Musings on roles in non-hierarchical groups, prompted by Slutwalk London

A week or two ago a Slutwalk London member angered many feminists by using the group’s Twitter account, @SlutwalkLondon, to say that Julian Assange should not be sent to Sweden to face trial for rape and sexual assault. (The message has since been deleted, but it can be read at the F-word).

After a storm of outrage, she apologised:

Slutwalk London (@SlutwalkLondon)

Posted Sunday 30th September 2012 from Twitlonger

The recent views expressed regarding the extradition of Julian Assange were my own rather than those of SlutWalk London. I apologise for using this platform to express these views and hope they do not deter from the purpose of SlutWalk, which is to send the message that there is never any excuse for rape and to demand protection and justice for all rape survivors. – Anastasia Richardson

There are quite a few articles out there addressing why the original tweet was hurtful, for instance at the F-word, Slutwalk Toronto, Brighton Feminist Collective, and The Guardian.

I’d like to use this incident to look at the difficulties that can arise in non-hierarchical groups (like Feminist Action Cambridge) which don’t have clear roles and responsibilities for members. Our activism lines up with our beliefs and passions, and our activist groups often grow out of our friend groups, or we become friends with the people we do activism with. As a result there may be no clear boundary between who I am as a person, and my identity as a member of the group.

In a traditional, structured organisation, like say a charity or a political party, the person in charge of the Twitter feed would be a Media / Outreach / Public Relations officer, and would have a remit from the group to guide them in deciding what sort of messages to send. By contrast, in non-hierarchical groups like FAC, the decision process often goes something like this:

A comic. Character 1 is a sheep. Character 2 is a cow. Char 2: Well that about wraps up the meeting. Just one more thing on the agenda, before we go to the pub, we need someone to do the Twitter. Char 2: Someone? Anyone? Char 1: *Sigh* Char 2: ... Char 1: Oh, OK, I guess I can do it. Char 2: Great!

With so much overlap between our personal selves and our activist selves, it’s unsurprising that we sometimes get the two mixed up. I think the person who sent the tweet probably lost track of which of her beliefs and opinions belonged to Slutwalk London, and which belonged just to her. After all, the reason the tweet was so hurtful was that it came from the official Slutwalk London account. Many people have given time, trust, and passion to the SlutWalk movement, which is why the tweet could have felt like a betrayal. If the same tweet had been sent from an individual’s personal account it would not have generated the same amount of outrage.

I’ve been asked a couple of times to join in tweeting from the FAC Twitter account, and I’ve refused, basically because I don’t trust myself not to get carried away and tweet something inappropriate. I sympathise with the person from Slutwalk London who sent the offending tweet, even though I disagree with her opinion about Assange, because I think it’s very easy to get carried away and forget that what’s appropriate to do as an individual might not be appropriate to do on behalf of the group.

For me at least, the solution is to have a clear separation between when I am being a group member, and when I am just being me. Even though I care passionately about the groups that I’m in, no group could ever be 100% aligned with all of my views and beliefs. Sometimes I’m going to need to say something that don’t fit with the group, perhaps even something that other members of the group would strongly disagree with. That’s OK, as long as I make it clear that I’m just speaking on behalf of me and no-one else.

Things like using the appropriate Twitter account or email address can seem trivial and annoying when you’re continually logging out of one Facebook or Twitter account and in to another, but these online personas can let people know which one of your hats you were wearing when you send the message. And that can make a huge difference to how people will react.

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