12 Feb 2013
How tough is your skin? Monbiot, Mann, McKibben, various Transitioners and others on what to do if your Transition initiative comes under attack
As Transition groups deepen their work and begin to have a tangible impact, it is, perhaps, inevitable that those who disagree may express their opinions with vigour. Over the last few months it has been my own personal experience to be on the receiving end of this in Totnes, and I have to say it has not been especially pleasant. It appears, finally, to be calming down, and so what I would like to do in this post, with the help of a few names you might recognise who have had a lot more experience of this kind of thing than I have, is to try and draw out some learnings from it.
Your own Transition group may have experienced something like this, or may do in the future, so I hope you will find this a useful conversation. It’s not something I have seen discussed much elsewhere. Late last year, I attended the Independence Day conference in Frome. 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?
Of course I could just say, as some that I spoke to when I was experiencing this did, that all you need to do in such a situation is grow a “thicker skin” and get on with it, that it’s par for the course. However, such an approach, even if it is possible, ignores the effect such things actually have on us, and ignoring those impacts can lead to burnout and stress. It was certainly my experience that my skin isn’t as thick as I may have thought it was, and that, at times, being on the receiving end of such stuff can be a lonely and isolating experience that can even lead you to question what you’re doing. It’s not a good place to find yourself, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
So, I wanted to explore some of the issues this brings up with other people with useful experiences to share. First I spoke to Bill McKibben, a climate campaigner for many years and founder of 350.org, who has been at the forefront of raising awareness about climate change and related issues. What’s his experience of being on the receiving end of such attacks?:
“There are days when one’s email is dispiriting. Especially in a violent country like this one, one has to be a little careful. I get a fair number of death threats and things over any stretch of time. Mostly I just erase them and ignore them and figure they don’t matter much. Every once in a while there’s one that seems to me a little worrisome, so I make sure the authorities check it out and make sure there’s nothing real there and so far, thank heaven, there hasn’t been. I think my working theory is that if someone really wanted to shoot you they probably wouldn’t send you an email first.”
Guardian journalist and writer George Monbiot‘s experience is almost identical. As he told me:
“It’s constant. 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”.
However, in terms of how this feels when the attacks are coming from within your community, from people you pass in the street and who may be parents at your child’s school, or who you know in all sorts of different ways, the impact can be more acute. This is a distinction that Monbiot recognises:
“Of course it’s harder to keep it at arms length when you are talking about real tangible events and real places, that does affect the life you lead. It does become harder to compartmentalise when it is people in your own community who are attacking you.”
Philip Revell works for Sustaining Dunbar, and found himself under attack when the group were awarded funding by the Scottish Government. A small group of local people, combined with inflammatory sections of the local media, mounted a very personal campaign, questioning both Philip’s, and the organisation’s, competency and integrity. I asked him how, on a personal level, if affected him:
“Extremely difficult I have to confess, dreading the phone going. Really emotionally draining. 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. It was pretty hard I have to say.”
Gillian Orrell of Transition Town Tynedale’s ‘Hexham River Hydro’ project found that their project’s success in the Energyshare vote, and the resultant publicity, meant that some people locally assumed the project was further developed than in reality it was:
“We experienced the full spectrum. From people making comments online or to the media, along the lines of “this is the worst thing in the world for the river”, with absolutely no suggestion that they had any specialist knowledge or insight other than just feeling very strongly, to, at the other extreme, the deliberate use of public forums and meetings for an approach that wasn’t necessarily … always productive”.
The common formula discussed at the Independence Day conference was also identified by George Monbiot, who had been involved in a campaign in his own community in Wales to stop a Tesco store opening in the town:
“All you need is one divisive issue, ideally stoked by some utterly irresponsible reporting, and some very angry people on Facebook and you’ve got a formula for some real nastiness.”
How might people protect themselves and put some emotional distances between themselves and the slings and arrows coming their way?
Let’s return to that notion of having a “thick skin”. Everyone I spoke to said that feeling part of a group, having people who support you and who you trust who you can get together with and laugh this off, or share experiences and pick you up when you’re down, is a vital part of this. It has been my own experience that my skin is thinnest, if you like, when I am on my own, or don’t feel I have that support.
At such times, it became the first thing I thought about when I woke up, and the last thing I thought about at night, and at its worst, the only thing I thought about on the several occasions I woke up during the night. It is an experience that has toughened my skin somewhat, and at the end of this piece I will offer a few tips which I think could help you in such a situation. But how do others cope with this?
