When a righteous cause enables unrighteous behavior

I don’t even want to touch this story, but it’s a real problem. An organization to fight sexual harassment and abuse in the scientific community, MeTooStem, is facing a major crisis. One of the founders, BethAnn McLaughlin, has regularly antagonized other members to the point that they’re having huge turnover problems.

BethAnn McLaughlin, a high-profile activist against harassment and abuse in academic science, is facing calls to resign from the organization she founded, MeTooSTEM. She herself has been a bully, recent MeTooSTEM volunteers say, and has not addressed criticisms that led to previous waves of resignations from the organization.

“While I have worked very closely with BethAnn over the last year or so, I can no longer support her leadership as she displays behavior patterns our organization has vowed to fight against,” Teresa Swanson, one of three members of MeTooSTEM’s leadership team, wrote in a message to The Chronicle.

This kind of thing arises every time too much power gets invested in a single individual at the head of an organization — all people suck in one way or another, and putting them in charge without significant checks on their behavior inevitably leads to fractures. We saw that in the atheist movement, where even informally making people figureheads led to ego clashes and dissent; I think we can see it in the centralization of power in the American government, too (although I would not compare McLaughlin to Trump at all). Authority needs to be distributed.

Although this is a good suggestion, too.

One well-known advocate, Kathryn B.H. Clancy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, suggested that there never was any need for a formal MeTooSTEM organization in the first place. “It’s a movement. It never needed a nonprofit or a savior,” she tweeted.

Sometimes a hierarchy is just the wrong method to use. Although other methods have their drawbacks — see Occupy, for instance — you have to have a means compatible with the end you desire.


  1. says

    I feel like Occupy’s drawbacks are mostly related to the conditions at the time. There wasn’t a critical mass of people ready to listen to ideas about radically democratizing society, politics, and economics. It also simply didn’t have the support or resources necessary to resist being violently crushed by police forces nationwide in a coordinated assault. I’m sure there are lots of small things they could have done to better protect themselves and get their desperately needed message out, but I think at a fundamental level they had the right idea.