The only macro society I have ever known is wrought with discrimination and systems of power and oppression. After writing the outline for this essay, I listened to Invisibilia’s April 13, 2018 episode, “The Callout”, which discusses the nuances I address in this article – the impacts of publicizing harm on the person or groups harmed, the person who caused harm, and the groups of which these people are a part.
Throughout this essay I use language that was introduced to me through restorative justice: primarily, “person who caused harm” and “person who has been harmed”. This language is imperfect in that when someone has been harmed, it comes from much more than one other person; society as a whole has caused harm when a person’s individual actions are influenced by systems of oppression – whether in response to or reinforcing oppression. I chose to use restorative justice language for this essay with a goal of reducing harm. People who cause harm, whether through intentional abuse or accidental insult, can reduce instances of harm if they take responsibility for the harm caused.
Everyone, as members of society, has a responsibility to work toward ending violence and harm. This is constant work, which requires constant learning; this article does not address all the answers of how a society can cease causing harm to individuals. My goal is for readers to cause the least harm in response to when someone is hurt.
Recently, people whose identities are oppressed have been better heard than in the past. Sexual abuse is getting more attention, and abusers are being pushed out of their industries and shunned. Shunning a known abuser is a way to take a stance against that behavior. It also has a personal impact on those people who have caused harm, and might eventually change norms within an industry, or even the larger society. But what is that personal impact? And what is abuse? What behavior is harmful enough to ostracize someone?
There will never be blanket answers to these question because everyone has different experiences, definitions of safety, and intentions behind their actions. We must be careful who we attach the word “abuser” to, because we’ll create an abuser by using the label – most people see what they want to or believe they are going to see, through confirmation bias and belief perseverance. The label “abuser” also tends to dehumanize the person, who might not have meant to act harmfully. Ostracizing someone from a community addresses the impacts of their actions on the community, but its influence on that person depends on the intentions behind their harmful behavior, their access to resources, and broader society’s views on the harm they caused.
I have been severely hurt, and in most of the situations in which I’ve been hurt, I believe the person or group that hurt me was not intending to do so. This is because I’ve experienced and learned about systems of oppression. I have seen that my response to these systems is sometimes harmful to others. I see myself in those who cause harm; I humanize them. This means it takes me longer than many other people to cut toxicity from my life. I’m learning. Because I’ve been hurt, hurt others, and been in communities where people sometimes hurt each other, I have come up with action plans for these three situations. Here’s what you can do if there is human-caused pain in your life:
If someone did something that harmed you
I am sorry. Please, do what you need to do to take care of yourself. Show yourself love. For many people, especially initially, this means taking space from someone who has caused harm. It’s all right to be so hurt that it’s not possible to hear the person who harmed you. However you are feeling, it is okay to feel this way and to do what you need to do to feel safe. To break the cycle of harm, try to take care of yourself in a way that doesn’t harm anyone else.
If you need support from a community, know that removing toxic people from your life is a personal decision. It isn’t the same as asking others to do it too. Think about why you’re asking others to take action – is it to validate your pain? Is it to protect other members of the community? Is it to retaliate? Can you meet your needs in another way?
If you believe a person is a threat to the safety of a community, ask for help from that community. If they don’t help and you believe you are still in danger, you can seek outside help such as a local organization (some people might choose to go the police or legal system, which I do not generally advise because I think they uphold systems of power and oppression and lead to more harm). Understand that there are usually nuances in situations, and communities do not always have the skills to address all the nuances or keep everyone safe.
If you feel able, explain how you were harmed to prevent a similar situation in the future. Be as specific as possible so that the person who harmed you understands what they did, why it’s harmful, and how they can change their behavior. Speaking directly to the person who harmed you is often the most effective way to change behavior, but it might not feel safe for you. Balance your own safety with your desire to end violence and harm.
If it doesn’t work for you to speak directly to the person who harmed you, and you are able to discuss the harm with someone else, you can ask them to act as a mediary. You can also ask for someone to be present as support while you have a conversation about the harm you experienced.
Address the issue however you can. Some people will learn to change their behaviors through indirect communication. Maybe you can’t talk to the person who harmed you, but you can share your story publicly or work for an organization supporting people who have been hurt like you. Engage in whatever way works for you. A toxic world needs a variety of strategies to remove toxicity.
