Respect for Differences

Many collectives are aware that they need to do better in addressing racism, sexism, and homophobia within their own ranks, but too many fail to address the reality that lack of respect for differences does not start with its ugliest and most glaring manifestations but is present whenever room is not made for another person’s viewpoint, situation, or life experience.

Prejudice does not come in separate compartments. It’s not okay to be against racism, sexism, and homophobia but be indifferent to xenophobia, ageism, nationalism, classism and the myriad other ways that people are suspicious of and discriminatory toward one another.

The hand-wringing and self-blame that collectives engage in as an attempt to address their own internal problems with insensitivity are unlikely to yield useful results. Tolerance begins with the acknowledgement that people other than ourselves may see things differently than we do, and suspending judgment while those with whom we may disagree or whose point of view we may not understand are given a forum to explain their perspective and are actively listened to. No one can presume to know how someone’s life has shaped him or her. Group dynamics fail to respect differences whenever assumptions are made about another person.

Collectives that are built around a particular issue are often quite homogenous. Members would like to embrace differences, in theory, but when they’re actually confronted with someone whose life is unlike theirs, many find it difficult to see beyond their own limited experience. A dissimilarity as slight as an awkward social manner, imperfect language skills, or a reticent personality can be enough to cast someone as weird or tiresome, and her opinions therefore pre-judged as unimportant. When we do poorly even at accepting personal differences and quirks, how can we expect to reach out to one another across broader differences that arise from race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, and gender?

In a collective that is, for example, made up primarily of college students or recent graduates, an older person with a family to take care of can be shut out of the group’s work simply by scheduling meetings at night, when he has to be home to put the children to bed. Members’ disabilities are also often unacknowledged by healthy people: it’s hard to put oneself in someone else’s shoes and realize it may be hard for a person to attend regular planning for events or work late hours. When a member cannot contribute fully to a group’s activities, he may be left out merely due to careless disregard for his difficulties: “Well, you weren’t there so we decided to do it this way.” Or, worse, groups may consciously and deliberately marginalize those who don’t do as much work or are not present as often, without giving any consideration to the individuals’ circumstances. Illness, family, work commitments, and financial situations are all differences that an egalitarian collective must attend to if it is to truly operate by consensus.

Members of any group who don’t have a computer are often rendered into nonentities because they cannot participate in email discussions. Many times no one even bothers to keep them apprised of events and meeting times. A computer is a tool that costs approximately $1000, plus a monthly internet subscription. Assuming that everyone in a group, especially a political collective dealing with issues of economic inequality, should be able to afford such a luxury is completely at odds with the realities that social activism exists to address. A collective cannot function by consensus when some of its members are systematically excluded from its activities.

On a related matter…

Using ugly societal ills like racism and sexism as a pretext to assassinate the character of perceived enemies is reprehensible. When a fellow collective member has acted inappropriately, his particular actions should be addressed by the complainant. Calling him a sexist, even when it’s arguably true, is unhelpful in resolving conflicts. Such charges are impossible to defend against: being sexist is too ugly to be excused, therefore no one can go to the person’s defense without appearing to condone sexism, and too unspecific to be refuted. As a result, all dialogue, which is necessary in order to come to an understanding of the issue and seek fair solutions, is silenced. An allegation of sexism or racism can be used as a ploy specifically to silence dialogue and force group censure or ostracism against an undesirable individual. If, instead, an offender is confronted with specific bad behaviors, the possibility exists that he will understand his mistakes and work to rectify them. After that hurdle has been crossed, it may well be appropriate to address whether his actions were the result of broader racist or sexist beliefs and to discuss the role that sexism and racism play within the collective’s interactions.

Please send your comments and suggestions to:

"Is This What Consensus Looks Like?"

"Is This the Just Society We Want to Model?


[Why This Booklet?]
[Introduction to Consensus]
[The Particular Vulnera-
bility of Collectives
[Power Sharing]
[Red Flags to Guard Against]
[Ploys To Subvert Consensus]
[The Problem With Politeness]
[The Need For Kindness]
[Creating Pariahs]
[Respect for Differences]
[Personal vs. Group Issues]
[Micro-Managing Behaviors]
[Skepticism is Healthy]
[There's Hope]

[A Model for Justice?]
[The Dearth of Due Process]
[What About Free Speech?]

[Codifying the Collective Process]
[Relinquishing Control of Projects and People]
[Staying True to the Mission]
[What’s a Lone Person to Do?]







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