It’s not a thing we talk about. Abusive relationships are so often framed in terms of one person (usually you’re dating them) smacking you around and making angry, jealous duckface. We don’t consider group relationships–communities, spaces, industries–capable of being abusive, but they are. They can be worse, because when you’re in a group, you don’t think you’re as alone as an abusive group can make you feel.
From observation, experience, and so on, here’s some of what that looks like:
- A group working overtime to say, “We’re so accepting! We don’t turn you away no matter what!” — because the subtext, what they’re really saying, is “You’re so awful you need accepting people, and by the way, never displease us, because we’re only here because we’re so accepting. No one else will have you.”
- A group that triumphantly trumpets being outcasts as part of their identity. Just like those first dates who tell you they’re too “authentic”, too raw for the mainstream, who call other people prudes and sheep and believe in “brutal honesty”, the hint you’re being given here is that these people are very, very bad about others’ boundaries. Groups that are bad about boundaries will, I guarantee you, contain at least one predator. And once word gets around at how bad that group is with boundaries, there’ll soon be a lot more of them.
- Any group that demonstrates trust and “letting you in” by gossiping about ex-members of the group and how terrible they were. “You’re better than X; between you and me, this is what they did.” They’re demonstrating to you exactly what will happen to you if you step out of line and displease them.
- Any group whose basic reaction to new people is standoffishness, closing ranks, or hostility: “fake geek girl” tests, noob culture, your opinion being nothing until you’ve impressed the right person or dropped the right cultural reference. Any group whose attention you have to dance for doesn’t actually like you enough to be worth dancing for.
- Any group that, for that matter, reacts with hostility or possessiveness when you have other interests, other friends, or other demands on your time. A group that doesn’t like you having or spending time with friends who are outside the group, or who doesn’t like you having ties they can’t directly monitor, is trying to isolate you and cut off your reality checks.
- Any group that gets mad at you for violating unspoken, unasked-for, and unagreed-upon expectations or rules that you never discussed or consented to–and that aren’t part of the general cultural discourse, like the basic “don’t harass people” or “wear clean clothes” or the like. This is no different than being a many-headed controlling boyfriend, or abusive parent.
- Any group that has a significant backchannel for information about predators in the group, dirty secrets, problems that never seem to get solved–because that means communication and honesty has been broken for a long time in that space, and there are serious, serious problems running rampant through it.
- Any group that does not have an accountability mechanism in place for its members, or where the accountability mechanism is there but it’s lip service, not enforced–and calls to enforce it are frozen out or discouraged.
- Groups that have an unusually high turnover. Do people in your scene or group of friends constantly seem to be disappearing and being replaced? Are there always people on the way out the door? When people leave, do you never, ever hear from them again? Consider why.
- Groups where you will face significant repercussions, socially, for disagreement with a very few people. Is the power in the group you’re in equal and proportionate? Is there such thing as “People we’re not talking to,” and who decides who the entire group is not talking to?
- Groups whose mythology about themselves and who they are don’t seem to match their behaviours. Does a group say it’s diverse, but contain one token diverse person? Does a group pride itself on being accepting, but hang out with the same ten people it did fifteen years ago? That means there’s a serious break between self-image and actions, and that gets exceedingly problematic.
- Groups that use “nice” as blackmail. “If you’re nice, you’ll do X and Y. If you’re nice, you’ll give me what I want. If you don’t, you lose your status as nice.”
- There is an imposed narrative that a community or space is not an industry, community, friend group, but a “family”. The cultural association we have, in North America, is that family is forever; it is a thing you can’t leave–and thus have to put up with, no matter what it does to you or how it treats its members. It is a very unfortunate thing to say, but any company, group, or community that casts itself as a family is putting up a huge, massive red flag.
- Groups where nobody ever actually explicitly asks for anything. What others want from you is manipulated out of you, or implied, or passive-aggressively put on the table, sort of. But nobody comes right up to your face and asks for it.
If you just recognized a group of yours in this whole long list of behaviours? First off: I’m sorry. But more importantly: Walk. Walk, walk, walk away. Go. Run.
It’s one of our favourite narratives as activists that one person can make a difference. But here’s the thing: An abusive community is not a person, it’s a system; it’s a set of rules that are broken–may have been broken before any current member of the group joined it–and you are one person. You cannot change the dynamic of an abusive group unless you are in a near-tyrannical position of power there: a hiring manager, or a staff person where others are volunteers. You can’t “save” an abusive community, and you can’t show them all. That black hole will suck you dry. You will waste your life trying.
You don’t need an abusive group in your life. Nobody, not one person, needs to be stuck auditioning for love in the Manson Family. Just like with significant others, having a friend group is not automatically better than being alone. Your relationships should not persistently hurt you. Not your lovers, not your families, not your friends or communities, or industries. It’s the things you give each other as part of healthy relationships that make them valuable, not just their very existence.
So, what do healthy communities look like?
- Healthy communities don’t make you jump for their approval. They like you or they don’t, and they’re upfront about liking you or not. Approval and affection are not consistently treated as prizes or hostages in a healthy community.
- The members of healthy communities ask each other for what they need or want. They take no for an answer.
- The members of healthy communities treat you and each other with respect. Boundaries are observed, and members of healthy communities check to ensure they are not over your boundaries. When you say no–enforce a boundary–that no is accepted gracefully and you are not penalized for having said no. Having said no to something, you are not pushed on it to change your mind afterward. Your “no” is remembered and honoured.
- When you violate a boundary of a healthy community, it tells you exactly what boundary you have violated and why it’s important to the group that you correct that violation.
- In general, problems and boundary violations are fixed in a healthy community. They are not buried, denied, explained away, and repeated. People who perform problem behaviours either correct them and make good on their commitments to correct them or are removed from the space or group.
- A healthy community is not utterly bereft of abusive individuals, but what is healthy is the way the group’s systems handle abusive individuals. A healthy group does not enable nor tolerate abusive behaviours.
- A healthy community works to minimize double standards, as much as they are able in our systematically unequal society. There is no behaviour that’s allowed for one tier of the group but not for others. You cannot earn your way into bad behaviours being “allowed”.
- If you are having a rough patch in life, a healthy community doesn’t drop you like a hot rock. They ask you: “What does help look like?” rather than imposing a solution upon you, and getting angry if you do not agree that this is the solution. A healthy community provides support rather than “fixes”.
- On the other hand, if you are having a rough patch in life, a healthy community doesn’t magically appear to scoop you up and soothe away all your pain. That’s called a predator, and if they won’t have you when you’re healthy but show up when you’re weak or miserable, that’s something to treat with extreme suspicion.
- A healthy community does not tell you to suck it up and be less sensitive. It helps you care for yourself.
- Conflict in a healthy community, barring conflicts that egregiously violate the boundaries of members, is not always instantly the end of relationships. Conflict is treated with sincere and honest communication on all sides. Conflict isn’t feared, and setting boundaries is not feared.
- The leak of people out of the community is both small and visible, and people who drift out of the group still are willing to maintain ties here and there with friends inside the group.
That list is harder, because there are exploits to all of these indicators. There’s a “but, wait–” to every single one that can be used by abusive persons to argue that actually, it’s your fault. You’re making space unpleasant for them because you’re not giving them what they want, regardless of what it costs other members of the group. This is proof that they’re right and you’re wrong.
This is not what this list is for. I would strongly suggest that anyone using this list as a stick to beat another person over the head with take a strong, hard look at themselves. You cannot actually be part of a healthy community if you are an abusive person. You will have trouble being part of a healthy community if you are not actively working on a healthy you.
Best of luck, folks.
There’s a lot of good writing on abusive spaces and communities, starting with Issendai’s posts on sick systems and qualities that keep you in sick systems. They’re invaluable reading on group dynamics and how they go sour.