Rose Has a Patreon!!!

Hello to my followers!

I wanted to thank you for following me along on my writing journey so far and to inform you that I’ve taken another step and decided to start a Patreon account to support my work and hopefully start to grow the amount and quality of content that I am able to produce.

If you are inspired to become a patron, I deeply appreciate it, but I also wanted to just give you a heads up that it will probably be easier to follow my work if you follow along on my Patreon from this point forward.

I also appreciate anyone who is boosting and sharing my work to increase my exposure to those who might someday become patrons.

To start with, my Patreon will probably focus a bit more on my poetry, as I have been feeling that muse more strongly lately, but I do hope to eventually start doing more extended essays about the topics you have already seen a little bit of here, such as relationships and community dynamics, and creative journaling.

I look forward to sharing with you!  ❤

Sunset Into Samhain

The world is turning now
Ever farther
Into autumn
This last passage
Into the deepest of darkness

Decay in the air
A world ready to sleep

And shedding my own waste
Now in its proper time
Things that will not serve me in this season
Dropping away
Perhaps to fertilize another day

For as the Earth turns
So do I
Finding my own rhythm
The beat of my growth

As any master artist must eventually
The use of empty spaces

For here
In the space between breaths
Is where the void touches my life
The place I came from
To whence I shall return
And to embrace it
Is to keep its power

Moving through twilight amongst trees
The membrane so thin
Senses flooding
On how many different planes?
Swept into this dance
This dirge

To grieve
Things that must be let go
And fiercely celebrate that grief

Opening to the darkness
Embracing it
To work within me
Moving inside me
Through me
As me


This is a cycle
I know it
I breathe it
And the time for fighting it
Is coming to a close

The only ghosts here now
Are shades of my former self
How many times have I died?
To become what is me
And what perishes now?
To bloom new
And transformed
As my world tilts back into abundance

That is a mystery for the other side of winter

The dead shall howl
Through barren branches
Coming for me
Old friends
Lessons I must revisit
But that needn’t haunt me daily
I’m here
Take me
I know now
What you steal
I was never meant to keep
I will bleed
But I will live
And this sacrificial tradition
Forges steel in my core

Welcome spirits!
Samhain is upon us!
Let us fly together
Into the night

The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge

“Ye shall be as gods”
A serpent
Deceiving even with the truth

For knowledge
Is power

But knowledge
Also brings responsibility

What does it mean to be god-like?

Might it mean
Ripping away illusions of paradise
To see a world that bleeds in shades of grey?
To know
The damage you’ve wrought in your ignorance
Things you can’t take back
And may not be able to repair
Living with that guilt?

To now be charged
With walking a world full of children
Hoping to raise some of them to adulthood?
And also knowing what that means
What you’ll be asking of them
Knowing it is necessary even still?
Knowing also the tantrums they will throw
And how much they will make you suffer
For challenging their dreamy naivete?
The blame they will heap on you
For confronting them with truth?

Knowledge is a bitter fruit
A taste impossible to shake
An understanding
That to drink from all the pleasures of this world
We also must shoulder its burden and it’s pain
And that we have been racking up far too much debt

Knowledge is an agony
Matched only by its ecstasy
The possibility that this tool
Is capable of helping us to heal

Both the wreckage caused by our blindness
And the torment of finally knowing our reality

Knowledge is the beginning of our healing
Excruciating though it might be
We are cast out of utopia
By nothing more
And nothing less
Than the realization that it was always only ever a lie

It is a loss
But it is not a fall
It is our first step
To waking up
To growing up
To owning up
To ourselves and everything we were
And can be

Take a bite
Choke it down
Pay the price
Feel the strength flowing through you
To fight through the despair that wants to claim you
Discovering what is there at your core
Forged in your suffering
Your brightness
Your candle against the night

It is time
We can no longer be babes
We must wake
We must walk
We must fight
We must live

Nothing less than our existence is at stake
Consume it that it might devour you
We’ll see you on the other side

Community Response to Complaints

Image credit Justin Karas ©2017

Perhaps you know a little bit about me and my history, both within and without various Columbus communities, or perhaps you don’t.  In case you don’t, the important thing to note is that I have been the target of bullying from very early in my childhood, that I was raised in an alcoholic and emotionally abusive family, and that I have had a number of romantic relationships that were abusive in some way, or otherwise toxic and incredibly harmful.  Most of those stayed in the emotional/psychological realm, but a few of them ventured into the physical.

However, I am not here to talk about the experiences with my bullies and abusers.  Those were harmful, certainly.  But the greatest harms did not come directly from the person or people targeting me.  The greatest harms came from the folks around me who didn’t know how to respond to my complaints, give me support, or hold the aggressor accountable.

I don’t think the folks who responded in harmful ways were trying to be harmful.  Conflict is uncomfortable, and our culture has done a very poor job of teaching people how to handle it, what is acceptable, and how to firmly and consistently enforce consent.  Our culture also teaches us that the only possible response to abusers is to be as punitive and vengeful as possible.  That’s why it becomes so critical in the eyes of most folks to *make absolutely sure* that it was Abuse and to make sure it was Bad Enough™ to justify taking action.  I also believe this type of response explains a lackluster response to bullying.  We tend not to view “just any” social hostility as unacceptable, only rendering it unacceptable if it gets Bad Enough™, usually at the point where physical violence begins, but sometimes not even then.

I would like to start with a radical premise.  It is never okay to try to hurt someone emotionally, socially, psychologically, or physically for any reason other than self defense or the defense or protection of another.  There are some good arguments for “punching up” when it comes to comedy directed at someone in a position of power or who is doing a lot of harm (which arguably falls under a form of defense), but I am not here to address that situation.  I am, for the most part, talking about people who are in some kind of community space together, be that school, work, or social groups and relationships they elect to be in.  For the purposes of this argument, speaking one’s truth about someone else’s behavior or patterns does not necessarily constitute an attempt to harm that person.  A person’s actions are something they publish into the world, and information shared about these actions, so long as it is true and accurate (and not an act of outing someone in a marginalized group), is not a malicious act.  If someone does not want to be known as a harmful person, they should not be causing harm, and should be open and willing to hear about harm they’ve done in order to repair.

Why do I think this premise is radical?  How often have you heard the popular “sticks and stones” saying?  How often have you or someone you know encouraged someone to “get a thicker skin” or “just ignore them”  or shrugged and said “kids will be kids” when a person complains about someone being spiteful, cruel, mean, or hostile towards them in a social setting?  But this attitude that social pain, rejection, or hurt is something “less than” physical violence isn’t supported by science.  We experience these things in very similar areas (this study focuses on rejection, but I feel comfortable arguing that outright malice or intentional cruelty is going to be worse than just simple rejection) and processes in the brain as physical pain.  Social aggression, bullying, and emotional abuse cause very real distress, pain, and trauma that are just as bad as the results of physical abuse.

One reason it is hard to talk about these kinds of interpersonal dynamics in the context of harm and abuse is that we are only just starting to learn about what these systems look like, how they manifest, and how to articulate the myriad ways that they can present themselves.  Much of it is subtle and happens in context, rather than single acts “crossing the line” into abuse.  They are by their nature difficult to see and define.  This creates a pretty enormous requirement for being able to take in complexity and understand a system rather than just a single violation.  Unfortunately, because of discomfort and aversion to conflict, it is incredibly hard to get a bystander or third party to be able to sit with that complexity if they aren’t already internally motivated to do so and don’t already know what they’re looking at.  An uncomfortable person is going to want simple information and simple solutions.  Emotional abuse situations, and more subtle and insidious forms of social aggression and harm, do not offer us this.

So how can you, as a bystander or community leader, do better at hearing any sort of complaint from someone that another person has harmed them, or seeing and responding to harm when you directly observe it?  This information is important for any bystander, but it is absolutely critical for anyone who is in a position of leadership and therefore more likely to receive these types of complaints and be asked to do something about it.


Listen to the person doing the reporting

When I say that you need to listen to the person reporting, I mean a few things.  First, take the time to actually actively listen to this person.  They are opening up and being vulnerable to you about something that hurt them.  Honor and respect the trust they are placing in you by focusing on their experience without dumping your reaction onto them.  Your role is one of holding space and giving support.  You may very well need some space and support yourself after receiving such a report, but you need to seek that elsewhere, and not from the person reporting to you.

