Maybe this story is familiar to you:
A person comes forward about harm they experienced at the hands of another. Suddenly, a fracture occurs and chaos erupts, where survivors are shamed into silence and people who cause harm are shielded from any culpability. Some rally around the survivor to support them and demand accountability, while others deny the abuse happened at all. Others still sit on the fence, overwhelmed and uncertain of what to believe. Confusion arises, time passes, things die down, and the stories are swept under the rug. We hope that it won’t come up again, while others silently enduring abuse witness this and know the stakes of speaking up.
And this cycle continues.
This cycle is embedded into our society.
The road blocks between abuse and accountability are intentionally crafted components of rape and abuse culture.
When a community or family is held together by the willingness of its members to stay silent, it is bound to collapse. Silence and secrets are the glue of a dysfunctional family or community. And while the stakes are so great that breaking the silence can be a dangerous act, it is a binding without integrity that will always be one act away from its undoing.
As trauma becomes a more commonly understood topic, many are beginning to realize how very much our reality is shaped by violence and by its impact on our psyches and our bodies. While think pieces and listicles may educate about trauma and how one can heal on the individual level, in many ways the larger perspective regarding the structural roots of trauma are missing.
Violence and neglect give shape to all of our experiences, from illness in all its forms to our relationships, by closing us off from our ability to feel safe being present in our bodies and being vulnerable with others. Trauma is a relational issue. The influence of relationships, community, and society on our experience of the world is perhaps the most important factor to consider, and often the most ignored.
Emotional resilience refers to one’s capacity to handle stress, difficulty, and complex situations.
It is a quality that is not highly valued in our culture of individualism and power. Often, expectations regarding emotional resilience vary based on lines of power.
To illustrate this, let’s talk for a moment about what it means to be offended. Taking offense to something means that some event has caused someone personal upset. Offense also implies that the upset has arisen from the breaching of an unspoken social agreement. The agreement to be polite, not to wear your hat indoors, to eat with your mouth closed, and to smile and nod at your racist and sexist uncle during Thanksgiving dinner are some examples of unspoken social agreements that may be a source of offense.
When you look closely at these social mores, you can be nearly certain that they are going to put the onus onto certain people to be extra polite so as not to upset the feelings of others. This responsibility almost always falls along predictable lines of power: people of color are not to bring attention to racial power dynamics, lest a white person is made to feel racist. Men frequently react with anger and disbelief when their sexist attitudes are called into question by women.
Commonly, the person bringing light to the issue is cast as the problem.
For example, your uncle offends a woman at the grocery store with a sexist comment. The woman speaks up. Her feelings are wielded against her. At once, your uncle is offended that this unspoken agreement that sexism is valid was breached, and yet the offense against her is her very humanity. Her anger is the problem because they spurred feelings of disrespect in him. You may have heard of this phenomenon before: it’s called victim blaming.
Our cultural capacity for conflict is alarmingly low.
Our threshold for honest self-reflection is practically non-existent. Even leftists who fancy themselves ‘forward-thinking’ are plagued by stifling inflexibility in the face of criticism. The public discourse surrounding “callout culture” in the left is an excellent place to look at attitudes surrounding personal accountability, community, and acceptable interventions.
The term ‘callout’ in this discourse has been used in two very distinct and separate ways that are often conflated.
One use of the term ‘callout’ refers to aggressive corrections of small problematic or harmful behaviors. Both the word ‘aggressive’ and ‘small’ are highly subjective and open to interpretation in these instances.
For example, someone says something racist on the internet. Those who are critical of callout culture might say that the person being corrected is coming from a place of good faith (good faith meaning they are doing the work of unpacking their own racism in other ways) or speaking from ignorance rather than with an intent to harm. When someone who is offended by the racist comment challenges this person in a confrontational, cruel or insulting way, this is referred to as a ‘callout’.
A proposed alternative to this form of callout has been to “call in”. Calling in is conceptualized as a gentler way of confronting a person regarding problematic behaviors or beliefs. For these sorts of callouts, there is an underlying value that everyone deserves empathy and the benefit of the doubt.
These arguments often frame the critique in terms of effectiveness for engaging people in self-evaluation. Aggressive approaches can shut people down and cause defensiveness rather than create an environment for listening. Urging people to develop greater emotional resilience and open up space for listening despite one’s personal feelings is something I often find missing in these critiques, and yet feels like a crucial component if open dialogue is our true goal.
