Toward Movement Grace: Criticism, Self-Criticism and the Wisdom of Silence

Beef. It’s been a part of our work for millennia. We disagree – sometimes over big ideas and basic values. Sometimes over little ideas and tactics. What makes a disagreement full blown beef? Usually it’s a lack of movement manners – a kind of grace – that forgets the humanity of the folk “on the other side.”

I wish I could say that I didn’t see it much. A doesn’t trust B. H is envious of I and uses their criticism as a way of getting a “come up” into the spotlight that is now trained precariously on their target. Those in the spotlight are, in turn, stressed and inept at handling criticism. They lash out, hurt and confused. They forget that spotlight invites scrutiny, and they are woefully ill prepared. Social media has only exacerbated the issue. Big audiences, instant response. So much at stake. It’s all a pretty volatile combination.

The truth of the matter is that beef never really goes away without a lot of intentional work at trust building. If there is one thing I know for sure is that whatever we say to one another, we need to say it like we will be in the same room together 20, 30, 40 plus years from now. Because most likely we will. Whatever we say, whatever we do, we will eventually have to confront it. So, we might as well treat each other with the respect and grace we would like to receive. Here’s a little guidance in hopes of helping you to prevent your own star turn in the next episode of Movement Beef aka Five Questions to Ask Myself Before I Go Off.

  1. Is this an opportunity to elevate the public conversation? Meaning, if I respond, will I be modeling how to constructively engage with criticism and add something new and useful? If you have something constructive and useful to say, take your time and craft it with the humanity of all actors in mind. Start by acknowledging any good work or point on which you can agree. Do not react to how you are feeling. Breathe. Think. And if someone puts a mic in front of your face and asks you to criticize a comrade. Stop. Breathe. Think. Ask yourself, will I be strengthening movement with my commentary? Is this necessary to moving our work and relationships forward? Or am I just getting caught up in another episode of politics as entertainment?


  1. Will I lose something important if I don’t respond? Accusations can feel hard to ignore. It’s also hard to ignore when people lie about themselves, you or your organization. Yet, often times ignoring them and encouraging supporters to do the same can help prevent further attacks down the line. Is your reputation really on the line? Is the source of the challenge a credible source? Take time to check in with a diverse sample of supporters. You may find it’s much less of an issue than you thought. In other words, don’t use your energy to fan their f(l)ame.


  1. Is the individual or group targeting me picking a fight to get attention? “Come up controversies” are real. And real exhausting. It’s become the 21st century incarnation of gun slinging as the relatively unknown use beef to build name recognition – or get back into the spotlight. However, even if their motivation is suspect, their criticism could well be valid. Take a moment to assess any criticism you receive and see what it’s telling you about yourself and Are they underfunded and freaking out about resources? Do you have the spotlight but not playing well with others? Hate is a powerful teacher. Listen to what it’s saying (and what it’s not). You always have better standing when you enter a conversation with humility and integrity.


  1. If you are starting something, what’s your motivation? Be honest. Did you reach out and share your criticism directly prior to going public? What was your relationship prior to this incident? Have you asked for and/or taken resources from your target? What do you really want from them? Integrity and trust are the most important assets we have in the movement. Does your action engender trust or suspicion? And, finally, are you willing to face the consequences of your decision? There are few things less sexy than a group who goes off on others and then gets “sensitive” when there’s blow back. Yes, it’s important work to share your analysis, if it meets the criteria for Rule 1. It’s also great modeling to admit it when you’ve made a mistake and started in without all the information.


    1. Don’t assume. The FBI’s COINTELPRO and other spying programs were designed to disrupt and destroy organizing work. Rumor mongering and destructive hearsay have been critical tools for disruption. Anonymous letters and calls implicated rival organizations in crimes against one another and too often, organizers believed what they were told. Now, with social media, we can add public embarrassment to this toxic cocktail of hearsay. We do not want to repeat this difficult history. People were isolated and even murdered over this stuff. Let ours be a movement so filled with Love and Principle, that our grace with ourselves and each other is an impenetrable force field against provocateurs. Be sure to meet, discuss and address issues with those directly involved. And when there’s a real fracture, develop clear, supportive protocols for parting ways – including what each party will say (or not) to the public.

Of course, this guidance is for working with allies because we need each other, and we need to be discerning about how we build movement together. Relationships are the foundation of change work. They are how we get work done and are our main source of power. Constructive criticism is also important to movement growth and development. Without criticism, our work grows stagnant and dies. That is why we must offer and receive criticism in ways that help build (not undermine) our capacity to be in principled relationships. Future generations will be watching how we move through these tests today. Let us choose Love even as we critique and be critiqued.

I love this piece by Kamand Kojouri. It says it all:

“They want us to be afraid.
They want us to be afraid of leaving our homes.
They want us to barricade our doors
and hide our children.
Their aim is to make us fear life itself!
They want us to hate.
They want us to hate ‘the other’.
They want us to practice aggression
and perfect antagonism.
Their aim is to divide us all!
They want us to be inhuman.
They want us to throw out our kindness.
They want us to bury our love
and burn our hope.
Their aim is to take all our light!
They think their bricked walls
will separate us.
They think their damned bombs
will defeat us.
They are so ignorant they don’t understand
that my soul and your soul are old friends.
They are so ignorant they don’t understand
that when they cut you I bleed.
They are so ignorant they don’t understand
that we will never be afraid,
we will never hate
and we will never be silent
for life is ours!”

Kamand Kojouri

This life, this movement is ours. Choose us. Choose expansive, revolutionary

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