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Sun, 22 Dec 2019

On Group Building

Recently I thought a lot about group building. There had been some dynamics going on in way to many communities that I am involved with, and it always came down to the same structural thing:

  • Is the group welcoming participation of everyone?
  • Is the group actively excluding people?

When put this way, I guess most people will quite directly swing towards the first option and outrule the second. Thing though is, it's not that easy. And I'd like to explain why.

Passive vs. Active Exclusion

The story about passive exclusion

Exclusion always happens, it even has to happen, regardless how you try to form a group. Let me explain it by an example, that recently happened at an event in Germany. It was an event called "Hanse inter nichtbinär trans Tagung (HINT)", conference for inter, non-binary and trans folks. A doctor was invited who performs genital "corrective" operations on babies, something that inter people suffer a lot and unfortunately is still legal and a huge practise around the globe while there is no medical need for any of this. In turn inter people didn't feel safe to attend a conference anymore that was specifically set out for them as part of the target audience.

And that's just one example. I could come up with a fair amount of others, like having sexual abusive people at polyamory meetups, and there is a fair amount of free software related discussions going on too, having abusive people in the community actively invalidating others, ridiculing them, belittling them, or software that specifically enables access to hate-speech sites on free software portals, all with the reasoning that it's about free software after all.

All these things lead to passive exclusion. It leads to an environment that suddenly doesn't feel safe for a fair amount of people to get involved in in the first place. People that are claimed to be wanted within the community. People who are told to grow a thicker skin. People who are criticized for pointing out the discrimination and being rightfully emotionally wound up, also about the silent bystanders, having to do the emotional labour themselves. And as organizers and group leads, it's definitely the less energy consuming approach.

Some further fruit for thoughts:

The story with active exclusion

When you understand this, and start to engage with abusive people that make other feel unsafe, you might realize: That's actually hell of a work! And an unthankful one on top of that. You suddenly have to justify your actions. You will receive abusive messages about how could you exclude that person because they never have been abusive to them so it can't be true, you are splitting the community, and whatsnot. It's an unthankful job to stand up for the mistreated, because in the end it will always feel like mistreating someone else. Holding people accountable for their actions never feels good, and I totally get that. That's also likely the reason why most communities don't do it (or, only in over-the-top extreme cases way too late), and this is a recurring pattern, because of that.

But there are these questions you always have to ask yourself when you want to create a community:

"Whom do I want to create a community for, whom do I want to have in there - and what kind of behavior works against that? What am I willing to do to create the space?"

When you have a clear view on those questions, it still might be needed to revisit it from time to time when things pop up that you haven't thought about before. And if you mean it honest, for a change, start to listen to the oppressed and don't add the hurt by calling them out for their reaction of fighting for their sheer existence and survival. Being able to talk calmly about an issue is a huge privilege and in general shows that you aren't affected by it, at all. And doesn't contribute to solving the discrimination, rather just distracts from it.

Middle ground?

One last note: Active exclusion doesn't necessarily have to happen all the time. Please check in with the abused about what their needs are. Sometimes they can deal with in a different way. Sometimes the abusers start to realize their mistake and healing can happen. Sometimes discussions are needed, mediation, with or without the abused.

But ultimately, if you want to build any inclusive environment, you have to face the fact that you very likely will have to exclude people and be ready to do so. Because as Paula said in her toot above:

"If you give oppressors a platform, then guess what, marginalized people will leave your platform and you'll soon have a platform of dicks!"

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