Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A tentative theory of How Good Ideologies/Movements Go Bad, or at least Stupid

There must be a term for this phenomenon somewhere already; but here's my theory, by me:

First of all, there's at least some of it written into the original ideology. Sure, Original Texts get spun off into all sorts of wacky fanfics until you can hardly recognize the source material anymore; but still, there're usually germs there. And the more black/white thinking and calls for violence, even metaphorical violence, there are in the original, the faster and bloodier the deterioration will probably be (not always; much also depends on the most visible and charismatic proponents). Even the most benign, peaceful, All-Loving Text/ideology can get twisted to evil lunatics' purposes, of course; but, if there's a gun in the first act, it's gonna go off by the third.

Then what happens is, once the Movement gets past a certain threshold of members, the frootbats are likely to take over the orchard. The reason for this is threefold:

1) they drive all the saner people away either through bullying or sheer dint of their toxicity
2) they have the most need for attention, and thus get it, in spades, from the followers, from the opposition, and from the public audience.
3) they have deep unconscious impulses fuelling their attachment to the Movement, which makes them more zealous than the more balanced people who were in the Movement as a means to an end, not the end itself. Plus also eventually the saner people, who do not, for ethical reasons, have a constant vampiric tap on other people for to fortify their constant inexplicable stream of energy, eventually burn out.

This is of course in addition to the usual "telephone" game of relatively benign misunderstandings, the petty power dramas, the lack of organizational skills, the sheer "oops, we never thought of that."

but mostly, I feel, if the whole "thesis/antithesis/synthesis" dealio had allowed for the FROOTBAT factor, well...we'd still probably be pretty much where we are, dialectically speaking, but we'd be more ironically self-aware about it.

well, no. not that.

that needs more work.

never mind; talk amongst yourselves.

27 comments:

Howard said...

My philosophy has always been: Moderation in all things. Yes, even stuff that's 'bad' for you. I personally dislike extremists on all sides. They seem ultimately to only be thinking of themselves and trying to mold others into that image while reveling in their own power.

I've been know to be wrong though.

A White Bear said...

It's weird, belledame, because I know who you mean when you say "frootbats," but something about the spelling and the little headshake/eyeroll I can imagine you doing* while you type it makes me think you mean me. In someone's world, frootbat bin ich.

* - not that I have the faintest, &c.

antiprincess said...

I am a frootbat-american; a Woman of Froot.

but we already knew that.

I think what happens is the same thing that happens in large companies, bureaucracies, political parties. The main question changes from "how can we best achieve liberation from oppression" to "how can we make sure we, the leaders, remain important and relevant and in control?" and "how can my organization preserve itself and dominate other organizations?"

the liberation question becomes secondary, subsumed under the quest to preserve existing power and increase power.

belledame222 said...

No, WB, I certainly don't mean you; why on earth?...

Your RP, for example, I'd define her as a frootbat. while writing this I was primarily going off another conversation on another blog regarding someone else who sounded utterly toxic. and of course my own personal axes, ground.

"frootbat" is a commonly used term on a VC I'm on.

but yes, we all have a certain allotment of froot in our makeup. I am aware that I am "othering" certain (if anonymous) people by writing this. I'm ambivalent about this.

mostly I think it comes down to empathy. We're all capable of being unempathetic some of the time, with some of the people; maybe even all of the time with some of the people or some of the time with all of the people. Unless we're saints and are going out of our way to cultivate compassion for every being on the planet. I'm not one of these people, alas. Because, some of the people ime have no empathy for all of the people all of the time, and I'm still working out how to deal with this.

and I am quite quite sure that in someone's world, frootbat bin ich. shrug. all you can do is the best you can do, you know?

belledame222 said...

antip: Yeah, pretty much, power corrupts...and yet, there's still the question of *why* you'd/we'd/they'd/one'd *need* to "remain in control."

The rationalization is always that it's for the best; if we let go of the reins, "they" will take over and oppress us once again. And the world being what it is, there's probably a certain amount of truth to it. Go ahead and put down your weapons, as Orwell noted; just do it with the knowledge that in all likelihood *someone* will pick them up and use them against you. Turn the other cheek, but don't do it in the expectation that the gesture will melt everyone's heart with compassion; *someone* (not everyone; probably not even most people) *will* hit you on the other cheek, harder.

Which doesn't mean you shouldn't do it, turn the other cheek; just, be aware of what you're doing when you're doing it, and why.

No, I don't have any good answers here, either. As howard says, it's about moderation. I think letting go of the need for purity is key; recognizing that, yep, you're gonna fuck up. It's inevitable. It's life. Accept it, learn from it, and move on. It'll only make things worse if you don't.

