On Anger, Harassment, Sadness, Forgiveness, and Outrage
My heart sank when I read Quinn’s post. I’ve known, since the outing of a string of VCs, that soon it would be not just people who were one step away, or direct connections I had scant contact with, but also people I knew and liked.
Francine expresses what I feel the best. I’m not as close to the Scoble family as she is, of course. But I like Robert. We used to bump into each other at conferences. I’ve followed his struggles these last years from afar. I’ve met Maryam a couple of times.
The second part of Quinn’s post really resonates with me. About restorative justice. About not demonising people who do bad things. I’ve written about this, obliquely. Sadly, the pile-on in online media is going to be about “yet another tech pundit sexually harassing women”.
So, here are a few thoughts.
Sexism and harassment need to be fought
Does anybody have a doubt about this? The question is how. I see three levels: culture, institutions, people. You cannot deal with one without dealing with the others.
- Culture is the way we raise children. Movies. Billboards. What is “socially acceptable”.
- Institutions are laws, processes, systems that promote gender inequality.
- People are humans who make choices and behave in certain ways.
Using a broad brush here. But these are the three levels at which I see we can act.
Everybody does bad things
People are fallible. People are broken. People can be trapped in behaviours they fail to change. Being a victim sucks. Being an abuser sucks too. I’m not putting them on the same level: but there is a difference to be made between a psychopath and somebody who hurts others as a way to survive. (And… it isn’t even that clear-cut for psychopaths.)
Systematic lynching of all Bad People (TM) (otherwise known as Good People who do Bad Things) will get us nowhere. Yelling at people who are trying to mend their ways, imperfectly, telling them apologies are not enough when apologies are already a hugely difficult step, will get us nowhere.
I get the anger. I cannot stand behind the outrage. It’s easy to be angry and club people to death. One thing to learn, when learning about one’s anger, is that anger is often anger that cuts people out. It’s much harder to be angry and continue caring. And stick around. When anger means outright rejection, then that is all the more reason to stay silent and hidden.
We are judging people based on the worst thing they have done. Now think of the worst thing you have done. Does it define you?
(I know I’m going to be lynched here for “defending the perpetrator”. So be it.)
People’s actions have context
We don’t exist in a vacuum. Powerful men who harass women do it because the institutions and culture enable it. It doesn’t make them blameless, far from it. But just as we women have to fight against a system that puts us in a place we don’t like, so do men. And that place might very well be the place of power and abuse.
I think we are well aware of the systemic issue here. I would like to question how much going after individuals really solves the systemic issue. It’s a real question.
Nobody is a harasser
This is something that became very clear to me I was harassed a few years ago (not sexually, counting my blessings, but it was bad enough). The main perpetrator in my story did not see his behaviour as abusive, or see himself as harassing me. He saw himself as the victim. He was an ally of women. He was defending himself against me.
Nobody is ever the Bad Guy, in their eyes.
Coming to terms with the fact one is an abuser requires a 180 flip in how one sees oneself. It is no easy feat. Just as you can’t convince an anti-vaxxer that vaccines are safe by pounding your fist on the table and telling them to open their eyes and look at the science, which will only entrench them more in their beliefs, I don’t think publicly shaming people is the final answer to getting them to recognise their bad behaviour.
This should also be a cautionary tale to us when we feel justified in our anger and outrage. Anger is useful. I often encourage people to use their anger when something bad is being done to them. Anger is what will help you slap in the face the guy who put his hand on your butt. Anger is what will give you power to stand up, walk to HR and put your fist on the table to say “this is not OK and has to stop”.
But when anger leads to outrage over situations you are not part of, when you pile on Justine Sacco because she deserves it or on a “sexist pig” because he deserves to see his life destroyed, on which side of the harassment divide are you?
Trauma doesn’t have to destroy you
The fact I feel like I have to keep on saying “this is not what I’m saying” is testimony to how trigger-ready many are on these topics. But I’ll still say it: this is not me telling victims to “just get over it already”.
Trauma, in a way, is a part of life. It sucks all the more when it was wilfully inflicted upon you by another person. But it doesn’t have to destroy you. Or define you.
I have thankfully never been raped. Of course, #metoo, I’ve had to swat away unwelcome hands or back off from grinding groins (wonder why I don’t like the dancefloor? look no further). I’ve stayed speechless in the face of comments on my sex life from colleagues or “friends” — though lately, each time less speechless, as I’ve decided to strive towards a zero-tolerance policy for casual everyday sexism around me. Easier said than done, but getting there.
My mother died when I was 10. This trauma was not anybody’s fault, granted. It’s had an impact on my life. Contributed to making me who I am. More or less broken like everyone, more or less functional despite it.
Many things that happen to us in life shouldn’t happen. We must work towards preventing those we can — and lecherous men in positions of power are definitely on that list. But we must work also on not letting trauma take over our lives and reduce us to a heap of fuming outrage.
Nothing is unforgivable
I talked about apologies earlier. Forgiveness is the other side of the coin. My title is provocative: you’re all thinking of things are unforgivable.
Remember when Snape kills Dumbledore? He uses an unforgivable curse. And it is an unforgivable curse. But is what he did unforgivable?
I would like to make a distinction between something being unforgivable and something one cannot forgive.
There are things people have done to me that I cannot forgive. I have broken (a handful) of friendships because of such situations. But these are not unforgivable actions per se. They are actions that I am unable to forgive.
Apologies are important. Because an important ingredient enabling forgiveness is the recognition by the perpetrator of the harm done. Apologies may be hollow, or insufficient. But they are necessary.
I am not saying we have to forgive everything. And we are not all Hector Black. But our world needs more compassion and forgiveness, and less outrage. When I say we need compassion and forgiveness, I’m not saying we should leave anger aside. Anger is there. But we can choose how to use it.
There is more to say, and I will certainly say more. My feeling right now is largely of sadness. Sad for my friend and his family, sad for the hurt he caused, sad for all the broken people we are, sad for the broken system we are caught in, sad for the deafening outrage, drowning out the much more difficult conversations that need to be had.
If you’re going to comment: please leave your outrage at the door.
Originally published at Climb to the Stars.