Don’t Let Assholes Take Over Your Consensus-Driven Organization

Sara Robinson is concerned that assholes are hijacking the Occupy movement:

…watching the OWS organizers struggle with drummers, druggies, sexual harassers, racists, and anarchists brings me back to a few lessons we had to learn the hard way back in the day, always after putting up with way too much over-the-top behavior from people we didn’t think we were allowed to say “no” to.

Anybody who feels the need to put their own personal crap ahead of the health and future of the movement is (at least for that moment) an asshole, and does not belong in Occupied space. Period. This can be a very hard idea for people in an inclusive movement to accept — we really want to have all voices heard. But the principles #Occupy stands for must always take precedence over any individual’s divine right to be an asshole, or the assholes will take over. Which brings me to….

…The consensus model has a fatal flaw, which is this: It’s very easy for power to devolve to the people who are willing to throw the biggest tantrums. When some a drama king or queen starts holding the process hostage for their own reasons, congratulations! You’ve got a new asshole!

When the person tries to make excuses (and one of the most annoying attributes of chronic assholes is they’re usually skilled excuse-makers as well), then other members of the group can speak up — always with “I” messages. “I saw you smoking a joint with X and Y under tree Z this morning. We’re all worried about the cops here, and we think you’re putting our movement in danger. We are asking you to leave.” Every statement needs to end with that demand — “We are asking you to either stop, or else leave and not come back.” No matter what the troublemaker says, the response must always be brought back to this bottom line.

Oh, how I feel her pain.  This was a huge problem in Iraq Veterans Against the War: Not only do assholes care more about their “rights” than they do about the mission, they convince many around them that fighting for said “rights” inside the organization is the mission. The problem is not just the asshole, it’s that many people who consider themselves tolerant and progressive want to be on the side of the little guy and are thus vulnerable to assholes who’ve clearly learned over the years to use emotional manipulation to get their way.  I was not the only member who quit after deciding that the potential payoff from overcoming this obstacle was simply not worth the effort (I’m told by hardier friends who stayed in IVAW that this situation has alleviated somewhat).

Sara’s recommendations do need to be qualified. You can’t get rid of rights entirely.  True rights violations will occur from time to time and allegations about them need to be taken seriously.  The challenge is multifaceted:

  • Politically, organizations need to develop, and believe in, a system that fairly easily weeds out bullshit attempts to subvert the political process when it moves away from the assholes’ preferred direction.  The system must be designed to deal with the fact that assholes do not see their hijacking as such; rather, they see it as an act of virtue. I don’t know how one designs such a system but I’d love to hear suggestions.
  • Culturally, organizations need to prioritize the virtue of self-sacrifice for the cause. This is a challenge in groups organized around issues of “justice” because there are those in the group who will see organizational attempts to define the terms of their personal sacrifice as hypocritical to the organization’s purpose. Individuals need to understand that such social norms and mores are the difference between an organization and a bunch of people standing next to each other wearing the same silly clothes. There are rare moments in which individuals need to stand up for themselves and a whole bunch of minor moments in which the organization needs them to swallow their pride and move the fuck on.

As Maoist purge units go, expulsion of assholes is a good thing when assholes are defined by their behavior and not by their views.  Due to the imperfect nature of human understanding, diversity of opinion is critical to political organization lest group members fail to see some really important aspect of their situation and thus fall into isolation from reality.  Diversity of understanding about what constitutes socially acceptable behavior is the problem.


  1. As someone who left IVAW over this bullshit, you know how I feel about it…

    It might seem a weird thing to compare to, but I always found this article about running a powerlifting gym to be relevant:
    (Start with the “Based on my experiences..” paragraph for the relevant parts)

    He’s actually just stating in simple terms the “common orientation” mantra. But I thought particularly that his emphasis on having ONE person in charge was interesting and would be the hardest pill to swallow for supposedly “democratic” organizations…

    Just to be even more random, my reading of evolutionary biology has made me wonder whether humans are to some extent simply genetically pre-disposed to hierarchical organizational structures. When presented with a “flat” or “democratic” organizational structure, they simply don’t know who to follow and end up fragmenting into “tribes” with their own leaders.

    Anyway, this is really a problem that more left/liberal organizations need to confront or the same story will just be replayed over and over ever time a liberal movement gains some momentum. Keep hammering on this…


  2. Thomas J. Buonomo says:

    I’m not sure how OWS’s decision-making process is structured exactly but I assume it’s similar to Occupy DC’s, which allows a single person to block consensus if they feel strongly opposed to the rest of the group on a particular issue. Therefore a single person can hold a group of 200+ hostage if they really want to. I think this is a fundamental flaw which makes the group vulnerable to provocateurs, obstructionists, etc.

    A better model that I’ve seen used is to transition to a majority vote after a consensus-based approach has been tried and failed. That prevents particularly stubborn or dominant personalities from hijacking the process.

    In IVAW we were finally able to get rid of Carl W. by building up internal and external pressure through a petition to the Board as well as public criticism on a prominent political opponent’s blog. The latter was done by a former member but had a desirable- albeit unintended -effect nonetheless.

    We got rid of Matthis C. basically by demoralizing him through a near-constant stream of criticism. Part of what turned the tide in both cases I think was a cultural shift that made people realize no, we don’t need all the help we can get to accomplish our mission and yes, rabid ideologues and idealists are more trouble to put up with than they are worth.

    Unfortunately by that point, the damage had already been done. Lesson learned (at least for me): it’s important to have cultural, political and procedural safeguards to prevent people from hijacking your movement. OWS’s weakness, just like IVAW’s, is that it didn’t start with a defined set of policy objectives or a political platform. Therefore everyone may be agreed on the problems and the mission in a broad sense but there are probably at least half a dozen different approaches to accomplishing it, the majority of which are probably not reconcilable. And therefore these political undercurrents have to uneasily co-exist and attempt to accommodate and complement each other or else maneuver to gain ascendancy over the others.

    The contrast with the two major political parties, which have internal contradictions but much more party discipline on the whole, will make it very difficult for OWS to present a serious challenge to them without strategic focus.

  3. Well-spoken, TJ and Jay.

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