If you caused harm to someone else
There are so many things this could mean, since everyone has different perceptions of what is harmful. The most important thing you can do is listen to the person saying they were harmed. You don’t have to consider yourself an abuser to admit that something you did caused harm to someone else.
Try to understand the harm you caused. If you need help hearing what the issue is, ask it to be stated more directly. Know that it’s not always possible for someone to communicate more directly, so it’s on you to practice listening skills, compassion, and self-reflection.
If you do not understand why an apology is necessary, listen to the person you harmed to understand why what you did is harmful and potential replacement behavior. If the person you harmed is unavailable to engage in conversation with you, think and do research to learn more. Others who know you and/or the person you harmed might be available to help you understand what the harm is.
Without the assistance of anyone you’ve harmed, consider why you did what you did. If your intentions did not align with the impact of your action or your behavior was from a place of pain, try to accept and heal that pain. If you acted due to a harmful belief, analyze that belief and research opinions that broaden or change it. Make an action plan for transforming yourself.
Apologize when you’re ready. An apology involves taking responsibility for causing harm, whether intentional or unintentional, expressing remorse, and committing to change. Do not discuss your own healing process without consent. Refrain from communication implying that you are a victim – we’re all victims of society, but this situation is about the harm that you caused someone else.
Know that it’s easy to assume that someone is not sorry for their harmful actions and are therefore likely to hurt someone else if they do not apologize. You should take the time you need for self-reflection. If you do not assume any responsibility, don’t feel sorry, nor have a desire to change, your apology will not be sincere and might not be accepted. You might not agree that you did something harmful. Try to hear the concern, be more mindful in the future, and move on. In the meantime, the person who was harmed might believe you are unsafe to be around and take action to ensure their and others’ safety.
To the community where harm has occurred
Individuals might not have the capacity to forgive someone, especially if they are personally hurt by the actions of that person. If both the person who has been harmed and the person causing the harm are members of the same communities, the person who has been harmed might need community help to feel safe. Community assistance is especially important if the person who has been harmed has less power in the community than the person who harmed them.
Assess the safety of the person harmed and others in similar positions. Has the person who caused harm repaired that harm? How does the person who was harmed feel about the repairs, or lack thereof, that have been made?
Determine the healing capacity of the person who caused harm. Have they taken responsibility for the harm they caused? Have they apologized or repaired the harms? Have they committed to growth? Do they have the resources they need to do so?
If someone has successfully apologized and the person harmed by them feels okay with it, maybe you are willing to give them a chance to show the community that they are safe. Be aware of confirmation bias; give them a real chance by trusting that their behavior is improving.
Many communities kick out members they deem as “abusers”, especially for particularly harmful acts or multiple instances of causing harm to others. Organizationally, expelling someone who has caused personal harm in line with societal systems of power and oppression says “we recognize that this behavior is problematic, we’re committed to taking responsibility and demonstrating behavioral change after causing harm, and we will not accept continued harm in our organization”. Your priority is keeping members of your community safe.
Pushing someone who causes harm out of a community might make the community safer for a short time. It does not ensure that the person who causes harm will stop harming others. Someone might learn from being shunned that what they did is wrong; ostracizing them could be a necessary step in their change. They could learn the magnitude of the harm they have caused from this experience, and commit to personal growth in order to keep people safe in the future. However badly they want to learn, the resources to help people change are rare and often inaccessible. Become knowledgeable about applicable services offered in your area and direct the person who caused harm to these resources.
After an expulsion, there is often no avenue for re-entry into a community. This causes harm to that individual who you’re trying to teach to cause less harm, which could increase harm, since many harmful acts stem from unmet needs. If you choose to ostracize someone who caused harm, create a mechanism for reintegration into the community after repairs have been made.
The action plans above deal with interpersonal harm without directly addressing the systems of power and oppression that are larger than the community. The community is a dandelion. Each individual within the community is a dandelion seed. When the community responds sufficiently to the sparrows eating its seeds, it becomes more resilient. The seeds survive and go wherever the wind takes them, extending beyond the community and into broader society. They bring the knowledge of how to protect themselves from harm with them wherever they choose to grow. They continue to spread this knowledge, despite the pests that continue to try to eat them.In time, the world shines brighter and brighter, with beautiful yellow flowers of respect, compassion, and peace.
Some transformative justice and community accountability resources: