Flat vs heirarchical power in safe space discourse

Following on from my last post, Conflict or Bullying?….

There are technical definitions for harassment, abuse, and bullying in various government or medical literatures. But I’m finding these aren’t as significant as the perception of these differences within the dance world.
For context, the last two years since Steven Mitchell was openly outed as a serial rapist and sexual offender, have seen dance scenes around the world leap into action to develop policies, processes, and practices which respond to and prevent sexual assault and harassment. This could be referred to as ‘safe spaces’ discourse in the scene (even though many people don’t use that phrase).

Now that we’re two years in, particularly in Australia, where we’re actually a little ahead of the game, we’re seeing people moving to a next stage. How to maintain these processes how to support and care for safe space workers, how and when to lift bans or enforce stronger measures. We’re also seeing organisations exploring formal legal options and advice, and in Australia, there is a general movement towards coordinated efforts. A sort of loose national consortium or more accurately loose network of communication. This means that various bodies and individuals who run events, teach classes, or are active in their local scenes are talking about these issues and sharing information and resources.
In an activist sense, we’ve moved from agitate to educate and are now into organise.

We can say that there is, on the whole, a very general (though not comprehensive) agreement that we need to address sexual assault and harassment in the scene in an active way. This is quite a different culture than the one I wrote about in 2011 in A Difficult Conversation About Sexual Violence in Swing Dance Communities.
I think this is a very good thing.

We are also seeing another interesting (and occasionally frustrating) issue developing: dancers are beginning to talk about and act on a range of anti-social behaviours, but they don’t always (rarely?) share the same understanding of ‘bullying’, ‘harassment’, ‘conflict,’ and so on.
Two of the key issues seem to be: what do we take responsibility for responding to (as institutional bodies)? How do we respond to various behaviours? And what is our scale for ‘anti-social’.
So, while we’re all on board for ‘improving safety’, now we’re seeing clear differences in how people think ‘we’ (as a community) should respond, who this ‘we’ is, and when it should happen.

I’ve seen two general groups of thinking:
1. Peeps who would like to preserve a hierarchical, top-down power structure, where we have powerful people (organisers, teachers, etc) who respond with authority to incidences and reports.

2. Peeps who would like to see broader cultural change to undo some of these hierarchies, so we have a flatter community power structure, and more people feeling powerful enough to intervene in unsafe situations, or to stand up for themselves and others.

I’m in the latter group.
I’ve noticed that people in the first group are very focussed on processes of reporting, ‘punishment’ (from ostracising/banning to police intervention), and essentially maintaining the status quo.

People like me, who are in the latter group are much more focussed on doing things like changing the way we teach dance, and on building class cultures where students do stuff like ask each other to dance in class (and know how to say yes or no, and how to deal with either response), know how to say ‘please move your hand’ or ‘I’m not ok with that’. For a lot of teachers, one of the important parts of this approach is to rethink the lead-follow dynamic, from changing the emphasis on heteronormative gendering (where men lead and women follow) to shifting from moves-based dancing (where leads lead a zillion moves in a row and follows execute them), to movement-based dancing (where both partners interact in a more collaborative way, with an emphasis on rhythm and the music rather than executing moves. The ‘ambidancetrous’ movement is a part of this latter group, but also what I think of as ‘gentle teaching’, where classes are less focussed on mini-routines, teacher-centredness, and class ‘levels’. A ‘gentle teaching’ approach focusses more on social dancing skills in class (eg students counting themselves in, lots more music in class, etc etc etc).

I’ve talked a lot about teaching, but there are other projects that have similar goals (cultural change) and aren’t focussed on teaching. A good example is a very wonderful shift away from school-organised parties in Sydney, and towards individual- or friend-organised parties. This has meant that we’ve seen lots of smaller, more collaborative parties in the last couple of years, where the people putting the events on work with friends and aim to have fun. My favourite part of this is the collaboration with musicians. Whether they’re blues musicians, gypsy jazz bands or swing bands. From a nerdy music POV, I’ve seen that these bands rarely work from written scores; they tend to do more improvised stuff, and there’s more to-and-fro between musicians in the band, and between musicians and dancers. It also seems that musicians like these gigs a LOT more than the other type of gigs.