Second, I mean that your first and most important job at the beginning is just to listen.  You do not need to form a response, plan how you or the community are going to react, or take any immediate action.  Breathe, and listen.

These first two things are really important, because I have observed something really troubling when I report harm to other folks.  Instead of hearing what I am asking for (usually for them to listen to me, help me figure out a way to stay safe, and to start observing the person closely to see for themselves) they usually *hear* that I am asking them to disown this person I’m reporting about and that they must immediately remove that person from the community.  They often react as if that is what I am asking for, even if I explicitly told them I was not looking for that.  This harms a reporter in a number of ways.  It neglects the needs they actually expressed, to start.  It also puts them at risk of being painted as bitter, vengeful, “just trying to bring someone down,” etc. even when that is not their goal.  Do not put words in the reporter’s mouth and do not ascribe motivations to them that you do not have evidence for.  Listen, first and foremost, but also assume that they are operating in good faith and with pure intentions (probably a bit of advice you were thinking about giving them in regards to the person they complained about, no?).  If you find out later or see direct evidence of malicious intent from the reporter, you can deal with it then.  It is bad practice to start from a baseline of assuming ill motives, and this very common reaction discourages people from speaking up about harm.


Check your emotional responses

Put a pause on that.  Seriously.  If someone comes to you with a complaint about another person, before doing *anything* else, you need to take a step back, take a breath, and check in with yourself about where your emotional and mental reactions are headed in response to this complaint.  Is your body responding with adrenaline?  Are you feeling anger/annoyance or an impulse to challenge the truth of what the complainant is saying?  Do you feel an urge to defend the person they’re complaining about?  Stop.  Give your mind and body a chance to process their reactions, and then remember this is not about you.  Take the time you need, then re-center the person reporting to you.


Don’t necessarily rely on your first intuition to determine what’s happening, especially if you don’t have experience with bullying or abuse

Often, toxic folk are very good at remaining unnoticed in their aggression.  They might employ the use of dog whistles to dig at their target or trigger them without being obvious or seeming all that awful to the general public.  They may also be generally charming, charismatic, and magnetic people that seem to be a positive presence in a community at first glance.  The first thing you will often notice or that will bring your attention to the fact that something is wrong is likely to be the target reacting to harm or trying to report it to you.  In this situation, it’s easy to emotionally feel like the source of the problem is the thing that brings the situation to your attention (this is what the image above depicts).  In any situation of conflict like this, remember the first two pieces of advice, to listen to the person reporting and to check your emotional response.  The person that brought the problem to your awareness should not be automatically seen as the problem.  Dig deeper.


You can listen to and believe a reporter without feeling compelled to take action

Really, you can.  I strongly believe that someone in any sort of leadership position is responsible for taking action in a situation like this, but at the end of the day, you can set any boundaries you want about what you will and won’t do to protect your community from harm.  Hopefully you’re transparent to the folks who look up to you about this so they know what to expect.

Why would I take that stance?  If someone just doesn’t want to take action, but feels that they’re obligated to if something is Bad Enough to be abuse, then they are going to be extremely motivated to find ways to minimize the harm being reported to them, or dismiss the concerns of the reporter.  If you aren’t going to take action, that’s bad enough.  However, you can minimize your own harm here by owning that choice and not trying to silence or discredit the person doing the reporting in order to absolve yourself of responsibility.  You can still listen.  You can still believe the person.  You should definitely do *at least* that.  You should also own to them that you don’t feel capable of taking action on their behalf so that they can try to report to someone else who might.  You can file this report away in case you get any more, and become a keener observer of the folks involved as well.

If you are feeling an urge to interrogate the reporter, check in with yourself about why you are doing this.  Do you really *need* more evidence right this very minute?  Or is it possible that you are uncomfortable with the situation and are trying to find a way to avoid having to deal with it?  Your cognitive dissonance over whether to act or not belongs to you, not the person doing the reporting.  What happens if you mentally absolve yourself of any requirement to act?  Does it become easier to listen and believe the reporter?  Then absolve yourself in that moment, listen to the reporter, and come back to it later to deal with it on your own time if you really think maybe you have some responsibility here after all.

For those who will still take action, not feeling *immediately compelled* to do so has its benefits.  It gives you time to listen instead of reacting.  It gives you time to let your initial reactions and emotions resolve themselves before making an informed decision with a calmer mind and body.  It gives you time to sift through your own memories and observations with the new information you’ve been given.  It protects you, if you completely believe the reporter, from taking any rash action that may do more harm than good to everyone involved.  Remember, your first job is to listen.  Listening is hindered if you are letting other concerns come to the forefront when you should be focused only on listening.


Decide to witness and acknowledge the harm and treat it as a problem

Really take some time and sit with the idea that any kind of cruelty, malice, or emotional/psychological/verbal/social aggression is not okay.  Whether you want to call it abuse, bullying, aggression, or simply “being an asshole,” decide that this sort of behavior is not acceptable within your community, your immediate social network, and with you as an individual.

If this is a difficult decision for you to make, think about why.  Do you have concerns about free speech?  That technically only refers to the government and its ability to punish citizens.  It doesn’t refer to private community spaces.  It might be a good general philosophy or idea for folks who manage spaces to keep in mind, but even the government places limits on free speech where harm is being created.  If someone is causing harm, it needs to be addressed.  No one is obligated to let someone remain in a private community space if they are causing harm with their words and actions, no matter how much they might protest about “free speech.”

Do you fear how the aggressor will respond if they’re confronted?  Truly.  Take a moment and imagine how they will react.  If you experience fear or anxiety, that may be your gut telling you something important about whether to believe the person reporting them.

It is probably not important to definitively figure out if this situation is Abuse right out of the gate.  If harm is occurring, then the harm should be addressed.  If it’s hard to figure out if it’s “for real” abuse or not, then the aggressor is already playing too close to the line for comfort, and this needs to be addressed.  We should be miles away from that line, not hugging it so closely that nobody can determine if it is over the line or not.  Commit yourself to doing as much as you can to eradicate *any* harm, and hopefully there will be far fewer situations where you’re faced with chronic or severe bullying and abuse in your community.


Fight the impulse to villainize and resort to all-or-nothing thinking.

Stop playing the “is it bad enough?” game and address the harms occurring at an appropriate level.  Something doesn’t need to be abuse to be harmful.  Harms should be addressed with a minimum of debating whether they’re “bad enough” to warrant attention.

This is where a lot of communities, in my observation, shoot themselves in the foot.  The missing stair phenomenon speaks to this.  Complaints start happening, but folks who have the power to do something about it twiddle their thumbs, wait to see if there is enough evidence, and generally don’t do anything as common knowledge piles up that a given person is a problem.  By the time folks in power decide to do something about it, way more people have been harmed, and often in more egregious ways.  The harmful person has realized that they won’t be challenged in a substantial way, and keeps harming or even escalates in the meantime.

A lot of community leaders want to make it very clear that they’re not the legal system, and they don’t want to play judge, jury, and executioner.  At the same time, you’re not the legal system, and you are not bound by those standards of evidence, nor are you debating imprisoning someone for life, giving them a criminal record, or sentencing them to death.  You are figuring out the best way to handle a harmful situation in a community.  Your community.  If you are taking a position of leadership, you are responsible for these kinds of things.  Ignoring them is a betrayal of the trust people place in you.

I would hope that most people who are developing community spaces want to develop a space where trust is upheld, where folks can flourish, and where everyone can grow, learn, and exist together in the best possible way.  It’s not good enough to just “not have rape” and “not have abuse.”  Optimize.  Address small harms early and save yourself and your community way more trouble, stress, and pain down the line.

By stopping the small things, you show any bad actors that it won’t be tolerated before they keep pushing further to see what else they can get away with.  For those who are genuinely well-intentioned and simply making mistakes, this offers lower-stakes opportunities to correct and repair.  For those who are doing harm on purpose, this gives them a sign that they will be challenged and they will likely self-select out to someplace that makes it easier for them.  Nobody is helped by ignoring harms and letting them pass.  Not the targets, not the aggressors, and not the community.

And again, you’re not the legal system.  If you can’t corroborate a story, you can at least address the person in such a way as to indicate that you’re hearing some concerning things, that they aren’t acceptable if they are happening, that you and other community members are on alert to keep an eye out for that sort of thing, and that you will be listening closely for further reports.

