real one. And the same is true for other movements as well.
Over at Vegans of Color today, Johanna published “Abuse Isn’t Vegan,” related to a situation in a publishing/zine community. I recommend reading her post, as well as clicking on the links within (such as this one); her post is the impetus for my finally publishing this.
I wrote the remarks that follow a few weeks ago, and because of personal emotional exhaustion, I’d been considering not publishing them — instead just posting the link to the first article and letting it speak for itself. But upon seeing Johanna’s post and commentary too and the posts to which she links, I’m going to put the words out there:
It is inexcusable that not only in society at large but also within anti-oppression movements, we continue to place the burden of proof on victims, that we continue to instinctively disbelieve and dismiss the victim because we want to believe the person whom we’ve placed on a pedestal, that we expect that survivor to repeat the traumatic story (or stories) over and over and over again in order to convince us that it is not a lie.
And it is inexcusable for anyone to suggest that we should ignore abuse and violence perpetrated by some members of movements and communities against other members supposedly because to acknowledge that abuse and violence would be “distracting” from the movement’s chief focus, supposedly because what is “personal” is not our concern. In AR specifically, either we are an anti-oppression movement, or we are not.
And I’m going to interrupt the flow of my original commentary here to insert a relevant extract from Johanna’s post. Her remarks are specific to the particular situation she is discussing, but just replace names and “zines” and “zinester” with the names and forms of activism and movements/communities of your choice; the same points, the same problems, the same responses come up everywhere:
People say, have said, will say: who cares, they [do] good [work]! We can’t boycott everybody! Every company[or person] has something bad about them! The good done by these [instances of activism] outweighs any bad done by [Abuser/Activist]! He said he’s sorry! Are we really sure [Victim] is telling the truth? It’s one person’s word against another! (& why, why should we believe women who say they have been abused?) She’s just jealous! It’s just blown-up [movement] drama! Blah blah blah ad nauseum.
It is difficult to come forward about abuse. It is more difficult when the person who has abused you is in a position of power, and you are vulnerable — which is, of course, a dynamic typical in abusive situations. It is more difficult when you know that people will not want to believe you. It is more difficult when the people who are supposed to be your community disbelieve you, dismiss you, and essentially victimize you again. We owe each other more than that; we owe more than that to the people who, despite all this, still find the courage to come forward. If those in an anti-oppression movement are not prepared to defend the vulnerable against the powerful within their own movement, if they are not prepared to do the difficult work of looking at situations objectively, if they are not prepared to defend the victim against the abuser when the victim is even one of their own, then they are hypocrites. And they are not part of an anti-oppression movement.
Finally, an extract from the make/shift article by Morris:
Time and again heterosexual men in radical movements have been allowed to assert their privilege and subordinate others. Despite all that we say to the contrary, the fact is that radical social movements and organizations in the United States have refused to seriously address gender violence  as a threat to the survival of our struggles. We’ve treated misogyny, homophobia, and heterosexism as lesser evils—secondary issues—that will eventually take care of themselves or fade into the background once the “real” issues—racism, the police, class inequality, U.S. wars of aggression [or in the AR case, speciesism]—are resolved. There are serious consequences for choosing ignorance. Misogyny and homophobia are central to the reproduction of violence in radical activist communities. Scratch a misogynist and you’ll find a homophobe. Scratch a little deeper and you might find the makings of a future informant (or someone who just destabilizes movements like informants do).
We must develop a model for collective accountability that truly treats the personal as political and helps us to begin practicing justice in our communities. When we allow women/queer organizers to leave activist spaces and protect people whose violence provoked their departure, we are saying we value these de facto state agents who disrupt the work more than we value people whose labor builds and sustains movements.
There is much more. Read it all here.
The only additional related matter I want to address right now, very briefly, is the focus on male-on-female abuse and violence. This article obviously looks at misogyny and gender violence and related current issues within radical movements specifically, but on the more general subject, I want to point out that it would be a mistake to assume or characterize all abuse in general to be a result only of misogyny, to assume that only men can be abusers, or to assume that abuse is unique to the heterosexual world. Despite the specific focus of this discussion, it’s important that we remember this, to avoid doing to one set of victims/survivors what we’re striving not to do to others — that is, marginalize, dismiss, and question the validity of their experiences, simply because they and/or their abusers do not look like what we would expect. (Indeed, we could have a conversation here regarding the much broader issues surrounding and underlying power dynamics, domination, othering, and so on, but that will have to wait for another time.)
*Image from Wikimedia Commons user Avanduyn