“How to Help Change This Incredibly Toxic Culture”

I will have a great deal more to say about the predators in our midst, and the cowards who give them cover. So much more. Much of it will not be kind.

But I think we’ll start here, with what good people can do to help victims, and what they can do to help stop the assholes who prey on people who can’t stop them. This advice comes from fcmp in a comment on Pharyngula, and I wholeheartedly endorse it.

First, if you really want to know how to help in a specific situation, then assume that victims know that rape is a crime, and that the police exist. Victims can choose what to do with that knowledge. If they do report, give whatever practical and/or emotional support is asked for. If they do not report, give whatever practical and/or emotional support is asked for. And maybe a cup of tea.

I think, though, that the question was more about how to help change this incredibly toxic culture. There have been many suggestions, but I have one more: if you know or strongly suspect that your friend/colleague/partner/whatever is a sexual predator, don’t let your cognitive dissonance keep you from protecting potential victims. Do something. Tell someone. Refuse to be complicit. I don’t believe for one second that I was my rapist’s first victim. I don’t believe that his friends would have been completely shocked had I told them what happened. I believe his girlfriend had an icky feeling in the pit of her stomach that she ignored, because she loved him. Maybe one of them could have helped me stay safe.

I’m sure that at least one of you reading these comments has an icky feeling about someone you like and respect. If you can, please do something.

It doesn’t have to be extremely brave or confrontational, either. That person giving you an icky feeling has probably done things like make disparaging comments about women/transfolk/gays/etc. That person probably makes inappropriate jokes. Boasts about their ability to coerce people into doing things they don’t want to do. Brags about their ability to break the law and get away with it.

What can you do?

  • Tell them that’s not cool.
  • Don’t laugh at their violent and/or abusive jokes.
  • Don’t congratulate them on being clever enough to pull off felonies without getting caught.
  • Turn what they’re saying around to show the perspective of the victim in the story.
  • Tell other people who may not know these things about that person’s attitude and opinions.
  • Refuse to participate if they try to draw you in to their “antics.”
  • Turn them in if you find out they’ve broken the law (unless doing so will hurt their victim worse – in which case, you’ll have to follow your conscience).
  • Support their victims – not them.
  • Trust that instinct that tells you something’s not right.

I’m sure there’s plenty more, and you’re clever enough to figure it out. This is just a start. Some suggestions to get your brain churning.

I wish I’d had fcmp’s advice way back when. I could have stopped a predator. The signs were all there. None of us recognized them, but we should have done. On some level, we knew. And no, no one was really surprised at what he was capable of. In the backs of our minds, we’d known it all along.

Let’s not have endless replays of the same mistakes. Most of us are smarter than that. Most of us have the wisdom and the fortitude to “help change this incredibly toxic culture.”

Do it.


“How to Help Change This Incredibly Toxic Culture”

4 thoughts on ““How to Help Change This Incredibly Toxic Culture”

  1. 1

    I can certainly relate to the experience of feeling something was wrong, but passively accepting that what was going on was probably okay, when it in fact wasn’t – and it is very easy when you’re young to ignore that feeling because of a lack of confidence or assertiveness. Keeping silent only helps the wrong-doers. You’re totally right that the toxic dynamics at work must change.

  2. 2

    Yesterday I was called to do a portrait of a new administrator in our college. As we walked to a location in the building where I’ve had good success before, the white male director who called me made some comment to the effect that “she’s better-looking than either of us”.

    OK, people say lots of stupid things in portrait situations, and I didn’t want to induce tension in the situation that would show up in the portrait. I wanted to say “Hey, not cool”. Instead some part of my brain – the stupid part – jumped up to defuse tension at any price, and I mumbled “True that.”

    God damn it. How could I play along with that? This has been bothering me ever since. And on the very morning that I read about Shermer.

    Looking at the pictures, both individuals were smiling. He was at ease, and his smile showed normal, minute variations from frame to frame. But hers didn’t change at all. It was exactly the same in every picture. That is a sign of the very tension I wanted to avoid. I’ve done enough portraits to know that rigid smiles are pasted on top of whatever the subject is actually feeling at the moment.

    I know what I wanted to say, what I should have said, what I wish I had said. In the moment, instead, I just said what my culture had trained me to say, and helped the message swing over to “Never mind your professional accomplishments – the important thing is that you are pretty.”

    What has this got to do with Shermer? He’s surrounded by people whose job it is to validate his privilege. Sometimes I feel like we’re trapped in a play, and I’m cast for that role. I don’t have the option of getting off the stage, but I have got to get hold of the stupid part (the old white dude part) of my brain and re-write my lines. To pull the line back as far from the Shermer boundary as possible.

    OK, thinking about this. I don’t want to help make anybody feel that way again. I know the Diversity & Accessibility director at the university. I’m going to suggest that they offer role-playing training sessions. Because the Power Point presentations just aren’t enough.

  3. 3

    I think all of us have been in situations where we would have acted differently in hindsight. But people in general are not confrontational and most especially not when there is an unequal power dynamic. It takes a LOT for us to even recognize that something “bad” is happening. Our brains don’t process it somehow.

    And sometimes, there’s absolutely zero you can do about it that won’t ultimately make the situation worse.

    At my last “real” job (I work for myself now, thank Zeus), the president of the company had a habit of bringing in the (female, attractive, well-endowed) account executives for closed-door one-on-ones. They were all incredibly skeeved out by it, because he mainly spent the time staring down their fronts. Most took to wearing extremely modest clothing as a defense mechanism. He never did anything, but it was still serial, ongoing abuse.

    They confided in me, but what could I do? Report him to HR? The women weren’t willing to come forward and discuss it. Making a “deal” out of it would have harmed their careers and mine (though as it turned out, not so much) way more than it would have harmed him.

    You can’t save everyone. You can’t.

  4. 4

    “You can’t save everyone. You can’t.”

    Thank you for that Kevin. But I’m not a White Knight saving anyone. The problem is systemic and I just don’t want to shore up an awful system.

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