Since January, I’ve been working with a number of comrades in the Chicago DSA to imagine what it would take to create systems of collective accountability for our chapter. In practice, this would mean the construction of a number of formal and informal methods that we as organizers can turn to whenever we’re facing interpersonal conflict, particularly as it stems from the different places we come from as we work towards social transformation. This work has emerged from a number of observations I’ve made since formally joining the organization last year, and particularly my concern about the lack of a system for dealing with interpersonal issues that do not reach the level of harassment. While we all experience plenty of forms of conflict that do not fit the descriptions of harassment outlined in DSA’s national grievance policy, passed as Resolution 33 at the 2017 National Convention, those kinds of miscommunications and interpersonal misunderstandings create sources of tension and confusion that can derail great organizing before it can even get going.
I want the DSA to be an organization that challenges all forms of oppression, whether they’re occurring in the wider world or within our own ranks. Doing this is a matter of upholding our principles and practicing sound organizing to insist that we stay mindful of the ways in which we embody lifetimes of socialized attitudes and belief systems that can unconsciously subvert our deeper goal of collective liberation. In this regard, I’ve been particularly challenged by the comments of several other male-identifying socialists in the wake of the #MeToo movement, implying that socialist men are somehow different or better than others. Though these attitudes are not the only reason I’ve wanted to help build better accountability systems for our chapter, I’ve seen male-socialized folks occupy organizing spaces in ways that, often unwittingly, make it harder for female and non-binary folks to participate equally.
To ignore the possibility that the ways we’ve been socialized could have detrimental effects on our organizing work is to miss countless examples, both today and throughout history, of once-promising coalitions and organizations torn apart by interpersonal conflict—not because such conflict can be avoided (it can’t), but because different comrades were unwilling to understand how their material behaviors could continue to hinder radical action when they felt their intentions were just. That’s why I’m asking for your help: while I’m hoping to find ways of implementing some of the principles I’ll describe in this piece throughout our chapter with workshops and other programming as one of the chapter’s new Harassment Grievance Officers, this work won’t succeed unless many members find value in creating better ways of handling interpersonal conflict, addressing one another’s mistakes fairly and honestly, and building toolkits that allow us to handle these issues beyond the boundaries of the DSA.
It’s important to articulate that I don’t want the act of looking inwards and practicing self- and collective accountability to become an excuse to navel-gaze. We all inhabit this world with varying levels of privilege, and we all make decisions at one moment in order to survive this harsh world that may not fully align with our deepest-felt principles, simply because we had no other choice. (Thanks, capitalism!)
What’s important to me is that we focus our energies as an organization at the specific, concrete moments in which the ways we’ve been socialized can cause harm within our organization. Making active efforts to unlearn white supremacy, patriarchy, transphobia, class privilege, etc. should be central to our development as caring activists. But when it comes to devoting chapter resources to dealing with conflict arising from interpersonal difference, I’m more worried about the tangible instances in which these issues arise—far better that way to have mutually recognizable actions that can be discussed, analyzed, and learned from. At the same time, I hope that we can create more subtle, loving mechanisms by which we show one another that we’re invested in one other’s well-being, and that we continue to make time for this work, not just because we want to transform the wider world, but because we can show up for each other in the here-and-now in ways that we don’t always expect from one another under capitalism.
With that in mind, the following is a list of basic principles that I hope may guide future conversations on how we manage the differences that come between one another. These are simply a set of initial observations and desires that I hope to set forth to get a conversation started. If any of this resonates with you, or troubles you, or otherwise encourages you to help develop these thoughts into practice, please reach out.
Conflict is not abuse
We are organizing a multi-tendency, multi-racial, class-diverse, gender-inclusive community, all oriented around broadly similar goals of social transformation along democratic socialist lines. Inherent in that work will be disagreement, for a number of reasons, which can too easily be (mis)interpreted as abuse by those involved. But as Sarah Shulman writes in her incredibly insightful book Conflict is Not Abuse, “When we are in the realm of Conflict, we can move from the Abuse-based construction of perpetrator and victim to the more accurate recognition of the parties as the conflicted, each with legitimate concerns and legitimate rights that must be considered in order to produce just resolution.”
Particularly with comrades coming from many different social backgrounds, it is important to recognize that conflicts, misunderstandings, and inadvertent harm are a core component of what we should expect from the change we’re pursuing. Rather than minimizing conflict or denying its possibility, we should constructively engage moments of dispute, viewing them as opportunities for growth, rather than excuses to take sides or double down on our original positions. Holding ourselves open to loving criticism from comrades who may view the world differently than we do, for any reason, is integral to our thriving as a community, as well as our individual and collective political consciousness. It will also ensure that we create the kinds of bonds that can withstand many kinds of adversity, whether a product of interpersonal conflict or as we face resistance in working to transform the world.
