Over on my kink blog, I posted about an abusive relationship. It’s mostly grounded in personal experience, but the point is so much larger than that.
We live in a world full of nuance. Every division, every ethical spectrum, is composed of infinite shades of grey, but we insist on seeing things in the stark contrast of black and white. Right and wrong. Good and bad. Heroes and villains. Humans and monsters.
The majority of us probably see ourselves as one of the good people. We see those who do horrible things – like rape, child abuse, torture, and mass murder – as the bad people. We create this narrative that good people don’t do bad things, so we believe that bad people don’t ever do good. Deep down, most of us know it’s not that simple, but we still cling to that narrative, because it’s what separates US from THEM. We read the news, and we shudder, and some part of our minds reassure us that we are the Good Guy, so we could never do such a thing.
Of course, the people who rape and abuse and murder are the Bad Guys, but not because they are all that different from us. Not because they’re fairy tale monsters whose only ambition is running around, creating mayhem, destroying lives. In reality, they’re just people. Just like us. Humans, just like us. They work and play, laugh and cry, create and destroy, and everything in between, just like us. They don’t look, from the outside, discernible from the rest of humanity.
In fact, they most often look like… oh… our neighbors and our coworkers. Our friends. Our parents. Our children. The nice lady at the coffee shop who holds the door for an elderly couple. The man who waves at us while he’s mowing his lawn. Our celebrity idols and friendly acquaintances. Us.
When we hear about someone we know, or someone we feel like we know (like a celebrity who plays the perfect dad on TV), doing some horrible thing, it is often nothing more than instinct to react with incredulity. After all, they’re just like us, right? They’re Good Guys, like we are, so they couldn’t possibly have done such an awful thing. It challenges our belief in ourselves. Most of us are convinced that we’re decent judges of character, when even the basic idea behind that presumption is always deeply flawed. We can only judge other people based on the parts of themselves that they choose to share with us. Sure, occasionally someone will just… put off a weird vibe, or rub us the wrong way. Even more rarely, that vibe or discomfort will later turn out to have been, coincidentally, predictive of observable behavior. The majority of the time, though, we judge people based solely upon what we see of their character, their choices, their actions, and their interactions.
All of those behaviors change, for all of us, depending on the company we’re in at a given moment. The celebrity consciously, deliberately builds a marketable image, and very few outside their closest friends and family ever see behind that facade. Logically, we know this, but we tend not to correlate that with the images we all build, in our everyday lives. It may be nothing at all, for instance, to share sort of gross bodily function concerns with our siblings, parents, or partners, or juicy gossip with our closest friends, but we generally recognize that it wouldn’t be beneficial to us, to share those things with a client or an employer. We might share our sexual fantasies or adventures with our closest friends or partners, but we understand that it would be odd to do so with the neighbor down the street. There are things we keep entirely to ourselves. Maybe we shoplifted, once, or treated an ex partner terribly, or bullied someone else in elementary school. Perhaps we have some sexual fantasies that we believe are too taboo to share with anyone, even our partners. No one person ever gets to know us beyond what we’re comfortable sharing with them.
There’s really no way to truly know another person, the way we know ourselves. And truthfully, very few of us even know ourselves all that well. Few ever take the time to pick apart their own motivations, thoughts, insecurities, or emotions. We generally just convince ourselves that we’re the Good Guys. By extension, we would certainly never be close to one of the Bad Guys. Since only Bad Guys do Bad Things – like rape, child abuse, domestic abuse, etc. – then the people we know couldn’t possibly do those things. Because… Good Guys, right?
Unfortunately, the world only ever works that way in comic books and children’s tales, animated movies and young adult novels. Reality isn’t so simple. The people we see as both Good Guys and Bad Guys? They’re just… people. Someone, somewhere, loved Jack the Ripper. Someone thought he was swell. Someone, somewhere else, thinks that John Oliver is a total douchebag.
