Creating Pariahs

One of the ugliest and most reprehensible tendencies that we've seen in egalitarian collectives is the creation of pariahs: A small group decides that some individual is undesirable, then he is singled out for vilification and expulsion. This practice might seem odd for groups supposedly founded on equality, mutual respect, and acceptance, but it happens remarkably often. In fact, this matter deserves a much more thorough treatment than it will receive in this brief chapter.

Often this process of expulsion is justified by reference to the anarchist notion of "banning." According to a typical anarchist vision, people will live or operate in small groups with no leadership, making all community decisions by means of direct democracy. (In other words, everyone should be able to participate in such decisions and, ideally, consent to them.) If somebody somehow sabotages the community or otherwise causes or threatens serious harm, there are no police or other authoritarian forms of enforcement to handle the matter; therefore, the best way for the community to deal with the offender is to simply, democratically banish her. This practice is said to be less authoritarian than the conventional methods of criminal justice and attendant imprisonment, since the person is still free to seek out association with other communities. The crucial factor that is often overlooked by present-day collectives is that banning is meant to be reserved for extreme, dangerous, or criminal behavior, not as a way to get rid of someone whom some group members simply find annoying or inconvenient.

It's normal for people sometimes to be obnoxious or awkward. The basis for collectives founded on equality is that people have the right to be themselves, regardless of whether their attitudes make them popular or not. That is not to say that members have to accept being mistreated by boors. If somebody is bothered, he or she should let the offender know that such behavior is bothersome and ask that it change. It may not, in fact, change, in which case these two people simply must find a way to put up with each other. Human interactions are rarely perfect.

What so often happens, however, is that one or both people will make a federal case of the issue, start slinging accusations fast and loose, and demand that the collective intervene to remove the supposed culprit. It is not uncommon for members to be sleazily manipulated so that one side might gain advantage over the other. A hapless person who wouldn't think of devising strategies or masterminding plots may suddenly find that she is universally hated, perhaps without even knowing why. Sometimes secret meetings are held, without the knowledge of the accused, at which the attendees will hatch a plan to ostracize her. Usually, this is done for no other reason than that the complainants are too cowardly to confront the person directly and simply ask her to alter her demeanor.

Many times a person who is expelled does not even know what he has done wrong and might very well have corrected himself if only he'd been told about the offending behavior. Too often groups gang up against someone only because he has awkward social skills and unwittingly comes off as impolite or bossy. Do we need to say that this does not constitute consensus? We've seen junior high students who behave more maturely.

An uglier form of creating pariahs occurs when a domineering member or faction intentionally seeks to discredit and eject someone whom they consider a threat to their hegemony. Sometimes, someone is targeted this way after she has been outspoken in condemning the control that the self-appointed elite has wrested from the collective. In other cases, however, the targeted person may have merely insisted that the group follow proper democratic procedure. If taken seriously, that recommendation might have the potential of removing power from the leading faction -- therefore, it must be suppressed.

The easiest way to impeach the credibility of a dissenter is to accuse him of having a personal grudge against the person he is calling to task. The manipulator can then bait the dissenter with personal insults, and if the poor soul is ruffled and responds in kind, our Machiavelli will have proven her case: "See? He is just out to get revenge on me -- that's what all of this has been about!"

There is never a wrong time to call into question someone's actions as they relate to the integrity of the collective's process. In fact, it is every member's responsibility to do so if and when he feels the situation calls for it. Unfortunately, few people ever do. People find it easier not to stick their necks out to speak out on what they think is right. They may even join in the condemnation of a dissenter, because they don't like to have their little bubble jostled. They may readily agree that the troublemaker is not raising an issue but making a personal attack. Consensus cannot operate in such an atmosphere. It's likely that anyone who makes waves under these circumstances will find himself out the door.

It is the responsibility of all collective members to listen carefully and consider every matter that is brought to their attention, and to hear from all sides. Members should assume that every concern is sincere and treat it as such, but, particularly when one person's concern involves condemning another individual, everyone in the collective has to make every effort to get to the bottom of the issue without jumping to conclusions. Ask questions. Investigate. Look to possible motives to help you ferret out the truth. This is almost never done. People are usually all too happy to jump on a bandwagon of character assassination and are unlikely to be dissuaded from whatever stance they have chosen.

In cases of outright nastiness or bullying, it's appropriate for the collective to help address the behavior (although it still does not mean the offender should be summarily expelled!). Rarely, however, does the group come to the defense of an aggrieved member. As long as group censure consists of dumping on an unpopular person, especially if it's by e-mail or out of the individual's earshot, then people gleefully jump in. But when it comes to confronting a bully, then -- poof! --everyone disappears. Even if the bully has been, until that point, generally acknowledged as such, when somebody actually asks for help in calling her to task, suddenly nobody remembers having had any problems with her.

Too often, ugly banishments happen because the collective has no guidelines for dealing with disagreements or dissension. In the absence of a grievance procedure or a forum in which differences of opinion may be openly discussed, the only options for the group are either trudging along in some unstructured, undefined manner, with everybody swallowing whatever concerns they may have and silently suffering any insults, or forcibly expelling whoever brings up a problem. In such situations, the promise of inclusion and openness intrinsic to a consensus-based group has been subverted and narrowed down to Shut Up or Get Out.

Sometimes, however, even when it seems that the right rules and guidelines are in place, these can be ignored or rendered useless. Especially in a smaller group, it is not all that uncommon for the rules to be overtly disregarded as members decide that those regulations are nothing more than technical trivialities. Thus, regardless of the rules, the individual who has been vilified or ousted has little recourse when the whole small gang (which might call itself a collective) has simply turned against her. Almost inevitably, she will end up giving up the struggle because it just doesn't seem worth it to dredge up rules that nobody cares about, simply to remain among people who obviously don't want her around.

Established rules can also be easily subverted through the usual techniques of manipulation, as described in other chapters. A group might earnestly intend to follow the established procedures for exploring grievances or granting due process, yet those procedures will become irrelevant if the whole collective has already been convinced of the accused person's guilt. Unchecked binges of character assassination and rumor mongering can psychologically nullify many "fair trials" before they ever happen.

Ironically, some people use the belief in anarchism as their excuse to flagrantly ignore rules that were designed to ensure fairness and democracy. Anarchists who break the rules might go on the defensive by saying that they don't always have to follow the law, because they are anarchists. Yet, while it may be true that anarchists can reserve the right to reject laws that they think are unjust or are the product of an unjust system, anarchists must also reach a collective understanding about basic democratic principles.

Rules can become very important, not simply because they are the rules, but because they can serve as guidelines for achieving democracy. Those guidelines might be very much needed during harsh or complex conflicts, when people are more easily confused or misled into forgetting the most basic principles or even basic logic.

Perhaps someday, everyone will have a strong enough conviction in -- and knowledge of -- true democratic principles never to be misled (or to do the misleading, for that matter). In some golden age, perhaps after the revolution, everybody will be so psychologically and socially advanced, that it will simply be unthinkable -- and impossible -- for them to contribute to the creation of pariahs or other acts of collective injustice. Yet, in the here and now, we probably should do everything we can to keep those tendencies in check.

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?]







Links &