Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

14 Feb 2024, 12:00 p.m.

Categories Of Bad, Home, Coalition, And Theory of Change

(This is one of the "people are wrong on the internet!!!" posts I write to clear it out of my head. And then refer back to later in future arguments, in imagined triumph, as though "Well I conclusively demonstrated that YOU are WRONG more than EIGHT YEARS AGO in a POST on my BLOG" is going to change anyone's mind. Well, they aren't all gems of persuasion and grace.)

Categories can be important, especially when it comes to behaviors we abhor. And I believe that when we allow ourselves to be sloppy about labelling harmful actions, we make it harder to make the right decisions about how to deal with them.

I'll lay this out in more detail.

How it comes up

I hang out in groups that aim to avoid bigotry. We don't want to be bigoted, and we want to protect ourselves and others from bigotry coming from outside. And we know that dominant cultures tend to brush off and minimize bigoted things people say and do: "He didn't mean it" and "It's not a big deal". Further, we know that it's human nature to tend to give our friends the benefit of the doubt: "Well I know it looks bad but you have to understand the context!"

So we counter that with a practice -- sometimes deliberate, sometimes reflexive -- to notice and explicitly speak about even subtle bias that crops up. We want to root out not only blatant bigotry, but also the small pernicious ways systemic bias comes out in our words and deeds.

We should be on the watch for bigotries! And we should fight back in a variety of ways! But sometimes, I'm in groups where the following dynamic happens:

Person A: This bad thing happened. I hereby claim that it was abusive, or violent, or otherwise so abhorrent that we ought to shun or otherwise punish the person who did it, and/or that we should no longer make use of their work.

Person B: I am not sure I agree with the claim that the bad action deserves that particular label. Or: I am not sure that the response you suggest is appropriate.

[Person A and/or others]: It is illegitimate for you to doubt the accusation or the suggested response. Sometimes: It is illegitimate for anyone to ever try to make fine distinctions about those definitions, and to do so is an aid to bigotry.

And of course it's usually messier than that, with heated emotions, people moving goalposts, and so on.

The range of possible responses

I wrote a little of this while talking with other MetaFilter users about moderating misogynistic content, in case you want to read an example of this dynamic in action. And in that context, I said:

But when we differ in our names for various categories of bigotry then it's harder for us to get on the same page and then say "here's how we should react to this category" (like, delete category A + ban user, delete category B + warn user, delete a category C post + email poster to ask whether they can find a different source that isn't gross, heavily mod category D and support users who put out a Bat-Signal to ask for in-thread participation from people affected by that particular oppression, etc.).

More generally: when we differ in our names for a particular kind of bigotry, or when we lump together different kinds of biased actions, then we have a harder time making good decisions about how to react. And this is especially important in a group context, where we have to make shared decisions about whether to complain, delete, exclude, and so on. One way to understand our range of possible responses, within a voluntary group, is that they range from "no response" up through "dilution" and "complaint" till we get to "removal".

  1. Removal: Shunning, blacklisting, and/or boycotting the person, and possibly their work as well. They can't come in, and we pre-emptively decide to ignore any or most input they offer. We decline to let them buy our products or services, and we decline to buy theirs, as an organized form of pressure aimed at getting them to apologize or to change a specific policy. (I decline to call something a boycott unless it's organized this way; if it's an expression of disgust without a goal of changing the other person's behavior, that can be a fine thing to do, but it's not a boycott.) And we "de-platform" them, which is to say that we don't share or publicize their work in ways that would possibly benefit them.
  2. Complaint: We criticize the person or work, possibly in public and/or possibly in private conversation with them, with suggestions for improvement. I think of this as reporting bugs. Note that it's pretty hard to simultaneously do this while shunning someone. This approach assumes that we're probably trying to get the person to change, and that we're therefore willing to work at dialogue -- clarifying, suggesting ways they could improve, and so on. Or maybe we can't or don't want to put the energy into that, but we still want to warn each other about how it might hurt us to get mixed up with them.
  3. Dilution: We dilute one person's negative impact by ensuring that they aren't the only source of information other people get. We create and publicize better information from several perspectives, and encourage others to do the same. If the problem is that they agree with us about our core issue but disagree with us about secondary issues, then we pre-empt their impact by proactively explaining that we're a big tent, and that it's okay and expected for lots of us to hold diverse perspectives on non-core issues.
  4. No response: We don't, as a group, change how we treat this person and their work.

