What Does “Mean” Mean?

Yesterday, I wrote about the importance (to me) of activists cultivating good character traits: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship. I truly think these are important virtues for everyone, and especially important when we activists work with each other to improve the world. But I also said, pretty strongly, that I don’t like working with people who are “mean.”

Some people have asked, reasonably enough, what I mean by “mean” – a particularly important question, because often people try to shut down righteous activism by tone-trolling, or attacking the character of activists who aren’t in fact behaving badly. One of my activist friends Darlene made an extremely important observation that rules of behavior are often enforced by the powerful to restrict the ability of powerless to fight against their oppression, and I don’t want to be understood as supporting that.

So here’s what I don’t mean by “mean”:

  • It’s not mean to be angry at injustice, and to express that anger. Anger is a good emotion when we counter injustice, and often the problem is not that people are too angry, but that people are not angry enough. Just being angry, or expressing our anger, is not itself being mean.
  • It’s not mean to be direct, or even blunt, in addressing problematic behavior. If we behave badly, and someone bluntly tells us to cut it out, that’s not mean – it’s a reasonable and respectful response to our poor behavior. One of the most respectful things other people can do fo us is hold us to high standards of behavior, because it means they expect highly of us and believe us capable of better.
  • It’s not mean to point out when someone is reinforcing oppressive systems. Similar to the above, if someone says, in response to something we do, “that’s homophobic!”, “that’s racist!”, “that’s sexist!” etc., that’s not mean. That’s just another way of pointing out bad behavior, but helping us to attend to the ways what we are doing are reinforcing an oppressive structure. People can, of course, be wrong in their assessment of our behavior, but the judgment that our behavior is problematic isn’t itself mean: it’s just an honest assessment of w perceived problem with something we are doing.
  • It’s not mean to decline to spend your time helping someone understand something. Very often members of oppressed groups are assumed to be permanently “open for educational business.” Sometimes people get put out when an activist says “No, I’d rather not educate you on this right now.” But choosing not to engage with someone isn’t mean: surely we can all choose when we spend our energy on interactions with other people and when not?
  • It’s not mean to expect someone to face appropriate consequences for their actions. If someone behaves in an abominable way, it is perfectly right that they should face consequences. It’s not wrong for homophobic businesses to have their homophobia publicized, and have to deal with the economic consequences, for instance.

I’ll grant that when you experience the things above they may not feel “nice.” But we don’t live in a children’s world where everything is either “nice” or “mean”: there are plenty of ways people can interact with us which aren’t “nice,” but aren’t “mean” either. As responsible adults, we have to develop the capacity to accept forms of criticism which don’t feel “nice” without judging the character of the people who offer that criticism, or to accept when people don’t want to spend time teaching us something. We can feel snubbed or our feelings could get hurt, but that doesn’t mean the other person has acted poorly. necessarily. To some extent, our feelings are our own to regulate.

I certainly know how it feels to receive bracing criticism which makes me feel defensive, angry, and upset: I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my time as an activist, and sometimes I’ve received stiff criticism. This can be devastating in the moment (at times it has caused me serious anxiety), but it is necessary if we are to grow, and I try to develop in myself a certain resilience to forceful criticism. When I say I won’t tolerate “mean,” this is not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is more stuff like this:

  • Being personally abusive or vindictive toward targeted individuals.
  • Utilizing power at your disposal to demean, frighten, humiliate, or otherwise belittle an individual (bullying, essentially).
  • Throwing people away because they have made a single mistake (when they demonstrate willingness to atone).
  • Threatening people with violence (remember, I’m talking about how we treat our comrades here).
  • Battering people with criticism beyond the point that they have a) learnt from it or b) shown that they will not learn from it (in the second case, they should just be removed from the group).
  • Refusing to take any responsibility for your own actions, even when they harm other people (a sort of meanness-by-proxy).
  • Setting unreasonable expectations of people, and berating them when they are not met.

I don’t see any good reason why anyone would want to fight alongside people who routinely display these “mean” behaviors, unless they were literally the only people willing to do a certain type of justice work. I appreciate that people are not perfect, and I think that part of treating each other well is giving people leeway to make mistakes. That means we should sometimes tolerate some of the behaviors above, if a person is willing to learn from them. But too often, in my experience, what happens is that some activists mobilize a social justice language to try to “justify” consistently bad behavior.

I understand too that living under oppressive systems is exhausting, draining, and enraging. It is toxic to the spirit. This makes “mean” behavior among activists understandable, often – it is the result of the strain of living in a grotesquely unjust world. Injustice tears at our identities, inequalities of privilege exasperate us, and we are crushed by power. It is totally understandable that we sometimes lash out in destructive ways. I have done so myself. But understandable is not the same as justifiable. I understand why some activists are mean, but I don’t think they are justified in being mean: they just end up hurting other people and the causes we are a part of together.

Norms of behavior are so important in activist circles precisely because we address deeply ingrained questions of identity, privilege, and power. To build successful and sustainable movements, we must create norms which encourage honest criticism and basically decent interpersonal behavior. Only then will we activists be able to learn and grow together, to build the power we need to win. We will not learn unless we receive honest criticism, but we cannot learn well outside an environment of psychological safety. These are fundamental truths of the human organism. This is how we’re built. To develop introspective, reflective, constantly-learning movements, where deeply personal and challenging issues can be openly discussed, our norms of behavior must be so very clear.

Meanness as defined here has no place: it breaks the bonds of trust and respect which are fundamentally necessary to enable people to learn and grow. The most successful activist communities I have been a part of have undoubtedly been the ones with the clearest and most humane norms, where people are encouraged to respect and even love each other – that’s the sort of work I want to do.

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