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Handling Accusations In Communities
What the hell do you do when someone in a friend group or community goes off the rails? What if it’s unclear exactly how off the rails they are? What if reports of going off the rails have come in from people you trust? What about multiple people you only kinda trust? What if you think the off-the-rails was an isolated incident? What if it was mild but ongoing and annoying? What if they went really off the rails but the person has several close friends who would be real upset and leave the group too if you made any move?
Being in charge of community is really shitty. I’ve sometimes handled it gracelessly, and in trying to figure out how to handle these problems I’ve caused pain I think I could have avoided in retrospect. I am laying out my experiences (and analysis of what I wish I’d done instead) here not necessarily as instruction on how to act, but as data points that might help you make wiser choices than I have.
(Also in these descriptions, I both avoid specific details to preserve privacy, and skip over nuance in favor of short summaries; if you feel anything in here doesn’t make sense, keep in mind it might have made more sense with the additional context - for example I had pre-existing reasons to trust or distrust certain people involved.)
I threw a big party (~120 people). Before the party, Alice told me that Bob had assaulted her while very drunk once, had no memory of this, and denied/downplayed that this event had happened to her. She didn’t want Bob to know she was asking me to uninvite Bob. I initially agreed - of course I would uninvite Bob, but after thinking about it I felt worse. I’d known Bob for many years, and Alice agreed he wasn’t a danger if he wasn’t drinking heavily. Should I just allow him upon the condition he didn’t drink heavily? Excluding someone from a community is a really severe action, especially if you couldn’t tell them why!
I told Alice I would uninvite him if she told him herself. She did, and I uninvited him.
The whole thing was really hard for me; I had difficulty sleeping, agonized over the decision for days, talked at length to several people about it including a professional mediator. I had a few conflicting values here - I believed Bob wasn’t a risk if he didn’t drink, and banning a no-risk person from my event felt bad. I also genuinely wanted Alice to be comfortable, and didn’t blame her for feeling bad around Bob. And lastly, I was afraid that if I let Bob attend, that one day it would get out that I “allowed known dangerous people to attend my parties” and people would hate me.
I did end up uninviting Bob, but in hindsight, I wish I would have told Alice “I let him know his attendance is conditional on staying sober, and after this you need to work out who attends this party between yourselves.”
I hosted a week-long retreat, ~16ish people, with the retreat being a regular event with mostly recurring attendees. Near the end of this retreat, four women told me Carl had been making them feel really uncomfortable. They said he’d been violating boundaries in a way they felt incapable of speaking up about (For context, I tend to be extremely tolerant of strange, supposedly “creepy” guys, I am not quick to exclude based on weird or out of touch behavior).
Normally in a situation like this, I would tell the complainer to go tell Carl directly; but there were four women. This was a lot of women, and made it unlikely that it was just one of them getting rubbed the wrong way. If someone was actively making this many people in the community feel bad enough to try to do something about it, it seemed probably good if that person wasn’t invited back, right?
Should I talk to Carl about this? Unfortunately all the women told me under condition I wouldn’t tell Carl, they didn’t want him to know. This was really frustrating for me.
I ended up telling Carl, after the event, that he was no longer invited to events with this community that I threw. This was really devastating for him and I feel a stab in my chest whenever I think about this. In hindsight, I wish I’d simply not invited him back, instead of informing him he was excluded. Future events ended up being random subsets of people anyway, and it would have probably been a much kinder let-down.
At another long event helped organize, Dave was new and was making other people uncomfortable, but not in any boundary-crossing ways. It was mostly unsettling things, like unpredictable, attention-pulling behavior. He had a chilling effect; when he was in the room, people became more guarded, and were afraid of telling him how they felt (I witnessed one public attempt previously where someone tried this and he had a dramatic outburst in response). The event felt pretty tense, and people were retreating to smaller spaces to get away from him. Myself and the other hosts discussed whether we should ask him to leave; I was for this but they weren’t, because they really valued inclusion; sort of a “who are we if we just kick out anybody who makes us uncomfortable?” vibe.
