Newsletter #24: social media apologies
In today's newsletter: conversion therapy survivors on how to be victim and victimizer, the dangers of sharing trauma, and switching my Twitter account to private.
Happy Tuesday! Here’s what’s in the newsletter today:
Victim and victimizer
Trauma sharing, and an apology
What I’m reading: How to Do Nothing, and switching my Twitter to private
Victim and Victimizer
One very important and rarely-discussed feature of the clergy abuse crisis is the role of narrative, and the role of simplified narrative in particular. During the early stages of this crisis, as abuses became more known among Church leaders, psychologists were brought in to try to diagnose and “heal” abuser-priests. Often, these psychologists read the issue of abuse through the lens of pathology, which focused on the victimizer (the priest). But, as the process of pathologizing and diagnosis progressed, the victimizer was often transformed. He was changed from victimizer into victim.
Part of the problem was the question of role. In the clergy abuse crisis, Church leaders and the psychologists they hired were looking for simple and simplified narratives. They wanted independent roles for each character in the story. One must be either hero or antagonist, victim or victimizer. When the leaders in the Church, usually themselves priests, crafted the story, they also needed a central point of view. That central point of view often became the view they could most naturally identify with: the viewpoint of the priest involved. They could most easily see themselves in the role of priest. So the viewpoint of the priest became tantamount in the story, and the task of the story-teller and his consultants was to figure out the origins of the priest’s proclivities. If the abuser-priest became protagonist, he needed a backstory.
The choice of dioceses and leaders to bring in psychologists, rather than criminologists (or law enforcement), is significant. What mattered for Church leaders was not the objective actions and impacts suffered by the victims, but the state of mind of the victimizer. We can’t just blame psychologists for the crisis. We have to blame the type of professionals that the Church chose to hire, and the fact that the Church hired these professionals for the abusers. And it was this hiring choice, and focus of these professionals, which made the victimizing of the victimizer disappear. Often, the roles of victim and victimizer were reversed.
Let’s consider how the psychologists tended to view the issue. When examining the priest-abusers (as they were instructed to do), they tended to read the actions of the priests through the lens of pathology and psychoanalysis. They worked to uncover an “illness” in the priest, something probably brought about through harms the priest had suffered previously in his life. And the pathologist, when examining the priests’ actions towards the abused children, read those actions through the lens of those previous harms. The narrative at times became: the priest was previously abused, and his actions towards the children were a manifestation of the priest’s sufferings.
Once this narrative was established, the abuse of the child-victim was not actually about abuse of the victim, but was about the priest’s suffering. The objective character of the priest’s actions disappeared when faced with what the psychologists found much more interesting: the exploration of pathology. And this is consistent for a Church that consistently wants to see priests and Church leaders as “the good guys,” and those who critique them as “the bad guys.” Here, the abused child even becomes victimizer, implicitly and necessarily accused of triggering the priest’s sensitivities to abuse. This is precisely what Richard Fitzgibbons, conversion therapist and consultant for the Holy See’s Congregation for Clergy, had done. For Church leaders such as Fr. Benedict Groeschel, this led to a view that the children invited (and wanted) the abuse.
It’s hard to overstate the role that simplification of narrative plays in the Church’s abuse crisis. In 2018, James Heaney wrote in Commonweal how a focus on stamping out “heresy” helped to support the crisis. I, like Heaney, once believed that the clergy abuse crisis was about the “bad liberal clergy” who had loose sexual mores that led to abuse, in contrast to the “good traditional clergy” who would uphold order in society and condemn abuse. But Heaney writes:
“Our beloved myth exploded. Twin Cities Catholics like me came face-to-face with an unpleasant fact: the orthodox Good Clerics hadn’t taken over from the Bad ‘Spirit of Vatican II’ Clerics and cleaned house. The Good Clerics were buddies with the Bad Clerics. They did everything in their power to protect the Bad Clerics—even violating moral, civil, and canon law on their behalf. We’d believed there were two sides in the Church: orthodoxy and heresy. We often cheered for the clerics on our ‘team’ and booed the other guys. But we were wrong. Everyone in the chancery was working together...against us.”
