The first debate of the nightmare (did I say nightmare? I meant November) 2020 election offers a useful metaphor.
While I was watching the moderator last night pleading over and over again with 45 to just give the other dude his two minutes, to even try to take turns, I found myself thinking – were you thinking this too? months of zoom calls have changed what we think — “Where’s the mute button? Can’t the moderator cut the mic?”
Instead of imploring Dude 1 to ‘be nice’ and ‘play by the rules,’ while leaving that choice up to him, I found I wanted the two debaters in plexiglass boxes (hey, for covid!) and then to give the mod table a built in kill switch that could turn mics on and off as needed.
Tell me I’m not the only one thinking this.
The difference between these two approaches is akin to the difference between waiting for someone to stop abusing while asking them nicely but letting the abuse continue, and simply examining the structure that gives them the power to do so and removing that power to continue, while you then challenge them, removing that power to cause harm in a way that does not abuse them back, but does not allow the abuse to go on.
Since asking characterological abusers not to abuse often doesn’t work that well, and the deep challenging work to get characterological abusers to do deep inner change can take a long time and involve many backsliding moments, sometimes we forget we have other options that are not harmful to the person causing harm, but also do not allow the abuse to continue while they work their things out.
Federal debates are nothing if not well funded; this minor technological adjustment would have been easy. Plenty of spaces even exist already set up this way; UN and parliamentary style international summits and spaces dedicated to formal dialogue are designed with moderator control over speaker mics. This setup is not hard; I have attended speaking events in well wired public halls that do this much.
So why did we get treated to Chris Wallace alternately imploring, then asking nicely, then becoming a touch stern, then asking nicely again, then appealing to 45’s hypothetical better nature, then getting stern? All while 45 continued to do whatever he wanted.
What I’m getting at is not really about the debate.
The metaphor is beautiful:
This is not how we handle characterological abuse.
Don’t get me wrong: anybody who’s been reading these fumbling explorations these last few years knows that I’m deeply committed to humanizing and keeping in community those who are harmed, and also when possible those who harm. The way we contain can make all the difference.
Containment is not dehumanizing, it is a form of belonging.
What I want to draw out here is the clarity of the metaphor.
If we take 45’s behaviour at the debate as a metaphor for abuse, for doing things that harm others, then we can think over the ways that are available to handle that.
The difference between strictly limiting his mic time, turning it off and on to let him have his turns, vs letting him destroy the debate while asking him in a range of nice and stern ways to not do that, is the difference between thinking in structural and individual terms about solutions to violence and harm.
Asking him to not do that while letting him control the mic is not the only available way; the other option is to move that power to the moderator, who could turn the mics off and on when the speaker was in their turn, and then whether or not Trump kept talking would be his business. This is a crucial distinction.
The appeals to civility that he can simply ignore, the imploring him to think of the viewers, the asking him to remember the commitments that his team made to those two-minute turns, the attempts at firmness, these all might make sense to do with him, when working with him once his ability to damage the debate is removed, when he cannot do any harm, in the slow deep work to get him to do better the next time.
What does not make sense is letting whether he stops depend on whether he wants to do things differently in response to that imploring.
He can be contained in a way that honours his humanity and ours.
There is nothing humanizing or ethical about letting harm or abuse go on, while waiting and hoping and imploring and appealing to the abuser’s better nature as though waiting for the abuser to want to change is all that we can do.
It would make sense to do that deeper personal challenge once the power to do the harm has been structurally curtailed.
In other words, first, cut the mic, so that the person being injured can have the room they need to be safe.
First, stop the harm, and centre the needs of the person being harmed.
Then it becomes possible – once danger, injury, disruption, or violence has been contained, stopped, boxed up in a plexiglass room, only then does it become possible to get up close with the person harming, to go on into that plexiglass room with them, whether with your words over a microphone or your full self – and challenge them do the deeper work of challenging habits and control and entitlement. Then we can humanize them too, go slow if we need to, and think about what can connect with and reach them and maybe appeal to their commitments or their better nature, because we’re not letting whether they want to change determine whether the person being harmed can experience the protection they need to be humanized too.
Such a simple change. Cut the damn mic. Let dude number 2 speak, let the rest of us listen. Protect the rules of engagement and the commitment that we have to others in a culture that feels healthy and caring.
Then when the power to disrupt has been taken away from the abuser, literally removed, once the person being harmed has gotten back their ground of humanizing and protection and space to speak and live, then from that place where their power to do harm has been curtailed, the person causing harm can have the luxury of the empathy and challenge of those close by.
What does this mean in non-metaphorical terms?
When gendered or intimate partner violence is happening, there is this idea that the only available solution is to appeal to the abuser as though that’s the only avenue towards change.
When this doesn’t work, or is slow, because this type of deeper change can be glacially slow – it can be too easy to lose sight of the reason they are intervening in the first place: to create conditions of protection for the person being harmed.
I wish this was stating the obvious, but: that safety being put in place cannot depend on the goodwill of the abuser, not with characterological abuse. The person doing the violence can learn at their own speed once the violence itself is contained by the group.
This allows the humanizing of all.
‘First cut the mic’ means take away the platform or power over or whatever forms of control and power lets them affect others. Let their abusive behaviour be only theirs, without the power to enact it in ways that cause harm.
The difference between humanizing all those involved in harm, vs centring the abuser at the expense of dehumanizing the survivor, lies in this crucial distinction.
Waiting for those causing harm to decide they want to change, before we barrier up their ability to harm, or waiting for them to feel comfortable before we decide whether we will get in the way and stop the harm from happening, telling those they are harming that their safety needs to wait until their abuser says the harm can stop, thinking that the only way we stop harm is appealing to the abuser’s better nature, handing abusers all of the power to do as they like, all of this dehumanizes those they are harming.
Holding those who abuse in relationship while centring and creating protection for their targets is not always possible, I admit. But it is possible more often than we may think: holding the circle of humanizing while containing the ability to harm can in fact protect survivors more than quick disavowal ever does, given the reality of bystander backlash.
And containment is different from canceling; quite frankly, this skill set can protect our communities from the belief that there are only two options: cancel the person entirely or be overly permissive of abuse. There is this entire other set of options and tools available that first create conditions of protection, and only then build abuser capacity.
Curtailing power over others, quickly, and clearly, in a way that takes direction from those harmed and upholds their agency while it also offers kindness and a clearly spelled out path to repair to the person causing harm, allows for the humanizing of the survivor, which is foundational as it then allows for the humanizing of both.
cut. the. damn. mic. Contain the power to harm.
Then once the harm is contained you can appeal to his civility all you like, and take all the time in the world. While the event or life goes on with other people’s needs centred, or at least taken into consideration.
(ps I’m back! This is the first post after the book! I have had half a dozen other essays and little posts hidden on here half formed that have never gotten to the light of day cuz I needed to return to the feeling of freedom that this blog started with to feel like I could write anything after all of the amazing things that have happened. So here, I got it all out in one breath before I could get cold feet.
pps this is a draft. I wrote it in one go with only a little judicious revising and will circle back around and revise once it’s been let out to air. For a word about the process and the way I write here please visit the About page.)
ppps has anybody seen a “this is fine” meme – the burning house one with the dog drinking coffee – with plexiglass dividers? Want to make me one? I was going to make one to add to this post for fun.
Thanks for reading! I’ll circle back and revise some time later. The ideas could be shorter and sharper but I have this metaphor in my head that illustrates this question so clearly, I wanted to get it out while it was current in my head… like a river current. 🙂
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