Elitism: A Reluctant Acknowledgement and Conditional Apology
from No Compromise Issue 18

By Mike N. Durschmid

Many people who become involved with activism complain about elitism. In many respects, there is legitimacy to this allegation. In both national and grassroots groups there is an excess of leader/follower dynamics.

For instance, not everyone who seeks to get involved is invited and allowed to participate in organizing. Often, only a core group of certain individuals are allowed to participate. Even within these core groups, there are complaints that some members are more privy to information and news beyond their local area, thus possessing a monopoly of information.

Is it true and is this acceptable or excusable? The answer to this depends on whom you ask and to what exactly you are referring.

I also find many behaviors unacceptable and counterproductive, behaviors which many of us can improve, myself included. We don't organize enough activities that encourage input from outside our core group, like doing public forums that include a significant Q&A/comment component so that others have more of a voice. We operate too much in white middle class communities with little to no outreach in other more diverse communities. The voices of women as well as gay/lesbian members feel diminished and marginalized.

I generally advocate for more inclusive organizing, decision making and information sharing, but is it fair to categorically criticize all exclusivity? Can we really include all newcomers into our group process? For at least two reasons I think we have to be careful about who participates in our groups. Those two reasons are group identity and security culture issues.

Group Identity

Because of group identity and character, I think it important to insist that those in the group making decisions agree in what they advocate or are against. This would include agreeing to a mission statement and/or some basic ground rules or parameters (i.e. advocate for animals via militant direct action and philosophical support of the Animal Liberation Front).

A group's identity and character are important factors that determine the roles the particular group plays as part of the wider movement. Without well-defined parameters, group identity and character can easily become transient and slide into a less militant (and thus less effective) role within the greater militant movement.

Security Culture

We don't want the animal abuse industry and their minions to be able to easily undermine our efforts. Because we are under siege by corrupt industries and their minions (who are more politically motivated as they routinely violate their own laws while pursuing to persecute us), secretiveness has become a necessary part of this movement. Whether it is brainstorming, debating campaigns, strategies and tactics or planning a specific civil disobedience, we don't want our opponents to know how we think or what we are doing before we actually do it. Therefore, it is important to first know those you let into your group discussion and decision-making processes very well.

These precautions are taken not only to prevent deliberate infiltration, but also factors like loose lips (caused by either careless disregard or inexperience). Generally, it is safe to say, no newbies and no blabber-mouths. It's also a good idea to be careful of those who have consistently allowed their fears to control their actions.

Monopoly of Information

People often feel out of the loop when others are always well-informed on current affairs and they are not. Obviously there is some deliberate information gate-keeping happening. Some may be unnecessary and more motivated by manipulative censoring. However, some stems from good security culture practices or simply out of respect toward others who expect and demand such privacy.

Just like there are organizers who want to be elitist in order to maintain some kind of power dynamic, there are also non-organizers who may want know "everything" just because ego or reputation and not because of the desire to organize. There is a difference between having access to information and not doing anything with it, and having the responsibility of using information in a positive and proactive manner. Good organizers forward as much public information to other co-organizers as possible and point people to the many public information services available, like zines, e-mail announcement lists and forums, and directories like No Compromise’s “Trenches.” Organizers should encourage others to take initiative and teach others how to research, find other groups with whom to network, etc.

Are concerns over group identity and security culture (what I call "acceptable exclusivity") counter-productive and growth hindering? Yes, but this is part of the price that is imposed upon us as reluctant soldiers under siege, not of our own choosing.

I want to acknowledge that elitism and exclusionary behaviors exist too much in our movement and are wrong. My words here are not an attempt to apologize or make excuses for manipulative or abusive elitist, exclusive behaviors. Instead, I acknowledge and make a conditional apology for what should be, and I think is, excused exclusive practices.