Climate scientist Michael Mann is best known for his work on the famous ‘Hockey Stick’ graph and for being one of the focal points for attack during the ‘Climategate’ nonsense of a few years ago. In his book ‘The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars’, he wrote “this is simply what it means to be a prominent figure in the climate change debate in the US today”. But how did he cope with being at the eye of the storm? He told me:
“I developed a thick skin. I recognised that in fact as personal as this might seem, it is in fact not personal. It is part of an orchestrated campaign of intimidation and disinformation, and you have a role, a role not to give in to those intimidation tactics, to not just roll over, to be out there defending yourself, defending the science. In some ways it was almost invigorating, or I at least allowed myself to feed on that in as positive a way as I could”.
Yet not everyone is able to develop a tough skin. As Gillian Orrell told me:
“I don’t have a tough skin. I’ve never had a tough skin. Although throughout my life, and I continue to do this, I try and toughen up my skin, I am realistic enough now, aged nearly 40, to know that I’m never going to have a tough skin”.
When encountering this kind of thing coming at you from a section of the community where you live, whether directly or via social media, it can easily take on a scale in your mind that bears little relation to reality. This need to hold onto a sense of perspective was something that for Sustaining Dunbar was really important. As Philip Revell puts it:
“It’s important to be aware the vast majority of people are likely to actually be supportive of this agenda and what we’re doing. It really is a small group of vocal people with too much time on their hands who have some sort of grudge or jealousy about the funding we’ve managed to get, or whatever, who are trying to stir things up”.
It would be all too easy to begin to feel everyone is against you and lose perspective on the scale of this opposition. I asked Bill McKibben how he works with this:
“It is dispiriting at some level, but it’s all the more reason for me to just go out and keep organising, because then you recognise that most people are actually very happy that you’re doing this, and supportive, and that’s good”.
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 might be an interesting issue to explore in a future post.
One might also suggest that once peoples heads begin to project above the parapet, there is not only a perception that they are fair game, but that they also become a lightening rod for all kinds of projections, for disappointments and frustrations elsewhere in peoples lives that are then projected onto you. You become accused of being too organised, too disorganised, too successful, not successful enough, too mainstream, not mainstream enough, too this, too that, etc. etc. Yet picking apart what is valid and useful feedback, and what is projection and a reflection of a deeper subconscious is no mean feat.
Social media: good and bad
Some might note the irony of social media being one of the prime outlets for the fabled ‘silent majority’ – as it has also been essential to so many campaigns for positive change. In days gone by such discussions might have been carried out through the letters pages of local newspapers, at Town Hall meetings or on the streets. Today, however, people feel able to be abusive and critical on Facebook in ways that they would are unlikely to in daily life. An excellent piece by Robert Fisk recently on the toxic role of social media (which he dubs “digital poison”) quoted former US diplomat Christopher Hill as saying:
“Instant access to information does not mean instant access to knowledge, much less wisdom. In the past, information was integrated with experience. Today, it is integrated with emotion… Digital technology has played an important role “in fostering this atmosphere of bad manners, vicious personal attacks, intolerance, disprespect… Bullying has gone virtual.”
Most of those I spoke to while researching this piece have been men, but for women, attacks via. social media can take on an altogether darker tone. Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, recently appeared on BBC Question Time and made some remarks in answer to a question on immigration where she suggested that it could bring benefits to an area. Subsequently she was subjected to appalling abuse, via social media sites and Twitter. On her blog she reprinted some of the foul misogynistic abuse she was subjected to, which included rape threats. “The misogyny is truly gobsmacking” she wrote. She compared the experience as leaving “a sense of assault” and feeling like “a punch”:
“It was so ghastly it didn’t feel personal, or personally critical. It was such generic, violent misogyny. In a way, I didn’t feel it was about me … I’m outing this because I have a thick skin and, in the end, speculation on the size of my vagina doesn’t move me half as much as worrying about the next chapter of my book I’m supposed to write. But then I’m lucky”.
How might women in the public eye experiencing such treatment impact on the willingness of others to get involved in public life and political discussion? Beard wrote on her blog that “it would be quite enough to put many women off appearing in public, contributing to political debate.” That personal and gender-specific kind of abuse doesn’t tend to be such an issue for men. George Monbiot argues that the kind of treatment that can be handed out through such channels needs to be kept in perspective:
“It seems to be a standard human response in the digital age to say wildly inappropriate and over the top things about people in electronic media. People say things by means of digital communications they would never dream of saying face-to-face or in a social setting. The first thing is to recognise that this isn’t real. Even if they are real people, even if they are people you are going to see, what they’re saying isn’t real social interaction, it’s just not the way people would interact if they were meeting you. I think you can manage the emotional impact that those emails and Facebook posts and the rest of it might have by reminding yourself that this is peculiar to the electronic age, this isn’t how they would be if they met you.”
What practical steps can you take to best weather such storms?
