my friend and i were talking about a 'healthy level of gossip'. we felt that a community in which there is zero gossip is unhealthy. people need to be able to talk to one another about each other to avoid the 'divide-and-rule' tactic of isolation used by all controlling people. outside of the context of countering abuse and control, people also talk about one another out of care. my friend and i were comparing notes on someone who had cut off contact. i wasn't sure if the person was being rude or if i had upset them, but by speaking to my friend i realised the person was having other difficulties and i should keep trying to contact them.
i remember when someone who had been emotionally abusive to another person in my community within a relationship, plus controlling of things within our community organising, left for another city. we talked about whether to warn the equivalent communities in the city where they were going to end up. at the time we decided not to. we felt it was unfair to deny someone the chance of a new start, unfair to slur their name before they'd even arrived.
when that person arrived in the new city they enacted the same patterns of control over methods of community organising, but on a larger scale. i have no idea whether the person also continued to be abusive in relationships. in later conversations we felt that we should have warned people in the new city so that they could have seen the early signs and prevented the person from gaining so much control. when, further down the line, i was talking with people in the new city about this person's behaviour, some also identified patterns of control, while others said things like 'they've been perfectly alright with me. i don't want to hear anything. i'll make up my own mind'.
i think as part of a community i'm responsible for more than just how someone is with me. i think it perpetuates abuse and control to ignore what other people say about their experiences of someone. in a domestic abuse context, the most powerful abusers are those who are the most charming to the outside world, as the victim is all the more likely to be disbelieved if they tell the truth. in any context, successfully controlling people will display reasonable behaviour most of the time, and ensure the silencing of anyone who has seen the twisted behaviour.
i find that the people most anti-'gossip' are those who are afraid of people comparing notes on their behaviour. someone in my community feels entitled to send cleverly worded emails to others, requesting them to "work on your behaviour" and proceeding to list life-advice in the form of apparently-caring-and-concerned questions that are in fact stunningly manipulative (example below). i perceive this to be a very subtle but immensely controlling thing to do. i have been called out by this person, who chooses to interpret my talking about their behaviour with others in our community as malicious gossip. i fervently disagree. and i see this calling-out as an attempt to silence and isolate me as someone who understands this behaviour as controlling. furthermore i think it is essential to talk with people around you about difficulties you are having, including receiving an angry-but-'compassionately-concerned' email requesting you to "work on your behaviour", and when i received one, i did so. when it turns out that other people have also received such emails, and been put in a position by the sender that they cannot talk about it to others, it becomes all the more important to break the silence.
it was receiving one particularly charming question in a list of 'compassionately-concerned'-questions-to-consider that led me to decide i could have no more to do with this person despite our shared history of community organising and friendships: "Do you have a tendency to turn around challenging situations so that you are the victim?".
what do you think? do you think i'm overreacting? i see this as an incredibly manipulative thing to write. it is impossible to challenge this statement in any way without confirming it. in objecting to that question, either by replying to the person's email, or here in blogging about it, i am portraying myself at the victim: and their 'insightful' point is proven. also, like many tactics of control/abuse, it is almost indescribably subtle. it is very difficult to object to, and perhaps anyone reading this will think i'm overreacting.
this person demanded a response to their email and made it clear that it would be incredibly offensive and disrespectful not to reply. i.e. here on in i must operate on their terms. so the only option left open to me is to agree, to go "oh wow, thank you for that insight, i do really need to think carefully about my behaviour and my tendency to manipulate things to play the victim". at the time i started writing a reply similar to that. partly because so many things in the email did strike chords (talking about our shared history), to the extent that i wanted to engage, and almost missed the manipulation. also, i knew that in doing anything other than agreeing with this person would cause difficulties for some mutual friends who would be asked (indirectly, subtly) to take sides. so even after realising the sheer unacceptableness of that statement and the premise of the entire email correspondence, i still wanted to reply in a way that would placate the person and maintain some possibility of a relationship between us. the more i thought about it though, i realised that i cannot operate on the terms of someone who thinks it's acceptable to use such techniques of control.
so that relationship has ended. the person let me know that my disengaging is disrespectful and regretful.
any relationship ending means losses and it has hurt. but i couldn't see any other way out. and it has been a massive lesson in the use of 'divide-and-rule' and how incredibly difficult it is to counter and resist those tactics. i am interested in anyone else's thoughts on dealing with controlling people in communities: problems you've had and especially if you've managed to overcome it more successfully. i'd be really happy to publish some guest posts here (on any relevant topic in fact).