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.

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