Public Service Announcement: bullying lower-level workers is not ‘activism’

I think I’ve made it quite clear by now that I am a little bit of a right-fighter.

However, I recognise a fine line between ‘right-fighting’ and ‘being a dick’ – and I believe that line is crossed when your actions hurt the people at the very bottom of the pile.

I saw a video the other day, shared by several acquaintances on Facebook, that made my blood boil. In this video, a man calls the charity Cancer Research and proceeds to bombard the woman on the phone with ‘gotcha’ questions about how there is a deliberate suppression of a cure for cancer by ‘Big Pharma’.

The video was being shared as an exposé of Cancer Research and the medical profession. People were cheering him. Acquaintances of mine were putting it out there as if this man had done something courageous and informative. Maybe something informative did happen later on in the ten minute video – I had to stop after three minutes because I was on the edge of a panic attack.

The reason? I’ve been that woman on the other end of the phone. And the memories and feelings triggered by that video made me shake to the point where I couldn’t catch my breath. Like I was a trauma survivor having a flashback. And maybe I was.

The truth is, if your right-fighting takes this form, then you are nothing but a bully. If you will deliberately go out of your way to harrass someone who is probably not highly paid, and who has no power or clout within the organisation (if you’re calling a switchboard number, this is almost definitely who you will get on the phone) when you could have made the same exact points by talking directly to camera, then you are the type of arsehole that my activism wants no association with.

I’ve mentioned before that I used to work on the front desk of an autism charity – well, a big part of this was operating the main head office switchboard. And I took, over the almost two years I was there, a lot of calls that were the same as this or a variation on the theme.

I’ve had people shouting at me that we were deliberately suppressing information on a ‘cure’ for autism because it wouldn’t be ‘profitable’for us to have a cure. I’ve sat helpless as people smugly stated that we weren’t doing enough to reinforce the link between vaccines and autism. They confidently quoted figures and studies and examples at me, as this man in the video did, and clearly took it as a victory as I fumbled in my outrage and anxiety for a response that wouldn’t get me fired.

I’d like the people who do this to know that, at the end of the day, all you have achieved is a shaking, crying switchboard operator who then has to unplug and take twenty minutes to calm down (which of course takes away time from callers who are genuinely calling because the need help).

Maybe that’s partly because I was an autistic worker being spoken to superiorly about my own neurotype. That side of the scenario probably didn’t help. But that’s the point. You don’t know what the person on the other end of that call is experiencing. You don’t know if they’re autistic, or if they’re currently fighting cancer, or if they are just doing what they need to do paycheck to paycheck.

A notable thing that I’ve noticed in the charity sector in particular, is that the people in those sorts of roles are often there because they have a heartfelt connection to the cause. In the case of my charity, I was surrounded by people who are autistic themselves or who have close family or friends who are autistic. In the case of Cancer Research, I would not be surprised if the on-the-ground teams consist mainly of people who are cancer survivors, people who know cancer survivors, or people who have lost loved ones to cancer.

These are the people you are going to accuse of being complicit in some industrialised conspiracy to withhold a cancer cure?

Now, there are several things I am not referring to here: strike action, for example, does sometimes hurt other workers, but it is a solid tool of the workers’ rights that we have to maintain. Or reporting a worker for being openly bigoted, or letting their boss know they’ve recently marched at a Nazi rally. Or, at the extreme, people ‘following orders’ that involve maiming and killing civilians. These fish exist in an entirely different kettle.

The type of thing I’m referring is something I’ve seen far too often in activist circles – the people who put materials in trees to violently break chainsaws, even though the people doing the felling are often low-paid, overworked, immigrant workers; the people who laugh and proclaim ‘karma’ at the impact of Brexit on poor areas that voted to leave the European Union; the complete shutting down of Uber in London because of the treatment of workers, even though it now leaves thousands of those same low paid workers with no income.

This sort of thing doesn’t just make me angry. As I said at the beginning, I couldn’t finish the video because I was struggling to breathe. I was physically shaking with a mixture of rage and anxiety.

It’s not fair. And if there is one thing I can’t stand, it’s something being unfair.

It throws off my balance. Particularly when it’s something that I have some experience with; when someone so blatantly disregards the humanity and emotions of another person, and then feels like they have gotten a victory out of the situation. It’s the thing that keeps me awake at night.

I find it very hard to filter these types of feelings when they wash over me. So this sink its teeth into me with a ridiculous amount of force. Just like with sounds and smells and touch, I can’t manage the intensity of these emotions, of these opinions, of this bubbling need to say something and try and make people see that it’s wrong. 

And that’s not always a bad thing.

It’s why I’m here ranting about this; it’s why I work in the sector I work in; it’s the reason that I do the things that I do, that I get riled up enough to try and change it.

This went off somewhere a little bit different to where I had originally intended. There’s also a lot more my head is itching to explain or clarify, but at this point I have done enough to set this behemoth rage in my brain to rest.  So let me instead reiterate my original point: if your right-fighting targets the people with no power, take a step back and contemplate what exactly you were looking to achieve. 

The man in the video I saw? You are a bully. And everyone who shared it as some sort of courageous’exposé’? Not only are you cheering on a man attacking and demeaning a woman who literally cannot defend herself because that’s her job, but you are encouraging a damaging behaviour that achieves nothing (if the people at the top are horrific as you say, they won’t care that you made their receptionist cry.)

If you feel there’s a very real issue that needs shedding light on? Make a video! Talk about it! Take a placard out! Write a blog! Organise a group! Find a way to confront the people at the top!

Hundred of thousands of people before you have done this to great impact! Go out and change the world!

But don’t use it as an excuse to attack the people at the very bottom of the power structure, who are just trying to get through another day of putting food on the table.

It’s pointless.

It’s cruel.

And it’s bad activism.

Author: QueerlyAutistic
Erin Ekins is a queer autistic writer, speaker and attempter of activism. She has an interest in all areas of autistic social justice, but has a particular passion for improving understanding and acceptance of the intersection of autism and queerness. She runs the blog and is the author of the upcoming book 'Queerly Autistic: The Ultimate Guide for LGBTQIA+ Teens on the Spectrum'. By day, she works in campaigning and influencing at a disability related charity, but, by night, she is inhabits a busy space between angry internet person and overly-excited fangirl.

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