What does all this have to do with villainization? Well, if we think of abuse or harm as something only Bad People do, then we’re motivated to avoid seeing it in people we like, people we’re friends with, or folks who “don’t seem all that bad.”  Honestly, it really sucks to label anyone as an abuser, and we understand the gravity of that, so our minds flinch away from these sorts of ideas when we’re confronted with them.  But that’s where we err.  This cognitive dissonance creates a space where we can’t or won’t see that someone is causing harm unless we’re ready to label them The Scum of the Earth, and that doesn’t help most situations.  Most of us have done toxic or shitty things.  Most of us are capable of doing better.  Humans exist in greyspace, not in black and white.  We need to be able to see and engage with those grey areas if we want to start improving as a whole.  We need to work together, in community, to help everyone improve.

I believe that a strong community should be able to set prompt, firm, and consistent boundaries with problematic actors.  Accountability is important and helps everyone.  Transparency, if possible, does the same.  If we can get comfortable with calling out and holding space for things that aren’t devastating and Obviously Abuse™, then we can probably go a long way toward preventing deeper harms and more obvious damage.  You can always call out harmful behaviors and address them without demonizing the person engaging in them, and you should endeavor to do so early and often.


Contextualize any bad behaviors you may see or hear about in the reporter or the person who is reacting

Being the target of bullying or abuse is extremely difficult, and a person who is such a target may not always be able to react in a “perfect” way.  They may lash out at their aggressor with their words or with a physical attack.  They may use substances.  They may not report right away.  They may ask for harsh punitive treatment of their aggressor.  They may appear to be very unbalanced or irrational.

The fact that they are a target does not excuse any bad behavior.  Everybody needs to be accountable for the way they comport themselves towards others.  However, be very careful about only addressing the reactive behavior.  As I said above, their reaction might be the first thing you see or seem more severe at first glance.  This doesn’t mean they’re the only one acting badly or even that they are doing the most harm.

As a general rule, if you are going to hold someone accountable for a reactive behavior, then you must be absolutely sure to also firmly address the behavior that caused the target to react to begin with.  If you are going to put more weight on either actor, make it the person who started it instead of the person who reacted, even if their actions didn’t seem as severe.  Learn more about how gaslighting and dog whistles function.  There is probably more going on under the surface than meets the eye.  It is also a good general rule to ask someone why they acted the way they did (instead of asking the person they’re reacting to) and genuinely listen to their response.  In cases where subtle aggression has been going on for a long time, the target may have tried in the past to articulate it to someone who didn’t listen, understand, or believe them about how bad it was, and may be afraid to try again.  If someone seems to be lashing out in an uncharacteristic way, this is a good time to at least open your eyes to the potential that something deeper is going on and indicate that you are willing to listen.

A target reacting in a non-optimal way is not a justification or dismissing their complaints or erasing their concerns, it does not necessarily indicate “mutual abuse,” and it does not mean both sides are “equally in the wrong.”  It also doesn’t mean the target is bringing the abuse on themselves or that they deserve it.  If you find yourself contending with a situation like this as a leader, recommend that the parties involved seek out a mental health professional that specializes in abuse and trauma.  This is not the time for a relationship therapist.  If abuse is present or suspected, relationship therapy is not indicated.  Relationship therapy is only there for when both parties are acting in good faith.  A clever abuser combined with a naive relationship therapist can create further harm to the target.  *DO NOT* recommend relationship therapy if you suspect any violence or abuse even a little bit, or if anyone has used the word abuse at all.  Aside from recommending the parties involved seek out an abuse-experienced professional, consider consulting one yourself and asking them how best to proceed.


Create an atmosphere that makes it safe to report harm

Another issue that I have run into in reporting harm to others is that sometimes they will try to address the issue in an appropriate way, but may fall short on some of the things I’ve mentioned above.  People are human, and conflict is something scary that we don’t have a lot of good templates for how to deal with right now.  However, the poor handling of the claims, even if it was not on purpose, made the cost of going to those people again too great, and even when the folks harassing me continued, I didn’t feel empowered to report them again.  Making the choice to report someone’s bad behavior toward you takes a lot of courage and energy to begin with.  If you teach a reporter that they are going to be met with doubt, criticism, hostility, unsolicited advice, irritation, or dismissiveness, they are not going to feel safe coming to you to report if the aggressor does something new or continues their aggression.  This is why it is important to learn how to handle situations like this and, more importantly, to learn how to repair your own harms when you mess up.

You’re going to mess up.  It’s a learning process for all of us.  It is your responsibility to model the behavior that you’d like to see, which includes knowing how to acknowledge you’ve hurt somebody and doing the appropriate apology and repair when you do.  You should also make it a habit to thank the person that is reporting to you for their trust and vulnerability, make it clear you want them to inform you if there are any further developments, and openly solicit their feedback on how they think you handled their report.  If they request that you protect their privacy, do that to the best of your ability.  Remember again, you are not the legal system.  You don’t need to confront the aggressor with all of the evidence against them so they can answer for and defend themselves against each and every one.  You also aren’t sending them to prison.  It can do a LOT of good just to let them know you’re aware of reports against them and you are now keeping an eye out for this behavior and listening more carefully to any other reports you hear.  The reporter may say they don’t need privacy, but if you are not prepared to consistently and promptly protect them from any retaliation you see or hear about, you still don’t need to tell their name or identifying information to the aggressor.

Similarly, if a reporter comes to you again with a new report about the same person, treat it with the same respect and sincerity that you would a first report.  Go through all the previous advice written here again.  All of the same automatic internal reactions can still happen, as well as a tendency to treat the reporter as if they are being annoying or vindictive for a repeat report.  Don’t do this.  A true bully or abuser will almost certainly retaliate, probably knowing that the cost of reporting a second time is even higher, and especially if the first community response was lukewarm or lackluster.  Your hands are not washed of a situation just from taking action one time, you will most likely need to persist and follow up.  Remember again to assume the best intent of the person doing the reporting, unless or until you find evidence otherwise.

One subtle way that leaders and community members silence folks who have been harmed is by something I call “drama shaming.”  This is the practice that many folks have of publicly declaring spaces “drama free,” reacting to any reports of harm in a hostile way that communicates that conflict should always be kept private instead of becoming a “spectacle,” or just ignoring any public conflict or unusual tension that occurs and pretending it didn’t happen.  As I said above, our society doesn’t really set people up to know how to appropriately handle conflict.  Even if it did, bullying and abuse are not run-of-the-mill conflict and shouldn’t be treated as such.  By insisting that conflict stay private, a community takes itself away as a resource to individuals, couples, and groups to help witness and sift through that conflict.  This is inappropriate.  First, because humans are social creatures and are going to talk about it privately or semi-privately anyway if they are discouraged from doing so publicly.  Second, because silence and secrecy create a welcoming environment for more harmful types of bullying and abuse to thrive.  The only thing that silence does to benefit anyone is to make bystanders and aggressors more comfortable.  It does not help resolve even normal conflict, and it lets bullying and abuse flourish.  If someone is challenging someone else publicly, consider why that might be the case before you admonish someone for “airing their dirty laundry” in public.

In places where there is a culture of silence and privacy around conflict, there is sometimes also a heavy stigma against “gossip” and “the rumor mill.”  Instead of decrying gossip, if you notice a lot of it happening in your community, take some time to consider if there is a safe space for folks who have experienced harm to publicly address it.  Probably the easiest way to nip gossip in the bud is to air it out.  However, if there is stigma against that sort of conflict transparency, then gossip may be the only method harmed folks have available of telling their stories and helping to protect others against a harmful actor.  Instead of viewing gossip as a failure of the people doing the gossiping, view it as a deeper problem in your community that gossip is necessary in order for harmed folks to be heard.  If you want to eradicate gossip, you will need to challenge the public conflict stigma and facilitate bringing issues out into the open.

Last, but not least, in creating a safe space to report is a commitment to keeping reporters informed as much as possible and keeping warm and open communication lines with them.  Make sure to check in on them and see how they’re doing, even if there haven’t been any recent developments.  See if they need more support in any way.  Inform them of new developments to the best of your ability (this is unless they ask not to be informed for any reason to preserve their mental health).  If bullying or abuse are occurring, isolation can exacerbate the trauma a person is experiencing.  If the situation at hand is making you uncomfortable, it is easy to unintentionally distance yourself from the person who reported to you to relieve that discomfort.  Instead, lean into that discomfort and maintain or even increase the connection to this person to show them they are being taken seriously and won’t be discarded if they bring difficult issues to light.  If you can’t, find someone who can.  Don’t leave a reporter alone or leave them hanging without a resolution of some kind.  If they say they need more from you or the community, listen.


