“…fundamentally, in order to believe in social justice, I have to believe that things can change. I have to believe that people can change.”
The above quote comes from a conversation I had with a friend recently about abuse and accountability in the context of communities, usually alternative lifestyle and activism-focused communities. This has been a hot topic for a while. There’s been an increasing development in “call-out culture”, which if I understand correctly, aims to encourage people to inform their communities about abusive or otherwise inappropriate/bad behaviour committed by specifically-named people.
I’m no expert on relationships, consent, or anything else. However, I have been an abuse survivor from a very young age, so holding people who abuse others accountable for their behaviour (and how best to do so) is something I’ve had to contemplate for the vast majority of my life. What I have seen in the past few years indicates that we haven’t successfully developed call-out culture. Why is this? There are a couple of key elements missing at the moment. (NB: Before I make those points I just want to say this post isn’t necessarily about how to hold others more accountable. That’s not something I can claim to do here, certainly not with one blogpost! This has an entirely different aim.)
Firstly, I’d say that there’s a lot of conflict around what we, as a community, do with people who’ve abused others or otherwise violated boundaries both before and after they’ve apologised. Communities seem to mainly deal with it by shunning those people and pushing them out. Their friends and partners may also be shunned. The rifts this cause in communities are undeniable based upon whose “side” people are on.
A few thoughts on this: the shunning approach won’t work, and it doesn’t work. This has been done many times before. People who don’t take accountability (and even those who do) and who are shunned go elsewhere, often to engage in the same behaviour with others – and the cycle continues ad infinitum.
If we believe in social justice, as my friend says, then we have to believe that people can change. Too many people feel that someone who has committed abusive behaviour cannot reform or change their ways, so they must be shunned and pushed out as the only solution. I call bullshit on that. You know why? Because that won’t allow people to change their behaviour by first admitting and being accountable for their wrongdoing. It will encourage them to hide it, which means they can’t reflect on it, which means they won’t reform or change and the behaviour will continue.
Bad behaviour does not automatically make someone a bad person and compassion for all parties is a useful tool. We need to make it clear that calling someone out for bad behaviour and holding them accountable is just that. It doesn’t mean their lives will end, or that they’ll be forced out. It doesn’t mean that they will lose all of their friends (although naturally, perhaps some friendships will end). However, obviously not everyone can or will reform, as cases of repeat abusive behaviour after repeated call-outs clearly highlights. Perhaps counterintuitively, the environment needs to be safe enough for people to admit they committed abuse. Unless that happens, we will never see true and active accountability.
Secondly, people aren’t exclusively victims or exclusively abusers. I know this sounds obvious, but IT NEEDS SAYING AGAIN AND AGAIN. This shit is complicated, in pretty much every single case, and it is so tempting to see it otherwise. As mentioned, I was abused from a very young age by a family member – a few family members, in fact. I was a victim, I am a survivor, I am also a person who is happy.
However, I have also been an abuser.
The truth is, I think we probably all have behaved badly at one time or another for any variety of reasons. We’ve all been abused and we’ve all been the abusers. No one is perfect and we are all figuring this shit out as we go along, in the context of a culture that didn’t teach us what consent looks like. But can we all just stop and take a look at ourselves while we’re so busy looking at others? I see a lot of people in activism communities calling out people for committing rape and sexual abuse who have allegedly engaged in the same or similar bad behaviour and have not admitted wrongdoing or taken responsibility themselves. The truth is, people change. Our politics change. We improve so much over time. But we also fuck up massively and repeatedly and cannot truly improve without some extremely frank and often very painful self-reflection. We cannot call out others with any shred of integrity until we call ourselves out as well. My question is: are the people developing call-out culture reflecting enough on themselves?
I think we should consider that a culture that accepts the fact that people can and do fuck up is safer for the victim or survivor because they don’t have to fear dire consequences for calling it out. Communities who try to disown abusers who have been called out by saying they are some kind of impostor who invaded our community and “not one of us” creates an environment where ALL of us cannot talk about the mistakes we’ve made for fear of being ostracised. This further creates a culture of silence that perpetuates abusive behaviour and does not give people the opportunity to learn and grow out of such behaviours.
Now I’d like to tell you a story about me, and it involves publicly admitting a huge mistake I once made in a relationship to all of you, dear readers. I suppose you, as the reader, can (and surely will!) decide what you think of what I did:
I was in a relationship with someone for nearly a decade. We lived together, shared our lives together, we were as close as we could possibly get to another human being. One night I initiated sex while they were still asleep. I did this without waiting until they were conscious to ask if it would be ok or if they wanted it or if they consented. They eventually woke up and we had sex. I didn’t think about this again for years afterward. Many years later, around the time the Julian Assange rape allegations were coming out, I reflected on that experience. And with horror I realised I had made a huge fucking mistake that night. I eventually contacted my ex to apologise for what I had done. They practically started laughing when I did so, and told me that I had not done anything wrong and had no reason to apologise. They told me that they did not experience that event as coercive in any way. Whether they think this because we were in a relationship at the time (so this somehow gives me the right to not ask for consent?!) or because they woke up and then consented once they were awake is irrelevant.
We may have different politics and beliefs about relationships, consent and sex, but I still believe that I fucked up big time and it was important to me to take responsibility for that and to hold myself accountable. If I can’t do it myself, how on earth can I ask it or demand it of anyone else with any shred of integrity? The truth is, I couldn’t. This is one of the reasons I decided to write about it here.
Why? Because call-out culture should start from within. This is something I’d like to see more of: people calling themselves out, not just calling others out. If I want to see others doing this, then I can’t ask anyone else to do it without doing it myself. And thus, the idea for this blogpost was born…
I imagine my politics will develop further over the next five to ten years and I’ll realise that I have even more bad behaviour to apologise to others for. I hope I continue to have the strength to do this, to self-reflect, to take responsibility for my actions. It’s hard and it’s terrifying, but it’s also gratifying and I hope the more that I do it the easier it will get. At the end of the day, I have to believe that if I can change, then others can and will, too.
So now I call on all my friends and readers to engage in some frank and probably painful self-reflection. Doing so will require compassion for both ourselves and others, while we work through our mistakes and heal from the mistakes of others. Can we, as communities and as individuals, call ourselves out? Can we embrace and learn from our mistakes? Can we meet this challenge with compassion towards ourselves and towards others? I believe that if we all do this, the safer we will all be.