EL said...

I think that part of it is that craziness is a good recruitment tool for angry undergrads. :)

I think extremity leads to unquestioning commitment and those are both outgrowths of personal pathology. It's a lot easier to commit yourself to something that you're 100% sure about, that is very black and white, that has clear enemies, etc. When you acknowledge the humanity of everyone involved, when you have to spend a lot of time thinking through your positions and ethics, you do tend to cede from leadership positions, because you're less comfortable yelling "CHARGE!" without a cogent analysis of why and how. Which means a little more talk, a little less action.

antiprincess said...

I think it has less to do with altruistic motives and more to do with the fact that individual people like feeling important and powerful. A quick and dirty way to get that delicious and addictive surge of importance and power is to humiliate and discredit someone else - and not only does one feel that deep sense of personal gratification in the act itself, but the praise and approval from people higher up the food chain is its own (equally addictive) reward.

antiprincess said...

One could examine the French Revolution, or the Chinese Cultural Revolution, for further food for thought.

sometimes the radfemblogosphere (and the wider blogosphere) feels like one big rotating struggle meeting to me.

belledame222 said...

>A quick and dirty way to get that delicious and addictive surge of importance and power is to humiliate and discredit someone else - and not only does one feel that deep sense of personal gratification in the act itself, but the praise and approval from people higher up the food chain is its own (equally addictive) reward.>

Yes. It doesn't even have to be someone higher up the food chain, necessarily; it's a way of bonding. "Let's you and me unite against him/her/them."
I have a particular tendency toward this myself, I know.

belledame222 said...

...sometimes I think it all comes down to existentialism, and connection. "Look, I'm here, I'm REALLY here!" "and I'm not all alone in the great void!"

belledame222 said...

As for the eternal question of "but how do you protect yourself without dehumanizing the Other"--it's a really good question.

Right now, at least, I have a bumper sticker that kind of sums up where I'm at, much of the time:

"Republicans [fill in your own] are people, too. Mean, selfish, greedy people."

belledame222 said...

in fact, (yes, Some Of My Best Friends Are...too; or, well, they probably would be), I'd just use the all-purpose Frootbat instead of "Republicans," there, really.

my definition of a Frootbat: someone who is behaving in a way that is not only thoroughly unpleasant but makes no earthly sense to anyone not dwelling in (apparently) the Frootbat's own private universe. And any attempts to meet the frootbat on his/her own turf will only bear fruit (if at all) to the extent that you are willing to accept that the frootbat does not, cannot, WILL not meet you halfway, or a 1/100th of the way, or at all, really.

midwesterntransport said...

and don't underestimate the power of embarassment and humiliation, particularly on a grand public scale. sometimes i wonder how often folks dig in their heels because they don't want to look like an idiot - and they don't want to look *wrong*. so legitimate criticisms become complaints from "Radicals," etc. etc.

how often has a politician or head of a major organization, regardless of its political bent, said, "whoops, i was wrong." or "my policy is jacked, here's why and here's how i'm gonna change it." somehow it's better to Follow The Path (warped as it may become) than to acknowledge error.

that's kinda fucked-up, eh?

belledame222 said...

bigtime.

part of it is because people anticipate (and sometimes correctly) that the response to "You're right. I fucked up. I'm sorry." will *not* be forgiveness or acceptance or even an acknowledgement and willingness to go on, but rather, "you see! YOU SEE!!! and furthermore, here's what ELSE is wrong with you, you fuck-up..."

jackadandy said...

"Organizing" is a term used for a reason. In my long, tumultuous career as an organizer, I've learned to keep my eye on the big picture of moving a group of people towards a goal and not confusing that effort with any one person, frootbat or hero.

I've reached the point where I feel I do the most good simply helping humans learn to organize themselves, rather than working on particular causes myself.

No matter what the cause, good or bad, it falls apart for the same reasons: human frailty.

Every member of an effort has their weakness. The job of the organizer is to create a solid and flexible enough process to prevent anyone's weakness from capsizing the whole.

Ugh, sorry to come off like such a schoolmarm, lol! I've just been around a lot and have learned that identifying any one person as the villain and the reason for a group's failure probably means the group has not given sufficient attention to their structure and process.

On the other hand, maybe I'm full of shit and what I think of as "good process" is just me presenting a heavyduty counterweight to any trouble makers. eh... ;)

Love your thinking, belledame...

belledame222 said...

thanks.

