Clay Feet Abounding: The Presumption of Progressive Virtue


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.Over the decades, here are a few of the most common forms of abuse of power I’ve seen in progressive organizations. While I’ve seen them perpetrated most often by people with default social privilege (i.e., straight white men who’ve come up in comfortable economic circumstances), I’ve also seen each one in organizations with women, gays and lesbians, and/or people of color at the helm:
Leaders who condone – indeed create and sustain – working conditions that would be protested if they occurred in mainstream contexts.It’s one thing when everyone pitches in for a start-up, but another when well past that point, leaders who are paid for their work at a reasonable (if not lavish) scale expect others to work harder without comparable compensations. The pressure can be intense to volunteer extra hours, donate artwork, work without adequate breaks, cram yourself into a too-crowded or otherwise dysfunctional workspace. I see this kind of prescriptive anorexia often on the left, without much awareness of the gap it creates between preaching and practice.
Leaders who feel so secure in their own political or otherwise essential virtue that they grant themselves a pass when it comes to interpersonal conduct.The person who feels free to tell jokes that include racial or religious slurs or sexist expressions because Hey, you know I can’t be a [bigot, chauvinist, etc.]! The person who grants himself the permission to “flirt” out loud, delivering an unwanted “friendly” pat or peck and sees no conflict between demeaning colleagues and crusading for truth and justice outside the office. The entrepreneurial leader who hyper-personalizes working relationships, expecting employees to receive confidences and return them with moral support, neck rubs, endless late-night phone calls.
Leaders who cultivate a workplace culture in which everyone knows who is free to speak up and who is expected to listen, whose ideas deserve attention and whose deserve dismissal.Often these categories divide along lines of gender, race, religion, or orientation; other times, it’s mostly a matter of playing favorites explicitly enough for everyone to get the message. When a system like this takes hold, deeply disheartening things happen: a woman who rebuffs a leader’s advance is punished by being denied promotion or plum assignments; hiring and assessment processes are personalized and distorted because there are no checks and balances on a leader’s desires. Everyone feels the choice is between worshipping the leader and living with a perpetual sense of contingency. And no one speaks out because everyone knows this is just how things are.
In the afterbuzz of the FitzGibbon scandal, people are searching for structures or systems that can help to avoid future repetitions of abuse, or ensure they are called out and acted upon when they occur. Many of the ideas are good: 360-degree reviews of leaders, an individual or committee that receives and investigates complaints without implicating the whistle-blower, a more public system of review in which nonprofits are scored on their working conditions and power relations. But without a foundational understanding that everyone is susceptible to the distorting pull of power that believes in its own virtue and entitlement, I doubt systems will do much good.
I’ve been writing about this for a long time.Here’s a passage on the Abu Ghraib scandals from 2008:

Almost all human cultures stress teaching people to be good as a way to protect against the abuse of power: clearly, moral instruction and imaginative empathy are essential ingredients of learning to be a decent person. But it is silly to think they suffice. Contrary to a great deal of experience, our default setting seems to be the expectation that people will behave as they are taught. Time and again, we are shocked at transgressions, making haste to isolate the few we identify as transgressors: just a handful of low-ranking individuals were held at all accountable for Abu Ghraib, for instance, with only one given a sentence exceeding a year and more receiving fines or discharges than prison time. The two officers cited were colonels charged with relatively minor offenses and reprimanded. Because our proclivity is to see those who held the leashes, directed the human pyramids and snapped the photos as isolated bad actors, the people at the top of the chain of command that set Abu Ghraib in motion have never been called to account.
In truth, what happened at Abu Ghraib was shaped by a distorted institutional culture and broken structures of authority more than individual wickedness. Psychological experiments like Philip Zimbardo’s and Stanley Milgram’s have shown us how easy it is to structure a situation that generates abuse by asserting authority and exploiting individuals’ conviction of their own rightness. Under such pressures, any of us might behave as badly as most of the subjects of these experiments or the abusive guards at Abu Ghraib. The challenge is not so much to perfect our goodness as to control those pressures.

May I repeat myself?
The first step in 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.
Once that’s done – once every person in an organization is clear about everyone’s susceptibility to evil and everyone’s capacity to harm – making a change begins to be possible.
Jill Scott, You Don’t Know.”
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One thought on “Clay Feet Abounding: The Presumption of Progressive Virtue

  1. From my admittedly limited historical perspective of the left, patriarchy has always been a major problem. I have no doubt that it still exists and I very much appreciate you for mentioning it. Hopefully it has decreased since the 60’s. And I need to think more about it in my personal life. I was complaining that there is not enough radical feminism in the left.
    The personal is political.
    The political is personal.

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