In the abstract, it is easy for us to make pronouncements about the kind of people we would like to be. We can assert the way in which we would like to act in a given situation and we can even, on some level, believe that this is what we would actually do. But, somehow, when push comes to shove, many of us end up failing.
What kind of person would you like to be?
I was thinking about this recently in the context of situations in which people come out about their rapes. For some reason, people have no trouble saying, at least on paper, that they would be supportive of rape victims/survivors[1. In case people are wondering why I keep using this format with the slash, it’s because some people identify as victims, some as survivors, and I don’t want to erase either]. They say that if a friend approached them about a rape, they would take it seriously, no matter who was accused.
And yet, when things get down to brass tacks, it’s “that’s not the man I know.” Disbelief.
The fact of the matter is that sometimes people do bad things. Terrible things. Evil things. This is a fact of life. I wish that it was not. But it is. And, sometimes, you know the people who do those things. Or you know of them. You respect them. You like their art, their music, their films, their books. You like hanging out at the bar and playing pool with them. You like watching them on television.
It’s a scary and terrible and frightening thing to realise that someone you know did a bad thing. I know that. I know how hard it is to face that fact. Not just as someone who has learned that someone I thought I liked did a terrible thing, but as someone who has been on the receiving end of terrible things from people I thought I knew. And trusted. And loved. Denial is a common response.
But, what kind of person would you like to be?
Would you like to be the kind of person who denies the experience of someone else because it is scary and inconvenient and it confronts you with an ugly truth? Would you like to be the kind of person who parrots rape apologism because to say otherwise, to say “that is terrible, what happened to you,” is to admit that someone you thought you knew did something bad? Or would you like to be the kind of person who can go “ok. Yes. Sometimes people do terrible things and it is awful and right now I am talking to someone who experienced something terrible and I need to support and affirm and love this person. That is what matters.”
You are not a bad person for knowing a rapist. Ok? You aren’t. We all know rapists. Some of us know our own rapists. Rapists. Are. Everywhere. You are not a bad person for not knowing that someone was going to rape when that person was very, very careful to not make this obvious. You are not a bad person for really liking an athlete who turns out to be a rapist. You are not a bad person for enjoying a television show and really liking an actor who is later accused of rape.
It’s important to say this, because I think that this is where some of the denial comes from. A rape accusation is read as a personal accusation, some sort of assault on your character for liking someone whom you didn’t know was a rapist until just now, when you found out.
People who do terrible things are still people. And one of the things about people is that we are all pretty unknowable.
If you knew that someone was a bad person, and you did nothing, that is an entirely different kettle of fish. Or if you suspected, and turned your cheek so that you would not be confronted and forced to examine the situation, that’s troubling, and it makes me sad. But sometimes? You can’t know. You had no way of knowing. You are not a bad person because you know someone who did something terrible. The situation is just not that simple.
What kind of person would you like to be?
We all make choices, every day, on greater and smaller levels, about what kind of people we would like to be. Some of those most profound choices happen in the form of the words we choose to use, and most especially in the words we use when we react to things. And when people start talking about abuse and sexual assault, often these conversations do not go well. For a whole host of reasons. This is an issue with layers and layers of complexity, it is a big unwieldy onion.
And we have all handled it badly. Every single of one of us, at some point, has responded in a way we later regretted to something. To acknowledge that and regret it is important, but it’s also important to avoid flagellation. To move forward. To say “let’s make sure that does not happen again.”
Because I would like to be the kind of person who is trustworthy. I would like to be the kind of person whom people feel comfortable approaching. I would like to be the kind of person whom people know will keep their information safe. Who will listen to people. Who will not interrupt, who will not try to interpret someone else’s narrative in a way which pleases me. Who will be open.
People talk to me. People tell me about terrible things, awful things. It is sometimes a hard burden to carry. It is sometimes more than I can process. But I am honoured that people think of me as a person to talk to, as someone who is safe, because that is the kind of person I would like to be.