A few days ago, I posted 23 Ways To Spot Cultic Leaders, and it’s obvious from the almost 400 comments that a lot of people have been hurt by people who abused their power in ways that cause irreparable kinds of harm. I want to start by saying to the victims of cultic leaders- or to anyone who has been abused by their parents, their spouses, their cult leader, their religious leaders, their doctor, their therapist, their boss, the police, or anyone in positions of power who used that power to dominate and cause harm, I’m very very sorry for the trauma you’ve endured. I’ve been overpowered, dominated, and endured the kind of trauma people who abuse their power inflict too. I want victims to know I stand with you/us 100%. Supporting victims and helping them/us get justice and reparations is my #1 priority.
That said, I hope it’s okay to flesh out a nuance in our public discourse. Historically, I tend to piss off a lot of people because although I 100% support the victims of harm done and they are my first priority, I also refuse to jump on the bandwagon of hate as we dehumanize and cast as monsters people who abuse power to perpetuate and cause harm to victims.
I know some people think that if you rape someone, con someone, steal from someone, kill someone, or otherwise cause grave harm, you are beyond deserving compassion. But that is not my worldview. I think when we pile hate upon the perpetrators, we only incite more violence.
Keep in mind that for me, extending compassion is very different than the premature forgiveness promoted by spiritual bypassing New Agers and religious leaders! I don’t care if a victim EVER forgives their perpetrator, especially if their perpetrator was never held accountable and justice was never served. As a little wooden sign at my local beach says, “No justice; no peace, no forgiveness.” It is totally understandable if those who have been abused are still upset at the person who abused them if that abuser never confessed, expressed remorse and regret, and participated in some sort of reparations to make the victim feel that justice has been served.
To ask a victim to forgive an unremorseful perpetrator who was never held accountable in any way for the damage they perpetrated seems cruel, and I cannot support such glib remarks to “Forgive and let go.” Victims, you have my permission to never forgive your unremorseful perpetrator who was not held accountable, not that you need my permission! To suggest that victims should forgive unremorseful perpetrators when justice was never served sounds like a dangerous way to let perpetrators off the hook and uphold the destructive power structures, benefiting those in power more than the victims our power structures harm. I cannot get behind such things.
What I’m talking about is more of a cultural perspective, a bird’s eye view on the victim/perpetrator dynamic. I’m simply saying, “Can we please stop writing off all perpetrators as hopeless causes worthy of pure hatred who will never feel remorse and are impossible to redeem? Can we hold out just a little bit of hope that once a traumatized perpetrator is stopped- so the abuse no longer continues- we might extend hope that the abuser might one day feel the pain of the harm they caused and actually wish to participate in restorative justice so they can try to make things better for the people they hurt?” Is that so hard to hold out hope for at the cultural level?
My hope for deeper healing between perpetrators and victims is not unfounded. Look at the TED talk between a rape victim and her rapist Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger. Look at truth and reconciliation efforts in South Africa. We have not gotten this right, but can we at least consider that there might be a way for those who have abused their power to one day be redeemed and for those who have been victimized to one day feel restored?
This perhaps overly idealistic hope for cultural healing inside me has caused me to make controversial statements in the past, as when I was triggered that people were dancing in the streets when Bin Laden was murdered or when a lot of women started man-hating at the peak of the #MeToo groundswell. Sometimes I feel misunderstood, because I’m all for justice. And I’m all for holding perpetrators accountable for the harm they do. But I can’t support dehumanizing anyone and exiling them from the wholeness of humanity, even when they’ve done something horrific. Because only trauma survivors abuse their power, and all trauma deserves our compassion.
This sometimes makes me unpopular, since we seem to make it a national pastime to pick a target for our collective hatred and then rally in solidarity with each other to dehumanize the monster. This hurts my heart, because even the most sociopathic human was once a little child who got traumatized, and all trauma survivors were wounded in some way, and that’s sad and painful. Extending compassion does not, however, means that we should not hold those who abuse power accountable and stand for restorative justice.
In the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model that is I practice as my healing and spiritual path, we are all made up of many “parts” of us. Some parts do good things; some parts harm ourselves or others, but all parts think they’re protecting us in some way. The path to self-compassion and compassion for others comes in becoming intimate with and trying to understand why those parts that are trying to protect you might do harmful things, like addictive behaviors or even violence against others.
From my understanding, most people who grow up to abuse their power in ways that cause harm to others were overpowered as children. While they may have been helpless to prevent the domination as little children, some part of them decided early on “Never again will I be the most powerless person in the room.” Then they sought out power in various forms until they had enough power to be the dominating perpetrator, rather than the dominated victim. It makes sense if you imagine that overpowered little kid that they might focus their life’s work on becoming the most powerful person in the room, whether they seek power through education, wealth, beauty, talent, politics, law enforcement, the military, or in the case of a lot of spiritual cult leaders, spiritual power.
This does not ever excuse the behaviors or make them okay. Nor does extending compassion to the parts of perpetrators that collected power or the parts that got overpowered mean that those who abuse their power should not be held to account.