One of the key things that strikes me as being essential to our own wellbeing is that when we find ourselves in such a situation, we are able to compartmentalise different aspects of our lives, so that the shocks we experience don’t ripple through all aspects of our lives (personal resilience, if you like). Having a clear distinction between work life and home life is vital. For Gillian Orrell, travel is a great strategy:
“Get away sometimes, go away for a few days, put some space between you and what’s going on. It’s amazing what just not being physically here for a few days can do for your sanity!”
This ability to compartmentalise is one key element of George Monbiot’s strategies:
“What goes on at home and outside the public eye bears no relationship to the work I do. When I shut my computer down I really have shut it down, and it very seldom bleeds into the rest of my life”.
He does however acknowledge that this may not be so easy to achieve in a community setting:
“It does become harder to compartmentalise when it is people in your own community who are attacking you. The great thing about the people who attack me is that I will never meet them … I don’t even know who they are”.
For Sustaining Dunbar, finding themselves under attack was a wake-up call to tighten up their procedures and to make sure that even more than before, they dotted their i’s and cross their t’s. Also, according to Philip Revell:
“…we support each other as far as possible. We are much better clued up about how to respond. We are really trying to make sure we take control of the agenda rather than letting other people drive it.”
Sustaining Dunbar also made a clear decision to not “enter into any debate on any social media apart from our own and our own website”. Ultimately, he told me, “this is just a feature of community”. Bill McKibben takes a “Keep Calm and Carry On” approach:
“I mostly just delete the emails and think “OK and on we go”. If you spent too much time worrying about it then you couldn’t do the important work that was getting you the death threats in the first place”.
This philosophical approach, summed up by Philip Revell as “don’t be surprised if this happens, be prepared for it” was also reflected by Gillian Orrell, who told me:
“When organisations start to grow, and are seen as being based on obviously good ideas, people will initially cut them some slack. But as they grow it becomes a natural human thing that people will say “you are strong enough now to take a few punches. Although we agree with your underlying aims, you could do better, and we’re going to point out how you could do better, and challenge you and see if you can withstand those challenges”.
This is how human society operates. We nurture things when they are young and frail, and then once they get to a size, we’re not afraid to challenge them, because in the challenging process they grow bigger and stronger, if they survive the challenges, and we do somehow too. At the macro and philosophical level this is part of human development for these kinds of challenges to exist”.
There is also a lot to be said for seeing such treatment as being an opportunity, for rethinking how you work, how you engage, what the group does and how it presents itself. For example, Sustaining Dunbar made sure that all staff and board members received media training. Gillian Orrell found that the most productive response was sometimes to engage directly with those most vocally opposing the project:
“One of our most vocally opposed anglers, he’s incredibly passionate about the river, and I was getting copied on some emails at one point that were very inflammatory I thought. My reaction was to email him as a person, and say “can you and I just meet and have a coffee and have a chat because I would really like to understand more about where you’re coming from and I’d like you to understand where I’m coming from”. 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”.
Bill McKibben argues that cultivating a compassionate motivation, as far as is possible, is important, seeing your attackers as people with their own issues, their own motivations, their own troubles:
“It is an opportunity to return kindness for unkindness. Say firmly, “yes I believe in what I’m doing and I think its important and here are the links to some of the articles that explain why, but I also think its important that we’re civil when we talk about these things, and I hope you’ll try to be civil in the future because that’s what neighbourliness and things imply”, and see what happens. There are some people who are just crazy in this world and there’s no use trying to wish it away, and there are people who are powerful and who get annoyed when you stand in their way”.
It could also, provided you have the right support, and if the key people are amenable and identifiable, offer a good opportunity to practice conflict resolution in a way that could yield great long-term benefits to your initiative.
Final thoughts and a ‘Survival kit’
For McKibben, the attacks reflect an increasingly desperate attempt to hang onto an old, outdated paradigm, a way of thinking being rapidly overtaken by reality:
“The good news, for what it is, is that that is an ever-smaller cadre of people that is that out of touch with reality and the world. I understand why they are as upset as they are. Their worldview is really threatened by physics. It’s hard if everything you are used to thinking about; that having more is the best thing in the world, that we’re all to be hyper-individualists, laissez-faire, complete ‘every man an island’ kind of thing, the physics and chemistry of climate change are just making it clear that that’s not a plausible future and that we are going to have to learn to work together in all kinds of ways.”
For Monbiot, eliciting this kind of response is actually “a sort of success.”
“Nothing that is worth doing in the political sphere is easy. The problem that we face is that, in this age without statesmanship, politicians always take the easy route, they always take the path of least resistance, which is why the huge questions, such as climate change, such as biodiversity, such as the rest of the environmental crisis, such as the economic crisis, such as social justice and redistribution, they never get dealt with, they never get resolved. It’s because politicians are terribly afraid of provoking a reaction, even though that’s exactly what’s needed, so it falls to activists and campaigners to do it. It’s 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”.
