The ‘Missing Stair‘ is a brilliant analogy about sexual predators that is taking central stage in many pagan discourses, possibly better known in the US than the UK. It’s a very useful and necessary tool to raise awareness about how and why predatory behaviour may end up being ignored, and accusations dismissed.
As it’s territory that’s well covered elsewhere, so I want to turn to a different subject: the problem of safeguarding justice on both sides. This is, if you like, the second stage. The one that comes after the stage of everyone agreeing on the need for a Code of Conduct and not dismissing accusations, even if they’re made against a well-known and well-respect figure. This is about how one handles accusations in order to be fair to everyone.
I’m sure some people reading this will be getting annoyed already. So perhaps I’d better present my credentials. Back in the early 90s I was selected by a trade union committee covering a fair chunk of England to become an expert in Equal Opportunities. Scroll on a few years and much training from a specialist lawyer and barrister, and I became a para-legal in the field. Then I worked with management to find softer solutions that were less stressful for everyone – to deal with problems so that going to court wasn’t needed. That didn’t mean being soft on perpetrators, just trying to avoid a form of nuclear fallout. I joined a specialist management team to explore all options, helping to set up and train dedicated “first port of call” workers in our offices who would help those who had experienced harassment or abuse… and to help those accused of it.
You see, I had worked on both sides as a para-legal. I’d represented people of both genders whom I suspect of bad attitudes that they really needed to change, that had brought down on them reactive behaviour from others that resulted in – quite frankly – personal messes that spilled out into the industrial environment. That dragged in all their colleagues. I was a specialist in trying to deal with such messes. I designed and ran awareness courses for managers and trade union reps. I maintained the training of the “first port” workers, arranged the training and briefing of investigators into complaints of harassment and abuse, negotiated every type of associated procedure you can think of, and spent the rest of my time mediating solutions to near-intractable problems. And, if that wasn’t enough, a spent a few years working as complaints manager for the longest established pagan organisation in the UK, designing codes of conduct and acting as an investigator.
Generally, designing codes isn’t a problem. The problem is operating them. And the biggest problem with operating them lies with one issue: how to deal fairly with a complaint.
If one makes the assumption that all accusations are untrue (or true), then everything is simple – but also unfair. For example, two good male friends of mine have suffered complaints against them. Let’s take A as an exemplar. A was accused of rape. The alleged incident took place without witnesses. Now, I knew A was the last person to have committed such a crime but – thankfully – I wasn’t involved in this. In fact, there were ulterior motives for the accusation, but none of that came out as there was no formal complaint and no investigation. It was all a matter of spoken and written allegations to anyone who was willing to listen. The complaint was assumed by many to be true because of two common but mistaken attitudes:
(1) “there’s no smoke without fire” and
(2) no one in their right mind would make such a complaint unless it were true.
Now, hopefully you agree with me that the law (or a code of conduct) has to protect everyone. So, if an accusation has been made against someone, it should be tested before being acted upon. Are there witnesses? What do they say? Are there previous complaints about the same behaviour from the same person? What was the outcome of those? Is there any evidence to support the allegation? What are the details?
As anyone who has been an investigator (and I spent many periods in my life a professional investigator, manager and trainer of wannabe investigators) knows, people lie. There are certain indicators of lies being told, most of which can be boiled down to vagueness or ‘I forget’. So detail is important. If you’ve ever watched a TV crime drama you’ll know how much of the solution comes from checking the details. This should hold for any accusation that has the power to destroy a person’s reputation within our communities. So, where’s the a code of conduct, those who have to administer it should also be aware of the basic tools for examining the evidence in order to come to a conclusion about whether or not a complaint may be true. without that, the rush to remedy one wrong – the missing stair syndrome – replaces it with a new wrong.
If there is a code, there should be an attempt to test the information before coming to a conclusion, and trying to base that conclusion on the evidence, rather than on personal prejudice. That doesn’t imply any harshness – such testing can be done with sensitivity and sympathy. Someone can be genuinely in distress, but that doesn’t mean their complaint is true. Someone can be lying or hiding something they don’t want to divulge, but that doesn’t mean their complaint is untrue. People are complicated. And, because people are complicated and things are rarely straightforward, trying to be fair means giving the accused person the right to know the details and to answer them.
Let’s take an example. Annie’s son has been bullying Brenda’s son for months. Brenda confronts Annie, who refuses to do anything. In fact, Annie goes to the police to (falsely) accuse Brenda of hitting her. The case goes to court but Brenda is only told the accusation is that she hit Annie. she isn’t told when or where or how, and is given no means to defend herself. In court, she is not permitted any representation. The jury are asked to make a decision based on looking at the two women and listening only to Annie. Annie brings two or three friends to court to say they, also, have been hit by Brenda. Again, Brenda is not permitted to know the details and the police have not checked them in any way. I’m sure everyone hearing that would think that this process is entirely unfair to Brenda.
Now, I want to be fair to Brenda. The problem, of course, is that (a) to be fair to both parties, an investigation should be carried out – but professional training for this sort of activity is rare, and without that, prejudice tends to creep in. And (b) if a code is fair to all parties, and the investigations are impartial and unprejudiced, then the conclusion will often offend the complainers. and their friends. And, once that happens, everyone resorts to gossip.
Another problem is that often, complainants don’t want to go ‘on the record’. They want to make their complaint, to be believed, and for the person they complain about to be punished – all without their name being mentioned. As you can see (if you’ve read this far) that means they don’t want the accused to know the details of the complaint, in case s/he subjects them to more harassment and/or threats. I’ve seen that happen, too. But if the evidence isn’t presented to the accused, we’re back to Brenda.
If you think I’m going to come up with a solution to all this mess, you’ll be disappointed. Neither I nor any expert I talked to had one. Oh, we issued instructions to everyone during an investigation not to gossip, and we did all we could to protect the accuser and his/her friends and allies against harassment – but you can’t protect someone from snubs and worse, in the workplace. And the same goes for the pagan community. The sad truth is that finding a solution means compromise on both sides. I’ve worked on mediations that have broken my heart and – after hours of intensive work to gain an agreement – left me ill for hours. And no one was really satisfied because a compromise often means getting the bare minimum of what you want. But sometimes, that’s all there is.
So, no – no solutions. We do not have Anubis’s scales to measure what lies in the hearts of those involved in a complaint. All I’m doing is raising awareness of some of the issues I haven’t seen discussed much. However, if you want to read one excellent conversation (within the LARP community) that touches on these points, try this.