Interesting post on Transition Culture How Tough is your Skin? discusses what do grassroots community and activist groups do when they encounter vigorous opposition to their campaigns.
Hopkins attended the Independence Day conference in Frome last November:
Groups had come together from across the UK to share their experiences of trying to stop unwanted development, new supermarkets, the cloning of their high streets and so on. There was much useful sharing of ideas, inspiration and experiences, but what surprised me was that virtually everyone reported experiencing a backlash from a local group claiming to represent the community’s ‘silent majority.’ In some cases it had been relatively civil, for others it had been a ghastly experience. So how best to cope with such attacks?
Hopkins then goes on to discuss responses he got when raising this issue with various other activists, a mixture of local food and anti-supermarket campaigners along with well-known names such as George Monbiot, Bill McKibben and Michael Mann.
(Mann’s presence in this list, as a climate scientist alongside political activists like McKibben is sure to raise some eyebrows.)
Of the latter, the more common issue seems to be email attacks and random abuse from anyone -
“It’s constant” says Monbiot, “There’s scarcely a morning when I haven’t received something unpleasant by email. Most of the time I just mark it as spam and I don’t need to see anything by that person again. Some of them are very threatening, but I figure that most of them probably live in the Mid West and don’t possess passports, so I don’t feel scared about it. None of it frightens me”.
But the real issue is backlash from within your community, from people who feel you are not representing them or acting in their interests. “When you are putting in a huge number of volunteer hours to try and make your community a better place it really makes you wonder why you bother” was the view of Philip Revell of Sustaining Dunbar.; and Rob begins the post with reference to his own recent experiences of being under persistent public criticism for his work with Transition Towns Totnes.
The most interesting comment comes from another member of Sustaining Dunbar, who asked to meet with their most vocal critic, a fisherman opposing a planned hydro-scheme. “That was possibly the single most helpful meeting I had in terms of learning about the concerns and history of the river and the background of a previous hydropower development that the fishermen felt had had a detrimental effect on the river. It also enabled me to immediately to explain to him why this development is inherently very different to that past one, and to show him that I was taking on board that I did think he had genuine concerns”.”
The whole point of taking an activist stance of course is that it requires a certain missionary zeal, a confidence one is on the righteous path regardless of the criticisms, the need to grow a “thick skin” to tough it out and keep going.
Naturally I condemn abuse and anonymous attacks on people for their ideas. I think bullying of any kind is abhorrent and unacceptable. But being an activist means sticking your head above the parapet and so you can expect to get shot at to some extent.
(In extreme cases literally- or bombed, as happened to physicists in Mexico recently.)
Taking a strong stance on a matter of public interest, especially if it on a single-issue, black-and-white issue of Ban the dam or build the dam” will inevitably lead to some eggs being broken. Every action meets a reaction as they say, and so it is indeed crucial to talk to our fishermen and be willing to accept they may be right. Nothing is sure to get up people’s noses more than people who are arrogant or self-righteous in their certainty of the worthiness of their cause.
And I think this is what is missing from some of the stories on this discussion, because as I read through them and the accounts of the kind of attacks these activists have to deal with, I could not help but think, this is exactly the kind of thing that scientists working on genetic engineering, or nuclear power have to put up with as well.
Specifically what came to mind was the scientists at the Rothamsted Research Institute who had to contend with activists Take Back the Flour last year who came with the intention of destroying field trials of genetically engineered wheat.
The scientists were not of course “activists” taking their own, unelected action on a particular interest, but public servants doing their job.
And I was wondering how many of the eco-warriors at Rothamsted were inspired by the likes of Vandana Shiva, one of the world’s most prominent and influential anti-GE campaigners, who is being feted by Rob’s own activist group Transition Towns Totnes later this month.
Not only that but it turns out that one of the speakers at the Independence Day was Chris Smaje, whose mistaken views on genetic engineering was the subject of my last post. Much of what he had to say seem likely to have been influenced, and are certainly aligned with the lies and misinformation about the technology that Shiva uses to promote her paternalistic philosophy of keeping the poor poor: a Brahmin in Shudra clothing.
Worryingly, apart from the fisherman story, the other respondents did not seem to be over-endowed with the humility to consider they may be wrong, or at least not always unequivocally right in their missions: according to Monbiot, getting this kind of negative reaction is ” a measure of success, and if you’re not getting that response, if you’re not receiving hate mail, you’re simply not doing your job” while Hopkins veers into psychobabble by asking
It might also be worth reflecting on the different ways people react to challenging times and what they perceive as threats. In the current economic/climate/energy/social context, many people have perhaps, on some level, given up. Might it be that on one level, hostile reactions are being triggered in those who have decided there’s no point in acting by those who suggest that there still is very much a point to it?
This sounds like something out of Deep Ecology- we already know what is wrong with the world, Gaia is hurting and we are all hurting too- those who don’t agree are just expressing their anger and frustration at you by mistake.
The more opposition you get, the more right you must be. Rationalising away opposition and criticism in this way has much in common with religions and cults who must ring-fence themselves from admitting criticism could be valid: those who disagree are “deniers”.
Another difficulty with movements like Transition and Independence Day is that they pertain to bring together under one grand ideological umbrella a huge range of different issues and causes, claiming them all for their own: there is a world of difference really between calling for global action on climate change and trying to stop a supermarket in your town, and they will attract a lot of very different supporters who might not agree at all on other issues. Localisation as an economic philosophy might not be the best or only way to address something as complex as climate change for example- in fact it might be a disaster which people might rightly want to argue with.
As Linus Blomqvist, the director of the Breakthrough Institute’s Conservation and Development program comments here:
The idea that small-scale farming is the best solution for food security is very dangerous – it really is the total opposite. If everyone just grows their own food, then any local disruption will be catastrophic for those involved.
Transition also promote local wind farms, and Hopkins has written
Personally, I don’t feel that anyone has any right to object to this scheme unless they also feel that they would be able to sit down with a family from, say, Bangladesh, and tell them that their upset about a minor wind scheme in South Devon outweighs that family’s right to a future. I don’t feel that is justifiable in any sense.
Is it really any wonder he is receiving some local backlash? Maybe he should keep toughening up that ol’ skin.