(I'm riffing off a blog post I ran across several years ago, "Quality Control in Movements" by Burgess Laughlin, which suggests a taxonomy of available "tools for individuals who are trying to minimize the effect of counter-productive members of a movement". It's by an Objectivist who's willing to use phrases like "false representatives of the movement" but I still found it thought-provoking.)

We can make different choices, depending on our goals and resources, depending on what the person is doing and how it affects us, depending on whether we'd like to help them change. And we can escalate as new facts emerge. If we lump together everything from "still has an announcement-only Twitter account even though the platform now is much friendlier to hate speech" to "explicitly discriminates against and foments hate toward women," and respond to them all with complete removal instead of ever using complaint or dilution or even no response, then ....

See, here is where my argument depends on your perspective. Because there is a stark difference, in what I have to explain to you, depending on whether or not you have ever been responsible for any institution that materially affects other people, especially people you don't personally know. "Institution" here could mean a recurring party, a social media site, an activist group, a widely used software project, a lot of things. Because if you haven't, then you may not understand why we even use options 2-4 in that list above. But if you have stewarded responsibility for an institution, then you've had to make decisions about complicated situations, balancing among different goals.

  • Should we host our event at a clean, accessible space that's near transit and available for free, even if it's run by a company that does some stuff we're opposed to?
  • Should we nurture new leaders by giving them more responsibility and autonomy, even if they're making mistakes that might drive other participants away or cost us money?
  • Should we provide transparency by telling banned users why we're banning them, given that some of those users will use that information to make new accounts and sneak around our restrictions with subtler bad behavior next time?
  • We already signed an expensive contract with a venue to host an event during a certain weekend, and then found out it conflicts with a religious holiday, or a newly announced general strike. Should we cancel?
  • We fired, banned, or otherwise disciplined someone who is now publicly telling lies about why we did that. Should we respond, in private or public? If so, how?

Home versus coalition

And this tension gets harder if you want to do any coalition-building! A couple of years ago, probably via Camille E. Acey, I found and read Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon's "Coalition Politics: Turning the Century" speech from 1981. As her site summarizes. "she drew an important distinction between the safe, home-like space that those challenging the status quo may need to bolster themselves and to help define their work, and the challenging, stretching, and often uncomfortable space of coalition-building." (I wish I'd read this and incorporated it into my phrasing before I gave speeches on the concept of "inessential weirdnesses" in open source outreach efforts.)

Dr. Reagon writes that you have to distinguish between comfortable, womb-like home spaces, which feed your needs, and uncomfortable coalitions, which you must feed. We ought to maintain both, but we need to recognize which kind of spaces we're in or which kinds of spaces we're building. And we need to recognize when what used to be a refuge has turned into a productive but often uncomfortable coalition, because that means we ought to shift how we operate, and make sure to build new refuges elsewhere to rest.

And we so often don't make that distinction. Which means we have conversations like this:

Person A: We are trying to make a safe space for [group x], which means not having to put up with [behavior z].

Person B: But we need to partner with and educate [group y] which means putting up with some amount of [behavior z] while we're in the process of teaching them not to do that.

Which is why it is good and necessary to have different groups, different spaces, with different shapes and goals. Some are informal and small and nameless. And they can sometimes do the best womb-like nurturing, while larger, more structured groups can be better at advocacy. To quote Marge Piercy's poem "The Low Road",

...Two people can keep each other
sane, can give support, conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organization. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fund raising party.
A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country....

Theory of change

So often, when I find myself a bit mired in disagreement or misunderstanding with someone else over an activist issue, I ask: what is my theory of change, and what is theirs?

"Theory of change" means: You have three things.

