Activism, Leadership, Trolls, and Accountability

shutterstock_41419060— By Shauna Aura Knight

Lately I’ve seen a lot of examples of Pagan leaders acting badly. Or, perhaps to be more accurate, spotlights on leaders who have acted badly and are finally being called on the carpet for their poor behavior. There are a lot of conversations happening in the Pagan blogosphere, particularly since the arrest of Kenny Klein on charges of child pornography, about problems with sex, abuse, and poor leadership.

The ripple effects of that–and the questions it has raised about Pagan community and events–have brought up further issues of leadership. What does this have to do with activism?

If you’re an activist, you’re a leader. Whether or not you wanted to be one. And when you are a leader–when you stand up, when you take an action–your actions have more consequences, more impact. Leaders must take more responsibility because we have a greater impact.

This isn’t something that a lot of activists want to hear. Heck, this isn’t something most people want to hear. I don’t experience many people who want the job–and resulting responsibility–of leadership.

I talk about leadership issues a lot with Taylor Ellwood; he’s an author and managing nonfiction editor of Immanion Press. He and I are currently editing an anthology on Pagan leadership, and it’s a topic we’re both passionate about. Recently he wrote a post on how, when we step into visibility, we have more responsibility.  That post followed one on how being a BNP or being famous doesn’t necessarily make one a good leader. 

Both of these are true, even though they might seem to contradict one another at first. So then we’re left with activists. How are activists leaders?

To answer that question, we have to look at power. Power is a word that a lot of social justice and feminist activists don’t like. Power has an implication of power-over, meaning a hierarchy where one person has control over another. Or more specifically, there are many situations where someone has unearned power over someone else just by virtue of being white, being male, being straight, etc. However, the root of the word power means, the ability to take an action. Our choices are often limited by how much social/financial power we have in a given situation.

Leaders are generally considered to be people who have power–people who are able to take an action. The word activist is rooted in the word action.

And activists take action.

Often, activists take action and stand up, and speak up, against structures that are more powerful than them, but they defy the power structure that has been handed down and speak up anyways. And, even though there is still usually a tremendous power differential between most activists and what they are standing up against, activists–by their very nature–have power because they are standing, acting, speaking. They are claiming a voice for themselves.

And when we take those actions, when we have a voice, we have more power, and we have more impact. But what many activists don’t realize is that, with that impact also comes responsibility.

Always Shouting
As I posted in my article on problematic Pagan leaders/Elders, there are a number of activists out there who have learned the hard lesson of activism that people don’t seem to listen to the underdog unless you shout, unless you scream. Activists also tend to get a lot of fuel from anger. And–this isn’t a bad thing. Those of us who step into activism are usually upset about a current system that’s in place. We see something going on–social injustice, environmental degradation, abuse in our community–and we get angry about it.

That anger is our fuel to speak up.

The problem is that over time, this anger can fester. I know a number of activists who will jump in with the heated comments when they see something posted on Facebook or a blog, or in a conversation with friends. They will dive right into the anger, or shaming techniques. I’m not immune to this myself; I’ve gotten pretty pissed off seeing Pagans who identify as earth-centered who litter at events, and I’ve written a few angry, shame-tastic blog posts about it.

I’ve also engaged in more online conversations where I jumped on someone for victim blaming, or for not seeing how they come from a place of privilege.

I try to come at things from a reasonable place and communicate in a way that opens up, rather than shuts down, but it’s difficult at times.

I work really hard to not comment on things when I’m really pissed off, but there are times when I am emotionally overwhelmed by all the various comments I’m fielding, particularly when I post about some of the heavy issues like sex, abuse, and poor leadership.

Catching Flack
In fact, a fair amount of my time in August, and then September, went to dealing with highly emotionally charged issues. My last post on Pagan Activist dealt with the Frosts, and then I posted on my own blog about issues with some Pagan elders and leaders.

In fact, whenever I post about these heavy issues, I have realized that I lose about a full day of my life, and I in fact I spend a significant amount of time for up to a week following a blog post. This involves dealing with the comment thread on the blog post, the comments on my Facebook wall (or other places I’ve posted a link to the article), and then there are the private messages that I field. Sometimes it falls into the category of hatemail.

Other times it’s people who have gone through an abusive situation and they have not had anyone else to talk to about their experience. They feel safe coming to me because of what I’ve written about my own experiences, and I’m grateful for that, but it is fairly emotionally heavy and requires my time and emotional presence.