Actually hold the aggressors accountable and beware of DARVO

What does accountability look like?  There isn’t a simple and easy answer to that question.  Some good guidelines include making sure that the process includes the target and their needs to make sure they are being heard and making sure to continue consistently addressing any new harms by the aggressor.

Aside from that, there are many things folks might want or need to do transformation or repair work:

  • Public or private apologies
  • Education of the aggressor to see where their harmful behavior originates and work to unlearn those things
  • Asking the aggressor to step back or step away from certain places or platforms to give the target a chance to heal
  • Community education about how to notice toxic patterns in order to spot and address them early
  • Setting and enforcing healthy boundaries on an individual or group level.
  • Increasing transparency in communications between community members and surrounding any processes that are taking place.

That list isn’t exhaustive, but it is a good place to start.  Be careful to avoid protecting an aggressor’s reputation at the expense of the safety and health of their targets and the community.  If someone is causing harm, it is appropriate for their reputation to reflect that for some time while they do work to improve (or indefinitely if they don’t).  As a matter of fact, being open about where a person is vulnerable to harming others is a way to help keep themselves accountable moving forward and as they interact or engage with new people.  It is not a punishment for the truth of their behavior to be made clear to anyone who might be vulnerable to them.  I would go so far as to say they will only perceive it as a punishment if they are seeking to enable a repeat of their toxic cycles via sweeping them under the rug as quickly as they are able.

In addition to reputation, positions of influence, power, and leadership are privileges, not rights.  People in such positions should be held to *higher* standards of accountability than the average community member, precisely because of the larger impact they have on the people around them.  It’s easy to worry about “throwing out the baby with the bath water” if this person has contributed in meaningful ways to a community, but if they were able to contribute before, and if the community matters to them, they can continue to contribute through modeling accountability.  They should be expected to do so if they cause harm.

Just like I said above, in checking your own response to put words into the reporter’s mouth, do not let the aggressor ascribe motivations to the reporter that you do not have evidence for.  Exercise caution with anyone who has been accused of harm claiming that someone is lying, engaging in a smear campaign, trying to destroy their reputation, or carry out a vendetta against them.  This is especially true if the harmed party has not actually asked for any punishment and is just trying to be heard or name the behavior.  Exercise caution in allowing the accused person to spin the narrative in a way that makes them look like the victim.  This is what is known as DARVO, and it is an extremely common reaction among those who are accused of harm.  It is often successful in getting bystanders or folks in leadership to throw up their hands because “they don’t know what to believe,” or “now it’s just a game of he-said, she-said.”  Please resist the urge to do this and keep digging in to see if there is clear evidence of what is going on.  Acting as if both parties are equally at fault favors the person doing the harm.

Especially because call-outs and accountability are becoming more common, a savvy abuser may even start throwing out their own public or private accusations of abuse before the target or reporter has a chance to.  One strategy that you can employ is to start asking each party what exactly happened.  So far in my experience, someone who is a target can usually say very explicitly what was said or done in context while owning their own contribution to the situation, while an aggressor will avoid doing this, cherry pick any actual events or reactions of their target out of context, or keep issuing broad judgments about the target’s motivations instead of showing a desire to address and repair specific things.

Familiarize yourself with tactics such as concern trolling and sea lioning.  These things refer to common phenomena on social media that misdirect debates and are generally toxic, but these are also often used by harmful actors or bystanders that support them to avoid accountability.  If someone is reporting abuse, manipulation, gaslighting, etc. to you, it is a very good idea to prepare for and build defenses around having those same tactics used to distract you or the community at large from focusing on the real source of the problem.  If they are used, you’ll be ready, and if they aren’t used, then that will be a good information point when considering how willing someone will be to engage in accountability.  If the process is public, it is wise to educate the audience about these tactics as much as you can to avoid having them drawn in as well.

Witnessing harmful behaviors or holding someone accountable does not mean you can’t like or be friends with them.  If they are causing a lot of harm, they will *need* strong and dedicated friends around them to keep nudging them back to a healthy place and to be aware of where they’re vulnerable to causing harm.  I don’t advocate outright abandonment, discarding, or ostracization of an aggressor unless the situation is truly heinous and/or all other reasonable options have been exhausted.  The safety and security of the community and the targets should come first, but if you make a consistent commitment to addressing harm before it grows into something unmanageable, the needs of the targets and community needn’t be mutually exclusive to the ability to hold space for an offender.  This is not to say an aggressor won’t self-select out if they don’t want to be held accountable or do the work.  This is different from banishing them yourselves.


This is a lot of information to digest.  As I said at the beginning, abuse, bullying, and social aggression in general often aren’t clear situations that offer black and white solutions.  They thrive and exist precisely because their reality is so murky, and they take advantage of social vulnerabilities and power dynamics to remain invisible while doing harm.  Someone who wants to get to the bottom of a situation is going to have to do *hard work* to sort through these issues.  It makes sense that not all folks in leadership will have the necessary experience or resources to handle these situations, even as they are often on the front line of becoming aware of them and being asked to act.  I don’t think this is an excuse to abdicate all responsibility. Rather I think it exemplifies the importance of doing what you can and minimizing your own contribution to harm if you don’t feel equipped to tackle the problems.

If you do engage with these issues, or try to at some point in the future, know that the work will be painful, confusing, and frightening at times, but that it is incredibly valuable work that can lay a healthier foundation for a better future.  If financial resources allow, consider consulting or hiring a professional that has experience in processes of transformative justice to assist you and your community.  You don’t have to re-invent the wheel.  If you have made it all the way to the end of this article, it is probably because you care about your communities and you want to make sure that they are safe and healthy spaces for folks to exist in.  Be kind with yourself, and give yourself room to make mistakes and do your own accountability work to show others how it is done.  This is not an easy subject, but it is one very powerful way we can start to make real change in the world around us.

Guest Post: On Consent in Romantic Relationships

Pretty much the best post on consent I’ve ever read. Everyone should read it.

Brighter Than Sunflowers

This is a guest post by my friend Shelly. It was originally published in October 2013 at the More Than Two book blog. It is re-posted here with her permission.

Consent is a radical idea

I would like for this to be the shortest discussion ever. I would like to say that we each have an inalienable right to have domain over our bodies, minds, and choices and end the conversation there. I mean, good people don’t violate consent, and I’m a good person, right?

Well, it’s not really so simple. If there’s one common thread through human history, it’s that we are, collectively, really comfortable violating consent. As children, we are often violated physically, emotionally, legally. As much as we are told that we always have choice, we often find that the choice is between homelessness and an abusive working environment or an abusive living situation. As…

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It cried

Frantically grasping at insults
Impervious to those trying to gently educate
Compassionately call out
Explain themselves with warmth and in good faith

It bleated

In terror at the anger
The heat
The passion
Finally erupting in the face of its assaults

It begged

Running in cowardice
From the dream it thought would always reign supreme
Unable to face responsibility
Childish and desperate

Screamed the cold
White thing
Falling from its place in the sky

Eyes shut and ears plugged to
The changing climate here
To melt and wash it away

Maintaining that gravity is just a theory
As it rushes to embrace the ground
Because when it hears the winds of change
It’s so much easier to believe they’re not coming for it


Just calling someone else a name makes it true
Means it’s not one of the weaklings going extinct
Because it refuses to evolve

The Word Of God

For those of you who use your religion as a weapon, to deny reality, and to deny the rights and humanity of your fellow human beings, I am talking to you.

Who made you the sole authority on what God wants?

I mean it.  Ask yourself this.  I hear so many refrains about scientists “playing God” or insults thrown at atheists and nonbelievers about how “arrogant” they are to think they can decide for themselves how to be just and moral people without the help of God.

And yet you sit here telling me that YOU know what God wants, that YOU have some inerrant understanding of the creator of the cosmos based on a book written by other humans that claimed to be speaking for God.  YOU are the one who decided to trust and believe the people that told you this was true, from thousands of years ago and countless translations and changes and politics over which scriptures were “acceptable” to the politicians at the time.  YOUR judgment and YOUR perception of which other fallible humans to trust is the one and only true authority on the word of God.

