Building consent culture isn’t easy. It involves people and communication and boundaries – and there’s a lot to navigate, especially when you consider that the prevailing cultural paradigm is one of entitlement.
Entitlement culture is part of us all – it’s the context in which we were socialised, and it’s how we’ve learned to navigate the world and engage with the people in it. It’s an insidious belief system that has us make (and sometimes act on) assumptions about who holds rights, power and privilege – and how certain groups can and should be expected to behave and relate to others.
So creating safe spaces and communities that operate differently – with consent culture (rather than entitlement) is radical, outside the norm, deviant. Communities and spaces where people don’t behave according to the assumptions of entitlement, but instead navigate consensus, autonomy, choice are experimental models. Those spaces can become beautiful, visionary, complex little bubbles of what the world could be like. And when an individual inside those safe little bubbles behaves badly, it hurts everyone inside there.
I was recently signposted to this article using the concept of ‘the missing stair’ to describe how communities sometimes struggle with individuals who aren’t operating within the safe space’s ethos. The premise is that sometimes an individual who is behaving dangerously is tolerated and ignored by the community – people just know to navigate around them and assume that it’s obvious and everyone else will too – until someone gets very badly hurt and we all have to take notice and act, or someone calls them out, flagging to others about the danger.
I’ve sat with this metaphor and reframed it, in a way that I hope might be useful for other community activists and leaders in navigating how to deal with problematic and entitled behaviour, consent violations, boundary transgressions, and other kinds of harm. In theory this could perhaps apply to someone who had caused significant, serious physical harm – but the amount and nature of the harm is, in some ways, irrelevant to the process. It can also be applied to both ‘calling out’ and ‘calling in’ – identifying harmful behaviours and looking for ways to account for those and allow both the harmed and the harmer to learn, grown and move on, and participate appropriately and safely in our communities.
The most important principle is to recognise that when speaking up about harm, it’s most useful to call out the harmful behaviour of a person, rather than to frame the person as a harmful person. If we say ‘that person is a harmful person’ (labelling them using terms like: a predator, an abuser, a racist, a bad person) we box them into a fixed place of opposition/other. It suggests to them that they are labelled and fixed and incapable of learning, changing and making amends for the harm they have caused – it makes it impossible to call that person in. It fixes us all into binaries of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. The thing is most of us are neither ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – we are all some of both, depending on context, and we are all capable of causing harm. We are all, to some extent, broken steps – yet in our higgledy piggledy ramshackle staircase, we all have a roll to play in helping people move safely through space.
Some steps are more dangerous and wobbly in the staircase than others – for those steps we need to warn people to tread carefully, while we work out how to keep the staircase safe.
There are times when a sledgehammer is useful. Sometimes swift, loud and direct action is needed to stop anyone else from falling, and to stop dry rot or woodworm from eating away at the staircase around a broken step. Those times are rare.
More often than not, taking a sledgehammer to a broken step will cause collateral damage that’s best avoided. Dry rot and woodworm need investigation – it’s easy to see a wormhole and condemn that step as irreparable because you fear it is infested or rotten. Consent culture requires us to look carefully at each broken step and see what support it needs to be safe, to treat or mend it if we can, and if it can’t be repaired then to take it out carefully, with engineering designed to minimise the damage around it.
Sometimes it’s possible to call in, rather than call out. Sometimes we’re broken in ways we don’t understand. Carpeting over a cracked floorboard isn’t going to make the staircase safe. We need the support and help of mediators, staircase engineers perhaps, to help us consider how our behaviour was harmful and how we can do things differently so we don’t harm others.
Community leaders have extra responsibility, and it’s the responsibility of the community as a whole to ensure when a step becomes wobbly some kind of action is taken to keep people safe. If you notice a splinter or a snag, it’s good if you can tell someone and someone can hear you, listen, believe and amplify your experience, so that others can see the danger, and action can be taken to repair the damage.
I think in my metaphorical staircase I want to say also that we’re all steps made of living wood – we can learn, and grow and we can heal, recovering from the harm we have felt and caused, as knots in the wood that give it depth and character and beauty. And as a living, growing, organic staircase, every step will take on wear and tear. Sometimes damage occurs swiftly – sometimes the wood just gets worn down. Repairing damage takes years, sometimes – and it’s another reason to be very careful with the sledgehammer.
I’m stretching this overstrained metaphor just a bit further, with a question to consider. Where does the staircase start and end?
My aim is to change the whole world, not just my tiny corner of it. I am starting by ‘being the change I want to see in the world’. I recognise that being part of building and supporting and engaging in safe spaces and communities I am extending my sphere of influence, and working with others to create change. There’s a difficult balance to strike between including everyone and extending that reach and influence as far as possible, and yet not compromising on the ethics and ethos of the spaces we’re in.
So sometimes we need to close off the staircase to keep it safe and make steady progress, treating the wear and tear, healing the damage, ensuring the staircase is sound. And sometimes we need to open it up and encourage others to step in, even though that opens up the whole staircase to the damage and harm that new people bring in with them. Ultimately, if we want to challenge entitlement culture and model consent culture, then surely we want everyone to step in, eventually – we just need to take extra care while they find their way.
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