When I was in graduate school, some of my peers were involved in something called "Collective." This group was, yes, a collective, and it was made up of students who were teaching together - teaching colleagues, one might say. The aim of the group was to use collective process to help grad students, working in teams, to teach sections of the same intro Women's Studies course. The collective would meet each week to go over the readings for the upcoming class sessions and to process issues that were coming up in the group, either within the teaching dyads, within the various class sessions, or within the collective group itself.
The meetings, scheduled for about two hours, frequently ran long. My friends would emerge from Collective looking dazed. I would often hear stories about who had cried in Collective, who had made someone else cry, who had made a patently racist/classist/heterosexist comment, who was oppressing someone else with her privilege.
These exchanges were made possible by the use of Criticism/Self-Criticism, or Crit/Self-Crit, for short. This was, in effect, an open opportunity for anyone to publicly level charges against anyone else in the group, as well as to also note what one has realized about one's own abuse of privilege. The purpose was to allow for people to help each other to recognize their own places of privilege, and to challenge each other when it seemed they were stuck in an "ism."
But this practice quickly meant that a competition for most oppressed/least privileged, as well as least oppressive/best ally, was under way.
The typical pattern was this. Someone would do something to upset another member of the Collective; this very often happened within teaching dyads. The person who was upset would then go to others in (and also those outside of) the Collective and complain. By the time the week's meeting had rolled around, everyone in the Collective was already angry with each other, having taken sides in whatever fight was brewing. Instead of a private discussion, the teaching dyad would now have involved everyone in the Collective, as well as many friends on the outside, in the debate. Stories were spread widely of L.'s classism, of S.'s homophobia. You might think that this was an opportunity for women of color and lesbians and working class women to finally have a voice - and at first, it seemed like it might be. But what happened very quickly was that everyone became subject to a vicious process. Almost no one was protected (I will say more about this in a minute). M. denouncing L.'s classism one week felt like righteous justice, and therefore, was done harshly. But two weeks later, L. was the one harshly denouncing M.'s homophobia. Always, ALWAYS, someone was near tears, someone was enraged, and everyone was exhausted. And all of this was shared in the public forum of the Collective, and often leaked out into the even more public forum of the school at large.
Let's not forget one important reason that people didn't immediately reject such a difficult and painful system: it was likely that, no matter how humiliated or hurt they were one week, they would get to chastise someone the following week. They would be the one who would get to school someone else on appropriate language, behavior, or dress. That opportunity is very tantalizing, folks.
Was there learning? Probably. I do think that everyone learned something about their own privilege and prejudice. But at what cost? Several people lost friends. And no one, it seemed, learned anything about confrontation. No one learned how to say to a working partner, romantic partner, or friend, "hey, I'm really upset about this. Can we discuss it?" The process was tilted toward venting, not toward using "I" language.
There was one instance I recall in which one person seemed, for a time, to remain exempt from criticism. She managed to constantly cast herself as most oppressed in the group, and this was ingenious, because it meant that she had all the power in the group. It meant that she could - and did - make anti-Semitic comments, for example, and that no one would call her on them. It meant that she could - and did - bully other people in the group because everyone was so cowed by her that they were sure that she must be right - until she turned her fury on them. Because what she was after was not justice, but power. (I googled her: she's a grassroots activist, and I'm sure she's very successful at what she does. But I would never want to work with her.)
It reminds me of an earlier post about what happens when you try to dismantle privilege through a concerted effort to oppress someone (i.e., forceably remove what you perceive as their privilege). It doesn't work. It makes a lot of people miserable, and at the end of the day, all that you've proven is that you are a bully.
If we want to see real change, if we want to challenge each other to eradicate the isms that we have hidden inside us, then the route to that is never public shaming. The only route to that is direct dialogue. How many times lately have we seen positive outcomes - for anyone - from public shaming? Seriously?
Sometimes, let's be honest, the goal is not change. Sometimes, when someone is standing on your neck, you don't have the luxury of saying, "hey, you probably didn't mean to, and you maybe don't even notice, but you are standing on my neck right now. Could you step back?" In that case, the proper response is, "get the hell OFF!" But in this case, it really doesn't matter what reaction this receives, as long as the person gets off your neck, right? And the problem with feminist processing is that we confuse our goals. We think that we want to have productive dialogue, when we really want to yell, "get the hell OFF!" And there's certainly a place for that.
Am I saying that people with their feet on other people's necks get a pass? Of course not! If someone tells you to get the hell off, you should immediately jump back. This is not the time to stand there talking about how you didn't mean to put your foot there, and are they sure you're really actually stepping on them because you're pretty sure you're not, and so on. But the reality is that most people are incapable of doing this, or at least are unlikely to do this. And so that means that it's time to strategize. What do you want to happen? What's the most likely way to make that happen?
At the end of the day, "process" has become, at least in some circles, a sort of safe way to gossip: "I need to process what happened" means "I really need to vent about that assholish thing P. did." And if I vent to you about this, then I certainly don't need to talk to P. about it and tell her that she really upset/hurt me. But that's not processing, that's gossiping and venting, and it doesn't move anyone forward, ever.
I don't think many people look back on Collective as a shining example of how to treat each other well as feminists, nor as an example of a useful feminist process. And as for me, when I start to hear Collective-like approaches for dealing with conflict, I run as fast as I can in the other direction. I'll take my conflict direct, please - not behind my back, not in passive-aggressive emails - just honestly, like maybe you respect me a little. Because I respect you. I might not always be able to hear you right away, but I almost always get there. And I am willing to bet that you do, too.