If 2017 was anything, it was a year of people being called on their – well, let’s avoid using excremental language and say that many people who were used to a certain level of entitlement found themselves suddenly facing consequences for their actions.
The most public of these tended to be oriented around sexual misconduct of one sort or another. There’s a level of privilege that comes with power (and vice versa) and that often translates into not caring about how one’s actions affect others.
Here’s the rub, though: everybody has some kind of privilege. Everyone has some kind of power. Which means – and I mean this quite literally, because by virtue of being able to read this blog you have more power than most – everyone is at risk of abusing that power.
Oh, no, of course not you! You’re immune from the errors other mere humans are prone to. Completely aware of all the ways your power affects others, the ways you have influence over them, the ways that their feelings are affected by your actions. This bit isn’t for you, of course.
But for the rest of us – and yes, I do say us, because I am all too aware of my own failings in these matters – there may come a time where you are one of those called to face the music. To be forced to acknowledge that you have screwed up in your path towards being a good person.
And the worst part about it may be that you don’t even know what you did.
That’s entirely possible. Because the same power that can so easily end up hurting someone can make that someone who was hurt unwilling to come to you and tell you.
In fact – and this happens time and time again in power structures as big as the U.S. government and as small as your neighbor’s house – they may be unwilling to come and tell anyone, because of the fear of what you (the one with the power) might do if you found out.
Sure, we’d all like to think that we would calmly and rationally sit down and talk things through, apologize, make amends, etc. Unfortunately – and again, this is backed up by more and more examples at every level of society – while that is the fantasy, the reality gets a lot more emotional, starting with the knee jerk “No I didn’t!”
There’s a lot of variations: That’s not what happened. That’s not how I remember it. I would never do something like that. Depending on the level of the accusation, these initial denials come out of the fear both of the external reprisals and also (more scary) the realization that your self-image may also have to change. You are now the kind of person who abuses the power you have.
And nobody wants to be that. So the next level is:
The Rights of the Accused
Over the past few years I’ve been pretty deeply involved with consent issues and how to deal with them in a particular subculture of the performing arts. One of the common trends when people are called out for their behavior is a sudden infusion of legal knowledge. Innocent until proven guilty is the most common one, but the one that is the scariest – and that keeps so many abuses from being reported – is the demand to know the accuser.
That’s the point of this post: you don’t have that right.
I mean, technically, you don’t have any rights, because we’re not talking about legal proceedings here. In legal proceedings, there are a whole host of mechanisms in place to protect the accuser. Police. Marshals. Witness Protection. Juries. Defense and Prosecutors.
In the “court of public opinion” those protections don’t exist. And the person who is bringing up the abuse is legitimately scared of consequences, ranging from simple anger up to actual death.
It’s happened, when people have gotten too angry to face what they’ve done.
So I’m sorry: you don’t have the right to know your accuser.
You don’t have the right to know what you’re accused of, in some cases.
Sometimes all you have is the right to know: you screwed up.
And that’s a gift. It’s the gift of having a huge yellow flag of life saying Check yourself.
It’s a wake-up call, an opportunity to first, stop what you’re doing that might have contributed to it (stepping down from power, for example) and second, examine where your privilege and power may have been able to hurt others.
Not so you can figure out who you’ve hurt. Not so you can fix it. If that was an answer, they would have come to you directly. You can’t unring the bell, as they say, and you have to own up to the fact that you hurt someone.
You are not entitled to apologize.
You are not entitled to forgiveness, or “making up for it”, or any other return to the status quo.
But that’s a good thing; the status quo was what caused this mess to begin with. If you are told by someone you trust that there are reports of you abusing others, your job is to figure out how to stop doing that. Plain and simple.
That’s the right you have. That’s the right thing to do.