Time to celebrate bad behaviour

30 Nov 2018 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 3 Dec 2018

What if we stopped rewarding people in civil society for following the rules and celebrated those who break them instead?


It is already happening in the United States of America. On the 27th November the great and not-so-good gathered for the Bad Behaviour awards at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab for its second annual Disobedience Award Ceremony.

Before the gongs were handed out Mona Eltahawy – named by Newsweek as one of its 150 Fearless Women of 2012 - gave a talk entitled “Feminism in 3D:  disobedience, defiance, and disruption.”

The $250,000 cash prize was split between three prominent members of the #MeToo movement: Tarana Burke, its founder; BethAnn McLaughlin, who brought the #MeToo campaign to the scientific community and Sherry Marts, who helps American academic and nonprofit organizations become more fair and inclusive.

Judges said: “The #MeToo movement represents a sea change in American culture, in our institutions, in every professional, academic, and political arena. These three women are on the front lines of this movement, and their refusal to back down or be silenced is what will continue propelling the movement forward in the face of every kind of opposition. We have to support that kind of heroism.”

The money was put up by Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn and was handed over with no strings attached as to how it is spent.

Last year the winners were Michigan paediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha and Virginia engineering professor Marc Edwards for investigations into lead-tainted water in Flint, Michigan, and  exposing official misconduct in the crisis.  

Hanna-Attisha and Edwards were initially ridiculed and dubbed “hysterical” by state authorities for their claims about dangerous levels of lead contamination and risked their careers by publishing their research findings before they had been peer reviewed. They explained that this process would have taken months whereas the pollution posed an immediate risk to childrens’ lives. 

The award was set up by Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab. He explained: “Questioning authority and thinking for yourself is an essential component of science, of civil rights and society at some level disobedience is at the root of creativity.

“Over the past months, as it has become increasingly difficult to locate the world’s moral centre, disobedience has once again come to the forefront of my thinking: How can we most effectively harness responsible, ethical disobedience aimed at challenging the norms, rules, or laws that sustain society’s injustices?”

MIT states that the award “will go to a person or group engaged in what we believe is an extraordinary example of disobedience for the benefit of society: work that impacts society in positive ways, and is consistent with a set of key principles, including nonviolence, creativity, courage, and responsibility for one’s actions.”

This bold initiative in the USA coincides with the publication of the landmark UK report Civil Society Futures, after two years research, which was chaired by Julia Unwin, formerly CEO of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

It is an essential, if unsettling read for all in the Third Sector and broader civil society. It analyses the challenges we face, concludes that civil society has a vital role to play in helping address them but also states that civil society itself will have to change if it is to achieve that. Cultivating disobedience in the spirit of the MIT awards will be an element in that.

The main challenges it identifies are as follows: 

  • a collective sense that democracy is under threat, the report states “people are hungry for the power to makes their lives, their community and their country better” yet often these voices go unheard and the result is anger and division;
  • An emerging generational divide as young people experience a lower standard of living than their parents in the first time in living memory;
  • Digital change, automation and globalisation reshaping how we live, and work and communicate;
  • The continued impact of austerity, inequality and poverty, with the UK now the fifth least equal country in Europe;
  • A gathering environmental crisis as climate change accelerates;
  • An uncertain economic future with voices on all sides of politics questioning the future nature of work, the role of the state and of the markets.

The report is not suggesting that these are issues that civil society can tackle by itself. But it does point out that in the past it is through times of change that it has been at its best – organising to combat the squalor and chaos that the Industrial Revolution brought to our cities, responding to refugees, traumatised veterans and displaced people after the two world wars. In Northern Ireland civic society has a proud record for its role supporting communities during the conflict and then promoting and consolidating the peace.

Civil society has a long tradition of stepping forward, bringing people together and leading change. This report suggests that time has come again, but in order to do so civil society itself needs to be transformed.

Its central finding is that there is a need for a shift in power, and that without it the consequences are potentially devastating. And, specifically, that power should shift from the privileged to people and communities in order to address the challenges we face.

Sharing power is just as much a challenge for charities as it is for the authorities.

The report states: “Civil society risks becoming irrelevant if we do not change. We must be in step with – or a step ahead of – the times we live in. If we do not respond to people and communities’ desire for power, we will lose our legitimacy and waste the potential of the many ways they can have agency over what matters to them.”

The report cites evidence to back this up. “For many of the people we spoke to in local communities, large-scale institutional charities seem increasingly out of touch, out of reach and lacking in significance. As the largest charities have become bigger, so some forms of poverty (including child poverty) have increased and inequality has persisted. While charities are not blamed for these problems, neither are they understood as being significant to ordinary people’s lives or recognised as vital levers to social change.”

Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, who leads CIVICUS, the global alliance of civil society organisations, was on the inquiry panel. He said: “Professionalised, brand-driven and beholden to government for their multi-million contracts and big business for their ‘partnerships’, charities are seen to have become part of the very system they were set up to challenge.”

The inquiry even found a funder which was not prepared to give grants to charities at all. The radical Edge Fund told it: “I suppose we try to fund work that addresses the root causes, the injustice and oppression rather than trying to mitigate the symptoms of it all. And this is why we don’t tend to fund charitable work. Because a great deal of charitable work is kind of propping up the system as opposed to challenging the system.”

The inquiry team noted a shift towards smaller community-based organisations: “People are finding that they can organise themselves in new ways without the need for the restrictive and sometimes onerous structures of the more formal charities or organisations that are frequently perceived to shy away from being political, to be overly large and excessively obedient.”

And further: “In every place we visited we found people coming together to garner collective power and pursue social and political goals, but rarely did this involve large formal charities.”

The inquiry suggests that organisations within civil society should individually and collectively adopt a pact in order to address the challenges. It contains these elements: 

Power: “We don’t want to deny anyone the chance to make the contribution that only they can. We will practice shared and distributed models of decision-making and control.”

Accountability: “For too long we’ve focused only on accountability to funders and to government. It’s time we focus on accountability to the communities and people we exist to serve.”

Connection: “Too often we have lost connections, because the world is changing fast or we have become too remote from the people and communities we are here for. We will build real and meaningful relationships between people, meeting as equals – especially where this is hard to do. We will create and invest in better ways to connect that are fit for the 21st century

Trust: Following abuse, damagingly competitive pursuit of funding and loss of faith in institutions, we cannot take trust for granted. We will build trust by staying true to our values and doing what’s right – being honest about our failures and successes, defending rights and calling out injustice.

For all this to happen we will need people who are brave enough to challenge existing structures and relationships and help shift power from organisations to the people. This will involve breaking existing rules, being disobedient.

A good way to start this process would be to reward and celebrate those with the courage to step up to the task. We should have our own Bad Behaviour Awards.



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