In my last post, I talked about the need to remove predators from communities, and how everyone benefits when predators are removed from community spaces. However, talking about removing people from communities ignores the important second half of the equation – how do people who have been removed from communities access forgiveness? What standards do we use for judging when forgiveness is warranted? And how do we reintegrate formerly harmful people?
But all of that is putting the cart before the horse. So before we get into any of that, let’s start with:
Abusers hurt people, so why should we forgive them?
When we talk about abusers, we commonly talk about them in black-and-white terms. We call them monsters, and use language that denies their personhood. And some of this, especially coming from victims of abuse is understandable! When people are hurt, the last thing they should be asked to do is center the feelings of the person who hurt them!
Speaking about abusers only as Monsters With No Humanity has two equally disastrous consequences:
First: The belief that only monsters can be abusers makes it far more difficult for people to believe survivors when they come forward with their stories, because people can’t reconcile the good they know of someone with the allegations of abuse. People are more inclined to believe their own personal experiences, so when presented with conflicting information, people often choose to believe that the person accused of abuse has done good things instead of believing that they abused someone. They end up saying things like, “well that person has done Thing X which has resulted in Benefit Y for [myself / a group of people / our community], so clearly they can’t be an abuser”. When the reality is that they both have done good things and have abused someone.
Second: The belief that only monsters can be abusers doesn’t acknowledge the messy reality of mental illness and trauma. Mental illness and/or trauma can cause people to become abusive – not because they want to hurt people, but because being abusive is the only way they can feel safe and in control of their environment. This creates situations that are messy when trying to assess culpability, because the reality is that things are almost never as straightforward as we would want them to be.
Our community traumatizes people. Full stop. It replicates patterns of abuse that follow the dominant white supremacist patriarchal narrative, and the people who are most often harmed are people from marginalized groups. As members of the community, we are at least partially culpable for the trauma that our community inflicts on others. And while it is never okay to behave abusively, how do we as a community sit in judgement of someone who is abusive because of harms that we have inflicted on them?
The messy reality of trauma is that people who are abused often react by being abusive in return. But should someone who is being abusive as a response to inciting incidents of abuse bear the full responsibility of the harm they are committing? And what do we do when there is a situation where two people with incompatible mental illness and trauma abuse each other? How, then, do we assign blame and decide who is culpable and who is not?
Before you answer that question, let me tell you a story.
I am not a monster, but I have abused people (and now don’t)
I sometimes joke about Pokemon-ing my way through the DSM, but the painful reality is that I have a lot of mental illness and trauma. My depression predates my involvement in games, but I developed anxiety and cPTSD as a response to the harassment and abuse I got for being a Woman-Appearing-Person With Opinions About Games On The Internet. And while I’d like to tell you that I dealt with the emergence of my anxiety and cPTSD in a healthy and responsible manner, that would be a lie.
I grew up in the Midwest, which means my family never talked about difficult emotions, no matter how bad things got. (And I had a pretty traumatic childhood, so things got really bad.) So when I first developed anxiety, I was completely emotionally illiterate. All I knew is that I was having too many feelings, but I couldn’t tell you what the feelings were or why I was having them. And cPTSD just made the whole thing worse, because it gave my anxiety the keys to the USE ONLY IN CASE OF BEARS panic button. I was miserable, not just emotionally but physically. I was trapped in an endless feedback loop that made me feel like I had the flu, only it never went away.
Unfortunately, getting treatment for severe mental illness is not fast. It took several attempts to find a medication that worked for me (one of the first ones I tried actually GAVE me panic attacks, which… you know… not helpful). It also took time to find a therapist who could help me and not tell me inane shit like ‘stay off the internet’ or ‘be tolerant of misogynists’. It took most of a year to get medication that worked and get enough therapy in me that I wasn’t actively in severe distress every single day.
And during that time, I abused people.
I won’t share details, not because I’m keeping secrets but because these are stories that ultimately aren’t mine to share. But the truth of the matter is that when I was rock-bottom and effectively untreated, I became emotionally abusive, because the things that my anxiety demanded that I do in order to feel even somewhat safe and secure were toxic. And sometimes I was able to fight down those impulses, but sometimes I wasn’t – because when you live with that kind of misery, misery that permeates ever cell of your being both emotionally and physically, you reach a point where you are willing to do whatever your anxiety demands in order to alleviate the pain, if only for a little while.
Importantly, I’m not that person anymore. I have medication that works. I’ve done, if not quite All The Therapy, then certainly a large portion of it. I’ve done EMDR to reduce my panic attacks. And I practice self-awareness with the zeal of a recovering addict, because I know that my mental illness makes me want to abuse people when I am unwell, and that impulse will never go away. However, while I accept responsibility for the harm that I caused, I also acknowledge that I was not fully culpable, because my abuse stemmed from my illness, which I have worked incredibly hard to address.
So. That’s my story. If you’ve gotten this far and believe that my past abuse means that I am not entitled to further empathy, then. Well. Here’s where we part ways.