Activists and Anger
There’s an activism paradox that is observed in various fights for civil rights. It’s something you see to this day in the fight against racism. The same arguments were used when women wanted the vote, so I’ll use that as an example. Women spoke out about wanting equality. The speaking out got louder, and more violent. Men (and some women) would say, “You’re hurting your own cause by being so angry, by shouting.” The problem is, the shouting is the only way to be heard in this particular scenario. Activists would be told, “We’re close to negotiating better terms for women, if you just simmer down for a bit we can make this happen.” Of course, the “better terms” were usually a carrot that allowed a little more freedom while keeping the current controls in place.

Activist anger often does the job, but it also inspires a lot of corresponding anger from whatever the opposing side is. The angry shouting can actually further polarize the opposing side and build momentum for your opposition. It’s a real conundrum. It becomes more of a conundrum because there’s a tipping point where the anger and shouting is useful. Past that tipping point, and sometimes the shouting does actually shoot a movement in the foot.

For me, nonviolent communication isn’t about pacifism so much as trying to understand the “other side” and their needs, their issues. If I can understand what they are going through, maybe we can process through something without polarizing. But, that takes a lot of work.

After one of my recent posts where I spoke about some of the abusive scenarios I endured at the hands of my ex fiance, I received a very angry Facebook message from someone. They berated me for whining and for my “woe is me” posts. I was angry when I read their message, but, I wanted to find out what was going on and why my post upset them so much.

We messaged each other for 1-2 hours, and I believe we came to some understandings. In this case, the woman was herself a survivor of parental and spousal abuse. She (like many people) engaged in victim blaming out of a sense of projection; she had gotten past it, so she saw anyone who stayed stuck in an abusive situation to be weak, clueless…to perhaps in a way deserve what they were getting because they weren’t strong enough to get out. I’m oversimplifying the scenario for brevity’s sake.

If I had just blasted her back and unfriended her, we wouldn’t have had a useful conversation or come to any clarity.

However–those types of conversations take a great deal of time. They are emotionally draining. And when you are on the front lines fighting any number of issues, tempers fray.

Activism Slides into Trolldom
Sometimes, activists can start to become trolls. They don’t intend to, but they are so full of their own issues that they can end up being trolls, posting angry comments on blog posts and Facebook threads. By troll, I mean someone who is actively stirring up trouble in a conversation. Again, I’m not immune to this, and that’s part of why I’m writing about this. I’ve seen myself doing it on a few issues I’m passionate about, and so I’m working to correct that behavior in myself.

There is a fine line between that place where posting the angry comment will help wake someone up to the true nature of the issues…and the place where the angry comment is just going to polarize people against you.

Activists and trolls differ in one key regard:

  • Most trolls relish the conflict and will post comments specifically to cause trouble and stir up a conflagration.
  • Most activists don’t actually relish conflict; they’re just angry about issues they are passionate about and they’ve learned that shouting is the only way to be heard.

There’s an article on some research about the psychological profile of many internet trolls that you might find interesting. It turns out that many of them are psychopaths, narcissists, and true sadists.  So if you’re talking to an activist and they are hot under the collar, keep in mind that they may not realize that their anger is quite that offputting. Keep in mind, for instance, that a person of color shouting about racial injustice has been discriminated against every day of their lives.

While their shouting may put you off, and their anger may exhaust you, John Stewart of the Daily Show offers this perfect quote:

“You’re tired of hearing about it? Imagine how fucking exhausting it is living it.”

It’s worth going through the process of discerning whether someone is an activist or a troll. Or, someone is projecting their own issues. Or someone can’t see past their own privilege, or can’t see how they are victim blaming. And yes–that discernment is also tiring. But if we engaged in more discernment like that in our communications–particularly online ones–we’d have far less conflagrations and we could actually get a lot more done.

Activism and Leadership
And that takes us back to the original point–that activists are leaders, whether or not you knew you were signing up for the job. And, as activists, we’re dealing with a lot. We’re angry about the social justice and environmental and other issues that mean a lot to us. We’re out there fighting what seems like a hopeless battle. Most activists will face serious issues from burnout at some point.

But, we also have to be aware of our impact. We have to be aware of that tipping point. When do the angry words shouted from the rooftops serve us? When does it serve us to have that multi-hour conversation with someone who disagrees with us to better understand their point of view?

And what impact do our actions have on the people around us? What impact do our actions have on the movement we support? Is our anger and our shouting getting us what we want? Or are we causing polarization? Are we inadvertently joining the ranks of internet trolls?

