This is a strategic framework for surviving or even progressing in the midst of repressive political regimes, focusing on bystander organizing.
My partner is currently helping someone apply for US citizenship. I can imagine that process feels pretty harrowing normally, let alone in today’s climate, with a xenophobic predator in chief at the figurative head of the government. Trump has already threatened to pull federal funding from cities who act as sanctuaries for the people he intends to persecute.
Our society has a lot of active xenophobes and misogynists. Such people worked hard to elect someone like Trump in the first place. They have already started acting more boldly. A lot of xenophobes and misogynists work in public and private institutions, which magnifies their potential destructive influence. They may start to feel empowered with a mandate from above in what people perceive as the “highest political office of the nation” (more accurately it is a symbolic position that has as much power as we delegate to or allow it). The xenophobes and misogynists are coming out of the woodwork. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a form of social and cultural honesty manifesting itself. We know who — and what — we are working with. They don’t have to hide. They don’t police themselves and hide behind political correctness, because the social norms have changed. We know how bad things truly are, and how much work we have to do to create a democratic culture of love, courage and respect.
However, the shift in the balance of power also means that many otherwise-non-misogynist and non-xenophobic people will start to silence themselves and passively “go along” with whatever tendencies emerge. As the xenophobes and misogynists emerge and many other, competing value systems go into hiding, a progressive institution can seem to shift rather abruptly to a regressive and repressive institution, seemingly-overnight. This happens first through a collective change in social affect, where xenophobia and misogyny become dominant norms. Shifts in norms then create a silence amongst a passive majority, or even draw them into compliance as they seek to maintain social harmony. Then actual shifts in policies, rules and directives occur, further marginalizing and mitigating the remaining people who refuse to remain silent.
This shift can do lots of damage. We can prevent that damage.
The remaining people who refuse to remain silent have the simple, albeit very difficult, task to slow, stop and even reverse these institutional shifts through strategic action. Whether and how such people act in this shifting climate will determine in large part the extent and quality of the damage that the xenophobes and misogynists are able to do with their growing institutional power. Strategically, we can act to limit the damage, viewing this as a “temporary shift in climate” while ignoring its roots in our culture. We can call this the “Tough out the four years” strategy. It is a strategy that both assumes and facilitates failure. More fundamentally, we can work to awaken and activate bystanders from their state of passive silence and compliance. The more proactive we are with this, the easier our task of limiting damage and holding a line against authoritarian regression will become. The longer we wait, the harder the task will become, up to the point of becoming impossible.
Bystander activation itself becomes much more effective through a strategic process of triage. We can call strategically-focused bystander activation “bystander organizing.” We target and activate those most sensitive and courageous first (before we get bound, gagged and dragged off to the gallows), and then use our growing numbers to increasingly activate others in turn and normalize a culture, first of resistance, and then prevention. When bystander activation and organizing occurs promptly, an institution can effectively hold a line against social regression, or even continue progress making — even leaps and bounds of progress (albeit in the midst of a lot more conflict) — during an authoritarian regime.
Isolated institutions, when transparent and public about their activation, can in turn inspire and agitate others, transforming pockets of resistance to a unified solidarity network. So anyone in a position of public or private institutional influence can use their institutional power responsibly, act strategically. We have work to do to make this land more just, more free, more inclusive. We have people (such as xenophobes and misogynists) to identify and hold to account, including, but not anywhere-near limited to, the new predator-in-chief. Including friends, family and coworkers. Our bosses and employees. Trump emerged from US mainstream culture. Until we change the culture, the threat he symbolizes will remain: his supporters, those who comply, and those who consider him an alien rather than emergent threat.
Indicators of Institutional Shifts
Indicators of shifts in institutional culture include both informal and formal factors, such as memos, new “policies,” personnel behavior, and enforcement of accountability for professional, ethical behavior, and institutional mission or focus. Examples of shifts in sexism include increased harassment of women, male coworkers or employees behaving in oppositional or defiant ways to female coworkers or bosses (which can include more gender-based “jokes” about female authority), and bosses silencing or exploiting female employees. Gender minorities may also receive similar treatment. Similarly racist or classist behaviors may start to occur.
The adoption of discriminatory policies (let alone behaviors and attitudes), even when technically-illegal or unconstitutional, may appear (or actually) have the support of the President of the US. Such policies can focus inward, on the management of the institution itself (e.g., stripping female employees of paid maternity leave, or claiming to “recognize white genocide” or “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism” as a real issue requiring affirmative action or equal opportunity or “increased accountability”). Likewise, such policies can project outward, toward the people whom the institution should ostensibly serve (such as in the administration of health care or insurance, or work training and placement programs, or with immigrants applying for US citizenship).
Initial shifts can occur more subtly, with a “testing of the waters,” occurring through increased frequency of racially- or sexually-charged “joking,” a vanguard of indicator and agent of shifting cultural norms. These initial shifts can easily and disable any extant accountability structures, policies or processes that were probably overwhelmed and under-responsive to begin with. Those who have already faced such challenges in their work life may notice an increase in both frequency or intensity of behavior or other indicators of a cultural shift into line with the repressive regime. Regardless of the level of formality, these shifts occur due to a perceived (and often real) sense of support or even mandate from those higher in the social hierarchy, and a perceived lack of consequences for abandoning what was previously the politically-correct behavior. In fact, such people are simply adopting (sometimes passively, sometimes willingly and actively) the new politically-correct behavior, which happens to include misogyny and xenophobia.
The fact of the matter is, though, that enough caring people exist, generally-speaking, in every institution for that institution to hold a line against slipping toward repressive culture or policy. What matters is whether we act strategically in a manner to amplify our impact and influence.