How arrogant.

As generations of scientists have worked tirelessly to uncover the truths in this wonderful universe that YOU claim is not only a gift to us by God, but that we have been made the stewards of, you persecute them and you abuse them and you claim that they tell lies for uncovering all the beautiful miracles and unfolding mysteries that exist in this world that God gave us.

You wonder why all the prophets have disappeared?

They haven’t.  You’re not listening.  You brush off the horrors in our world by saying “God works in mysterious ways” and it never once occurs to you that those mysterious ways might include giving us the scientists that uncover God’s meaning, the very people that dedicate their lives to getting a better understanding of this gift that God gave us, to learning the language of the universe.  These people that show the most respect to our gift are the ones denigrated by you as pretentious or dangerous or sacrilegious because the miracles they are uncovering are too big for your feeble mind to understand.  These people might help to solve and mitigate the disasters and tragedies that exist for us as humans, and it never once occurs to you that these are the answers to your prayers.

And you pretend like you’d be ready for the word of God if you heard it.

God speaks to us every day.  If you aren’t hearing it, you have shut your ears as you have been deafened by false prophets telling you that the reason God is gone is because of followers of other religions or people having sex or the advancement of science.

God never left.  YOU did.

YOU turned away from the whole of existence.  YOU shut your eyes and picked and chose which parts of God’s creation were worthy of your worship and love.  YOU betrayed the request to “love thy neighbor” while pretending all the while that it was okay to hate your neighbor because they scared you, because they made you uncomfortable, because they were different and weird, because, maybe, they showed you something in yourself you didn’t want to see.

You hypocrite.

You don’t get to speak to me about God’s word anymore, as you build boats and museums dedicated to outdated understandings of our world, as you ignore the living God that still speaks to us and through us, the children of God that are your brothers and sisters that you are damning to a living hell because heaven forbid you actually do the hard work to find the beauty and the love in all of God’s creation.

You don’t get to speak to me about God’s word as you create the hell you are terrified of, throwing your fellow human beings under the bus in a scramble to make sure that, in the limited space of heaven your limited mind perceives, YOU are sure to get a seat.

You don’t get to pretend you are holier than everyone else as you keep funneling money into false prophets in mansions that tell you that if you just give a little more of your cash to them, it will save your soul, that if you keep punishing and controlling all of the “different” people, that you will earn your spot in heaven.

You are a wretched creature.  You are a coward.

You don’t get to speak for God.

You never get to speak for God when you persecute God’s children.  You don’t get to speak for God because you are only human.  YOU are not God, and YOU can be wrong.  And you are.

Maybe one of those “mysterious ways” that God works in is in all those atheists and nonbelievers, the people who have walked away from your perversion of what God is and what God means, YOU who worships the false idols of a cross, a list of commandments, and a Bible, graven images that tell you in their very words that this practice is wrong and you still do it anyhow.

How ironic would it be if the very reason atheists exist is because they cannot condone the hypocrisy that permeates the words and existence of all those claiming to speak for God?  How ironic if they and all our scientists are actually the one’s following true to God’s word, being stewards of the Earth as we were asked to do, listening intently for when God speaks through nature, through our universe, through the senses and the intellect that we possess, through the gifts that God gave to us?

The only real question is, are you too afraid to see that this is the truth?  Are you going to keep denying the language through which your God is speaking, paying lip service to worship while all the time pushing away and abusing every manifestation of God that comes your way in need of compassion, and kindness, and care?  Are you going to finally realize that you can be forgiven for this if you can just stop digging in your heels and start loving your neighbor the way you’ve been told?  Are you going to become a messenger of God instead of someone who scares every decent person as far away from the idea of God as they can get?

I believe you can.

You just have to admit your sin, the sin of worshipping false idols and holding your own ego above your service to the gift of our universe.  You have to ask for forgiveness.  And you have to start living a life dedicated to God, instead of to your own fears and prejudices.

So You Hate Laziness and Entitlement?

It’s frustrating to listen to you go on about everything you know is wrong with society.  You bleat and bleat about how nobody deserves handouts and sneer at people that are struggling because they must not be trying hard enough.  If they just work harder, if they just become better people, they wouldn’t need to ‘steal’ it from the real producers.  

I spent so long giving you the gift of empathy.  

I gave that compassion.  I worked so hard to see it your way, to understand where you were coming from, to show you that you didn’t have to be afraid.

After all, you had worked so hard for me.  That’s what you kept telling me.

An interesting trick, that.

Tell someone for long enough what a burden they are, and they’ll start to believe you.  

It certainly makes for hard workers.  If my existence cost you this much, I really should try to pay you back for that time.  Nothing in my mental and emotional reserves is as valuable as the slightest reduction in the weight of that guilt.  To prove that I can earn my right to exist.  To bring more joy than pain into the lives of those around me.  I’ll pare myself down until there’s nothing left if I can just relieve an ounce of the debt.  

Something in me has always known this wasn’t fair.  But I shut her up.  I can’t afford to be lazy.  I can’t be one of those people that whines and complains and just wants everything handed to them.  I’m not entitled to anything, and I need to keep working if I want to have anything.

Work so hard I become numb.  Work myself to the bone to keep at bay the crushing pressure of knowing that you wish you had never become a father.  

Can you admit that out loud to yourself yet?  

Did you hear yourself all the times you reminded me of everything you’ve sacrificed for me?  The way you speak with regret about your youth, and act as if it were stolen from you?  Have you listened to the way you speak about Mom, as a wet blanket, as the person ruining all of your fun?  

And then I found out I was unplanned.  See, that’s not necessarily a problem.  Mom doesn’t see it that way, and that’s why she was comfortable telling me.  She doesn’t regret becoming a parent.  

You, on the other hand?  Hearing that made all of your behavior click into place.  My existence is an easy scapegoat for all of your regret and pain, all of your what-ifs and if-onlys.  

Do you know how obvious you are in your rabid and vehement anti-choice stance?  Have you heard of a reaction formation?  The anger you experience when you hear about abortion is awfully suspicious.  The overweening declarations of how proud you are of me and how much you love me feel the same.  Your words say one thing.  Your actions have always said another.

No wonder I’ve been so susceptible to gaslighting my entire life.  My father is so invested in lying to himself that he has to drag his entire family through the lies too.  You’re so afraid to deal with your own emotions and shame that you destroy your own health, and punish yourself and everyone around you in your efforts to get even a little bit of relief.  

Here’s your permission.  You’re allowed to regret becoming a father.  You’re allowed to be grateful that I exist while still wishing you had taken a different path, one that didn’t create me.  You’re allowed to choose something different for your life.  You don’t have to stay with Mom for Mom, or for me and my brother, or for the dogs, or for the house, or for anybody else’s family.  You are not obligated to be a provider.  

We live in a culture immersed in duty.  I’m releasing you from that.  It doesn’t matter that I’m your daughter.  You’re allowed to dislike, or even hate, the person that I’ve become.  You’re allowed to be disappointed and to feel even more intense regret for becoming a parent.  

But what you’re not allowed to do, anymore, is to abuse me in the service of your feelings.  You do not get to control me or what I do with my life.  You do not get to make jokes at my expense or at the expense of other people I care about while I sit by silently and weather your barrage of pressure to “lighten up” or “get a sense of humor.”  You do not get access to my time or my energy if I don’t want to give it.

Why do you act so entitled?  

Maybe this is that reaction formation thing again.  You yell so much about people who just want handouts, but you seem to be very comfortable taking whatever you want from the people around you with no thought to how hard they have to work to give it to you, or what it costs them to keep letting you take it.  It doesn’t occur to you to amuse yourself, to comfort yourself, to validate yourself in ways that don’t come at the expense of others.  You’re entitled to get that from your wife and children.  It doesn’t cross your mind that what you are doing is theft because you feel like you deserve it.

Why are you entitled?  I get it.  It hurts.  It’s scary.  It is immensely difficult to reach into the dark corners of your own soul, and heal your own wounds, and process the abuse, neglect, and abandonment that you’ve been subjected to.  

But guess what, that is your job.  You are the only one who can do the work to ease your pain.  You are the only one who can seek healing for yourself.  And you haven’t been doing this work.  You have been exploiting and manipulating everyone around you to try to make you feel better because heaven forbid you do some real, honest, hard work on yourself.  