I think it's some of each. On the one hand, yes, there is such a thing as scapegoating; there is also such a thing as group dynamics which are somehow moer than the sum of their individual parts.

On the other hand: I do believe some people are more prone to toxic behavior than others, and (at least) should not be in certain positions.

if "toxic" is too loaded, then: "not suitable for the position; someone else would be better, yes." in some cases, "do not play well with others."

and that there are certain behaviors and cues, at least, which are fairly consistently identifiable as red flags, if you know what to look for.

I also believe that there is such a thing as a toxic organization; and that while in many cases it seems to be inextricably woven into the DNA of the place, regardless of which individuals come and go, in many cases it is also clearly a case of, as the saying goes,

"The fish rots from the head."

midwesterntransport said...

i'm thinking of someone who did stand up and say that they had changed their mind: malcolm x. though i wonder if his opinions would have shifted had he not been expelled from the nation of islam. from his autobiography (which i just read for the first time - yeah, yeah, i'm behind) it seems like he was jolted from crisis to catharsis.

and yeah, i think you're right, belledame, that admitting a change of heart might make one a big ol' target; and if your cause or belief system or whatever is already marginalized, it could open the door to further criticism. at the same time, one risks becoming an ol' dinosaur.

midwesterntransport said...

also, when you say frootbat i think fruitfly and get nasty images of those little eensy-teensy ones that hover around oranges.

belledame222 said...

yes, that works.

Helpful Links For Growth said...

"admitting a change of heart might make one a big ol' target; and if your cause or belief system or whatever is already marginalized, it could open the door to further criticism."

yeah, but doesnt admitting that you've changed show that you can think..and be a bigger and better person for realizing that? why care about someone criticizing you because you've come to another conclusion?

Alon Levy said...

yeah, but doesnt admitting that you've changed show that you can think..and be a bigger and better person for realizing that?

Usually, it doesn't. Instead, it shows that you're weak and that what you say is not to be trusted, because you might change your mind later.

belledame222 said...

That's how it *should* work, but it often doesn't, as alon notes.

And even taking it a step back from when politicians do it to the personal realm--it depends how invested you are in keeping on the potential apologee's good side. Most people really don't like conflict, I find, and will prefer to walk on eggshells or maintain a stiff silence rather than reopen a subject that they fear will lead to fresh blasts of rage in their direction.

eponymous said...

My philosophy has always been: Moderation in all things.

And, most especially, in moderation...

I agree with the thesis of belledame's post, though, and it's a major reason why I belong to very few organizations of any stripe these days. There was a time in which I was heavily involved in activism (most notably in the ACLU, NOW, NARAL, and the SPLC), but those days have passed me by, often initiated by the exact issues that you raised.

I'd never want to be a part of a club that would have me as a member, that master of satire Grouch Marx used to say, and it rings true more often than not. Perhaps that's why I've found myself drifting towards true, classless Anarchism in the last few years.

However, the core of every ideology, every movement, every revolution has always been the people involved. People are still greedy, mendacious, unethical, petty, egotisical, back-stabbing and fearful, no matter what their ideology. The success of organizations are the ones that acknowledge these all-too-human foibles as possible and work to lessen them in a rational fasion. The real threat comes from groups who don't even acknowledge the possibility that their members might have these issues and thus gloss over the actions of the unhinged few.

Like jackadandy said, the role of the organizer and the leaders of a group is to create a structure in which all people can operate, but that still acknowledges and has remedies for misbehavior. And, it saddens me to no end to see that the higher one gets in many organizations, the further away from this ideal the members of the organization get.

belledame222 said...

>The success of organizations are the ones that acknowledge these all-too-human foibles as possible and work to lessen them in a rational fasion. The real threat comes from groups who don't even acknowledge the possibility that their members might have these issues and thus gloss over the actions of the unhinged few.

Exactly. Thank you for summing up what I was trying to get at.

gandhi rules said...

I'm a true believer that any organization that has more than three people running it will become the incestuous, bastard son of itself. I'm allergic to Frootbats, I see them coming a mile away. This is why I join no team, no gang, no cause but my own. I'd rather do it myself.

eponymous said...

This is why I join no team, no gang, no cause but my own. I'd rather do it myself.

That is such a quintessential American statement that I think we should have someone cross-stitch it and frame it.

*hugs ghandi rules*

eponymous said...

Uh, thanks belledame, but let me edit that a bit:

The successful organizations are the ones that acknowledge these all-too-human foibles as possible and work to lessen them in a rational fashion. The real threat comes from groups who don't even acknowledge the possibility that their members might have these issues and thus gloss over and tacitly condone the actions of the unhinged few.