Help me address an ethical conflict in an activist group
March 11, 2013 8:53 AM   Subscribe

I coordinate a successful group of activists. Now, the family of our most active member has been implicated in a scandal. The group wants to work on the scandal; the member says he'll quit if we do. Is there a way to balance on this tightrope?

I live in a screwed up, corrupt country, with one injustice perpetrated by the state after the next.

A while ago I assembled some people to try to address the situation. The team grew and today we have lots of activists and have become quite well-known, working on a wide variety of issues.

A large part of the success of the team is thanks to a guy, who we’ll call R., who is also a personal friend of mine. He has been very proactive and motivated for the causes of the team.

Although I coordinate the team, we take decisions democratically. The next issue we could be dealing with - let’s call it the Scandal - is something that has been brewing for some time, and something that all members of the team feel particularly strongly about and want us to act on - although we haven’t voted on it yet.

Everyone, that is, except R, for a simple reason: his family is deeply involved in the Scandal. Only a handful of other team members know about his family connection, and have kept quiet about it since I asked them to do so months ago before the Scandal broke (I didn't want to rock the boat, since this is a very judgemental and cynical country, and if people knew about R.’s connection they may quit the group.)

R. claims that his family is being wronged, that has access to information that would support his family’s side of the story… but can’t publish it since it was obtained illegally. I suspect this is an excuse, and that he (understandably) can’t be objective about the Scandal, but is too proud to admit it.

The Scandal has quickly become the elephant in the room at our meetings. The reasons I've given for why we shouldn't tackle the Scandal (that there isn’t enough concrete information today to go on) have been justified so far… but with every passing day the need for us to address it grows.

Whenever one of the other members that know about R’s family connection has suggested to R. that we address it, R. has exploded. Now, R. has told me, petulantly, he will quit the group if we act on the scandal, since he ‘doesn’t want to be a part of anything that I know is a lie’. R. knows very well his value to the group, and I know this is blackmail of sorts.

I’m conflicted. On one side, the success of the group would indeed be threatened if R. quit, since he is one of its most active members. But on the other, I’m compromising my ethics - and probably the ethics of the group - by not disclosing R's personal link to the Scandal... and if the team discovered the truth, they would understandably be very upset with me personally.

I would also like R. to present all his facts on the Scandal to the group, so we can make an informed judgement... but this seems to be a no-go.

What should I do? How should I handle it?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
information that would support his family’s side

Can he at least share this information with you?
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:58 AM on March 11, 2013

It sounds like if you keep him in the group without addressing his connection to this scandal, it will eventually come out and destroy the group's credibility. So you're damned either way - you could hope and pray that you get lucky and his family's connection never becomes public, but that's the only positive outcome.

Me, I'd tell him to do what he thought he had to, but the group was going to act according to its ethics. Keeping him around should not be your first priority.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:02 AM on March 11, 2013 [21 favorites]

R is going to have to tell the group himself, it is NOT for you and the others who know to do this.
posted by brujita at 9:05 AM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Absent something unique to your situation - R's connections will work to destroy the group if he tells them to; R's connections will threaten violence against activists; R is currently protecting the group from violence or harassment because of his status - I'd suggest that the group needs to stand against this corruption and R needs to leave.

I say this because in history, tolerating corruption (union corruption is what I'm familiar with) has been really corrosive to the original mission. As you observe, it taints the internal workings of the group; it drives people away who are offended or disturbed by it; it tends to limit the effectiveness of the group because anything that challenges the corruption can't be done.

I also say this as someone with (probably much less serious and important) activist history, I've been in situations where someone has had to leave or the group has had to distance themselves from someone. It is so hard to get a reputation back once it's gone, and it's so hard to deal with internal conflict (especially the Unspeakable kind). It has never, ever been fun even at our penny-ante level, and I'm sure it will be hideous and wrenching for you.

In the long run, probity and a reputation for absolute honesty pay off, in my experience. They are hard-won, which is why everyone doesn't have them.

