[TW: rape, sexual assault]
I still follow a number of atheist blogs, which I sometimes read and sometimes skip past depending on the topics they explore. In recent months, one of the raging conversations has been the ongoing issues related to skepticism, rape culture, and “radical feminism.” I’ve written about these subjects previously, and don’t want to deal with those issue directly (there’s already a lot of that being discussed, and I don’t feel like I have anything significant to add), but something about these conversation has felt very familiar to me recently.
No, I am not trying to snidely imply that this is an old conversation that we’ve all heard before and should be tired of. It has been one which has been happening for a while, but it is one that needs to happen because some people are still not getting it.
No, In this case, the familiarity has more to do with seeing parallels of much of this “drama” in my own life. The familiarity is one of “oh, that thing they’re arguing about concerning skeptic/atheist leaders being sexual predators, possible rapists, and general dingbats whose supporters attempt to smear you for pointing out their dingbattery…that looks really familiar!”
All too familiar…
So how about the polyamorous community?
Hiding in plain sight
Thinking about all of this got me wondering about how many people fly under the radar, not only in the mega-communities of all kinds, but all of the local communities. How many people who consistently lie, manipulate, and take advantage of people for their own benefit (among other terrible behavior) are there all around us? I mean, it’s a behavior set which operates best in the shadows, and the very success of such behavior necessitates hiding, creating a false facade, and having sympathetic advocates. The perpetrators of such things are usually not simply loners waiting in alleys, they are people within your own community, hiding in plain sight and pretending to be something they are not.
There are strategies which some people use to hide their awfulness. If you are racist, it helps to have non-white “friends” or co-workers to keep around to make any accusation of racism seem absurd, except for those who know better. If you are a misogynist, keep your female friends and partners close, so that if someone says you treat women badly you can have them speak up for you. Similarly, if you have problems with sexual consent, make sure you have your feminist friends and partners willing to speak up for you, so that when you do decide to just do what you want with a woman who you think you can get away with it with, the accusation will look ridiculous (especially to your partners who you emphasize consent with!).
How many people are there like this around us all the time? Well, the terrifying answer is that we don’t know. That’s why it’s so scary. Often, they are around us all the time and we have no idea who they really are, because they hide it so well. This is compounded by the fact that many people who have had bad experiences with someone may choose to be quiet about it, and only close trusted friends will know. A desire to not stir up drama, unwanted attention, or possible backlashes are among the many reasons that people who behave poorly don’t get outed more.
Yes, backlashes. Because sometimes victims get blamed, by both bystanders and those guilty of the infringement. If someone knows they are guilty or wants to hide a mistake, sometimes the best way to hide is to redirect attention or to just ignore it and hope it goes away. Some people faced with accusations will not only refuse to accept any responsibility (or really acknowledge the accusation at all), but will go further and re-direct the accusations elsewhere. A good defense is a good offense, I suppose.
Other people will just depend on the background noise of normal every-day life to drown it out, knowing that some people who get hurt will just slide into the crowd and not pursue more conversation or desire for some recompense. Others may simply believe they didn’t do anything wrong in the first place, and will view accusations as absurd, annoying, or an attempt to sully their reputation (you know, rather than a description of the violation of another person).
But there’s a deeper, and more disturbing, set of strategies I have seen employed as well.
Some people are especially skilled at pretending, hiding, and creating support networks to vouch for them. It’s much better to have advocates than to appear defensive by responding oneself, after all. As a close friend said, in reference to someone neither of us trusts, “if you rape 1-in-5, you will still have 4 to vouch for you.” That is, if someone talks about consent often and practice it with most people, the exceptions will be easier to hide in the shadows of consent’s facade. If a person gets off on being in control, having influence, and doing what they want to other people while ignoring consent now and then, such a person is much more likely to keep getting away with it by talking a good consent game.
Sometimes the best way to appear innocent is to clothe yourself in the garb of, and to mimic, those who would be the first to convict you if they knew who you really were. The terrifying idea I’m describing here is to hide among those that would be your greatest critics (if they were to see the other kind of behavior) while saving that other behavior for people who seem unlikely to fight back or actually matter to you. It’s essentially being careful who you victimize, while making sure that you surround yourself with advocates of (for example) social justice who you stay within bounds around, so they can be your character’s alibi and voucher.
Here’s one example I’ve seen. If you are a guy who wants girls to like you, then start by calling yourself a feminist, talk and write about consent and befriend and partner up with feminists who you treat mostly well, then occasionally feed that deep desire to take control and power over people with some other people who you perceive as being “safe” to ignore those feminist consent lines. If anyone calls you on it, all you need to do is turn it around on the accuser and then sit back and watch your feminist partners defend you while you can sit back, feeling…well, I have no idea how that would feel. I have no inclination to find out, either.
On top of that, you get to be around attractive feminist women who you might get to sleep with and whom will act as ways to attract other women to you, since those women will vouch for you. You get to treat most of the women in your life relatively well while creating a situation where you can occasionally get away with some power trip (or perhaps it’s just a deep desire which cannot be denied all the time. Either way, it’s manipulative and deeply troubling). You get to occasionally treat people like crap all the while maintaining a flock of feminist women who will pronounce you safe to other approaching women.
Except you aren’t safe. You are a predator, camouflaged among feminists so you can get away with your crossing consent lines when it suits you. And it does happen, doesn’t it? Perhaps not very often, but when it does happen you don’t have to atone, apologize, or even acknowledge it because you’ve created a believable facade of a person you are not. You have created a facade of a decent human being.
