Today I'm going to tackle a difficult but important topic - internal conflict. Given the number of people involved, the number and complexity of the issues, and the decades over which the climate movement is likely to be needed, it's a pipe dream to think there will always be harmony. At the same time, if the sort of problems mentioned here aren't acknowledged and, preferably, dealt with well, they can spread and become very destructive. Sweeping things under the carpet, pretending conflict doesn't exist, only allows it to fester and grow.
When a large number of people are working toward a common purpose, it is inevitable there will be internal politics. (If you prefer "virtually inevitable" or "almost inevitable", I'd love you to point out an instance that's been free of this.)
In this article, I'll use the word "movement". I don't like to apply that term to mitigating and adapting to climate change (which is bigger than any movement); however, in the context of this article it's the best word I've been able to come up with.
Everyone who works in an organisation for even a short time, understands internal politics have an influence on decisions, behaviour, alliances, staff promotions and so on. The same goes for any movement, whether it's related to broad social justice, climate change, anti-litter, health, equal opportunity, local politics or anything where a dozen or more people come together around a common purpose.
Conflicts can arise for any number of reasons, some that could be regarded as fundamental, and some are confusingly petty and vindictive. Here are several to watch out for:
- "Means and methods" camps - opposing camps can emerge having fundamentally different and, perhaps, opposing views on how to achieve the common purpose (nuclear vs anti-nuclear; all adaptation no mitigation vs mitigation plus adaptation etc.)
- Personalities and personal ambition - with camps emerging based on individuals within the overall movement (personality cults). These can arise if it's thought there will be personal reward for the personality or the follower (such as fame, career progression, book contracts, committee posts, awards, or other personal recognition). I'm not having a dig at our climate champions. We need them and most leaders in the climate movement are above petty politics. It's wannabes and people scrambling to position themselves where this can become a problem.
- Ideology and political leanings - dismissing and therefore alienating large segments of society based on their politics or ideology (hard left vs left vs centre vs right vs extreme right).
- Position on other causes - dismissing and alienating individuals or segments of society based on their opinions or actions or perceived level of support for other causes - e.g. do they give equal or better attention to social causes (feminist, BLM, gender issues, voting rights etc) and if it's not seen as good enough, if they're seen to be mainly focused on climate, they must be bad people.
- Personal attributes - dismissing or alienating people on the basis of attributes such as sex, gender, skin colour, ethnic origin, cultural background, religion or lack of, sexual preference, education level, political allegiance, age, friends, colleagues, profession, or opinions expressed on matters unrelated to that common purpose. E.g. all men are bastards, particularly if they are white baby boomers.
The most toxic behaviours I see are related to points 1 and 2 above, and to a lesser extent points 4 and 5. These can (usually by intent) elicit emotive rather than rational responses - anger, hurt feelings, public naming and shaming of individuals whether deserved or not (i.e. straight up defamation). All of this leads to a weakening of the movement making it less able to focus on the common purpose. It can result in fragmentation, a muddying of the waters. It can cause hard-working, committed people to be disillusioned and give up. It can confuse the general public if it spills over into the mass media, reducing their understanding of the important issues.
I'm no mediator. That's not my training or talent. I think I am able to see most things clearly but when it comes to helping people work through personal differences, I defer to people who are expert in that area. I'm not a political animal either, normally being more of an onlooker than a participant. At the same time, as you know, I'm not likely to do nothing when I see good people being unfairly maligned. (Mostly I've addressed maligning by climate science deniers, yet this sort of ugliness has been happening within the climate movement too.)
I don't really want to say much more on this topic. These matters need to be dealt with internally by the more responsible and able members of the movement, rather than airing all the gory details in public (which can in turn cause a lot of harm). I know I've sometimes been a bit intemperate myself, dashing off an angry tweet or two and maybe going a bit overboard in articles here from time to time. I'll keep trying to do better, though I still won't hesitate to call out and ridicule climate science denial.
This article is more by way of reminder and a caution. If you're tempted to join a camp or become a groupie to a personality - just take care you're doing it with your eyes wide open and with good reason. Avoid taking at face value everything someone you might admire says. Do what you can to keep the movement healthy. Stay focused on the common purpose.
Then all the usual things - be prepared to change your mind if the information changes. Forgive individuals if they make what you regard as a mistake now and then. At the same time, watch out for people who exhibit ongoing patterns of toxic behaviour, who may not be as trustworthy or authentic as all that (to use another word I very much dislike), who might be using you and/or abusing others for their own purposes. Remember, you might very well become their next target.
In the end, people come and go, but the issues remain. Harnessing yourself to a particular individual without viewing the broader picture may not be the most productive path in the long term. In the same vein, tying yourself to a particular and very narrow means of achieving the goal could limit our chances of getting there.
Welcome - and please help the world address the problems of climate change
The climate movement must remain broad and diverse, welcoming people from all over, with all our flaws, with all our brilliant ideas including conflicting ones, and with all our efforts - if it is to achieve the results we must.
We've had a tough few months with more and worse fires, drought, floods, heat waves, disappearing glaciers, water supply problems, rising seas and a global pandemic.
There's much more to be done.
It's nice to be back, and quite lovely to read your words of welcome here and on Twitter. Thank you.
Here are some relevant articles I came across in a Google search. I don't know if they're among the best examples. Although I've done some work to improve social justice over the years, I've never regarded myself as an activist so this is not my field. Given the sensitivities of social justice movements, the references might or might not be politically acceptable! If you know of other good articles, please add them in the comments.
Three Ways to Reduce Internal Conflict in Civil Resistance Movements - by Joel Preston Smith, September 20, 2018.
Conflict and Movements for Social Change: The Politics of Mediation and the Mediation of Politics - by Kenneth Cloke, July 2013
Crises and Conflicts in Social Movement Organisations by Jo Freeman, published in Chrysalis: A Magazine of Women's Culture, No. 5, 1978, pp. 43-51 - (just to show that internal conflict is timeless).