“What I tell myself in that situation”, he adds, “is that if something isn’t violently opposed, then it’s not worth doing”. While I can see what he means, and perhaps he is right in that it is impossible to create change on the scale Transition initiatives aspire to without encountering some kind of a reaction, might there be a better, and less confrontational way of looking at the opportunity that such a situation presents?
I asked Michael Mann for his advice to anyone first opening an unpleasant email:
“Don’t reply to that email. That’s the first thing. The most important thing is to not make early mistakes. Part of their tactic is to expose scientists who have never had to deal with something like this to these harsh attacks that they’ve never had to deal with before, in the hope that they will respond irrationally, that they will make some mistakes, say things they shouldn’t have said in the heat of the moment, do things that they shouldn’t have done. It’s extremely important not to react, don’t reply to those emails, don’t do anything rash, talk to your more senior colleagues who have been through this sort of thing before, and talk to them about the effective ways to fight back”.
Gillian Orrell offers a few pieces of advice based on her experience with Hexham River Hydro:
Take the high ground: “You’ve got to be ultra reasonable all the time, however much personal energy that takes, because the more unreasonable somebody else appears, the more you need to stick to your logic and evidence, to your reasonable, fair, open approach. People aren’t stupid, they will see the difference between that and random negative unsupported remarks on Facebook, even though it doesn’t feel it at the time.
Stay intellectually open: “whether that is listening to genuine arguments from other people, or listening to emotional outbursts, and being open to thinking about why those emotional outbursts are happening”.
Maintain perspective: “you’re talking about a single interest group, and there are many many other interests and groups with a stake in your project. To spend too much of your time and energy focusing on one interest group means you don’t give an appropriate time and weighting to the others. One person or one group of people being really loud and clamouring for your attention, actually might mean that you miss other people who are just as important. To get too focused on one individual, or argument, or interest group, would be to do yourself and your project a disservice”.
My experience has been that they most powerful antidote to feeling isolated and defensive is having a good group of supportive people around you who you trust and who know what’s going on. This was the key thing that came through from everyone I spoke to. Journalists such as George Monbiot develop almost a professional thick skin, but for those of us without that professional ‘armour’, as it were, we need other people around us. Perhaps one of the key skills a Transition initiative needs to cultivate, that ability to come together and support and trust each other in such situations.
I hope that this has been a useful exploration of this issue. I hope it has given you some insights and tools for how you might deal with such a situation should it arise. I’d like to draw things together with my own tips, your ‘Survival Kit’ if you like:
- Impose an ‘electronic curfew‘: give yourself some time at the start and end of each day which you fiercely protect and keep ‘screen-free’
- See it for what it is: backlashes can often be driven by an alliance of people and groups with wildly disparate agendas and beliefs, and can prove very hard to hold together over any period of time. Don’t fall for seeing it as one whole and unified body
- If it’s unacceptable, disengage: if one particular person or media outlet is behaving in a way that is simply unacceptable and stepping beyond their remit, you have no duty to continue to engage with them. Make clear that from this point forward you won’t engage and step back.
- Don’t demonise: although this can be a lonely and deeply unsettling experience, it is important to maintain a compassionate perspective and resist the impulse to demonise your tormentors. Don’t fall into the “us-and-them” patterns, rather focus on how this might contain the seed of an opportunity to bring people together in a way that hasn’t happened up to this point
- Respond skilfully: take some advice from someone who understands how the media works and how best to present your case and respond. Don’t feel rushed, take your time and don’t feel compelled to answer the more ludicrous accusations. People are good at seeing through those themselves.
- Make sure your key stakeholders are still with you: check the key relationships you have in the community are still strong and still with you. Meet them in person and let them know the nature of what you are experiencing.
- You’re not alone: one of the key elements in this is to have a group of people around you who you trust and who you can laugh about all this with. Share what you’re experiencing with those around you and tap into their support.
- Stand by what you’re doing: Stand by your vision and your record. No-one ever said it would be easy — keep your eyes on the bigger picture, the longer journey, the prize at the end of all this. And remember, if you weren’t having an impact, you wouldn’t be getting this kind of attention.
I’ll close with something that Bill McKibben said when I spoke to him:
“One way to think of it is that one of the highest goals towards which we’re working is stronger communities, higher levels of civility, more neighbourliness, all that ability to work together, so maybe when things like this happen it’s a good opportunity to practice a little bit some of those virtues that we’re hoping will get wider currency”.
I couldn’t agree more. It would be interesting to hear your experiences, or if you have any tips to add to these. Thank you for reading this far, and my thanks to all those who gave their time to be interviewed for this post.