  1. An assessment of the way the world is
  2. A vision of how you want the world to look
  3. A hypothesis about some change you could make, work you could do, to move us closer from 1 to 2
    1. and, preferably, a way to check that hypothesis every once in a while, to see whether you're making progress or should switch to a new one

As the Beautiful Trouble handbook points out, you might come up with a few different hypotheses! And that makes sense to me. Different people and groups do different things that work toward the same goal in different ways. A refuge and a coalition, for instance.

Asking "what is your theory of change?" can be as irritatingly condescending as asking "what underlying problem are you trying to solve?" or "what's your business model?" with the same underlying subtext of "I'm asking because what you are saying sounds nonsensical." So I generally don't use those specific words.

But I do find it's a useful thing to work out. Where does this person disagree with me? Do we have different visions for a better world? Different assessments of the world we're in now? Different beliefs about what needs doing?

And: are they seeking home or coalition? What do they think this place is, when they defend it? And if maybe that means I ought to go make another thing that serves my needs, at least I know that's where I should start next.


Benjamin Rosenbaum
24 Feb 2024, 11:52 a.m.

A hundred percent!


1) I know you don't mean "refuge" and "coalition" as a binary, but I think it's worth stressing that a) it's very useful to have different spaces that attempt to be more of one or the other, but also b) it's "coalitions all the way down", and as Julia Serano points out in a great chapter of Whipping Girl, the idea of "safe spaces" as being concrete rather than aspirational can cause a lot of pain. Because in any moment where you say, "well we're all X, subject to oppression Y, therefore this space can be a refuge from it" you immediately find out that within your group of X there also exists axis of oppression Z and subgroups X1 and X2 such that X1 oppresses X2 along Z... and that Z is complicatedly entangled with Y in such a way that gives rise to feelings of betrayal. "But this was supposed to be a safe space!" One way of thinking of this is to realize that anything that's ever a refuge to you, may well be a tense coalition for someone in that same space.

2) I think it's important to stress that no-tolerance, "hardcore" policies very often have paradoxical effects. If you say "any instance of offense X will be rigorously responded to by sanction Y", you inevitably cause some underreporting of X. People won't report instances of X that are edge cases, or have some justifications (X was perpetrated in hurt response to previous offense W which has not yet been added to the list), or if they just want to continue hanging out with the person who did X, if they know there's going to be an oversimplified response to X. Of course, waffling about sufficiently bad X can also make people feel unsafe and drive them away, and sometimes you have to take a hard line. But it's important that your policies don't unnecessarily back you into a corner, making it impossible to flexibly think in the moment and pursue consensus, restorative justice, etc.

3) Because of these paradoxical effects, sometimes lower sanctions are actually more effective at creating sanctions than "tougher" ones.

4) All of this is SO much harder with anonymous strangers on the internet that it's almost an entirely different problem from a set of known people who have relationships to one another ... and people often overgeneralize from one domain to the other.

5) We also very often neglect the cost of enforcing standards on the leadership of whatever organizations, so that progressive organizations often just collapse from leader burnout. This is a structural advantage conservative social groups -- which value hierarchy and deference to authority and thus can at least in theory sometimes pamper their leaders -- have over progressive organizations where everyone instinctively wants to punch up and demand change, even if the "up" they're punching is in the direction of overworked harried volunteers, who then quit. I know a very few progressive organizations which actually have a culture of taking frequent time to love up, nurture, celebrate, and support their leaders and organizers (and each other), consistently, including in difficult times when those leaders are making mistakes. But there should be more. It is in fact totally possible to nurture and support people while also lovingly calling them to account and holding them to hard standards. We do it, ideally, with our children. But we're unused to doing it with other adults.

6) It does sometimes work for an ecosystem to simultaneously shun and correct someone. Indeed it can be an effective strategy: "listen, people are pissed and don't want to hear from you right now, but I actually want to help if you'll listen to me." Again, works better with long-term IRL relationships than with internet strangers.

Benjamin Rosenbaum
27 Feb 2024, 1:55 a.m.

edit to 3) ...more effective at creating safety...

7) I like it when people publish their theories of change, here's one I find very hopeful: