Power Amplifies the Threat of Harm

Why asking people who harm to resign is not retaliatory

I have no doubt that some USA Gymnastics board members feel aggrieved over being forced to resign following the U.S. Olympic Committee’s ultimatum that the whole board resign or USA Gymnastics would be stripped of its status as a sports governing body. Some people are asking whether that’s taking things too far.

One frequently runs into this sense of having been wronged, this shock and dismay during community interventions against harm. Some view as retaliatory the demand that people who harm or harbor harm vacate positions of power, especially when this power comes with their jobs.

These people usually have difficulty understanding that harms of entitlement aren’t about “not knowing” or “being confused about where to draw the line.” People like Weinstein, Wynn and Nassar did not start out doing the egregious things that the press has recently revealed (and you’ll never guess what Strauss-Kahn has been accused of since 2011).

People who harm don’t start out doing the things we end up reading in the papers. They start by taking much smaller (though not less harmful to survivors) types of risks, long before. Where there is one incident of harm, there are usually more. Harm that is very risky for a person to commit (such as the criminalized kind) is the tip of a pyramid, and you can bet that every level below it has greater and greater numbers of survivors who have had to endure some kind of harm that posed slightly less risk of detection to the person who harmed them.

Photo by Michael Shaheen (Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND)

This is what I mean when I say people who commit harms of entitlement level up. People who harm do not stop on their own — they keep leveling up. Sweeping their behavior under the rug allows them to do this. Our cowardice and desire to stay comfortable allows them to do this. I am not talking to survivors when I say this: I am talking to bystanders, especially those of us with power.

Yes, we were talking about power. Specifically, why people who harm and those who collude are asked, and sometimes forced, to step down.

People are more likely to believe that those in positions of power are incapable of harm (“I am so surprised! He is a pillar of the community!”). Being in a position of power also makes more people accessible to someone who harms. It also gives someone who harms access that can be leveraged to encourage bystanders to stay silent (connections, job offers, invitations to events). And it can also make available resources to people who harm, enabling them to use legal action and other methods to silence survivors and their allies (ever notice how cases seem to just collapse around Strauss-Kahn, how survivors seem to recant their testimonies and drop charges?).

Positions of power amplify the threat posed by a person who harms, they expand the reach of a person who harms, and they reduce the risk a person who harms faces at the same time. These three things increase the likelihood that harm will occur, which makes it likely that harm will more quickly escalate.

Positions of power also amplify the risk posed by people who collude with those who harm.

No words exist to describe the chilling effect that disclosing harm to authority figures and seeing them do nothing has on survivors. One study by Cornell University in conjunction with the anti-harassment group Hollaback! found that failure of bystanders to act actually amplifies the negative emotional impact of harm on a survivor. This research is young, but anyone who has worked with survivors can tell you anecdotally that doing nothing doesn’t only allow harm to continue and grow, it wildly amplifies the harms a survivor experiences.

It is time we recognized that with position comes responsibility, not just money, access, and perks.

This is why stepping down is seen as an important part of intervening in violence. It is not retaliatory. It is how you get the harm that is currently happening to stop.

While it sends a message to the community at large that harm and collusion will not be tolerated, this is not a reliable method of deterrence. The bar for removal action is much too high, even now in a #metoo climate. Think about it: Cosby is 80 years old, Wynn is 75, Trump and Bill Clinton are both 71. The first (note also the only black man in this list) has a trial coming, the other three are still out and about, doing just fine.

Men in positions of power — especially white men — are not being removed from positions of power on the basis of one report of harm alone. Men remain much more likely to be removed from power for making a move that results in a bad national press cycle for their company — though with the Overton window moving as it has, what with Nazis marching in the streets, we’d be mad to rely on that even if harm against women and girls did register as a major national story. Unfortunately, it seldom does — at least until the number of survivors willing to come forward hits a threshold. And even then it doesn’t always result in men being removed from power.

This is why interventions leverage pressure to force resignations. But it is not enough. Unless organizations — in the most recent case that would be USA Gymnastics, the gyms, and Michigan State University — can create policies that truly safeguard women and girls, this situation is bound to repeat. This is not likely with regard to MSU, as we’re learning, until and unless there is a big enough cultural change to force it.

Cultural change is how collusion is addressed in situations where one cannot rely on policies to prevent recurrence. In these, what interventions usually rely on is something called a community accountability process, where a group examines what enabled harm to go on for as long as it did in its midst and what everyone can do to prevent it from happening again.

Ultimately, the scandal that is rocking USA Gymnastics is merely a symptom of a much deeper cultural problem we’d all do well to account for: our unwillingness to speak out against men in positions of power, to back survivors, to get uncomfortable when we see and hear things that don’t sit right.

It’s easier to pave over the whispers, to signal to survivors that we aren’t interested in hearing anything — “I don’t want to take sides!” and “people are complicated!” and “I am trying to stay neutral!” — to push away a survivor who refuses to stay silent — “why didn’t she call the police, then? Conviction or it didn’t happen!” and “it’s none of my business!” and “he’s never acted this way with me, so she must be lying” and “they’re trying to start drama.”

We like to be comfortable, little cowards that we are. Each time we wave away a disclosure, we let people who harm level up. Each time we wave away a disclosure, we buy in. It feels easy at first. But buying in is basically investing in harm.

In a just world, we who collude had better believe we’re going to get taken out with the rest of the trash.

“Predators rely on community protection to silence victims,” writes Rachael Denhollander. “Far too often, our commitment to our political party, our religious group, our sport, our college or a prominent member of our community causes us to choose to disbelieve or to turn away from the victim. Far too often, it feels easier and safer to see only what we want to see. Fear of jeopardizing some overarching political, religious, financial or other ideology — or even just losing friends or status — leads to willful ignorance of what is right in front of our own eyes.”