Dealing with Disruptive Behavior
from No Compromise Issue 21

by David Hayden

The movement for animal liberation suffers from a lack of active participation. All too often, animal liberation groups are made up of very small numbers of volunteers who must struggle to achieve just a small fraction of what they could if they just had more dedicated activists with more time [see Building a Movement, NC#18, p.22]. This has led some groups to allow activists to work with them who are very disruptive. What these groups sometimes fail to recognize is that even if an activist is dedicated to the pursuit of animal liberation, and perhaps even has skills the group desperately needs, he may still do more harm than good for the group--and in some cases may even adversely affect our overall movement.

Getting into specifics about what may be disruptive to a group is difficult, because different groups have different processes for decision-making, different structures, and varying degrees of openness to public participation. Each group must decide for itself what constitutes disruptive behavior, but much of the danger from disruptive behavior stems from three general areas: creating an environment which is not sufficiently secure, which is unsupportive, or in which the group’s cooperation on plans, tactics or agenda are stifled.

Exposing the Potential Harm of Disruptive Behavior

First and foremost, in a movement in which activists are increasingly targeted in civil suits for exercising their first amendment rights, are subpoenaed to grand juries, and are monitored by the FBI, it is crucial for groups to maintain a strong security culture. We simply cannot afford to allow activists to repeatedly violate security culture [see Security Culture Revisited, NC#19, p. 16]. Speculating about who may have performed illegal acts, implicating fellow activists to the feds, and spreading rumors that someone is a snitch or security risk without first verifying the facts are both extremely disruptive and completely intolerable.

Additionally, when an activist environment fails to provide a welcoming environment for new people, provide positive feedback, and support group members, the organization is unlikely to last long, let alone grow. Thus it behooves us to create a supportive, enabling environment that encourages people to get more involved and grow as activists. In such an environment there can be no tolerance for misogynistic, racist, homophobic, or other oppressive attitudes [see Within Our Ranks, NC#18, p. 19]. Similarly, shit-talking, spreading malicious gossip, belittling fellow activists for being less than perfect, and other such behaviors are very disruptive and can cause a group to become more of a clique of "insiders" than a sustainable activist organization [see When Bad Dynamics Happen to Good Groups, NC#18, p. 23]. While constructive criticism between activists can be quite valuable, it’s important to keep it on a positive note.

To keep people actively involved with a group, it's important that they be able to express themselves. At the same time, activist groups are formed to pursue specific goals, and it's important to not allow anyone to derail group process or stalemate the group. In fact disruption of group process has been one of the historical goals of government infiltrators. Amongst others, COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence and Propaganda) tactics have included the fabrication of mail (email being the modern day equivalent), misrepresentation of the group to the public, and eavesdropping [see Tactics of Intimidation, NC#5, p. 15]. Other tactics employed by infiltrator have included attempts to control the group, manipulate activists into doing things they wouldn't otherwise, derail meetings by focusing on tangential issues, cause in-fighting, and encourage activists to engage in underground activities that are not secure.

Of course, the fact that some activists do these things does not necessarily mean they're infiltrators. Nor do these examples cover the full gamut of disruptive behavior traits. Examples of other disruptive behaviors include unwarranted combativeness, unwillingness to negotiate with fellow activists, being controlling, sabotaging group projects out of revenge, and condescending to peers. Regardless of the intent behind these types of behaviors, their effects remain the same. They can be devastating to a group if its members aren't careful. Different types of disruptive behaviors are going to cause varying degrees of problems, and it is important to be sure that the group's reaction to the problem fits the circumstances.

Dealing with Disruptive Behavior

If a disruptive act was a first occurrence of a relatively minor type of disruption, it's best to deal with the situation through supportive feedback. If we immediately treat the disruptive person as if he or she is intentionally trying to become the focus of attention, disrupt the decision-making process, or pick fights, this is all too likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. One great way to get activists to understand the impact of their disruptive behavior is to give them a friendly challenge to describe how their actions are furthering the interests of the group; then use this as a jumping-off point to discuss the impact of their actions.

Not surprisingly, this isn't always enough to prevent future occurrences of the behavior. Some behavior patterns are simply too ingrained to be overcome that easily. The individual may not even be willing or able to acknowledge the effects of his behaviors. Ideally, in such circumstances, other group members will be able to help the individual through these difficulties with continuing supportive feedback. This can lead to everyone emerging as stronger activists with a better understanding of how to work together productively.

Unfortunately, this isn't always possible. An activist group should be supportive of its members but must also recognize when its efforts to work with someone who is disruptive are doing more harm than good and are creating an environment in which the group can no longer be effective. In such situations it generally becomes necessary to either limit the degree to which a disruptive activist is allowed to be involved in the group or to expel the activist from the group entirely.

It's critical that group members are able to set aside their personal feelings for the disruptive individual and objectively assess the impact of his or her behaviors. When an individual is unpopular it is all too easy to dismiss her positive contributions out of hand, while if the person is more liked, the impact of her disruptive behavior may be inappropriately glossed over. It is all too easy to personalize these sorts of decisions, but it’s unlikely group members will feel comfortable trusting each other for long if the don’t make these types of decisions objectively.

One way to avoid this is by stressing the separation of the behavior of the individual from the individual herself. While a behavior may be unacceptable within the group, this does not necessarily mean the activist is a bad person. Again, it's always useful to bring the focus back to the question of how a particular behavior is detracting from the group’s goals.

Putting It All Together

Let’s take look at a few hypothetical examples to see how some of these ideas might be implemented.

· Chris is a new group member who gets a bit combative and argumentative when he doesn’t get his way. Group members are able to work through this with him by explaining to Chris that his views are valued, but that he needs to respect other members of the group and the decision-making process in order for the group to be effective. The change doesn’t come immediately, but Chris’ behavior gradually improves as he learns to trust and respect his fellow activists and the group decision-making process.

· Cindy is a dedicated activist but wants to be in control of everything. As a result, she commits to far more than she can get done. Rather than admit she can’t handle some of her responsibilities alone she just pretends she’s got everything covered. Recognizing that her enthusiasm and dedication allow her to get a number of things done for the animals, group members try to work with her to get her to choose to take on fewer tasks and not be as controlling. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem able to do this on her own, so group members agree to limit her level of involvement in the group to only those areas where she can be effective.

· Dan is an incredible gossip and is constantly putting down his fellow activists behind their backs. Although most of what he has to say isn’t about activism, his shit-talking leads to distrust and conflict within the group. Recognizing that the extent to which they let this affect them is partly their own responsibility, group members are patient with Dan. They ask him to be more careful with his comments. Rather than taking the concerns of the other members of the group to heart, Dan starts sabotaging group projects to get revenge on them for asking him to change. Once it becomes clear Dan is doing more harm than good and is simply uninterested in changing, the group decides it must expel him.

Of course, it's far easier to imagine how some hypothetical situation may be resolved than to actually deal with the complexities of real world problems when a member of your group is disruptive. Each of us is as different as our groups are, so the solutions to dealing with disruptive behavior will necessarily vary dramatically. This article should just be used as a starting point, as it's important for members of every activist group to discuss amongst themselves how they want to deal with these types of issues - preferably before problems arise!