I want to HIGHLIGHT this point! Extending compassion for those who abuse power is not the same as letting them off the hook, and if anyone is using any form of spiritual bypassing (or even IFS) to justify not holding perpetrators of abuse accountable for the harm they cause, I do not support that messaging or behavior.
For me, extending compassion to those who hurt people just means we are all humans, and humans are full of light and shadow. And those shadow parts are always trauma symptoms, and all trauma deserves our compassion. My orientation in life is such that my prime motto is “No trauma survivor left behind.” I also get that most perpetrators of violence do not apologize or express remorse, they are unlikely to ever get into therapy, and as long as they’re not in treatment, they are dangerous and must be stopped. For me, both are true simultaneously. But one can always extend hope for redemption.
Because we’re talking about power, abuses of power, and the unjust power dynamics built into our culture, I want to make one thing crystal clear. Whether we are the victims who have been hurt by people who abuse their power or the powerful ones who have intentionally or unintentionally caused harm, we will never have peace inside or out unless we begin to equalize the power structures in our culture.
Those in power who have caused harm are going to need to reckon with how we’ve used or abused our power, thread by thread, in our inner work. We need to hold ourselves accountable and be honest and humble about how we make our inner work known in the outer world. This will help build shame resilience so we can tolerate feeling the healthy shame we should feel when we realize we’ve abused our power in some way or failed to own up to it. This shame resilience (which is easier with IFS, because we can learn to understand why we might do shameful things, gently) helps us build a foundation of worthiness and basic goodness, so we are strong enough to out ourselves when we catch ourselves abusing our power in some way, even if it’s just exerting undue control over our children or being abusive in a sloppy way with an employee or a harried waiter or using spiritual bypassing on an oppressed victim who is upset.
We also need to gently and compassionately hold our peers accountable, especially those who are at our same level in the power hierarchy. The systems of power only stay this way if those at the top of the power hierarchy look the other way and participate in the “gentleman’s agreement” (women can participate in this too!) to stay silently complicit in patriarchal, white supremacist, oppressively dominating power hierarchies that benefit the few at the expense of the vast majority of humans on this earth. If those with the most power stop enabling the hierarchical structures and start dismantling it voluntarily, from the top down, this bullshit system wouldn’t survive very long. It absolutely depends on those at the top participating in the corruption- because they benefit from it.
Those of us with a lot of power have a moral obligation to examine how we benefit from those power structures and how we make moral compromises to justify our place in the hierarchy. How do we sell out? How do we stay silent? How do we cover up our peers who are corrupt or abusing their power for self-interest? How do spouses stay silent when their beloved does something unethical- because it’ll buy them another vacation home? How do business partners look the other way when someone is profiting from another perpetrator of power abuses? If the “powers that be” quit hobnobbing and buying into the gentleman’s agreement, how would the majority stay oppressed and dominated for long?
Look around you. Pay attention to those at your same level on the power hierarchy. How do you participate in the system by keeping your mouth shut or being a peacemaker rather than initiating a little of what Civil Rights activist John Lewis called “good trouble?” Where do you fail to confront the corruption because you benefit from it personally, even if you know deep down someone else is harmed by it? How can you be gentle with the parts of you that might collude with the system rather than confronting it and participating in breaking down the unjust power hierarchies in your world and in the world at large?
Look around again. Where might you begin by noticing where in your life you collude with the oppression by failing to take a stand? Where do you let things slide so you can avoid conflict? Where do you fail to protest against injustice? Where do you justify your collusion with a variety of coping mechanisms that might even cast you as “superior” for not being “polarizing?” What keeps you from making the brave effort to try to “call in” others who you care about who are colluding with the corrupt systems?
I think it’s far more effective to “call in” our peers than to call them out, which can feel shaming and humiliating. But if we try valiantly and fail to call them in, calling them out is the only way to stand in our power to break down the unjust power dynamics. That calling in and calling out needs to start on the inside, with ourselves. But we also need to be willing to be called in (or called out) by others, respectfully, if we are caught abusing our power.
We need to ask ourselves, “How can I make this more right? What power or privilege am I willing to sacrifice in order to restore justice to the victims I may have harmed, wittingly or unwittingly? How can I say I’m sorry and is there anything beyond a sincere apology I can do to make sure the victims of harm know I care and that I want to make amends? How can I do better to participate in a more equal society?”
I love you all for calling me in (and sometimes calling me out) in this community. It’s hard to tolerate the heat sometimes, but I know that most of you effort to call me in because you care about social justice and you care about how I wield my power and you care about the people I might unwittingly hurt with my ignorance or carelessness. And you care about being treated right and making sure that someone you want to trust is practicing right use of power. YOU are helping to cult proof this community, and I want you all to know I am deeply humbled and appreciative of how hard you all try to keep this a safe space where power can be shared, difficult issues can be crowd-sourced, and, hopefully, love can emerge in the spaces between our growth, triggers, learning, and open-hearted compassion for ourselves and each other as our culture evolves.
*Since we’re talking about reparations, if you’re a US citizen and you’re not Native American, please consider signing the Good Relations Pledge in the comments below as a way of taking the first step towards reparations for the victims of colonization, genocide, land theft and other egregious abuses of power in this country. It’s the least we can do, as a start. Much more must be done.
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