Loving self-criticism in the form of vulnerability can be healthy
In our current society, we’re all too often expected to show others only our polished, complete, actualized selves. Vulnerability and weakness contradict the notions of the self-regulating, entrepreneurial neoliberal subjects we’ve been molded into: people who are capable of working endless hours at low pay with no benefits, somehow still capable of finding enough free time to enjoy life and sustain ourselves physically, to say nothing of being effective organizers. But while we all know this is a fantasy, we don’t often enough affirm that for one another. So many of us are left feeling isolated, overworked, and divorced from the communities that allow us to be honest about our shortcomings in a way that gives room to grow and to heal, frequently draining our mental and physical health.
So rather than continuing to pretend in our organizing spaces that we’ve got it all put together, we should instead emphasize our foremost concern for one another’s well-being, recognizing the daily toll that living under capitalism can have on all of us. Seeing one another for our humanity, and giving ourselves space to be honest about our weaknesses, too often exacerbated by the society we live in, is vital to changing ourselves within the struggle for a better world. We can be too hard on one another all too easily—we unconsciously apply the same standards that our bosses apply to us, without recognizing that in part we need to organize because we just need other people who don’t only expect us to always be producing more and more. But that vulnerability doesn’t come easily: as Shulman says, “Sometimes ‘telling the truth’ means representing one’s self as flawed or mistaken, and there is often punishment for this productive and generous act.” Let’s push against that within our ranks.
Online conflict needs to be mediated IRL
One of the most self-destructive tendencies we still have yet to shake is straight-up internet trolling. It’s not as if good-faith debate and discussion is not possible on platforms like Twitter, of course. But all too easily there’s the possibility that such digital spaces can become extremely toxic, with people hiding behind their handles while launching diatribes against their supposed comrades. This is particularly worrisome as we continue to try to grow as an organization: if someone wants to join our organization, but sees its members tearing one another up on the internet, what’s really going to entice them to join our ranks, if all they see is nasty, vitriolic trolling going back and forth?
In these circumstances, I believe the only recourse is to get two (or more) parties to come face-to-face. Not being able to hide behind a screen helps us see that we can’t simply use our words without consequence, even if the stakes somehow feel lower online. While I don’t expect to try and mediate every single conflict that involves chapter members, I think this is an important principle, and one that would likely target conflicts that have also existed IRL as well.
Good faith is necessary, but it must be earned
As a basic principle, it is vital that we as socialists are capable of granting others the trust that they are acting with good and honest intent, and that they have a reason for their actions, whether we can see them or not. When this basic framework of trust is frayed, we lose our ability to struggle together, particularly when building campaigns that may include risky decisions such as direct actions. While holding out this sense of good faith in one another is necessary to the health of our chapter, it is also something that must be actively built and sustained—it cannot be assumed as permanent. Particularly for anyone involved in settling conflict between other members, ensuring that we are actively aware of whether we deserve the trust of those we’re working with is essential to the long-term success of our movement. If people lose faith that we’re acting with the ultimate aims of repair, resolution, and transformation, it will be difficult to convince them that their voices and needs are being heard.
Collective shunning is unjust
There will be circumstances in which an individual’s behavior is so harmful that the most effective recourse will be to ask them to leave the chapter completely. If actual abuse has taken place, and if the abused does not feel safe inside a chapter that allows their abuser to remain within its ranks, we should consider seriously the policies outlined in Resolution 33, which can ask for the expulsion of a member in cases of serious harm done.
But while we should not ignore the potential need for this course of action, we should also consider the harm that’s caused by the decision to collectively shun, ignore, or otherwise sideline other members’ activities within a chapter when their actions have been deemed wrong for whatever reason. Especially if a member has not committed an act of harassment as outlined in Resolution 33, but is involved in some form of conflict that implicates other members of the chapter, it is imperative that chapter leadership ensures that all parties understand their role and responsibility in what has transpired. Even if the parties in direct conflict have a difficult time of reconciling after the fact, we should do our best to ensure that no person is further excluded from chapter activities, whether formally or informally, simply because a group of other members no longer feel like engaging them, whether justly or unjustly. Dealing with these sorts of interpersonal differences with clarity and a sense of mutual understanding, with a particular attention to any power imbalances amongst involved chapter members, will allow us to sustain the growth of our organization over the long term and ensure that all members feel heard and understood.
Our goal is transformation, both personal and collective
We cannot change the world without changing ourselves. Engaging in collective struggle opens us to see how our own perspective integrates with those around us, deepening our understanding of the world and the truth that fighting for those most vulnerable will lift us all up. Trusting one another to be impacted by the work we’re doing together means that we see our relationships within our organization as crucial to the organizing we’re doing to change the world beyond our chapter. We joined DSA knowing that it was a unique space to meet Leftists of many different persuasions and backgrounds, and in holding ourselves open to changing alongside our comrades, we become more capable of carrying out a shared vision of a more just, caring, transformational vision of the world together. I’m reminded of a quote from Octavia Butler, brought to my attention in the incredible book Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown: “All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you.”
I hope the above goals help frame some initial conversations within our chapter on why we need to create systems to deal with conflict resolution in healthy, growing ways. The goal is to grow as comrades, creating the bonds of solidarity that will allow us to endure what will undoubtedly be years of ongoing, tireless struggle. If anything above resonated with you, and you’d like to get involved in this work, please reach out to me at Tanner.J.Howard@gmail.com.