The Failures of Binary Thinking

In my last post, I mentioned that the speculative/SFF community is grappling with a swirling shitstorm of allegations about sexual abuse, misogyny, and/or racist behavior. Many of the writers or industry leaders who are being called out are among some of the better known in the community.

In the two weeks since I last posted, that storm has grown. Now, some female writers and leaders are also being accused of racist rhetoric and/or abusive behavior, among other failings.

Again, I won’t get into naming names because I don’t know all facts of any of these allegations.

That doesn’t mean that I am discounting the accusers. As I’ve stated in earlier blog posts, I’m an abuse survivor, and I tend to default to “Believe the accuser(s), not the alleged abusers” because I know just how damned difficult it can be to come forward and speak out. And I know firsthand how abusers often resort to DARVO (read more here) when they’re called out for their shit.

One of the sub-storms in this mess has a younger writer accusing an older writer of being abusive and manipulative. In response, some of the older writer’s friends have connected with a group that is accusing the younger writer of also being an abusive, manipulative person both before the relationship with the mentor and afterward.

This particular situation underscores something that I think too many people forget: It is possible for someone to be abused and also an abuser.

In fact, I’d argue that a lot of people who become abusers were likely abused at some point. It’s a cyclical pattern of behavior, and researchers have documented how often that pattern repeats in multiple generations within families.

Please note: I am not saying that being an abuse survivor excuses bad behavior or means that we shouldn’t be held accountable for our actions.

In fact, I’d argue the opposite: Because we survivors know just how harmful abuse can be, we should be extraordinarily careful in our interactions to ensure we don’t become abusers.

It takes hard work, self-awareness, and vigilance to break the cycles of abuse and violence.

We will not always succeed in breaking those patterns.

When we fail to break that cycle, we need to take responsibility for our actions.

That means apologizing when we have harmed another person. And not one of those “I’m sorry if you think I hurt you” bullshit apologies that does more harm than good.

We need to issue a straight-up “I am sorry that I caused harm. I will accept the consequences for my actions.”

And then, we need to live with those consequences.

We also need to remember that the person we harmed is not obligated to accept our apology.

The apology isn’t about making either party feel better. At least, I don’t think it should be. It’s about admitting fault and accepting responsibility for one’s actions.

It’s possible our actions will have caused so much damage that we cannot be forgiven. We might lose loved ones or professional opportunities.

None of my abusers has ever offered me an apology. And I wouldn’t accept it if they did because I would be unable to believe that it was sincere. The harms they caused cannot be corrected by a few contrite words.

As an abuse survivor, I think one of the hardest parts of my healing process is learning to accept that an abuser can be someone that I love and fear in equal measure.

My abusers have done some truly good things in their lives. I have memories of happy events and good times with them.

But those good deeds do not absolve their guilt or excuse what they did wrong. Those good memories do not erase the nightmares or emotional scars I have as a result of their actions.

They are not wholly good. Nor are they wholly evil. They are complex, flawed people. As am I.

And my surviving abuse does not excuse me when I have done or said something thoughtless, bigoted, or ignorant.

Human beings often lean on the crutch of binary thinking. We look to simplify people and situations into easily categorized boxes. Someone is good or evil. Something is right or wrong.

The world is far more complex than that. It’s a swirling, hard-to-analyze mix of situations and people.

Spectrum or directional thinking is about considering multiple possibilities and understandings. It asks us to recognize that nuance and complexity abound. It’s often difficult and scary.

But it is, I believe, at the core of being a responsible, functional adult in an ever-changing world. It is an approach to life that I believe we need to embrace if we are to correct the systemic flaws in our society.

It’s the ability to recognize that a historical figure could be laudable for some of their words or actions while also be despised for others.

It’s understanding that what was acceptable behavior at one time or in one place may no longer be appropriate and then altering our behaviors to fit into the new normal.

It is, as I pointed out in my last post, learning the difference between living by the golden rule and learning to treat others as they wish to be treated.

It is, I think, easy to look at the ignorant, hateful, racist, abusive actions and words that surround us and to feel a sense of despair that anything can or will change.

We have an openly racist, misogynistic, xenophobic serial abuser occupying the White House. Acts of hate have increased during his turn in office, and it seems as though progressive voices are turning on one another rather than on fighting the white supremacists he’s empowering.

And yet.

More people are asking hard questions about societal institutions and the roles they have played in oppressing BIPOC and queer communities. People are asking about how those societal institutions are funded and if that money could be used in more productive ways. We are finally, FINALLY starting to ask if the status quo is really the best we can do.

That knowledge gives me hope.

We can break these abusive patterns. It won’t be easy. But it can be done.

(Photo by Dennis Buchner on Unsplash)

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