Matthew Parris

The Stonewall dinner left me with one question: why are volunteers so horrible to one another?

Ask any charitable group. ‘Internecine’ doesn’t do justice to the undercurrents of resentment

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

I watched the video with some trepidation. Stonewall (the campaigning gay and lesbian equality organisation) had just sent me the YouTube link. This was to a short film of the dinner that Stonewall’s founders attended last year to celebrate the quarter-century anniversary of our existence; and most of us had been there. Now we were but wrinkled reminders of the young revolutionaries we had once been.

So this could have been a rather mellow occasion. We had started the organisation as a defiant response to what came to be known as ‘Section 28’: a small measure that was part of a sprawling local government bill and intended to stop the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools and by local authorities. In trying to mobilise opposition to the measure we’d been encouraged by the sense of purpose we’d found — and by a good deal of public sympathy and support. So we had determined not to let the momentum be lost.

That was 25 years ago and it’s fair to say our cause had succeeded beyond our wildest early hopes. An anniversary dinner could have been the occasion for celebration, reflection, some mutual backslapping and a little dash of discreet self-regard. That’s what anniversary dinners are for; and that’s the impression conveyed skilfully by the video: cordial, uplifting and faintly worthy.

But, oh my goodness, that isn’t the dinner I recall. The whole thing bristled with submerged hostilities. I won’t bore you with them, they’re too tedious for words, they don’t matter, and anyway I played some part in stirring them. Suffice it to say that when I accused a colleague I actually like and admire of gassing on for too long, there was a small explosion. We both calmed down and climbed down but the incident (beautifully excised from the video) was indicative of other tensions — not all of which I understood at the time — beneath the surface. Some of us were reeling by the time we left; and life is too short to analyse why.

But not too short for a wider question. What is it about voluntarism, what is it about organisations composed of public-spirited people giving of their own time and money for some purpose larger and nobler than themselves, that breeds the poisonous atmosphere that so often chokes their deliberations? Why do volunteers become so nasty to each other?

I’ve spend what seems a lifetime negotiating these perilous waters. Voluntary Conservative politics has been my nursery, and a more sulphurous, spitting, clawing, feuding and backbiting introduction to the spirit of voluntarism you couldn’t hope to find. Except you could. I’m told Labour activism is even worse. Liberal Democrats do little but gossip maliciously about each other. And Ukip’s local organisations are said to be at all times no more than one gunshot away from a civil war.

Nor is the problem peculiar to politics. Ask any charitable group. ‘Internecine’ doesn’t do justice to the undercurrents of resentment. It’s commonplace, come the annual general meeting, for nobody to want their name to go forward when nominations for (say) hon. secretary are sought, for somebody finally to be persuaded to concede that, well, OK, if nobody else will do it, he or she will — and then for members to spend the rest of the year complaining about the way this volunteer does the job. The levels of resentment against other persons, and the levels of righteous fury in disputes about policy and purpose, are phenomenal. Thus people working for a wage in a bomb factory are likely to be far less aggressive than people working for nothing in a disarmament charity.

Why? Here are three possible candidates for an explanation. The first is that cantankerous and self-righteous individuals are disproportionately attracted to voluntary societies. According to this theory, people actually join in order to find themselves an arena in which to be disputatious. We can all think of friends who qualify for this description, but I cannot believe it’s the only explanation. We can equally all think of friends who are sweetness and light in every sphere of their lives except volunteering — when something dreadful seems to come over them, and a committee room becomes a snake-pit just when calm is needed.

The second theory, not unrelated, is one of which C. Northcote Parkinson would have approved, and is an example of the old saw about disputes between academics: vicious because the stakes are so small. To vary Parkinson’s Law, spite expands to fill the time available. Many who join voluntary organisations have time on their hands and nothing else to do. The Devil then makes work to fill the lacunae: they squabble and intrigue about nothing as a kind of recreation, but one with the added advantage of being (so they tell themselves) public-spirited. There’s plainly some truth in this theory but, again, it cannot explain the vitriol that can infuse a voluntary body even when its work is urgent and demanding, everyone’s very busy, and cooperation is critical to its success.

It’s to my third possible explanation that I particularly draw your attention because I think it has been overlooked: that when we are ‘giving up our own free time’ for no advantage to ourselves, we become very difficult to command. The disciplines of a management structure, concepts of professionalism, the unifying simplicity of the pursuit of profit, all lose their purchase when we are not being paid to work. We are working for our beliefs — our beliefs, not somebody else’s. Thus we are released from the usual rules of the workplace.

Samuel Johnson never spoke truer than when he said that a man is never more innocently employed than in the pursuit of money. The pursuit of principle is an infinitely more corrupting thing.

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Show comments
  • little islander

    And the Spectator goes after money or principle?

  • John Croston

    Nice to see that French gays are coming to their senses and supporting Marine Le Pen. After all, Matthew, who wants to be an old queen in a society where you run the risk of being hanged from a crane or thrown off the Eiffel Tower?
    That reminds me – have they got a mosque at the top of the Shard yet?

    • freddiethegreat

      Actually, the extreme normophobia of homosexuals and their organizations are virtually indistinguishable from Islamism. The perpetual victim mentality, the vicious attacks on anyone who disagrees in the slightest, the stone-age mentality. Maybe it’s even the same individuals. Watch out for a B&B owner to have his throat cut.

      • mikewaller

        What a load of crap!

        • post_x_it

          There is something in what he says. Not in the actual violence bit (I hope), but the mindset exists. I’ve come across it enough times.

          • mikewaller

            The same is true of the core believers in any belief system. Consider communists, who unlike homosexuals but like Muslims and Christians, have gone in for mass killing to further their faith ,

          • post_x_it

            That’s an odd comparison though. Being gay is not an ideology, even if some people treat it as such. It is perfectly possible to be gay without having any truck with the identity politics of Stonewall.
            You can’t very well be a communist without being a supporter/follower of communist ideology.

          • mikewaller

            I am not a communist, Christian, Muslim of homosexual but it seems clear to me that the core belief of the most active of the last category is that their orientation is a matter of pride not shame, as in “gay-pride”. That, by my standards, is an ideology backed up as it will be by a range of supporting beliefs. I have also know a considerable number of communists who don’t want to kill anybody, merely to persuade by argument.

          • Mr B J Mann

            Yes, but the article is about the activists who DO treat it as an ideology, not ordinary g-ys.

            I doubt if most ordinary g-ys with no “G-y Pride”/Stonewall
            !deology would want a baker in a place where same s-x marriage was !llegal, like Northern Ireland, to be prosecuted and punished for declining to bake a political meeting prop promoting that !llegal activity regardless, never mind if they objected to the political propaganda content on religious grounds.

            Any more than they would want a g-y baker prosecuted and punished for declining to bake a cake iced with religious texts they objected to.

      • justejudexultionis


  • Diggery Whiggery

    In a normal job people’s work is rewarded by a salary. When people volunteer, people subconsciously seek other non-financial rewards. One of these is feeling of being useful and doing good and the best way of feeling that is if your ideas are accepted and implemented.

    Now in a company, everyone can be paid so everyone is rewarded so they accept that some people’s ideas will have precedence over theirs according to a hierarchy. When its voluntary however, they don’t because not everyone’s ideas can be implemented and so it becomes a zero sum game and one where everyone fights to influence the direction of the organization. Furthermore as no-one is paid more relative to another, it is difficult to convince people to accept whatever hierarchy is in place.

  • Robertus Maximus

    I would be surprised if the majority of Stonewall activists and supporters did not come across as deeply unpleasant people. Like all campaign groups who achieve all that they initially sought, they then metamorphose into an overbearing, bullying, fascist mob who go after the likes of B&B owners or bakers who are deliberately set up for prosecution. All bullies pick on the small fry but are sh*t scared to confront the likes of hate-filled homophobic Imams advocating the stoning of gays. Why pick on a psychopathic gay-hater and potential exterminator when a meek little Christian will do! My gay friends despise Stonewall and find them an insult to people of their sexual inclination, and their sheer nastiness repugnant and counterproductive..

    • Roger Hudson

      ‘Activists’ are always dangerous nasty people.

      • fun-time freddie

        Not necessarily. I was an ‘activist’ when I volunteered at the hospital, and for the rainforest group (as a young know-little), and when I phoned voters in advance of a US presidential election, and stuffed envelopes for that cause. I am an ‘activist’ writing here on these blogs because I want the freedom-haters to see that they are opposed and I want those that think as I do to have courage.

    • post_x_it

      Yup I’m 100% with your gay friends. It is of course perfectly possible to find “discrimination” in every corner and under every rock if only one searches hard enough and stretches the definition to ridiculous levels. I despair at the thought that there are people who make a career out of this, and expect me to be grateful.

    • I agree with you about stonewall, I stopped volunteering for them after I realised their activists were no better than the bullies they were claiming to be against. Ruth Hunt really is an an angry vile woman.

      I do however disagree with you about the perceived ‘victimising’ of small business owners. If B&B owners had turned away a couple because they were black there would be uproar. Not that I agree with how the militants handled that particular situation, but the law doesn’t allow for that kind of discrimination so the owners were in the wrong. If they want to have the law changed, they are welcome to lobby for it, but they have to honour it as it stands.