One might call that laziness.  

You can run from your discomfort for as long as people keep letting you.  I’m not letting you use me for that anymore.  I’m not going to stay around and watch as you pick up addiction after addiction in this insane race to the bottom because you don’t want to look at the ugly truth of yourself.

You leave the people you claim to love to try to clean up the messes you create, and to tolerate the abuse that you can’t be bothered to stop visiting on them because “it’s just how you were raised.”  I refuse to participate in this system anymore.  

I think the biggest thorn I put in your side is that your first born is a person who can spot a hypocrite.  I’ve caught myself at it too, and when I do I try to change it.  I can almost guarantee you there are things I’m still being hypocritical about.  It’s what we do.  We’re human.  

But that doesn’t excuse us from trying.  Sometimes we don’t know any better.  But when we LEARN better, we need to DO better.  I have no sympathy for you who keep refusing to learn better, who keep denying the reality right in front of you and blaming a whole mess of ambiguous ‘other’ figures (the government, liberals, women, gays, blacks, poor people, etc., ad nauseum) for the pain and fear and torment you feel inside.  You who refuse to take any responsibility for yourself or your actions.  

This doesn’t mean I don’t understand why you’re doing it.  Just like I’m sure you understand why a child would eat candy all day if they were allowed.  It’s easy, it feels better in the moment.  

But here we reveal the biggest betrayal that you have visited upon me in calling yourself a parent.  Parents are the ones who are actually supposed to know better.  They’re the ones that are supposed to give us a good example for how to live, and grow, and be better humans.  I learned how to do all that, not because of you, but in spite of you.  I had to teach myself how to set boundaries, how to defend myself against abusers, how to love myself and believe in myself, and how to reject toxic societal expectations for me.  In many cases, I had to be an adult because you refused to.  I treated you with kindness and compassion and understanding while you refused to give me any of the same in return.  I didn’t use unethical argument techniques against you when you were too young to fight back.  I never had the luxury of ‘because I said so.’  I let your own unethical arguments happen without calling them out.  I stifled all the anger I ever felt so that you wouldn’t be uncomfortable, so that you wouldn’t punish me any further for daring to question your authority.  I protected your feelings.  

Just like a parent must sometimes set boundaries with a child to teach them right from wrong, I have had to do with you.  Instead of having you as a healthy parent for me, I had to learn to be an adult before I was ever really able to be a child, because you never created space for me to question, to explore, or to challenge you.  Other things, maybe, but never you.  I had to carve and extract all that for myself out of the forbidding bedrock that is your pain, authority, and denial.  

And you wonder why I’m not too keen on becoming a parent yet?  It’s not because I don’t think I can do a good job.  It’s because I need some fucking fellow adults around me, who I don’t have to mother through their bullshit.  And it’s because I’m still learning to stop mothering other people through their bullshit and let them do it themselves, which is what I’ve finally done with you.  

So once again, I challenge you to clean up the shit in your own backyard before you start casting stones at others.  I dare you to stop accusing everyone else of being lazy and entitled, and stop being a lazy and entitled asshole that drains the life out of everyone around him.  

You want a cookie for providing materially for us?  Okay, good job.  We didn’t starve or go without shelter or clothing.  You have done slightly less than the bare minimum required to be an acceptable parent.    

That right there, being a ‘good provider,’ will never been an excuse to be emotionally abusive.  It will never absolve you for the cruelty you have visited on your family and which you still continue to visit upon us.  Start taking responsibility for yourself and deal with it.

Do I think you’ll read this?  I don’t know.  I’m not sure if extended family will link you to it or if you will care to read it if they do.  Will you actually try to understand it if you do read it?  I don’t know.  I doubt it.  If any of our interactions thus far have been any indication, I can be bleedingly honest and clear with you, and you are perfectly capable of pretending like it didn’t happen because it’s too uncomfortable for you to deal with.  So I’m sure that anything like this will just get dismissed as ‘acting out’ or some kind of ‘phase.’  

More gaslighting.  

Par for the course.

It couldn’t possibly be that I have something valuable to say.  It couldn’t possibly be that you’re wrong.

Here’s the thing though.  I don’t like seeing you miserable.  As angry as you make me and as much as it hurts me to be anywhere near you like this, as much abuse as you’ve subjected me to throughout my lifetime, I still don’t feel any need to punish you.  

I’m not doing this to punish you.  I’m doing this for my own survival.

You’re projecting your own tendency toward punishment onto me. 

I’m keeping you out of my life because it’s what I need, because I have no more to give you, because I need to start healing the wounds that you insist on ripping open over and over again, no matter how many times I beg you to stop and just treat me like an equal.  I am not your punching bag, and that’s all you seem to be able to use me for.

I’d love to see you go to therapy, and start growing and changing and living again.  You deserve that.  You deserve happiness.  You deserve to take charge of your life and your dreams and what remains of the time you have left on this planet to actually. be. happy.

What, in the name of everything that you consider holy, is stopping you?  Is your fear of pain really more important than becoming free from the weight of avoiding it?  

Maybe now you see why it’s so hard for so many other humans to escape from the holes they’ve dug for themselves.  You condemn them, but you are them.  You are one of those lazy and entitled people that doesn’t want to do any work and expects everyone else to carry you.  There is plenty of value in our society that has nothing to do with money.  Why don’t you start earning the respect you demand?  Why don’t you start actually working for the attention and energy you want from other people, instead of manipulating and exploiting them to get it?  

Something something glass houses and stones.  Something something pots and kettles.  Go find a leg to stand on before you start calling other people lazy and entitled.  

Tactics of Intelligent Bullies

Intelligence is wonderful. It can challenge us, impress us, seduce us. It comes in all kinds of forms. It is easy to believe that if a person is intelligent that they will excel at everything. But intelligence alone is not enough. By itself it cannot make a compassionate or ethical person. That’s what I want to discuss – Intelligent Bullies. I hope to show you how to recognize when an intelligent person is being a bully and what to do about it.

It is important to remember that many people who are being harmful are not fully aware they’re doing it, or that it is wrong, even highly intelligent people. Sometimes it is because they aren’t emotionally intelligent or don’t have the awareness to realize how their actions are affecting others. Others may actually believe they are the one being attacked and are merely defending themselves. Many intelligent people were outcast and bullied as children and may even continue to be outcast and bullied as adults for being different. It can be incredibly lonely and isolating having a higher level of intelligence than those around you. Just because someone is intelligent in one or more ways doesn’t necessarily mean they have the emotional or interpersonal intelligence to relate to others in healthy ways.

Why am I telling you this? One reason is to give you a glimpse into why an intelligent bully might be acting the way they are. They may have developed their bullying tactics as a defense mechanism against a world that has been very cruel to them. Chances are they aren’t necessarily evil or intentionally being unethical.

However, this does not excuse cruel or nonconsensual behavior. Using intelligence and deliberately confusing, insulting, or gaslighting other people is unethical, and likely even more dangerous than when the average person does it. An intelligent person can hide these tactics really well, and can use gaslighting to convince you or the people around you that you are the one that is being a bully, being unethical, or doing the gaslighting. An intelligent person will be able to rationalize their behavior more quickly, and find more plausible reasons for explaining away their actions. They will also be better at distracting you and pulling you off topic. They may even be so experienced with button-pushing as to be able to goad you into acting or speaking more aggressively or unethically than you normally do, thereby giving more justification for the image they try to paint of you as illogical, hypocritical, or dangerous.

In some ways, Intelligent Bullies aren’t any different from run-of-the-mill bullies. Ultimately, bullying is about devaluing another person and putting oneself in a position of power and control over that person rather than communicating on an equal, person-to-person level. A bully will be more concerned with “winning” an argument rather than reaching an understanding as part of a discussion. A bully will find a way to paint you as a “bad,” “stupid,” “selfish,” or “unreasonable” person rather than addressing concerns with you in a productive and compassionate way.

The intelligent ones can just be trickier to spot and defend against.