However, if you would agree that I don’t deserve to be permanently exiled from the community for the sake of harm that I caused when I was ill and untreated, then let’s move on to:
The problem of forgiveness is that only people with the most privilege and status get to access it
To continue with the personal example, my abusive behavior wasn’t just in person. There was stuff I said online that I’m not proud of, things I would dearly love to address and make right – except I can’t. Because I’ve learned from painful experience that trying to talk about what happened only earns me more abuse. So I have to live with the fact that there is a not-insignificant chunk of our community that sees me as a Toxic Person. Hell, there’s a major TTRPG publisher that to this day names me on their company website as a Major Problem in our community because of the things that I said. (Again, things that I said because I was ill. Because I was not dealing well with being abused. And, non-trivially, because I was wrestling with internalized homophobia and accepting myself as queer and non-binary.)
I’m not the same person I was then! And yet, this very visible indictment from a major player in our community is going to hang over my head forever.
Contrast this with the experience of industry luminaries, usually white dudes, who do harmful things. All they have to do is issue an apology that sounds even halfway sincere and they are lionized for how brave and wonderful they are for being accountable. When you have power, privilege, and status, forgiveness is always accessible, even without a formal apology – because if enough time passes, a luminary’s fans will always be keen to tell you that you shouldn’t hold mistakes over someone’s head forever.
And yet, that is exactly what happens with marginalized people.
So what happens is the only people who can access forgiveness and restorative justice are the people who don’t need it. Which means that marginalized and other lower-status members of the community are one mistake away from being exiled forever.
And if that sounds like hyperbole, trust me. It’s not. I’ve seen people go out of their way to make it clear to a Formerly Harmful Person that they are not welcome and never will be welcome in the very same space where they themselves are ignoring someone known to be harmful, but who has too much social currency or status for them to do anything about. Because it’s an easy win. Because it makes them feel better about ignoring the person they know is harmful. And, going back to the points at the beginning, because when someone becomes An Abuser, they are A Monster Forever and are No Longer Worthy of Empathy Or Inclusion No Matter How Much Work They’ve Done Or What They’ve Done To Be Accountable.
So. Obviously, that’s really shitty right? Shitting on people who have Done The Goddamn Work to make space for People With Status Who Continue To Be Harmful is obviously bad and wrong, and we shouldn’t do it, RIGHT? So. You know. What do we do about it?
Let people who were harmful reintegrate with the community when they can demonstrate that they’ve done the work
Forget status. Forget privilege. Forget power. There are people with all of those things who have been given community forgiveness who frankly don’t deserve it, and many others who do deserve it but can’t get it because they lack status, privilege, and power.
Instead, look at the person’s record, what they did in the past and what they have done since then to become someone who isn’t harmful. Have they acknowledged that they harmed people? Have they apologized? Have they done anything to address the harm they created? Have they gotten treatment or support in addressing the cause of their harmful behavior? Most importantly: what have they done to ensure that they will no longer be harmful in that way again?
Sometimes, the remediating action is immediate and profound, and the Formerly Harmful Person can be reintegrated right away. Frex, the dude who sexually assaulted me at GenCon in 2011 – his apology was immediate and sincere. He changed the circumstances that reinforced attitudes that caused the abuse, changed how he participates in games events, and immediately went into therapy. I’ve never named him because I am satisfied with his response and don’t feel that it would be just to punish him further.
Sometimes the desire for remediation is sincere, but the capacity to Not Be Harmful is something that needs to be worked toward. This is frequently the case with people who become harmful because of mental illness and trauma. In this instance, we need to have empathy for the person and make clear that space will be held for them when they can rejoin in a healthy way, but we also need to give that person support in getting to that place. It’s not enough to say ‘come back when you’re healthy’ without providing support in becoming healthy, because otherwise you’re just kicking people out for being mentally ill.
Sometimes a Harmful Person will say that they are sincere about wanting remediation and reform, but use their status as a Person In Recovery as a shield to further harm people. These people are Real Actual Predators and actually do need to be exiled forever. Patterns of behavior speak louder than words, and forgiveness and reintegration should never be done on the backs of victims.
(And sometimes a person who has harmed others isn’t sorry and are definitely going to do it again. Fuck those people. Those aren’t the people we’re talking about here, and they can get into the goddamn sea.)
Of course, what that remediation and reintegration will look like is a huge fucking question that, frankly, I’m not qualified to address. But, as someone who has done Not All But Certainly A Lot Of The Therapy, something I am qualified to address is black-and-white thinking that causes harmful outcomes. So! Let’s end with a bit of homework.
Homework: Reflections on black-and-white thinking about forgiveness
If you’ve gotten this far, I’d like it if you spent some time reflecting on these questions:
- In what ways have I demonstrated forgiveness to people with status who have harmed others and who have not demonstrated sincere contrition or shown that they are working to prevent further similar harm?
- In what ways have I shamed lower-status community members who have harmed others without acknowledging their humanity or considering how their circumstances may have changed?
- Have I done anything to support people who harm others because of mental illness and trauma through the process of recovery and reintegration? If yes, could I have done more? If no, why not?
If these reflections prompt answers that you are unhappy with, remember to acknowledge that we are all works in progress, and holding ourselves to unattainable standards is actively detrimental to the process of becoming better people. Instead, have compassion for yourself while also acknowledging where there is room for improvement and what you can do to address that going forward. The path to forgiving others starts with forgiving ourselves.