There’s a scandal swirling around progressive organizing circles right now.An impressively large number of women have come forward to accuse Trevor FitzGibbon, principal of a large and widely respected public relations firm employed by countless movement organizations, of sexual harrassment and sexual assault. Find the story on Vox and elsewhere.
The FitzGibbon charges have stimulated lively and painful discussions online and in person. Over the last few days, I’ve read dozens of posts from women who now feel invited, even impelled, to share stories of offenses committed against themselves and their colleagues. I’m certain the patterns will be familiar to you, dear readers: women who endured repeated humiliation but feared speaking out because of reprisals; women who spoke out and were ignored; women who rebuffed advances from men at work who had power over them, and found themselves tacitly stigmatized and denied opportunity until they moved on; women who were fed up to the breaking point with the daily repetition of mundane offenses – men who steal your ideas for their own, being ignored in meetings, casually offensive comments on one’s body or dress, and so on.
Before I move on, let me stipulate that women can be abusers and men can be victims too. It just doesn’t happen nearly so much as the other way round.
I recognize that gender-based offenses are widespread and can easily feel like a separate matter from all the other injuries of class, race, and so on we humans mete out. But the heart of the matter is always abuse rooted in power differentials, whether those stem from the instrinsic privilege granted white skin or male gender in this society, or from other gaps in social and personal status.
I’ve been engaged in social justice organizing for my entire adult life. At two critical points, I had to learn a lesson about the ubiquity of clay feet. The first was when as a young artist I was forced to recognize that great creative skill and capacity don’t equate to either goodness or kindness, that talent, self-love, and recognition from others can inflate egos to the bursting point. The second was when as a young organizer I was forced to recognize that working for a good cause doesn’t make you a good person, that a great love for The People and Justice as categories doesn’t guarantee that you will treat individual members of the species with compassion and respect – let alone justly.
The first step to addressing abuses of power is always the same: let go of the illusion that people whose politics you find virtuous are going to be more ethical, compassionate, or just in their behavior than people whose politics you find objectionable.People are people, full stop.