Because we had been tricked into a simplified narrative, where “orthodox” priests were always good and “heterodox” priests were always bad, we believed that clergy who proclaimed orthodoxy should always be supported and that they would work against the clergy abuse crisis. What we were forced to face was the fact that the lines of the crisis were not so simple. The reality was much more complicated, and we could not really face the crisis until we could face reality. This is part of the reason much of the Church has still not really faced the crisis.
One reality that we must face is that the roles of victim and victimizer are not dichotomous. They are often roles played simultaneously by the same character. And we need a way to face this.
One place where I have seen a more helpful integration of the dual role of victim and victimizer is in the lives of men who have survived conversion therapy. Such men have shared stories of being victims to false narratives and to spiritual leaders and mental health professionals who took advantage of their vulnerabilities. At the same time, they have had to reckon with the ways that they suffered harm and then placed that harm upon others. They often magnified those false narratives and encouraged others to adopt them, without a real concern for the harms they themselves were causing. At times, they would lash out and harm others when their repressed sexuality reared its head. Though they came out of conversion therapy and eventually rejected these false narratives, many of the men with whom I have spoken haven’t been able to characterize themselves as uncomplicated heroes. They’ve had to grapple with the ways in which they have been victimizers, seeking ways to take accountability for the harms they have caused, even if those harms were primarily a passing on of harms they themselves had suffered.
These men (and women) can model a more mature approach to various issues, and clergy would do well to learn from them. One can certainly be a victim. But being a victim does not insulate one from being a victimizer (something I have learned the hard way in my own life). One must still take accountability for the ways in which one has harmed others, even when those harms arise out of one’s being victimized. The mature moral agent must cultivate a desire to take accountability for one’s actions, even if those actions might be tied to pathology or trauma. The objective character and impact of one’s actions must be faced.
Trauma sharing, and an apology
Last week, I discussed ways in which public discussions of trauma can be problematic. On the one hand, it is good that people feel greater freedom to discuss trauma and its impact on people’s lives. On the other hand, discussing trauma in ways that are not trauma-informed can be deeply problematic. In my piece, I shared advice from mental health professionals and survivors on how to discuss trauma and consume trauma-related content in ways that are helpful and respectful of the experiences of others.
Two major pieces of advice stand out for me. First, trauma should be shared in a way that allows for appropriate consent from those who will be receiving the information. Caution should be used when sharing traumatic details with strangers, because we don’t always know their histories and triggers. Second, the sharing of trauma should expand empathy for everyone, including the person who is on the receiving end of the traumatic details.
Feedback from various mental health professionals has helped to adjust the ways in which I speak and write about trauma. For example, one psychologist recommended exercising caution with the language of “dangerousness” or “safety” when discussing triggers. Strictly speaking, triggers don’t pose a risk of lasting physical or psychological harm. So triggering someone isn’t necessarily dangerous, even if triggering someone might be a bad thing to do, especially when done to satisfy one’s own emotional desires. Accordingly, I have had to adjust my language, moving away from discussing triggers as “dangerous” or “harmful” and instead discussing them in terms of responsibility, appropriateness, and helpfulness.
Unfortunately, in that post I also included content for which I needed to apologize. I won’t get into those details in this newsletter. You can read the apology here. I’ll also discuss this a bit below.
What I’m reading: How to Do Nothing, and switching my Twitter to private
After I published last week’s piece on trauma sharing, I began to receive critical feedback from a handful of people online. Shortly after that, I switched my social media accounts to private. Within an hour, other accounts publicly called me a coward and criticized me for it. I was accused of posting inflammatory content, and then running off and hiding as soon as I got a little criticism.
I can understand this response. One way in which some avoid taking responsibility for their words on social media is by deleting them without comment, or by withdrawing from various spaces altogether. But the designs of social media tend to reward the opposite behavior: steely resolve in the face of criticism. Posting highly inflammatory content and then bombastically refusing to apologize for doing so can do a lot to drive engagement, rewarding in some ways the original poster, whether they are right or wrong (but rewarding most of all the platform).