Another concern is considering where someone is situated in power relations in a given situation.
For instance, when white people aggressively correct other white people in their racism. These critiques often point out how white people more readily listen to other white people. It should not be the burden of people of color to ‘fix’ white people’s racism; people of color are subject to racist microaggressions every day. That is a job that white people need to be shouldering the burden on.
In this discourse, there is a need for elaboration and agreement on what it looks like when calling in fails. Generally, however, these critiques emerge to urge individuals to root their praxis in kindness, patience, and empathy.
Then, there is another kind of callout that refers to the exposing of an individual’s abusive behavior to a large group of people, either publicly or more privately. This kind of callout is usually issued by a person or several people who have been abused by someone in a relationship or who have been raped or assaulted by a person. It’s common that more than one person will come forward, as abusers and rapists tend to serially abuse and rape. Sometimes, such a callout will include individuals or organizations who enabled or shielded the abuser from accountability.
Public callouts are a direct answer to the lack of options survivors of violence have in addressing the abuse they faced.
The criminal justice system consistently fails to protect survivors of intimate partner violence, and in fact, reporting such abuse and rape often results in further violence. Lack of community cohesiveness and leverage also means that abusers often fail to comply with attempts at restorative justice accountability processes. In these cases where the systems fail victims/survivors, all that is left to do is to put the information out there and hope that it will protect future targets of the individual’s violence.
While there certainly is overlap between these two kinds of callouts, the assumption that the strategies used to address one-time problematic behaviors will be sufficient for addressing patterns of violence and abuse does survivors a grave disservice. Additionally, the term ‘callout’ fails to convey the gravity of a situation in which abuse and assault are present.
How we talk about different forms of harm and abuse matters.
That is why I want to propose an alternate terminology: Instead of ‘callout’, I want to refer to the public disclosure around abusive individuals as an ‘exposure’.
While callout implies an exchange wherein one is being asked to answer for themselves, an exposure suggests opening up awareness of danger to a broader community. The work of addressing abuse must include the support and care of the broader community or it will fail, further implementing trauma on the victims of said abuse and perhaps causing them to be cast out of communities.
The act of exposure suggests shining light on a truth that will transform all who are exposed to it, pulling away the curtain behind which rape and abuse culture hide. Exposure reveals the secrets that survivors of violence have had to hold close, that have destroyed their ability to feel safe, and driven them out of community for the sake of others’ comfort. Exposure is a direct answer to the isolation of abuse. Exposure is the beginning of transformation on personal, communal, and societal levels.
Once the information is out there, communities are left to grapple with it.
Often, we are woefully unprepared for such a revelation. Disbelief, denial, anger, sadness, resentment, uncertainty and confusion arise. Exposing abuse terrifies us.
We collectively grieve something we will never have back, be it the community that has now been fractured, illusions that someone we care about is a healthy and safe person, or our belief that the things we love and value will go on forever as they always have been without interruption or disturbance.
It is painful. It hurts more than just the survivor and more than just the place of an abuser in community. It hurts everyone who touches, or who has been touched by those people. And yet, pain and grief is a natural component of change.
In a world rampant with violence, emotional resilience is a quality we must cultivate. Rather than relying on survivors to remain silent and complicit, we must develop our own agility in the exposure of truth.
We each have choices to make.
We can respond by pointing our fingers at those who speak up, or we can respond with reflection and integrity. We can respond by demanding silence, or we can respond by asking ourselves the ways we have been complicit in violence against others. We can respond by covering our ears and withdrawing, or we can respond by strengthening community through engaging in efforts to create a world free of abuse.
Ending rape and abuse culture starts with admitting that abuse is a reality many will face. It starts with opening your heart to those who speak their truth. It starts with your willingness to start thinking about abuse, and what our options are in a society that is not setup to protect us, in a society that is founded on violence, and relies on violence to function.
Once we are able to come to terms with these realities, the exposing of abuse will cease to rock our foundations, and instead will bring us together to collaborate on solutions. Once we can see callouts and exposures as opportunities for reflection and growth, we can start to pave the way towards a culture of nurturance.
This is part one in a series on abuse and accountability. Please check back for part two where we will be exploring common myths about exposing abuse.
Image credit: Unsplash, Kyri Lorenz