When I started to write this article I intended to write
a brief argument for not blindly believing all the rumors
and gossip we hear about other activists. What seems like
harmless gossip can actually cripple groups and put the brakes
on our efforts to help animals.
As I researched this topic and spoke to other activists about
it I began to realize that gossip is just one aspect of the
kind of social politics that runs throughout the Animal Rights
movement. Sometimes these behaviors can be detrimental to
our cause, pushing good activists out of the movement and
sabotaging projects. I hope that this article can bring some
light and generate discussion on these aspects of activism
we rarely acknowledge.
Why would we want to avoid gossip? First, gossip limits productivity
by distracting us from the larger picture: helping animals.
Gossip also breeds mistrust, as even those who are not victims
of rumors begin to fear being blacklisted. Good activists
may be improperly labeled as security risks, not team players,
or troublemakers and they can become ostracized from participating
in a productive manner. Finally, new psychological research
shows that gossip can actually backfire against the gossipers
themselves; people subconsciously associate the negative aspects
of gossip with the person spreading it.
Why do we gossip?
But to discuss the social politics of the movement, we need
to look more at why we gossip, how it affects those we gossip
about, and what it ultimately does to our work to help animals.
Gossip is a tool used in establishing a social hierarchy
and vying for power. Those who use gossip do it for the following
reasons: 1) it makes the speaker important, i.e. he or she
is sharing vital news that others do not know; 2) it bonds
individuals—they share in the pleasure of a secret and
now have something in common; 3) it establishes allegiances,
i.e. I think you're important enough that I'll tell you this
secret, but now you owe me the same regard; 4) it can damage
adversaries without the display of an open attack, while depriving
them of the chance to defend themselves.
As cold and calculating as this sounds, it is very basic
human behavior, and to a certain extent we all do it, often
without realizing it. We may rush home to tell a best friend
or partner a bit of news and enjoy the moment as a bonding
experience; we revel in being the first to know something
exciting or important. Activists use gossip to bond with one
another in groups and form friendships. Unfortunately none
of those reasons have anything to do with our cause; they
are only about ourselves.
The fallout of gossip
The consequences of unfettered gossip can be very dramatic.
Good activists may be ostracized from groups because of negative
gossip, and their skills and contributions lost. Some of those
who suffer under such negative campaigns may never feel able
to return to animal rights work. This means fewer people helping
animals, which is never a good thing.
Activists who actually have done poor work or engaged in
negative behaviors are denied an opportunity to address those
shortfalls and improve; they find themselves suddenly personally
attacked. They may be kicked out of their AR group entirely.
Again, this is to the great detriment of our movement, because
they may have a great deal to contribute to the cause if their
energy can be directed properly.
Sometimes, even the truth spread as gossip can be harmful.
Real concerns need to be addressed in an open, professional
manner, though that is often the most difficult road to take.
Unfortunately when someone realizes, for example, that there
is a real problem with a group, they may feel powerless and
only voice their concerns confidentially to friends. The friends
then pass the story on and it becomes gossip. That gossip
spreads until it begins to polarize the community, as activists
choose sides based on limited or distorted information.
How do we deal with gossip?
Bringing up concerns about activist behavior, management
of groups, or security concerns in an open and honest manner
requires a great deal of courage and commitment, often more
than individuals feel they can muster. There is too much fear
of retribution within our movement currently for most individuals
to feel empowered to stand up and address problems.
This is why I feel it falls on those in leadership positions
in the movement to teach by example. They should distance
themselves from rumors. They should encourage group members
to speak up without fear of retribution, while at the same
time setting limits on discussion so that it cannot continue
endlessly. Leaders in the movement should also address their
concerns about individuals or groups honestly and openly,
even though it may place them in an uncomfortable position.
This can only strengthen our groups and make our work to help
animals more effective.
In conclusion I would ask all of you to think twice before
you believe, start, or spread gossip about activists. Try
placing yourself in the other person's shoes. Is there an
alternate explanation for their behavior? Also consider whether
gossip is beneficial or detrimental to the project at hand
and to the movement as a whole. Does repeating this help the
animals in any way?
Be kind to each other.