People are neither all good, nor all bad. They’re varying degrees of both, depending on the circumstances.We, on the whole, need to learn to accept that we can never have a complete picture of the people we think we know. That the people we call friends may be entirely different when they’re home with their partners, or behind closed doors with a date, or left alone with a child. We need to learn this, because we are doing a great disservice to the victims of horrific and heinous things. Things done to them, not by gnarled, inhuman monsters, but by other people, much like us. People who may be kind and charming, may seem open and harmless, when we see them out in the world. People who choose to do awful things to hurt other people, when we can’t see them act.
Child molesters don’t molest every child they encounter, and they don’t often do so in front of witnesses. If they did, they’d get caught far more quickly, and they’d lose access to any other potential victims. Domestic abusers don’t just run around, willy-nilly, heaping abuse on their friends, coworkers, or random people they meet at the grocery store. They don’t often beat or terrorize their partners when we’ve come around for game night, or when they’re out in public. We’d recognize that behavior pretty quickly, and they would be unable to get away with harming their partners or spouses, and unable to draw in new partners, once the old ones escape. Rapists don’t rape every person they know, or rape where someone could see, for much the same reason. And when any of these people aren’t busy molesting, abusing, or raping people, they are probably doing … a range of typical people stuff. They’re teaching Sunday school. They’re watering the neighbors’ plants, while the neighbors are on vacation. They’re at the coffeemaker in the break room on Monday morning, asking how your weekend was, and if you watched the game. They’re helping someone move. They’re volunteering in a soup kitchen. They’re inviting you over for a beer. They’re leading their high school football team to victory.
They’re not walking around with a cartoon Snidely Whiplash mustache, rubbing their hands together in evil glee. They don’t walk around looking like we convince ourselves monsters must look. They’re just people who were, like all of us, capable of monstrous things. The only difference between us and them is that they chose to act on those capabilities.
When victims of rape or abuse speak out against someone we know, or think we know, we need to remember how little we actually know anyone. We need to remember that the monster faces don’t come out indiscriminately. We need to remember that, behind closed doors, with someone they can overpower, we have no idea what they might do. We need to understand this, as a society, so that we stop putting so much of the burden for our belief in fairy tales on the shoulders of those victims.
When we respond to victims revealing their account of abuse by talking about what a Good Guy the alleged abuser is, we’re putting our own feelings ahead of the right thing to do. After all, if that guy who helped you move into your new apartment, and hung out with you at parties, was terrorizing his girlfriend the whole time, then what does that say about you? Humans are too often enslaved by their own egos and insecurities. We don’t want to admit we might not be able, on the basis of our limited interaction, to judge the entirety of a person’s character. We don’t want to admit we would be friends with an abuser, or a rapist. So, instead of showing support to the victims, we shield our own emotions. We defend ourselves, our judgment, by defending the person who harmed them.
It’s time to get over ourselves, and recognize that doing what we’ve been doing is contributing to the trauma inflicted on the victims. Time to recognize that, in defending abusers and rapists, we’re showing, quite clearly, our own capability to do harm. We’re showing our own human infallibility, and hurting people who are already suffering, in the process. We’re admitting that we’d rather let someone get away with causing another person serious, lifelong harm, than to examine our own blind spots. We’re enabling abuse and rape and other heinous acts, just so we can avoid admitting we may have been wrong about someone. So we can still feel like the Good Guys.
But we know that Good Guys and Bad Guys are just for fiction, right? We know that humans are, by their nature, fallible. So, why don’t we learn to forgive ourselves for the flaws in our perception, for being vulnerable to being deceived by someone? Why don’t we support the victims, and stop pretending someone has to be good, just by virtue of their acquaintance with us?
Instead of becoming our worst selves, by associating our egos with the abusers and rapists, we need to start having empathy for the victims. Put ourselves in their shoes. Imagine going through whatever they’ve described, and then imagine working up the enormous amount of courage it takes to speak out. Imagine, instead of support and assistance, you’re met with derision and disbelief. Imagine having to hear a litany of the good things the person who harmed you has done. Try to put yourself in that place.
This isn’t a fairy tale. There aren’t any Good Guys, or Bad Guys. There are people who are being harmed, people who harm others…
…and bystanders who have a choice. Make the right one.