The ring theory of activist venting, which I’ll explain later in this post, draws it’s inspiration from a very insightful article from the LA times that I encountered a few years ago. The article describes cancer-survivor Susan Silk’s “Ring Theory of Kvetching” which states, roughly, that when it comes to dealing with the stress of personal traumas like cancer, financial crises, or the death of a loved one, support should flow towards the person most affected, and complaining should be directed away from them. Here’s the full explanation of the theory:
Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Katie’s aneurysm, that’s Katie. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In the case of Katie’s aneurysm, that was Katie’s husband, Pat. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order. One of Susan’s patients found it useful to tape it to her refrigerator.
Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.
Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.
When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry” or “This must really be hard for you” or “Can I bring you a pot roast?” Don’t say, “You should hear what happened to me” or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And don’t say, “This is really bringing me down.”
If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.
Comfort IN, dump OUT.
In it’s original form, the ring theory of kvetching is largely a framework for dealing with individual traumas, like chronic illness or loss of a loved one. But it’s one that I think can be easily adapted to other circumstances, and which I’ve personally found quite useful when it comes to dealing community-based traumas, especially when it comes to activism that’s focused on serving marginalized or vulnerable communities.
The Ring Theory of Activist Venting
In the case of activism especially, I rely a lot on a similar concept which I think of as “The Ring Theory of Activist Venting”: when stress starts to build up in the course of activism, and I need to vent about my frustrations, my goal is always to vent outwards, in order to keep the blowback from hitting the very people I’m trying to help – especially when in a position of power or leadership that just amplifies the risk of doing harm if blowback isn’t properly contained. (And to avoid situations like this [content warning for some swearing] where the OP definitely could have used a better support network for venting, and where honestly I probably could have as well.)
The ring theory of activist venting operates similarly to the ring theory of kvetching, but it also has a few additional considerations:
Rule 1. Activist venting is for protecting your constituents
This is a specific strategy that’s mostly meant to apply to activists who feel frustration or the need to vent about things that they can’t change at the moment, or that they logically know that they don’t want to change, and who need ways to do that without getting inthe way of supporting their constituents. As activists – or as people – situations outside our control inevitable cause frustration, which can build and build and build – and sometimes you just need a release valve. That’s what venting is for (or kvetching, or complaining, or seeking empathy or validation, or whatever you may call it). Examples of things to vent about might be frustration over things like newbies who keep asking the same questions over and over again, or community members who criticize activism campaigns in opposite and conflicting ways, or people in vulnerable situations who thus don’t have the energy to always maintain a proper veneer of ‘politeness’. These are all things that either cannot be helped (like the fact that vulnerable people in need of help don’t always have the energy for social niceties) or that should not be changed (like the fact that newbies like to ask questions).
Targeting your venting outward is meant to help us cope with situations in which someone may be a cause of frustration, but is not to blame – and therefore should not be targeted by any fallout. The mantra of the ring theory of activist venting is much like the mantra of the original ring theory : “Support in. Venting Out.”
It is not, however intended as a way to avoid dealing with actual materials concerns, like sexual harassment or racism or harassment of other community members – those often require more direct action. (Although sometimes venting a bit first can help make sure you’re in the right place to respond to more serious issues appropriately and effectively).
Finally, if you ever get to a point where venting is stressing you more instead of calming you down, or if you find that venting to certain people encourages problematic patterns in your own behavior, then it has ceased to serve it’s purpose (of protecting you and your constituents) and it may be time to consider other vectors of releasing stress.
Rule 2: Venting should be kept away from the spaces in question
Venting frustrations is, in my opinion, best done in more private spaces where the venting is not likely to be seen by the communities being cited as the source of the frustration. At best, it will just kindle more drama and give you more things to get stressed about; at worst, it can silence vulnerable groups and prevent them from ever gain asking for support for fear of getting lashed out at again, or for fear of being a ‘bother’.
In its purest form, and for especially sensitive topics, this can mean venting to just a few supportive individuals in a private chat, or to offline friends who never interact with the communities in question. In it’s most minimal form, it means at least venting to personal side blogs instead of official or organizational fronts.
Rule 3: Venting should always travel upwards, or outwards
One of the things that distinguishes activism from personal trauma is that the circles are often separated not just by distance but by power, and that’s especially important to take into account when determining how to vent. Whether it’s formal group leadership, or even just presenting oneself as an authority on some niche subject by answering questions on a blog, doing activism often means taking a position of some power over others – and as Uncle Ben always said, with more power comes more responsibility. In general, the circles of venting should generally extend either up the chain-of-power/responsibility for a group, or to those outside the power structure entirely.
Going up the chain of responsibility means, for example, that if I’m volunteering to answer emails and I’m getting frustrated by repetitive questions that are already answered on our 101 handouts, I might vent that frustration to other mods, who are at the same level of power as me and higher than the cause of the venting – so I don’t let that spill out on to the asker themselves, or even on to other unsuspecting members who are below me in the chain of responsibility. If I have a frustration with other mods themselves, I might vent to a higher level admin. (The other advantage of venting up the chain of responsibility is that, generally speaking, those at a higher level are the most likely to be able to actually do something to ameliorate whatever is causing the frustration in the first place, in instances where doing something is actually feasible.)
Of course, sometimes going up the chain of responsibility isn’t always an option – whether it’s because there is no higher power available, because you are the higher power, or because the group dynamics are such that there is no way to vent without causing even more problems. In that case, the best alternative is to vent outside of the power structure entirely. In my case, that often means venting to my very non-asexual, non-aromantic roommates – who may not know anything about my particular ace or aro community org politics, but who can at least offer emotional support and a sympathetic ear while I get my need to rant out of the way, and who are at little risk of being personally affected by anything I say.