But weigh all this against risks to group members!

Can you meet without R and talk about this and come up with a plan?

Also, I think this is a group-building/group-maintaining problem - you have a problem because you've kept this secret about R, and you have a problem because your group does not have enough trust among its members for them all to know about R. In my experience, it has been super-hard and neverending work to build the internal workings/trust part of a group, but it's been absolutely vital - that is what destroys groups, they die from the inside.
posted by Frowner at 9:09 AM on March 11, 2013 [9 favorites]

I think you have to act on the scandal. You can't maintain your place as a well-respected anti-corruption group in a cynical country if you are seen to pull your punches when it's one of your own. In fact, I think your actions up to this point, when they become known, may threaten the group's integrity for the same reason, unless you handle the revelation of R's corrupt ties spectacularly well.

I don't mean to seem like I'm knocking you; you're in a really tough spot and I may well have done the same thing myself. But your group is in danger whatever way you play this --- there must be enemies of yours out there who will be happy to run with the line "XYZ Group thinks they're so high and mighty, but when it's one of them with his hands in the cookie jar all of a sudden things are different...."

How you choose to handle things with R is a delicate matter, to say the least. The best thing for the future of the group's reputation may be a public, and publicised, break. Making your message "When we found out he was tainted we bounced him out on his ear," may help preserve the group's reputation. It may be the only course that doesn't leave you open to the sort of attacks I mentioned above.

It would, of course, utterly destroy your friendship with R. That may not be a price you are willing to pay. In that case you could try to chart some middle way --- have a meeting in group and ask him to come clean or explain his evidence to everybody and let them judge for themselves. The group may fracture, of course.

All I've said is pure abstraction; you are the one who knows best the tensile strength of your organisation and where its fault lines are. I wish you the best of luck; you're in a tough spot, one of those boxes with many possible outcomes and very few of them good.
posted by Diablevert at 9:12 AM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Your friend needs to quit.

restless_nomad is right that it will wreck your credibility if it comes out, but also bear in mind that if it comes out that some people knew all along and said nothing, internal conflict will destroy whatever's left.

If more than one person knows, every new day is a gamble. There's that old saying - three people can keep a secret, if two of them are dead. You have no way of keeping a lid on this information.

You're going to have to choose where the most damage is going to go: your friendship with this guy, or this group's ability to get things done.

If you decide that your friendship can take the hit, you need to tell him that he has to tell the group (and then quit), or quit and let you tell the group. Any other approach is playing with pretty serious fire. A classic "Either you tell them, or I do."

If you decide that the hit will go to the group, then honestly you should probably quit the group yourself - if the group can't control the story when it comes out, they're fucked, and you might as well not be at the epicenter of that when it happens.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 9:17 AM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

You are an anti-corruption group. One of your members has family members implicated in this scandal and is hiding his relationship to them. This member also claims that he has secret documents proving they are innocent.

If R is willing to show those people who know of the relationship the documents, you might be able to go, as a group, and say that we have proof that this family is innocent, and so on. That would be an okay resolution, though R will still need to admit his connection.

If R is unwilling to show the documents, or they aren't believable, you're in a bad situation. I think the only thing to do is to move forward with your mission, saying you will miss R, but you understand that he is put in an untenable position. Him quitting first would be ideal, really, because "Well, R was implicated and a lot of people knew about it and kept it secret" will destroy the group.

Essentially, you need to come clean very soon and continue with your mission, otherwise you will also be tainted and have to leave.
posted by jeather at 9:21 AM on March 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Nthing restless_nomad et al. I'm a low-level member of an organization which is currently dealing with the consequences of a similar situation. The group's founding director had been involved in an ongoing but mostly quiet scandal, and when the board attempted to investigate, he threatened to quit. Partly because he's genuinely talented and charismatic, his blackmail was successful. Now, however, the scandal has become public, and the organization may be coming apart -- indeed, it is retrospectively apparent that this scandal was the cause of previous schisms in which other talented, dedicated, and charismatic members became distanced from the leadership. In the long run, it has become obvious that the board wasn't acting in the organization's best interests, despite what they may have believed at the time.
posted by feral_goldfish at 9:24 AM on March 11, 2013

As an Activist group, do you have a mission? As in, a well-defined, "this is what we do" mission? And a vision? As in, as well-defined, "this is why we do it" vision? If you are going to move forward as activists and be organized and effective, you need both of those things. Do a quick google search on "activist group vision mission" to get an idea of why, and how to build them. Once you have clarity of purpose, you can weigh all ethical dilemmas against your mission and vision. Let me give you an example.

Your ethical concern is that there is a scandal related to your government, and your friend Rodney, who is in your group, has members of his family directly involved in the scandal. You don't know their roles, or what it true and what is not, but it seems like your activist group should be protesting something because scandal bad corruption bad, right?

If your group's mission is to bring to light corruption by posting independently-confirmed facts on your website and sharing access to that website via word-of-mouth, and your vision is to live in a nation in which unspoken corruption is brought to light and tried by the court of public opinion, you might not want to "take up" the scandal issue as part of your cause, because you can't independently verify everything, and that's a key part of your mission.

If you're group's mission is to stir shit up by hosting in-person protests outside of government buildings and hacking websites related to the ruling oligarchy, and your vision is to live in a nation where everyone has the right and responsibility to expose corruption and have that exposure be protected as a basic freedom no matter the message... taking up this scandal as part of your cause might align well with your mission and vision.

So determining what to do about the scandal and about Rodney really hinge on affirming a mission and vision for your activist organization. You can't really weigh in on any dilemmas until you have something to measure them against. Every member of your group, once they all agree to put the mission and vision first, can make more informed decisions. That might not necessarily include kicking out Rodney, if the scope of your mission does not end up including the exposure of this scandal. But it needs to be spelled out!
posted by juniperesque at 9:25 AM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I add too that I am on the outside of a current activist situation, affecting many dear friends, where a local group should have distanced themselves from someone years ago based on that person's behavior, but allowed pity, lack of group cohesion and general laxness to prevent this. Now a new situation has come up where an important decision must be made, and the presence of this bad actor is skewing everything - it is proving very difficult for people on different sides of the question to avoid focusing on Bad Actor, there are concerns about how the decision will play out given that it has the potential to give more power to Bad Actor, people are not focusing on the differing needs of various constituencies - real needs that really need to be brought into balance - because the situation is all about Bad Actor. It's a huge mess! Don't put yourself in this situation down the road, where you have to deal with something and that thing becomes all about R instead of all about the issue.
posted by Frowner at 9:25 AM on March 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

the success of the group would indeed be threatened if R. quit, since he is one of its most active members

This may say more about your need to better share leadership and galvanize action among the more passive members than it does about R's unique value. It can be easy for a powerful, charismatic person to take on more than they should - but if your group is democratic in nature, that's not sustainable nor ideologically consistent. If R goes, others will have to step up. Have you identified some key people to cultivate for leadership so you aren't as beholden to R as you feel you are now?

In the end, I side with the others. Sit down and tell R how it is. Give him an opportunity to (a) share this evidence with everyone, (b) make an excuse to leave and totally save face, or (c) come clean and separate from his scandalous group. The schism can't continue unaddressed. Even if he only tells you the scenario. you've gone from one person who won't be honest to two people who won't be honest saying "Trust me," and that's not a foundation your group members will feel comfortable relying on. It's time for transparency. It's hard and these situations are ugly, but it is endemic to democratic action.
posted by Miko at 9:45 AM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Unless your member can unequivocally and publicly demonstrate that he is not involved in this scandal, his continued membership is a grave threat to the credibility of your organisation.

Regardless of whether he can do so, your group's inaction on this matter also threatens its credibility.

If you cannot find a way to proceed very soon in a manner consistent with your organisation's cause, your continued leadership is a threat to the credibility of your organisation.

Groups who campaign on ethical issues need to be ten times as careful about how they act when one of their own becomes linked to that issue. They cannot be seen to be hesitant or lenient when it gets personal.

I think you need to ask your friend to put his own house in order first because until he can do so his presence is detrimental. It really really sucks, and I'm not in any way saying it's his fault, but what will your supporters and the people you are trying to reach think? This is a crappy situation and I'm sorry for him and for you, but there's only one way out of this that leaves the cause you both believe in with a group that can still do good.
posted by fearnothing at 9:46 AM on March 11, 2013

Let it come to a vote and let the group make a decision according to it's process. And let R do what he's going to do.

You can tell him it's an awkward situation and you understand his feelings, but that the group has to make decisions according to democratic process with the best information available to them. He may leave the group, he may end your friendship, he may attack the group. I'd mentally prepare for all of these possibilities.

If you can't do this then you should consider stepping down as coordinator and allowing someone with less personal involvement to take over.
posted by bunderful at 9:50 AM on March 11, 2013

Here's another way to look at it, although you'd know better than me the extent to which it applies in your case:

Your group has a conflict of interest with regard to this scandal. Perhaps the group as a whole should recuse itself from this issue, while being forthright about the reason: your friend and prominent member, R.. While he's not personally implicated, he is of course protective of his family, and it's not reasonable to expect him, or his friends, to be objective in this case.

It's an important issue, though -- maybe some people could take a leave of absence to address the Scandal, if they feel strongly about it?
posted by amtho at 11:20 AM on March 11, 2013

I'm having a hard time reading this as any more complex than

1) your group is anti-X
2) you have a member "R" who, it turns out, is secretly pro-X

You have to get rid of R, or dissolve the group.

To get rid of R, you have a choice of ...

A) finding an irrelevant reason why R must go (that perennial favourite "personal interests") and then praying that no one ever finds out why R left the group, otherwise you'll lose sheds of credibility, or

B) throwing R under the bus, more or less politely.

So, what is more important to the world? The group's mission or your friendship?

Keeping in mind that it seems quite clear that you cannot have both.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:23 AM on March 11, 2013

He (not the group as a whole) has a conflict of interest. The standard would be for him to recuse himself, or, if he feels strongly enough, to resign. He's said he'll resign. Let him.
posted by Flunkie at 11:33 AM on March 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Offer to help leak the information, even to media to your country's diaspora. it would travel back but could be taken with a degree of political surprise, some soul-searching and probably a demand for an internal report into the new information.

if he balks offer to allow him to resign without a statement from the group, the same day. suggest he could come back when his health is better, but pass a vote in your committee not to report contact.

his conduct following offer will speak volumes. good luck.
posted by parmanparman at 11:37 AM on March 11, 2013

Is the Scandal directly relevant to your group's area of interest? If it's not, you've got an out—you can encourage people not to waste time on a distraction from your mission. But it sounds like it is.

In that case, you need to approach R and say "look, this issue isn't going to go away. If you stick around, you can present your side of the story. If you quit over it, not only can you not do that, you may bring the appearance of guilt onto yourself."

R needs to back away a little and see the issue as others might see it. Sounds like he's too emotionally wrapped up in it. You need to talk him down to a point where he can have a rational, detached discussion about it.
posted by adamrice at 11:39 AM on March 11, 2013

I have two conflicting comments, please weigh them equally.

1- This is how corruption continues. Someone knows someone else and gets them to look the other way. Not good.

2- "Scandals" look a lot different when you personally know the people involved. They stop seeming like Fat Cats shoveling money into their trousers, and more like humans making flawed decisions.

So while I agree that you can't not do something just because you know someone involved, it might be an opportunity to reframe how you approach these things. Perhaps you can look at your messaging and see whether it gets too personal. You can find a way to criticize the corrupt acts without being judgmental and hurtful to the people involved.
posted by gjc at 4:06 PM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

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