Activism and Better People
While a lot of my activist causes center around the environment, or around issues of sex positivity and sexual abuse, I’d say my activism is, at the core, about trying to help people to be better. Better, more compassionate, more aware, more discerning. I notice that so many of the issues we face–whether it’s poisoning our land and overusing resources, or issues of oppressing minorities, or people harmed in abusive situations–we’re talking about issues of people.

We’ve evolved with a strong survival instinct and we put ourselves first. But unfortunately, this seems to be the psychological trait that also allows us that little excuse mechanism. It’s the, “But it’s ok if I do this. Even if it hurts the environment, or hurts another person. Because I really need this thing.” Often it’s not that conscious; we’re acting on autopilot.

In fact, our brains are wired to make a lot of decisions for us so that we don’t have to think so hard.

Thinking and Discernment
One of the things I’m always exhorting people to do in my leadership classes and in my articles and blogs is to stop and think. To look at the consequences of our actions. Imagine if we stopped and checked ourselves. If we looked at the impact of our actions. If we looked at who would be harmed by our choices. I’m not going to sugarcoat it; thinking that hard all the time is exhausting.

There are many times when I get overwhelmed by making a simple decision because I know I’m choosing between the lesser of two evils. Or where I struggle to see two different perspectives, instead of just seeing my own viewpoint.

And yet, the world I want to live in is a world where we–where people–where all of us–are thinking about the impact of our actions. Where we aren’t just thinking about our immediate needs and wants.

When you use a plastic water bottle, and throw it in the trash…you are supporting a structure that is leading to a future where the poor (including inordinately higher percentages of people of color) will not be able to afford clean water.

When you don’t stand up to a friend who is making racist or homophobic jokes, or who is victim blaming or slut shaming, you are supporting a structure that harms real people.

And yet, when you jump on people, you risk polarizing them. They’ll make a joke, “Jeez, what’s with the PC police.” Trust me, it’s enough to keep me awake at night. And it often does. That being said, let’s work together to build awareness. Let’s together look at the impact of our actions. Let’s look at what happens ten, twenty, fifty years down the line if we continue to engage in behaviors that have long-term harm.

Building Compassion
I think the most crucial element of all of this is that we stop and think about who is harmed by our actions. It may be a faraway harm. It might be a child laborer slaving in a sweatshop overseas. It might be a young black girl who will grow up without clean water 50 years from now because her family can’t afford anything better. It might be the species that are going to go extinct between when you started reading this blog post and when you finished. It might be the people who are going to get leukemia from the next nuclear power plant accident because of our need for more and more energy.

We are going to need to stop putting some of our immediate needs first. We are going to need to start thinking about who is harmed by our actions. Spend a day thinking about everything you do, and consider who might be harmed by your action.

Leadership doesn’t have to mean you are in charge of a group.

Leadership is in the way we serve our community, in the way we serve our fellow human beings. Look at your words and your actions. What example do you set? Is that what you want to bring into this world? Leadership is about taking responsibility for our impact. I can speak from personal experience that this often requires a long, hard look in the mirror. I have looked at actions I’ve taken and things I’ve said and I have to admit, that isn’t what I want to bring out into the world. And so I have worked to become a better person, to act more from compassion. To be responsible for my impact.

Over time, we can build more compassion for others, and act out of that compassion. When we act from compassion, we build a better world. That’s the world I want to live in. How about you?



Shauna Aura Knight writes on the topics of community leadership, spiritual transformation, and activism. She is the author of The Leader Within, Ritual Facilitation, Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path, and Spiritual Scents, as well as a contributor to many magazines and anthologies, as well as a fiction author and fantasy artist. Shauna travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, facilitation, leadership, and personal growth.

Check out her blog on Pagan leadership and community building or her web site for more information.

2 thoughts on “Activism, Leadership, Trolls, and Accountability

  1. Shauna Aura Knight Post author

    Reblogged this on Shauna Aura Knight and commented:

    Here is my newest post for Pagan Activist on how activists are leaders–whether or not we signed up for the job. And how we all need to look at the impact of our actions. Those of us with power, with a voice, need to step up and take responsibility, because our actions have larger impacts.

  2. fearlessfallenangel

    Thank you so much for this piece. I’ve very often thought how important it is, as out if the closet folk, to regulate my own behavior, to cultivate compassion, and to eliminate the duality of us and them. There is no them. If I remind myself that there is only us, I can respond with the discernment and energy to comprehend that you discuss. Blessed be

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