XR: Exclusive Rebellion?

This thought is about Extinction Rebellion (XR) and has been bubbling for a long time. The movement for climate action has gathered support and headlines over the years. Some headlines have criticised the lack of diversity within the organisation, particularly picking up on class and race. These are extremely important criticisms which I agree with but don’t seek to repeat. Instead, my thought bubble is about inclusivity more generally in XR and activism. The issue of inclusivity in activism (or lack thereof) is something I’ve come across a few times. Saying you are inclusive is not enough. And inclusivity stretches to the far corners of society, it is about asking yourself – are you truly welcoming to everyone? It stretches to the inclusivity of ideas – are new suggestions welcome? Understanding inclusivity as equal access to all, I see it as an all encompassing notion which goes further than diversity. Inclusivity = is everyone included? In the case of XR, I would answer this question with a ‘no’.

Before I start, I want to quickly make my viewpoint clear and add a few caveats. Firstly, I am not against the existence of XR and see that exclusive groups can still bring some positive change. I am however against the existence of a pretence of being inclusive. Following criticisms of a lack of diversity, I’ve heard XR members deny any exclusivity of the group and speak with a ‘come and give it a go’ attitude. But as I explore in this blog, when there is a strong ‘in-group’ and new ideas aren’t welcome, it is not as easy to ‘give it a go’ as members of the in-group may think. I can only talk from my personal experiences of XR and the stories from, and chats with, friends. My viewpoint is simply that inclusive groups bring about more positive change.

The first time I came across XR was when a housemate had attended an introductory meeting about a climate movement. He came back and seemed rather shocked at the speaker who had told a room of students that prison wasn’t that bad and that you should be willing to make huge sacrifices in life to support the climate. It sounded like a cult. At that point, XR wasn’t a household name and it was only a few months later, when demonstrations in London made it to the headlines, that I realised they were real – and big. Those demonstrations were the second time I started to doubt this movement. To block roads and public transport seemed to only do a disservice to every day workers. I understand that demonstrations should cause disruption, but an important question to ask is, who is it causing disruption to? Whilst the taxi drivers and couriers were held up, bankers and investors were left peacefully to buy stocks and shares in fossil fuel companies. And meanwhile, the taxi drivers and couriers probably did not sit in a traffic jam (which leads to higher CO2 emissions) contemplating the climate crisis and being sympathetic to the movement. Targeting the wrong people, at the wrong time, is not the way to bring more people on board with your aims as an organisation.

And to argue that everyone should be targeted to care about the climate misses the point. The idea that everyone cares about the climate and will sympathize with the movement is naïve. It fails to recognise the fact that some people simply don’t know and others simply don’t care. And to use the word simple is in itself oversimplifying a web of complex reasons as to why some people don’t know and others don’t care. This is partly why I struggle with one of the key demands of the movement, which is for a ‘Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice’. An idea which relies on an assumption of a degree of pre-existing knowledge and care. I attended a talk last week about housing and energy and one of the speakers spoke of inclusiveness in activism. She said if you can get those who don’t know, care or engage in an issue to know, care and engage- that’s when you’re on track for success and true inclusivity. I don’t see XR trying to engage with those who hold contrasting views. I’ve seen XR demos multiple times and was never once approached by someone who wanted to talk and engage passers by about what they were there for. I know each group is different and maybe I’ve just been unfortunate. But one afternoon really sticks in my mind for making me doubt the inclusivity of the group. Especially when considering the wise words that true inclusivity welcomes those who are not already supporters of a cause.

On a sunny day in a seaside city, a rhythmic banging of drums could be heard. I turned the corner and saw little flags with distinctive designs printed on them. It was a group of XR ‘rebels’. All facing inwards in a circle, shouting/chanting something that was not audible above the drum beats. I didn’t get it. It was as if an invisible wall was surrounding them and they were separated from passers by and every other member of society. No-one from the group was talking to anyone outside the circle, yet it was clear that they were members of XR because of the flags and drum beats. Whether they were trying to capture attention through drum playing, I wasn’t sure. The only thing I was sure about was that this action was not doing anything for the climate, for the movement’s aims or for raising awareness of either. It was however perhaps doing something for those inside the invisible wall by making them feel they were doing something.

Even if the XR drum circle had welcomed me over, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable as I didn’t identify with the group. I would have felt left out even if I was brought in. Let’s take a brief detour to the world of psychology, where Tajfel’s Social Identity Approach indicates that people form groups and, once in groups, form identities which then get strengthened. Groups then translate into in-groups and out-groups, the idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’, which leads to the slippery slope of stereotyping and prejudice. By calling XR members ‘rebels’, a group identity is formed. Rebels categorize themselves as rebels and identify themselves as rebels. Without a doubt, XR has created an ‘in-group’ identity within the movement; the distinctive banners are always present at demos, flags flitter at the end of bikes, the branded designs are printed on tote bags and t-shirts-to name a few. XR may argue that there is not an ‘in-group’ and that anyone, in fact everyone, is welcome to be a rebel. But that’s not truly the case as the in-group conform to an identity that few on the outside have.

Social Identity Approach sees groups as permeable, but I wonder how permeable an in-group is when it has such a strong identity. I am not a social psychologist and can only talk from my personal experience that breaking into a group with an identity is off-putting. I don’t read ‘rebel’ or see ‘rebels’ and feel welcome – the signifiers of being a ‘rebel’ don’t resonate with me. The non-violent direct action approaches of camping outside places and lying on floors, singing songs, blocking roads and media sites aren’t something I’m comfortable doing. I’m against how the ‘Money Rebellion‘ is designed and don’t want to hang a poster with buzzwords in my window. And I don’t think I’m alone in this, in fact I’ll go as far as saying that the movement does not resonate with the majority. The in-group identity is strong, clear and waved about (literally and metaphorically) in the faces of passers by. But it does not engage with, and welcome, passers by.

The current Money Rebellion demonstrates this minority focus. With the actions including not paying tax, disrupting bank branches and taking out £20 on a Barclays credit card and refusing to pay it back, most people are not in a position to take part. Although on the more extreme side of the actions, not paying tax or debt is a risk for those getting involved. It is a risk that people in precarious financial positions, precarious housing positions or precarious work can’t afford to do. Not because it is a big expenditure but because you could end up having a poor credit rating and criminal conviction and therefore problems renting or buying a house and finding work. I agree that the current economic system has to change, but these actions are not providing ways for the masses to get involved. The less extreme actions included speaking to bank branch managers and staff. But heckling staff, who aren’t even the decision makers, during a pandemic, when thousands of banking jobs are on the line and customer facing staff are already exposed to a greater risk of Covid, is a recipe to rile people up. It is yet another demonstration of working against people not with them.

Why not first focus on getting the majority of people to understand that banks are big culprits in fossil fuel investment? And encourage people to switch? It is a missed opportunity to engage the majority about the dirty world of banking and finances. Only on action 8 was there mention of switching to ethical alternatives. Many people don’t even know that banking contributes to fossil fuel extraction. So, automatically the rebellion somewhat relies on some basic understanding of the issues. I only found out about the links between my bank account and fossil fuels a few years ago and it made me change banks. I started to talk to friends and family and realised that it really isn’t known widely. The whole Money Rebellion comes across aggressive and threatening, and not welcoming, with its powerful voiced over video and black and red PowerPoint with actions which include throwing fake oil spills on bank branches. (And making fake oil spills is really easy and accessible, just pop to the local shop for some fine guar gum powder and black pond dye crystals).

The climate emergency affects every part of life and we have to be creative and forward thinking. Let me end by giving the most recent XR occurrence that made me question the movement’s inclusivity. A friend of mine, who has worked on issues of sustainable housing with me, attended an XR meeting. They mentioned that housing is a huge CO2 emitter and that perhaps the group could do some work on housing and its links to the climate crisis. They were then baffled that this was a hard sell and someone mentioned to them “it doesn’t seem like an XR issue”. A climate issue not being relevant to a climate emergency movement is baffling. And it’s not the first time I had heard a story of XR not being open to collaboration or willing to work on different issues. It’s as if the voiced over videos and PowerPoints made by the XR Headquarters infiltrate groups so much so that they can’t see past them. Perhaps another element of the Social Identity Approach kicks in whereby to maintain your self-esteem within the group identity, you see yourselves as better. My friend’s suggestion was disregarded and the group confided in their identity and considered their approach as the best. But the truth is, climate change works holistically and its changes will infiltrate everything. Movements need to not only be inclusive to people but also ideas and approaches.

I’ll wrap up with some concluding thoughts. The XR brand is strong and the buzzwords of ‘Act Now’ are well known. But inclusivity has to be more than a buzzword. XR’s willingness to bring everyone on board the ship in the rising sea is weak. The climate crisis is inclusive of everyone and all aspects of life. Tackling this crisis must be inclusive too. Whether the issue of the climate crisis resonates with people or not is irrelevant, since without a range of ways to get involved, a something-for-everyone movement, XR is an exclusive rebellion.

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