Where do we begin?: Community responses to harm

I was raised by a woman who raised me to believe people are not to be trusted, that harm is always around the corner. I’ve accepted that I cannot always escape harm.

It’s hard to trust that people won’t harm you and even harder to trust others will care when harm happens. Hyper-vigilance gets exhausting and it’s not at all sustainable, it’s so easy to wear yourself out. I can’t isolate myself from the world no matter how tempting it seems.

I’ve been trying to make sense when my head has been clouded and occupied by endless thoughts and worries. There have been disclosures about community members being abusive—physically, emotionally, psychologically—to their partners. Some of the responses have been dismissive or aggressively defending the community members. It’s a reminder people pick and choose who to protect and defend. When someone close to them causes harm they instinctively run to protect them and ignore what is being said about their behaviors and actions. This is a regular occurrence, both the abuse and protection of those who harm.

An optimist, I believe in people’s ability to support each other through anything, even when we inflict pain upon each other. That support does not often come through. Sides get picked, people remain neutral through silence, the focus remains on the abuser rather than the survivor and what they need.

We don’t know how to be friends with people who have caused harm. We are friends with people who are kind, caring, sweet, resilient. We are friends with people whose politics are on point and analyses are sharp. We are friends with people whose artwork moves us and brilliance seems unmatched. We are friends with people who have made us laugh, supported us through difficult times, seemed loving to their partners. We don’t see them as the same people capable of harming their partners or being dismissive when disclosures come about. People are multifaceted, we tell ourselves; they are capable of so much more than we believe, and that includes harm, abuse, and violence.

We have to acknowledge and accept that our friends and abusers can be one and the same. We don’t know how to be friends with people who have caused harm because we believe you are the company you keep. If we want to continue being friends with them, we have to ignore the truth; it’ll tell us more about ourselves than we thought to know. That isn’t exactly true. We don’t know every single thing about our friends, we don’t know what is going on in their heads, how they process. We are not intimately involved in their relationships no matter what we see on the outside. We do not know how they treat their partners behind closed doors and underneath dimmed lights. It’s easy to talk the talk; they know how to not seem like they’re capable of causing harm. Their actions speak volumes and tells us the truth should we actually pay attention.

Being friends with people who cause harm means confronting how we condone it by protecting them and absolving them of responsibility. It also means confronting the likelihood we could be them too. We are all capable of causing harm.

When we dismiss the possibility of our friends’ abusive behavior we deny them the opportunity to grow and learn their behaviors are not tolerated. We deny them the opportunity to see the impact of their behavior on the people they harmed. And we deny ourselves the opportunity to follow in the lead of those harmed; if we don’t step up, we don’t challenge the reality of what we think we know. It’s true that everything is messy and complex, which is why it is important to have a belief system and stick with it. That is how we enter and begin to deconstruct the mess that will eventually become clearer. For me, it’s starting with believing survivors, and believing in forgiveness and engaging with community to address harm.

Who do you stand with? How do you approach situations and disclosures that hit close to home? How do we begin to acknowledge the responsibility we have to each other?

I don’t want to turn into my mother and be distrustful of everyone I meet, but while I accept I cannot prevent harm [other than what I am capable of perpetrating], I cannot accept not being able to count on community to believe, validate, or hear me. It’s something we can actively practice because unfortunately, there are enough incidents to address, enough people who need to be helped and believed. Where do we begin?

This is a short version of a much-longer essay about community responses to interpersonal violence.