And what’s worse is when such people do a little of both with other partners, all based upon what blind-spots each partner has. Such a person will know that some can be manipulated and influenced and still be an advocate, at least for a while. After the influence starts to wear off and it becomes clear that they see you more as a means towards their own needs and desires than someone interested–or capable–of a genuinely mutually beneficial relationship, all such a mind needs to do is move onto another person. In extreme cases, such a person might (for example) assassinate the character of the disillusioned person and gaslight them, attack them, and write them off because they aren’t useful to you anymore.
The above description* is a recipe for coldly calculated patterns of using other people for one’s own purposes rather than creating genuinely mutually beneficial relationships in which the needs and desires of others are considered. Creating healthy relationships is not a game about what you can get away with while trying to appear acceptable by the community in which you participate while doing so. But this is only one of many descriptions of problematic behavior. It just happens to be one I’m more familiar with because I saw it up close.
Victims of such behavior will look at the advocates of these manipulative people and can only shrug their shoulders and crawl back into their hole of self-doubt, fear, and trauma which will never be dealt with on the advocates’ end because he would never do that. Except, he did and many will believe.
Celebrities as proxies
I’ve met Michael Shermer. It was years ago, and I remember that everyone in the room wanted to talk with him. He’s smart, engaging, and tells fairly good stories. He’s also done really excellent work in the skeptic community, written some good books, and has some really important things to say. He’s also a douchebag. He may, in fact, be a rapist and a sexual predator. There have been a number of accusations, arguments about responsibility, and many have come out in support of him in light of these accusations.
There is no contradiction between a person having very good qualities, friends, and advocates and someone who is just terrible. People like Michael Shermer are popular examples, and in a sense stand as a lightning rod for conversations about things like sexual predation, rape, and rape culture. But these celebrity examples of these conversations are community proxies for conversations about the kinds of people and issues we are surrounded with in our own lives, perhaps every day.
Our local communities have people who are known to be problematic in specific ways. That group of people is known for being really tribalistic, dismissive, and gossipy unless you agree with them about whatever they care about. This guy over here is known to get into heated arguments, and sometimes fights, especially if he’s drunk. That girl is known to make racist comments and jokes, but mostly she’s pretty cool (I guess). Oh, and that guy? Oh, he’s a known to take advantage of women when they’re drunk or just to do what he wants to them unless they specifically ask him to stop. You know, maybe he’ll stop if you ask, so just don’t get paralyzed by fear because silence is totally the same thing as consent (pro-tip; no it’s not). You know….he’s probably a sexual predator. But you know, whatever. He’s smart and fun to be around and he throws good parties, so as long as he cuts that out, you know most of the time, we’ll look past it and pretend it’s not happening.
Also, there are askholes (which is among my favorite new words).
There is an idea that one reason celebrities are a thing many people talk about with each other is that since communities have become so large, most people (especially if they live in other parts of the world) don’t have a common set of concerns and people to gossip about. Celebrities, whether they beat their fiance, did something really awesome and generous for someone, or got married, are a proxy for the old village gossip about the locals. Michael Shermer, being well-known in the skeptic community, is the person we talk about when we talk about things like rape and rape culture, but in smaller communities perhaps have their own Michael Shermers.
We have our local examples of such people, and a lot of the same infighting, smear campaigns, and tribalism which takes place on the blogoshere and at conferences is also happening on the local level, on smaller scales.
And it’s hard! It’s hard because unless you see certain behavior you can’t be sure about the veracity of an accusation, especially if the accused behaves normally or acceptably most of the time. It’s hard if the person in question is someone you work with, hang out with, and maybe even generally like. It’s hard because sometimes you aren’t sure if you should believe it, and if you want to be a good skeptic you need more evidence than an accusation.
And shadowy people are really good at covering their tracks with the aforementioned facades, advocates, and mostly good behavior (especially with certain people) which is what most people will see.The distinction is not what they do, it’s about how they proceed after the deed is done. A decent person will take responsibility and try and use it as a lesson for growth and potential change.
We all make mistakes. I have certainly made many myself and I have worked to not hide them, but instead to make them part of my motivation to grow and change. I have hurt people in the past, I have been a poor partner, and I will probably make more mistakes in the future. The issue is how we move on from mistakes and misdeeds, and it is quite tempting to try and shift the narrative to shift the focus on our mistakes onto something else, or to avoid the responsibility which is ours.
Accusations can have repercussions for our standing in a community, but it is ultimately our actions which matter. Michael Shermer, might never recover (professionally and within the skeptic community) if he were to admit to any sexual assault, but it would be the right thing to do (assuming the accusations are true). But such a guilty person would recover far better if they didn’t shirk their moral responsibility from the beginning, and rather just admitted their misdeeds.
If such a person, celebrity or not, is guilty, then worrying about reputations and community standing rather than the affect upon victims is behavior which demonstrates a lack of perspective on what is important and moral in scope. The people around us who behave poorly need to be given room to atone for mistakes, but in some cases the mistakes were more like decisions. Sober, calculated, and intentional decisions are harder to forgive.
The sad truth is that maybe some people cannot be redeemed. One has to be able to recognize error in order to be redeemable.
See also rabbitdarling’s contribution
*Yes, it is based on real experiences. I will not name him [yes I will. His name is Wes Fenza], but many of you know exactly who I’m talking about.