I’m not saying I have all the answers. I’m writing this because I believe I’ve encountered a number of these people, and I see the damage they can do to others, themselves, and communities at large. I don’t know many good ways to defend yourself from them other than to stay as far away from them as you can if you see signs of them behaving in these ways. However, sometimes you’re already in too close to escape without fallout by the time you figure it out. The best strategy I’ve come up with so far is just to get out as soon as you can as fast as you realize it, and to stop engaging with them no matter how tempting it might be or how frustrated they manage to make you. Don’t allow them to inspire you to act in ways you’re not proud of. At this point in time, many communities don’t have an infrastructure to recognize and deal with adult-on-adult bullying, especially when one or more parties is highly intelligent. I hope that changes. In the meantime, you may need to be prepared to end up dealing with bullies alone without the aid of the people in charge.

Hopefully at some point in the future, I will be able to create a post to detail better ways of neutralizing bullying and protecting oneself and others when it happens.

The following list is in no particular order. Some of the concepts may overlap a bit. I actually may come back and edit this at a later date and I welcome feedback as far as things I can add or strategies I can share with others to deal with bullies.

-An Intelligent Bully will speak in snarky, sarcastic, or condescending tones intended to make you feel stupid. I do not believe consent culture has reached a point of explicitly dealing with this sort of interpersonal violence being considered a consent violation yet, but I hope that it does someday. Dynamics of emotional consent and emotional violence are going to be even harder to clarify than physical ones, so it may be a while. (Note for this and all other points that some adults may agree to engage in these dynamics as part of a mutually consensual power-exchange relationship. I am not talking about those people here. All of my points are meant specifically to address behavior that is not consented to and that the recipient doesn’t want.) The important thing to remember is that you have a choice in the people you will engage with, always. If someone is speaking to you in a way you don’t like, you have the power to walk away, and I encourage you to do so regularly. Whenever you let someone talk down to you or be intentionally insulting toward you without calling them out on it or stopping the conversation immediately, you are teaching them that they can get away with treating people (specifically you) like that. This bullet point includes cruel or disparaging jokes directed at you, labels you may identify with, or even labels they apply to you without your agreement. It can also include other signals like sighing, rolling their eyes, or making overly dramatic indications that you are trying their patience or that things “should be obvious.” These are devaluing tactics, something I talk about in my post about toxic relationships. If you notice this happening, the best way to deal with it is probably to immediately stop and walk away from a conversation if someone refuses to speak to you respectfully. Tell them you will readdress the conversation after an hour, a day, or a week if and only if they are willing to treat you with compassion and as an equal.

-An Intelligent Bully will rapidly shift the topic of conversation, often reversing concerns about mistreatment back on you without ever addressing your initial concern. For instance, you might say, “I really don’t like when you talk to me like that, can you please use a more respectful tone,” they might respond immediately with, “Why are you trying to control the way I talk? If you can’t take the heat, then maybe you’re not cut out to have discussions about difficult subjects.” Notice that this puts you immediately on the defensive, and does not try to relate to you about your concern. Bullies are not interested in relating to you as a fellow person. They are invested in doing whatever they want with no consequences. Learning a little bit about argumentative fallacies can help you here, but this often happens too quickly to pick up on in the heat of a conversation. Straw men, red herrings, missing the point, and moving the goalposts are all really common tactics and pretty hard to call out in the moment. They keep you constantly on the defensive, and will quickly move away from anything that challenges their superiority or “rightness.” If you notice this happening, the best way to deal with it might be to reiterate your initial point, and then refuse to discuss anything else until they explicitly address your point. If they seem unwilling to do this, or start trying to paint you as stubborn or irrational, leave the conversation. This may be very challenging to do in the moment, but it is generally never too late to walk away.

-Similarly to the point above, an intelligent bully can be well-versed in consent culture language, dynamics of abuse, and politics of oppression. They may very well use their marginalized identities against you and create situations where nothing you say is “right” or “valid” because you are in a position of privilege. BE CAREFUL HERE. Don’t get caught in the trap of defending your own privilege. Instead, make sure to acknowledge your privilege and understand the increased challenges that people in marginalized positions have. Make sure you are not leveraging your privilege and that you are legitimately allowing the other person time to speak and express concerns. However, your privilege doesn’t take away any of your fundamental rights as a human being. If someone is being disrespectful to you, shouting you down and not allowing you to talk, or talking down to you like you are stupid, this is not a healthy situation. It may very well come out of their own pain, trauma, and lack of resources, but it does not mean that you need to allow them to take their frustration, pain, and rage out on you. Please remember that most people with marginalized identities will not use those identities as a power play. The most common way that I have seen this, however, has very little to do with marginalized identities and a lot more to do with the language of consent and abuse. Intelligent Bullies will be adept at treating boundaries you set as attempts to control them, and will subsequently make you feel as if you are the one violating them by daring to ask them to stop. Intelligent Bullies will make you doubt your own perception and intelligence, and when you call this out as the gaslighting that it is, they will tell you that isn’t what they meant, it’s not their fault you’re too stupid to understand, and now you’re the one gaslighting them by projecting intent they didn’t mean into their behavior. This is an EXTREMELY delicate point. Be mindful of the boundaries the person you are talking with sets, even if you think they are only doing so out of spite or to make you look like the bad guy. The fact that they may be unreasonable with their boundaries (intentionally or not) it is not an excuse to violate their boundaries. Walk away. Admit that perhaps the two of you are incapable of having a productive or ethical discussion with one another. You don’t owe anyone conversation. Make sure to talk with other victims of abuse or marginalized people to check your privilege and behavior following the conversation (if they are willing to engage you) to figure out if you were contributing to oppression or doing some bullying yourself. I cannot stress enough how important it is to be careful when dealing with suspected bullying based on marginalized identities. It will likely be up to others with similar identities (read: not you) to call them out. The best you can do is walk away.

-On the opposite end of the spectrum, an intelligent bully is likely very aware of your own socialization and oppression, and can use their privilege or power over you in social settings much more fluidly and invisibly than their less intelligent counterparts. They may go out of their way to be incredibly respectful and clear-speaking to people in power around you or your friends, and only use aggressive, confusing, or devaluing techniques when the two of you are alone. They may pull other people into the conversation to gang up on you if they know your philosophy, identity, or concerns aren’t things that your local community knows how to deal with or is actively uncomfortable with, and use this situation to leverage respectability politics against you. In other words, they may frame you as being disrespectful or troublesome because something you believe is not consistent with the predominant view of your social group or community. Bullies that know how to do this are very dangerous, because they often know how to craft a strong position and be a well-respected person in a given social group. This makes it infinitely harder to call them out on unethical behavior, especially since other people have only seen them at their best. Unfortunately, at this point, I don’t know any way of dealing with this technique other than to cut and run away from the social group entirely. If a bully is able to triangulate successfully, and is intelligent enough to manipulate social dynamics to do it, there are very few people at all, or even leaders, who have any idea how to spot this or protect people against it. If you are willing to take the risk of being outspoken about your experiences with the bully, you may eventually act as a beacon to others who have had similar experiences, but that is a risk you will have to decide whether to take on your own.

-One way that Intelligent Bullies confuse their targets is by intentionally using jargon, extremely high-level vocabulary, specialized language without defining or setting the context, or using inside jokes that require a lot of context to understand. Now, as someone who has occasionally been teased for “using big words,” this isn’t always a bullying tactic. Sometimes intelligent people get passionate and don’t realize they’re going over someone’s head. The important thing to pay attention to is not that they use hefty vocabulary, but how they behave when you ask them to clarify. An intelligent person who is invested in communicating with you should be able to simplify, define, and clearly explain what they’re talking about. They may have to drop some breadth, depth, or nuance to do so, but they shouldn’t act as if it is shocking and unacceptable that you don’t already understand, or start treating you as if you are too stupid to get it. As I said above, disrespectful tones or trying to make you feel stupid should not enter the exchange. A good defense I’ve developed for this is to very clearly ask someone to “explain it to me like I’m five years old.” If they seem unable or unwilling to do it, this is probably a conversation you want to discontinue.

-A similar tactic to the vocabulary one above is that some Intelligent Bullies will type up mountains of text or craft long-winded and artistic-sounding responses that ultimately don’t have a lot of quality content in them. It might sound or look pretty, but it is either vague and confusing to follow, or it doesn’t arrive at a point. Give a real effort to understand what they’ve said or written, but don’t be afraid to ask them to give you their summary, “bottom line,” or to explain to you what the goal or point of the communication was. They should be able to do this. You may also be able to say things like, “I didn’t quite follow what you meant by ‘quote quote quote,’ would you be willing to try saying it in a different way?” If they seem unable or unwilling to do so, it may be a sign that they either don’t understand themselves exactly the point they were trying to make and have trouble articulating it, or they are deliberately trying to confuse you. I highly recommend avoiding people who find themselves completely unable to explain themselves clearly and in plain language. These habits can serve as an intimidation technique as well as being used to confuse others, and helps to keep Intelligent Bullies safe from being called out by most people.