Eventually one of the other attendees independently decided to ask him to leave. He then spent three hours outside intensely wailing and screaming, and at one point stripped his clothes off and ran naked down the street, before he calmed down enough for someone to drive him home.
4. Many years ago, I created a niche geeky chat room. We were a super tight group of internet friends who exchanged thousands of messages per day, and over the years would have multiple in-person meetups and do a lot of dating each other. This was great, but over time people would invite their own friends into the group, and those friends would get integrated and eventually invite their own friends, and one day the OGs found ourselves dissatisfied with the changed culture; we’d first found each other because we all were very different in this specific nerdy way, and now the chat felt like it could be any chat, where the newer people, while nice, held different values, and provided a social feeling we could have found anywhere else.
By this point it was impossible to undo. The change had happened slowly, incrementally. and the newer people had made close friendships in the group, and hadn’t done anything wrong. There was no way to pull the ‘true nerds’ into a smaller group without it being an act of clear exclusion. Eventually the chat petered out and died.
In hindsight, I wish I’d been much stricter with admission standards here; if the value of the group to its members was niche, then allowing anyone else in not-niche was dilution. I am now much warier about allowing people to invite their friends to tighter events I throw where I’m trying to preserve a rare vibe.
I value being authoritative when in situations where you are clearly the one in power (e.g., a party at your house you invited people to). Trying to get group input for decisions can be good, but it’s easy to fall into an attempt to redistribute responsibility off of yourself and avoid actually making the call. You will be in a position where you have to make the call, and sometimes it will be the wrong call, but you have to make it, and tell the person yourself, and bear the pain of causing them pain.
In situations where you aren’t the one in absolute power (like a regular meetup group), I strongly prefer that decisions are made in dictator-style by a small number of people. Maybe those people are elected by the community, but the point is that they have the power to make direct, fast calls. Community involvement in decisions sounds very nice, but nobody will ever fully agree, and you’ll hear infinite strong, contradicting opinions about what you should be doing here, and it’s not good to take time when trying to decide if someone is dangerous or not.
A lot of my difficulty has revolved around how much to involve the accused in the decision.
Often the accusers want to remain anonymous, and this makes sense - if they’re afraid of someone, they don’t want to give that someone cause to retaliate. But it also makes it much harder for organizers to evaluate the info, as now they can’t make public the accusations they got - and if a ban happens, then making accusations public is important, so the community can truthfind about it (e.g., “oh accuser Jill made three accusations like this before, all of which turned out to be false” or “oh Jill is very trustworthy and I’ve known her for years and never seen her overreact to anything”), and also so that people can take steps to protect themselves (e.g. “now that I know Fred raped someone, I won’t let him in my house.” )
It also is hard for the accused, particularly when the offense is unclear - to get banned from a community without knowing why. Many offenses aren’t explicitly malicious, and while a ban can still be warranted, it can be really helpful to the person to know what they did wrong so they can try to correct it in the future in other communities or events.
(also as a note, i’m using the word ‘ban’ here but also mean it to apply to any sort of restricting rule, like simply uninviting from an event)
My current preferred strategy is to write up a detailed summary in advance of how you intend to handle bans - will you ban someone without question if four people submit a request for you to do so? Will it take 6 people to ban someone who’s just annoying, but 1 person to ban someone accused of rape? How will you evaluate truth? How much interpersonal conflict will you tell people to handle themselves vs. what is the level you are willing to make moves on?
Talking to the accused about a potential ban is good in that they might be able to provide really vital information. For example, a friend of mine got banned from a community due to accusations of sexual assault, but he had texts on his phone from the accuser admitting that the accusations were false (as well as texts directly after the sexual encounter where she told him how great it was and wanted more). He could have shown these texts if anyone had talked to him.
If the accusation is about a concrete offense, and if the accuser is known (in my friend’s case, she was being public about the accusations), then my rule here is get the accused’s side of the story.