      • fun-time freddie

        But ‘blackness’ and ‘gayness’ aren’t the same. One is a kind of inheritance, the other involves a behaviour — especially when there are two of them. ONE gay person at the B&B would likely not have been turned away. There is a substantive difference, and it has to do with notions of virtue. It is not unvirtuous to be white, yellow, or brown. It MAY be unvirtuous to engage in ….

  • trace9

    If every conclusion lead to confusion
    There’d be no illision in any conclusion.
    But when Some conclusions ain’t so confusin’
    We tend to believe them to be in profusion..

    More interfering self-serviing Attic whimsy..

  • mikewaller

    I think that Thomas Hobbes reached you final conclusion about 400 years ago. Put in an evolutionary context, I think we come into this world with an inbuilt imperative to secure the high regard of others and if we fail in this we have evolved to get very, very unhappy. When employed, losing the job would in most cases cause such a significant loss of social status that less dramatic humiliations are routinely tolerated. Without that constraint, the real “us” emerges, particularly as social ranking is largely a zero-sum game.

  • Cassandra

    It’s just gays being bitchy old queens. So what’s new?

    • post_x_it

      Arh, come off it. Look at the RSPCA, Friends of the Earth etc. They manage to be just as unpleasant and vindictive without any notable gay contingent.

  • John Cooper

    People who volunteer often believe that the organisation to which they donate their time actually owes them some ‘sweat equity’ and that by way of reward the very least the organisation can do in return is provide a platform for, and then adopt, that individual’s narrow opinions and views.
    I have seen this phenomenon many times.

  • FrankS2

    My impression of Stonewall’s mindset was formed by those big hoardings a couple of years back proclaiming “Some people are gay – get over it”.
    It invited the response “Most people really don’t give a damn – get over that!”.
    Having won every struggle they set out with and more, maybe their last recourse is to turn on each other.

  • WTF

    It seems to me that when minority groups get far more than they campaigned for, they are adrift after they get it and react in different ways.

    For militant gays, they have lost the very reason they came into existence and with nothing to campaign for we see vindictive prosecutions like the bakery who were prosecuted for refusing to bake a ‘gay cake’.

    For Muslims, we see more and more demands to create a Sharia state within non Islamic countries around Europe and raising that race card at the slightest perceived criticism of Islam as well as killing sprees on innocent civilians.

    The majority of people in western Europe are now effectively under an apartheid of minority inspired legislation much the same as black Africans were in South Africa under white rule. Proportionately by numbers, we are grossly under-represented by the three main parties as the pendulum has swung to discriminate against us in what can only be described as a vindictive attack to make us atone for our forefathers sins !

  • Johnnydub

    SO the question is why are activists so unpleasant?

    It’s the narcissism – anyone who finds validation in a cause is doing it for internal validation. So strangely enough for narcissists, they don’t have much empathy for anyone else.

    Matthew Parris actions as a Tory activist bear this out. Look at his utter lack of empathy and humility in the run up to the Clacton bye-election.

  • Dodgy Geezer

    Alas, It seems true that the sort of people who want to force other people to agree with them are, on the whole, not going to be very nice. It’s not some kind of ‘volunteer disease’ – it’s just the kind of person you are. Get over it.

    You may wish to note that there IS another method of getting people to agree with you which is much more pleasant – it’s called leading by example. Several famous people have shown how it works; Jesus and Gandhi spring to mind. I am pretty sure that if you had a dinner with these two there would be no vicious in-fighting and point scoring…

  • John P

    There’s a further explanation, the subject of a certain amount of research, called “moral self-licensing”. Essentially, being ‘good’ frees you up to be less so. Fascinating on lots of levels.

  • Parris has found another group of people he doesn’t like.

    The irony of this article probably flew right over his head even as he wrote it.

  • Guest

    I am of course fascinated by how you consider volunteers for the Tory Party. Are they charming in which case the party is vile or vice versa?

  • Tim Morrison

    How wonderful. The only people who are altruistic is those who don’t give two hoots for anyone else. I wonder where Parris places himself in this rather snide and self righteous piece. He was involved in the squabbles at the dinner he states, but accepts no responsibility. Part of life is the person who goes on too long, too comment on it public is to say the least rude.

  • Teacher

    Save us from ‘nice’ people. They are the worst.

  • fun-time freddie

    Good article. My mother-in-law rejected voluntarism even though she wanted to meet people, since she refused to ‘work without payment’. I thought it was a bit cheap and mean-minded at the time: either you believe in something or you don’t, and she was hardly hard-up (New York City school-system pensioner, eh? — Cushy if you can get it). But then I’m the brave fish-out-of-water she mistook (as ordinary people without imagination do) as a princess making a fuss in the land of peach and honey. Ironic: when she was a fish just a bit out of her peach and honey, she resorted to antidepressants. I never have. I’m the real salt, and it’s been the blessing of my later life to realize it and not to apologize for it.