I really like the second as an example of cultural change, as we see a move away from centralised hierarchies (with power and decision-making centred on one or two people) to localised, flatter hierarchies (where decision making can by done by anyone, and anyone can run a party, and we attend because we think it sounds fun, or because they’re our friends, rather than because we feel institutionally obligated).

One of the interesting parts of the second approach is how Sydney (as my working example) has integrated safe space practice and discussion into this culture. If we are localised (rather than centralised) and we have lots of people making decisions, how does a code of conduct work?
Things I’ve seen in Sydney:
– people share resources and ideas
– people are saying ‘I am personally responsible for my friends’ and my own safety’. And I see men saying this too. So individual people are feeling engaged, rather than relying on a powerful person at the top of a hierarchy to ‘fix things’.
– there’s more communication between individuals running parties, but also between people who are working on events in other capacities. eg the people who managed the door at Jazz with Ramona this past weekend also manage the door at other parties and events, and they are taking their experiences with both groups’ safety policies and growing a practical, tailored approach that works in both spaces.

I really like all this stuff.

But a clear consequence of these two general groups of thinking has been some clashes in ideas about who should do what. And about what ‘counts’ as harassment, bullying, or conflict.

So, right at the end here, I’m actually in favour of shunning or ostracising in some cases. The most obvious of these is when groups of women say ‘no thank you’ when a known groper asks them to dance. They feel confident enough to say no without justification. And they are making it clear to him that they are the bosses of their bodies, and his antisocial behaviour has had consequences.

If those women had chosen instead to make a complaint to a powerful person, who had then ‘warned’ that man, then those women remain disempowered, and the organiser has the power.

Of course, in this environment, knowing when to do formal bans, warnings, and escalation of responses is a more complex issue. And this is where I (and a few friends all over the world) are now: how do you use official roles and processes in a flatter power structure?

Hence my interest in understanding the difference between conflict (which I think is inevitable and ok – especially as it teaches us how to manage conflict in healthy ways) and bullying/harassment.

2 thoughts on “Flat vs heirarchical power in safe space discourse”

  1. The other issue with hierarchical power structures in dealing with issues of sexual harassment and assault is that they are more likely to fuck over members of oppressed groups. In my local scene, the leaders are all patting themselves on the back for creating a reporting and punishment structure that has thus far been used to handle only one case that I know of, which was a witch hunt against a queer woman leader that ended with her being banned. For dancing. As a woman leader. Oh, it’s fine when the straight girls want to lead — they haven’t had complaints lodged against them. Thus power structures are maintained.

    It’s a move that’s left other queer dancers (myself included) feeling substantially LESS safe, seeing one of our own ostracized while creeper men who are known harassers have not been put through the wringer since the implementation of these policies.

  2. I’m really grateful that you are writing about these things! Never enough conversation about all this.

    I agree that it’s powerful when women collectively say no to a creeper man, without feeling like they need to justify why. But I think sometimes these men won’t realize that it’s because their behavior is problematic — many of them will just say “Uppity bitches in this scene!” & not get it. So I feel like maybe there’s a place for someone (whether in ‘authority’ like an organizer — who is often a woman, of course — or simply another woman dancer in the scene) to explicitly spell out the reasons behind the shunning in addition to women taking it upon themselves to remove access to their bodies.

    (I recently had my first creeper experience at a social dance where I refused a second dance with a guy, after realizing halfway through the first one that he was not someone I wanted to be around, & he said to me, “You’re so shy! There’s another girl here from London & she was shy too! I thought London girls wouldn’t be shy, why are you shy?” etc. etc. etc. so I could imagine if more people refused to dance with him he’d just make it about what “London girls” are like or something.)

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