Social media platforms also rewards steely resolve, in that those who exercise it tend to last the longest on them. A certain amount of desensitization is required if one is going to engage with challenging subjects on social media. Looking back, I realize the ways in which I have been desensitized, even to individuals openly calling for people like me to suffer physical violence. I had been conditioned to receive such comments, and then to push right through them to offer my own impassioned responses.
This is a deeply dehumanizing way to engage, not only for individuals who might attack me in these ways, but also for me. To be human is to be sensitive, to have a response when we are touched. It is good for us to feel and recognize pain when we are physically attacked. The same is true for verbal or emotional attacks. A failure to feel might indicate a need for various forms of healing.
But the pace of social media does not move us in the direction of deep feeling. It rewards intense immediate feeling. When we see a post, we are expected to be able to immediately distill our reaction to a like, a retweet, or a 280-character comment. This is meant to happen faster than we can scroll our screen, moving us into an ever-accelerating mode of engagement. So we fail to exercise vulnerability, committing to that constant steely resolve, simply because there isn’t time to do anything else.
Because of these and other concerns, I have been reexamining the ways in which I show up on social media. This is also driven through my recent reading of Jenny Odell’s How to do Nothing, as well as processing of my emotional and intellectual life as it relates to social media. Odell focuses much of her work on engaging more with the immediate world around us, which naturally extends to our own selves, including our sensitivity. She wants us to “resist the attention economy.”
She does not advise total “retreat.” She examines the work of Levi Felix, Robert Houriet, and others to explore various communities that sought to “escape” from society and ended up either falling apart or replicating the problems they sought to overcome. Rather than retreating from social media (or society) altogether, Odell wants to escape the ways in which “waves of hysteria and fear” leveraged to exploit our impulses for clicks are “co-created” by social media platforms and us users. She recommends finding ways to change our engagement, to step away from time to time, and to seek out potential alternatives. Her book is titled “How to Do Nothing,” but its argument becomes: most of what we do online is actually nothing, and we need to stop doing that so that we can learn to do something. Social media can have a role in this something, but getting to the something requires intentional change.
So I’ve been starting to implement a number of changes in how I manage my social media pages. I began announcing changes on my Instagram account a few weeks ago, including:
I may change the account from public to private at times, such as when I feel a need to be more protective of the space it seeks to create;
I changed my settings to only accept message requests from followers, to prioritize interacting with people who actually want to engage with my account;
I’m moving more “intense” content from my regular posts into my “stories,” so that people won’t be surprisingly meant with triggering content while scrolling their feed;
I’m working on funneling individuals and conversations to other spaces, such as when what an individual really needs is to speak with a reporter, therapist, or attorney (roles that I cannot fulfill through my social media accounts); and
I shared that I may down the road decide to delete some or all of my social media accounts, and that I expect my followers to not be reliant on them.
The actual reason I had changed my Twitter account to private in the situation outlined above was in keeping with what I had already implemented on my Instagram account: using the “private” feature when I need to remove my content from public controversy so that I can seek out different forms of engagement, reflect on what I am putting forward, and re-enter the “public” space with the benefit of having slowed things down. In the context of Twitter, this also has the effect of halting the promotion of the content I have shared, and in this situation allowed me to slow the spread of my potentially problematic content while I examined whether I needed to make a change.
It makes sense that this decision would be read as cowardice, or as an attempt to hide bad behavior. This is how platforms like Twitter condition us. In the context of these platforms, it doesn’t make sense to choose to become less public, to slow down engagement with one’s content, to take time away from passionate quips to conduct deeper reflection. Deescalation techniques are rarely practiced; one is either totally vindicated or told to “just stop.” Social media doesn’t teach us to behave this way, and so we rarely do. But we can, if we choose to.
In the end, I realized some of the criticisms that were raised were right. I explored where I felt I did and didn’t need to take accountability. Rather than a 280-character tweet, I wrote 2000 words. Rather than giving an immediate apology as soon as people took issue with what I wrote, I took two days. That should be expected. I worry that immediate apologies may be more performative than anything, that they don’t reflect a deeper reflection, and that they may be issued when one is overwhelmed and thus not reflective of longer-term commitments. Particularly in high-tension situations, the ability to step away and process before apologizing helps to ensure a sincere and appropriate apology. The key is to be sure to return to offer it.
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