The myth of community is that anyone can belong. And when belonging is paramount, it becomes very, very easy to overlook real conflicts and injuries for the sake of group cohesion.
Two years ago, I walked away from an artistic community that had been a huge part of my life for the previous decade. In fact, this informal network of artists had been essentially my second family.
When I withdrew from the scene, a handful of people asked why. I told them I was feeling burned out on the art, that I wanted to move on to different genres, different goals. This was true, but only partly.
To a scant handful of people, I gave a more honest answer: that I had to step back from the scene after I found out that a friend I made through that community, a man I loved and trusted, had sexually assaulted someone. (To the best of my knowledge no charges were ever filed; there is no official proof, only allegations. I believe the allegations are true, but I’m not going to delve into why, because that’s not my story to tell.) After I learned what he had done, the community that brought him into my life was poisoned for me. I needed to work through my anger and disappointment, and I couldn’t do that while associating with people who had once been our mutual friends, some of whom still supported and defended him.
That is also true, but again, it’s not the whole story. The whole story is more complicated. The truth is wrapped up in that word “community,” which is such an enticing promise and such a dangerous lie.
I’ve spent my life being weird and smart and socially awkward and oversensitive, being told to calm down and stop over-thinking things. I’ve spent my life feeling like I don’t fit in. In this particular artistic community, I was offered acceptance. As long as I was willing to pour my heart out through my writing, I had access to friendship and support and empathy and encouragement. I could do that. I could belong.
But that offer of belonging is not selective. It’s not available only to people who are pure of heart and well-intentioned. The myth of community is that anyone can belong. And when belonging is paramount, it becomes very, very easy to overlook real conflicts and injuries for the sake of group cohesion.
I am not just talking about my particular artistic community, but about a pattern that surfaces in countless groups of people formed around a common purpose. It can be beautiful when sharing an art form or a cause or a hobby helps us overlook superficial differences and find a kindred spirit, but the idea of community can also push us to ignore discrepancies that matter more, things that we might otherwise see as red flags. In preaching community, we encourage newcomers to see everyone in the scene as their confidante, their best friend. We skip the usual dance of getting to know someone, establishing trust slowly over time. And as a result, with the best imaginable intentions, we welcome predators with open arms.
I am not saying that social groups are responsible for running background checks, or ousting any participant who gives somebody a bad vibe. I AM saying that the myth of community can be used to encourage people not to trust their instincts, not to go with their gut, not to make sure someone is safe before opening up to them. I am saying that, when we work to create an atmosphere of unquestioning camaraderie and someone uses that camaraderie to hide their abuse, every one of us is responsible.
When I found out what my friend had done, I remembered a conversation I’d had with another dear friend, some years earlier. “I don’t like him,” my friend had said. “He can be so aggressive and overbearing.”
“He’s not really aggressive,” I said. “He’s just loud. He would never hurt anyone.” This is the kind of thing we say about our friends. We tell people to overlook negative impressions, to give second and third and fourth chances, to trust our impressions more than they trust their own. I’m sure I’ve done it hundreds of times. This is the one I happen to remember, because, as it turned out, he is really aggressive, and he has hurt people. My sticking up for him was not the sole act that sheltered his abuse, but I can’t pretend it didn’t contribute.
When I first found out that sexual predators—more than just one—had used the community I saw as sacred as a hunting ground, I thought, How could this happen? But then I thought about all the times I’d let small insults and microaggressions slide, for the sake of preserving the we-all-love-each-other façade. I let it slide when men in my community spread misogynistic sexual rumors about me and other women. I let it slide when a different man sent me unsolicited pornographic text messages. I let it slide when people made objectifying comments about my breasts. I let it slide when a popular performer made a rape joke onstage. I let it slide even though I was angry, even though I was hurt, even though I felt unsafe, because, hey, we’re a family. They’re not bad people. Everyone makes mistakes.
And once certain expectations are in place—that the good of community take precedence over individual comfort, that confrontation is more trouble than it’s worth—not only is it difficult to push back against subtle acts of hostility, but it’s also extremely daunting to speak out about egregious violation and assault. There is no such thing as a community that avoids confronting minor offenses, but deals with major ones in a straightforward and productive way.
When I thought about all the times I kept my mouth shut, all the times I chose harmony over honesty, I could no longer ask myself how sexual assault could happen in my community. I had to ask myself, How could it not?
If we don’t even say “hey, not cool” about rape jokes, how are we supposed to say it when it comes to actual rape?
In order to build strong communities, we have to stop saying trust us and start saying trust yourself. We can’t assume that just because we’ve had good experiences with person X, that means they would never lie, manipulate, or harm. Instead of encouraging openness, we need to encourage caution and reason and boundary-setting. We need to have strategies in place to deal with small offenses before they get out of hand, and to support survivors when something worse happens.
Because the truth is, it will.
No matter how good and upstanding we are, we will never make our communities impenetrable to the predatory and manipulative. At some point in our lives, every one of us will be friends with an abuser. If we refuse to acknowledge that because we’re afraid of admitting we were wrong, we condone the harm done and shelter the perpetrator. The only way to build stable, long-lasting communities is to act with honesty and accountability.
The myth of universal love and belonging creates shelter for predators, abusers, and garden-variety assholes. Until we are honest about that, these same problems will keep coming up, over and over again. Finding friends who love the things you love is a wonderful and necessary feeling, but remember that just sharing a hobby doesn’t make somebody family.
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer writer who lives in Denver with her partner, an ever-growing collection of books, and a very spoiled cat. Her first book will be published by Plume in early 2016.