I just spent the weekend in a conference and AGM of a peace organization in which I am active. I was disappointed but not at all surprised when the business meeting turned stressful. Had I given it any thought, I would have predicted exactly this turn of events —on the basis of both my own past experience and of observed behavior on the part of the most prominent member of the organization — a full-time, highly skilled, professional expert in conflict resolution. I saw it coming.
There is a puzzle that has surprised me time after time. Why are peaceniks so often ruthlessly competitive? I believe that they are more so than people in business, academia, the professions, or even perhaps politics itself. And, to be frank, it bugs the hell out of me. I may sound snide here about the self-aggrandizement that I see so often; nevertheless, my negative comments do not negate my overall respect for the peace workers whom I want to criticize.
I don’t say that peaceniks encounter conflict overall more often than people in other fields of work, but rather that the nature of the conflict among them is specific: greed for status and recognition, not disputes about substantive issues. And, like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room, the status conflict is never named for what it is. The odd thing is that the combatants these days are mainly women, and they inevitably adduce “gender balance” as a rationale for changing the structure of the organization in their own favor.
Fortunately, I don’t have a dog in this particular fight. I am not one of the competitors and would not even accept the contested prominent role if it were offered. But some women have an enormous craving to be recognized as prominent, and this yearning is coupled with considerable competence. They are nice people who mainly perform fairly creditably — often far better than would have been anticipated on the basis of their credentials alone. They are dedicated, hard-working, competent and nice. But gosh, do they ever have egos!
The signs in this instance became evident almost a year ago. The national organization was founded by two men, who spread the word widely and set up chapters across the country. After the organization’s first AGM in another province, I was invited to a meeting to start up a Toronto chapter. The invitation came from a man whom I had not known before. He was a newcomer to the peace movement, but turned out to be a true gem: absolutely dedicated to the cause, modest, and well-spoken. He has assiduously lobbied parliamentarians about our cause, with excellent results. He expected to chair the Toronto group, but at the first meeting, a woman who had been an activist for many years announced that we needed someone with experience, so she would serve as co-chair. Okay. She has done the job well — though in every case it has been she who has chaired our meetings while her male co-chair amiably accepted a back seat.
This weekend offered new opportunities for a person to chair meetings. Our protagonist took on that role in almost all sessions. Even from the chair, she voiced her own experiences and opinions in every panel discussion. Instead of allowing the audience to present their questions to the panelists (who included several members of parliament), she asked for written questions to be submitted, which she chose and read aloud, often with editorial commentary. The order-keeping function of chairing a meeting became an opportunity for stardom.
I was not surprised to see who else had been chosen to speak on the panels. There are three older women in my city who love to be seen in prominent places. Somehow they are often invited to speak in public events. Now I can see some new younger women who have also joined in the competition for recognition. Listening to their speeches, I had to smile. These youths will soon be giving the older women a run for their money, especially since they occupy strategic roles in feminist organizations, which will be highly advantageous ways of justifying their claim for prominence on the basis of gender balance.
It was not until the AGM, however, that the true magnitude of this challenge became apparent. Pretty soon a woman not only took the floor, but brought a flip chart to the front, blocking our vision of the two co-chairs who had been running the meeting. From that point on, she took over, without being invited. She proposed an elaborate revamping of the organizational structure by adding two more co-chairs, so as to make four in all — two of whom would be women. The number of board members would be doubled as well, and a secretary-treasurer would be added. No one indicated that the present organization had become inadequate. The revisions were meant only as new channels of upward mobility for certain status-hungry members. In my opinion, the hefty new organizational structure would be a handicap, not a practical help in getting the job done.
After listening with mounting irritation I spoke up, declaring that the changes would be counterproductive and that there was no need for any changes whatever. The self-appointed chairwoman suggested instead that we all do some kind of Quaker meditation because there was stress in the room. We were told to raise our hands whenever each of us felt we had regained control. I am not a Quaker. I did not raise my hand, though most other people complied with her suggestion. We took a break. Afterward, it became apparent that there was little support for the insurrection. The co-chairs resumed control of the meeting and smoothly processed the business that had been on the agenda all along.
Why does this sort of thing happen? It certainly proves to be an obstacle to the effectiveness of a new organization, and yet I have seen the same kind of power-grab happen time after time. It’s not based on the fight over a substantive issue; it’s simply a reflection of the need for recognition that prevails among peace workers.
Every profession has a competitive side to it. I know the academic scene rather well, though I’ve never tried particularly hard to establish a high status within sociology. I’ve seen it done, and I don’t especially admire it but I cannot say that it’s destructive. With a few exceptions, the scholars who achieve eminence seem not to be motivated by a desire for glory, but rather by an interest in the problems that they are addressing in their research. Administrative roles in the university are usually avoided, rather than sought. I once had such a role forced upon me when no one else would take it on. Most academics would rather be doing their research than receiving awards or chairing committees or departments or even whole universities. We are paid enough to get by comfortably, and after we get tenure we don’t have to look over our shoulders.
Peace activists, on the other hand, have no security and few rewards. They are almost all unpaid, and those who do receive salaries always subsist at poverty levels, supported by some charitable organization or other. The only form of recognition is the status conferred by prominent roles in the organization, or by being asked to speak and represent the movement to the wider world. Moreover, on ideological grounds, their every competitive instinct is supposed to be suppressed. Theoretically, activists all believe in equality.
There’s a significant number of resentful middle-class women in this world who try very hard to serve society in an altruistic way. These are mainly women who have never pursued careers in the business world, where there are standards that declare rather objectively how well one is performing. Their altruism is genuine. I truly respect these women — even those whom I don't especially like.
But I have a solution to propose. It’s facetious, of course, but it might work if taken seriously. People who become peace activists should wear epaulets on their shoulders. Whenever a peace worker licks 10,000 stamps or answers the phone 5,000 times, he or she will get a small silver marker to pin on the epaulet. As we get more and more dedicated over time, we acquire bars or even gold stars, just as officers in the military do. You can tell at a glance how much each peace worker has contributed. There will be no need to show off. The persons chosen to chair organizations or speak on panels will therefore be selected on the basis of their expertise or astuteness as a speaker, not their sense of entitlement. We will take the stress out of meetings and let business be conducted without status envy.