Because false accusations do happen! I knew another friend who was falsely accused of violent, attacking rape (I believe it was false because 1. I’d known the friend closely for years and I’d never seen him be violent and 2. I was right outside the bedroom at the time it was supposed to have happened, I saw the woman arrive and leave and I didn’t hear or see any signs of distress). Someone sent messages to everyone on his facebook friends list “informing” them that he had committed violent rape. Despite the accuser’s confidence, they pursued no legal action. He ended up leaving the country.
But sometimes accusations are true, and sometimes talking to the accuser is a bad move. Sometimes it’s about something they can’t change - for example, if your community doesn’t like them because they’re really unhappy and bring everyone else down, it’s hard to expect the person to… what, be happy and you can stay? Stop bringing everyone else down - a nebulous request that depends on ‘vibes’ and subtle social movements that nobody can really quantify? Sometimes people just aren’t compatible with a group as a facet of who they are, and it can be cruel to ask someone to change for you, particularly if you don’t trust them to be able to set their own boundaries and be able to tell how likely it is that they might actually change. Sorta like if you think maybe you should break up with your girlfriend, but she’s pretty insecure and really wants to be dating you; if you say “I don’t think we’re working out because you ruin my mood,” she’d probably say “Okay I won’t ruin your mood anymore,” but in reality probably she is incapable of this and it would be kinder in the long run just to break up.
I also dislike talking to the accused when the accusation itself is inability to take feedback. If someone’s reaction to information about how they’re affecting others is reliably to ignore it, or justify themselves, or get defensive, then what makes you think they’ll react any better to you when you’re trying to talk to them about a potential ban? In these cases, where I see a regular lack of receptivity to other people, I am much less inclined to involve the accused in the decision.
I also have higher standards for newcomers; removing someone entrenched in the community is a nightmare, because they’ve inevitably made friends, who will be mad at you for the decision and probably leave too, and those friends also have friends who will be confused about what’s going on and have a lot of uninformed opinions about your decision that you can’t correct them on because the accuser swore you to secrecy, and it’s a whole terrible mess. Be thankful when an offender has a severe, clear offense; handling unclear, mild, chronic offenses is a thousand times worse.
So if someone is putting off red flags soon after entering the community, I’m much more inclined to remove them than if they’d been there for years. My standards are quite a bit higher for newcomers.
The holy grail, of course, is having some filtration process that doesn’t allow incompatible or harmful people in at all. On one hand you have “risking losing good people”, and on the other hand you have “risking admitting bad people”; over time I have leaned very far in the “risking losing good people” direction. If you have the wrong person too deep in a community, it can destroy the entire community.
I might sound a little paranoid, but I don’t encounter ‘bad/incompatible people’ super often; they make up a tiny percentage of the otherwise lovely communities I’ve been a part of. The risk also changes drastically on the type of event; if you occasionally host 200-person parties, your filtration process will probably look very different than if you’re hosting a 5-person intensive interpersonal meditation retreat, and someone incompatible for the latter might be great for the former. I know many people I really like and regularly invite to events, who I wouldn’t want to spend every waking hour with in intensive bonding.
I also am using the term ‘bad’ here for shorthand, but in actually handling these I do not view the offenders as ‘bad’; I really want them to be happy and have a vibrant, fulfilling life, no matter what terrible thing they did - just, in a situation where they can’t hurt anyone else. I would like my events to be constructed in such a way that it can handle them, but this is often beyond my resources and the resources of those attending.
In smaller events I throw, I often pay attention to ‘how much collective space can the attendees hold for someone who “needs more help”’? I try to do a minimum of a 5-to-1 ratio; as in for every five people I find to be really good at enforcing their own boundaries, being charitable, and generally having their own shit together, then I’m okay inviting one person who is more of a wildcard or might take up more attention. I suspect a lot of the people who get uninvited or banned from communities would in fact do just fine if there were a sufficiently high ratio to handle or help them.
Anyway I hope this helps; I’d be really happy to hear anecdotes in the comments about times you managed community problems.