Recently news about a well-known business man in Biel, accused and convicted of having had repeated inappropriate sexual contact with one of the interns under his supervision, shocked the Biel community. Unfortunately, it is not the first, nor the last such case, and raises several issues which I think are important to address for ourselves as individuals and as a community.
He was ordered to pay compensation to the victim, and allowed to continue to be a supervisor of interns in his business, with the threat of jail time if a repeat occurrence arose. Strong reactions appeared in print and social media. He eventually withdrew himself from his role as supervisor, his family business and gave a public apology for his behavior.
In full disclosure, as a therapist, who works with survivors of trauma and who knows the man, his wife and children personally, I have followed the process with concern. Others have approached me with questions and shared reactions. I will not address this specifics of this case; he has received his sentence, I have communicated my concern to the family, and the family is dealing with it personally and publicly. It is however, important for me to remind us that he, and all others involved in this case, are human and have both positive and negative attributes.
In these type of situations, we as colleagues, peers and family, often look away and/or avoid difficult conversations about it. We do this for many reasons: fear of “making it worse” and out of a sense of helplessness (“what can I do?”) or hopelessness (“I won’t be able to change anything”). We may downplay the impact (“it’s not that bad,”) or step back from responsibility (“it’s not my story,”), blame it on others (“she also did bad things.”) or try to normalize the behavior (“boys will be boys”). Often this is to avoid our or other’s discomfort. Yet, there is no way around discomfort here. This discomfort is an invitation to reevaluate what is important to us individually and as a community, so we can learn and grow from these type of situation. What can we learn here and how do we want to grow?
1. Can we work to address these difficult topics earlier and acknowledge our discomfort with them more openly? Yes, this is difficult, and highly uncomfortable. Avoiding talking about it often increases the pain. It invalidates the victim’s experience, perpetuates a message of secrecy, decreases the likelihood of healthy and effective boundary setting later, and increases the likelihood of the hurtful behavior to continue with other victims. Starting these conversations can bridge the isolation, helplessness and sense of disorientation we often feel.
2. Can we each help create a respectful space for the range of feelings and reactions, yet choose to act from a place of wisdom and compassion? Common feelings include shock, disbelief, denial, fear, sadness, regret and anger, all of which are very normal considering the situation. Allowing respectful expression of these feelings is a necessary part of the process. It helps us recognize what is most important to us individually and as a community. Also, the relief of “oh… you feel that too” can take the pressure off of just “reacting.” Often, when these situations come to light it is after a long period. The situation has built up and people often express extreme reactions and judgments of both parties’ humanity (the accused described as “evil”, “monstrous”, victims as “overly sensitive”, “attention-seeking.”). When we react from these strong emotional spaces, we can easily fall into name calling, raging against, threatening and demonizing either party. So we shift from not responding to over responding. This causes more harm than good. These are barriers to addressing the problematic behaviors of both. The victim who hesitates to set boundaries and report, and the accused who hesitates to acknowledge and reflect on his behavior.
2. Can we then, individually and as a community, clearly name the inappropriate and illegal behavior without dehumanizing the other? Clarity as to what is not appropriate helps set the boundaries and clarify where the responsibility for the behavior lies. This allows us to shift from destructive blaming and shaming, to identify what needs to stop and/or change. There are often various parties involved in such incidents, not just the accused or victim, and blaming only one party confuses the issues. Communicating clear accountability builds our sense of personal and community empowerment. We each have a role in protecting ourselves and others in our relationships. Being clear about what our roles are allows us to identify what we need and how to connect to help in these types of situations. Empowering ourselves and our communities, also creates space for grieving and healing.
4. Can we individually and as a community consistently call for accountability and consequences for the problematic behavior without judging the other?
Without calling for accountability the risk of continuation is more likely. Also, then the victims carry the burden of responsibility instead of the accused who have “crossed the line.” Our social systems need to protect and reinforce these clear social boundaries. These are not isolated incidents, nor can we “un-do” them. We need to have clarity about how we want to respond and also learn to reconcile ourselves with what happened. These are the risks and responsibilities of living in a community. Identifying accountability can clarify and provide opportunities for healing and/or reconciliation.