-An Intelligent Bully is not interested in cooperative communication. This means that no matter how many times you try to correct for your wrongdoings, they may refuse to acknowledge, address, or repair for any of the harm they have done. They will be unwilling to work toward a mutually beneficial repair, and will keep all of the negative attention on you while making it all about their needs and their desires. If you admit to doing something incorrectly, they may cling to that and use it as a weapon going forward, or they may find something else to berate you about. They will not acknowledge the strength it took you to apologize, nor will they likely take any notice of or comment on anything positive you’ve done in the conversation. Even if you concede to absolutely all of their points, they may take this as an opportunity to gloat, make fun of you for being “stupid,” or proceed to completely ignore you instead of thanking you for acknowledging their points. This is again another situation where the only real solution I have is to walk away. If you point out that they are not contributing anything cooperative or positive to the conversation, or admitting any of their own wrongdoing, they will point out that they don’t owe that to you and then reframe the focus again on what you’ve done wrong and how you’re the one attacking them. Intelligent Bullies are “bad winners” and are unlikely to leave you a graceful retreat even if you admit to wrongdoing.

-An intelligent bully may apply a label to you that you don’t identify with, and they may use disparaging stereotypes of those labels or labels you actually identify with to devalue you. Overgeneralizing is an unethical tactic, and an intelligent bully may use it to reduce your identity and position to a straw man in their head or for the people around you, which they then make fun of or tear down and refuse to acknowledge any of the nuance in your position. You may be able to combat this by repeating something akin to, “That’s not what I believe,” over and over again. My experience, however, is that even if they concede that you don’t believe that, they may argue that most [people of X label] believe that or “real”[people of X label] believe that, and will likely continue to use the straw man stereotyping in future conversations, even if they stop for the one you’re currently in. Again, the best strategy upon recognizing this pattern is just to disengage and avoid, although you may have some success if you can manage to get them to agree to not use certain buzzwords or labels.

-An Intelligent Bully may get a rush out of causing frustration and anger, and may intentionally push others’ buttons just for the thrill of it. One of the ways you may be familiar with this behavior is through the idea of a “troll.” Bullies of this kind often announce themselves, and are proud of this as a sport. This is not ethical behavior. If a bully is doing something to you that pushes your buttons or triggers you even after being asked to stop, then refuse to converse with them after that point. Once they figure out a way to push your buttons, it is incredibly easy for them to re-trigger you and incredibly difficult for you to get out of the emotional rut caused by this interaction. This is, in my mind, the worst kind of bully (intelligent or otherwise), because they are literally getting pleasure out of the (nonconsensual) misery that they cause for others. There may still be insecurities and defense mechanisms running under their motivation to do this, but instead of their harmful behavior serving only a defensive purpose for themselves (and causing harm to follow), they also take pleasure in hurting others. Run like hell, block them, do everything possible to not engage with this person again. My experience of people with this tendency is that they usually eventually do it to everyone around them, and they are generally human wrecking balls of drama, but they get to seem cool as a clam while everyone around them is triggered and furious. People who hurt others, against their consent, simply for their own pleasure or amusement are the worst kind of toxic person. People are not toys. Don’t let anyone treat you like a toy. They may defend their behavior by telling you that you need to “get a sense of humor,” “don’t bring a knife to a gun fight,” or “need to stop being so sensitive.” None of these things are valid excuses or justifications for treating you in ways you have asked them to stop doing. This is a consent violation. Full stop. It may mean you need to avoid engaging with them, even if you see them doing it to other people that you would wish to defend. That sucks. It really sucks. However, you need to make sure to take care of your own mental health before doing battle with bullies. If a bully is picking on someone you care about, it can take a great deal of self-control not to get sucked in yourself. Obviously, standing up and calling things out is a good way to stop bullying, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of your own mental health or safety.

-Just like with any other type of bully, an intelligent bully is also likely to make threats. Within alternative communities, these can take the form of threatening to reveal someone’s identity or “out” someone against their will. They can also take the form of threatening to spread rumors (true or not) with the intention of turning your friends, partners, or community leaders against you. I don’t have too much to add on top of this general idea that threats are bad and indicate that you are dealing with a bully. Intelligent Bullies are likely to just be more sophisticated with their threats, and more likely to be able to behave in ways that are harder to prove or trace back to them.

-Intelligent Bullies know how to make it look like your boundaries are unreasonable. They may act in friendly or familiar ways after treating you horribly, and act shocked and dismayed when you are no longer interested in being around them. They are able to appear to “take the moral high ground” of “they’ll come around when they’re ready,” to people who ask about it, but they won’t usually be willing to discuss real repair or acknowledge the harm or hurt they’ve caused. They will expect you to forgive them or to believe that their actions were justified (thus, you have no right to be angry) without them doing any work at all.

-One of the things an Intelligent Bully will often do when you try to set boundaries with them or leave an abusive conversation is to insinuate that you are a coward for not wanting to speak with them. They might indicate that your silence or lack of response means they are “right,” and that if you really had a valid point, you would be willing to keep engaging with them. They will use your boundaries as an excuse to call you a bad communicator or pick on you and make fun of you for “not being able to take the heat.” They will always find a way to have the last word, even if you have asked them to stop politely. They are doing this to keep you engaged, and the only real defense against it is to let them have the last word and not to re-engage. The above-mentioned button pushing will probably be used in these sorts of situations in an attempt to get you to respond to them. It can be incredibly difficult to ignore, so if you want to, you may have to take to the extremes of blocking or completely avoiding this person.

-On the flip side of the previous point, Intelligent Bullies will often also accuse the people they are arguing with of “trying to get the last word” even when they themselves continually rebut. I almost never see someone who is actually in an argument use this phrase who isn’t themselves interested in having the last word. This is a way a bully can shame you into silence, by making you feel as if you are unreasonable to keep discussing with them. And then they very may well use the point before this one to shame you for your silence as well.

Many of these points are difficult to remember and enact. Intelligent Bullies don’t want to make it easy to get away from their sphere of control or to set boundaries with them. Many of the tactics have roots in valid ideas about communication. For instance, it is probably a good idea to avoid someone who always stops a conversation dead in its tracks the minute challenging topics come up for them. However, the consent-based response to that is to simply stop having conversations with that person. The bullying response of teasing them, insulting them, or intentionally pushing their buttons for leaving conversations is not okay. Bullies will use the social stigma against “drama” and cutting people off to make you look like the bad guy when you avoid them or relate your experiences with them to others.

These are not things most people are trained to deal with, including many community leaders. Often, someone who is the target of bullying will get fed up with trying to play fair and start using unethical tactics themselves in a desperate attempt to regain some control. This almost always works to the bully’s advantage. They’ve been doing it longer, they’re better at it, and they know how to spin it to make it look like you’re the one guilty of treating them horribly and that they are just an innocent victim. Even if you don’t lash out or behave unethically in response to them, they may still manage to spin the situation in their favor in a given social group. I cannot stress enough how important it is not to stoop to a bullying level yourself.

It’s entirely possible I’ve used some of these tactics myself when I felt threatened. As a matter of fact, I know I have started engaging in some of these behaviors when I’m confronted with another bully, because it is very tempting to fight fire with fire. Maybe many of you have as well. My intention with this post is not to demonize people, but to recognize unethical behaviors and find ways to start eradicating them from our personal spheres. Sometimes that is really difficult. Managing to stay engaged ethically while being mindful of one’s own mental and emotional health is not an easy task. It is very tempting to punish those who have harmed us, even in small ways. It is my belief that this just perpetuates the cycle of harm, though. I’m not perfect at this yet. I still sometimes get triggered and behave in ways that I’m not proud of. I’ve done it to my friends. It is important to hold ourselves and one another accountable, and to be willing to see where we might be doing harm. It is good to be able to distinguish between someone who is a bully and someone who is slipping up. Someone who is slipping up is able to correct and repair for what they’ve done wrong. Someone who is a bully will not have any interest in this.