Reader Request Week 2018 #3: The Reputational Reset, Or Not

Here’s a question from email, from a contributor who asked to remain anonymous (which is one reason, I suppose, it came in email):

If you fuck up, how long should you have to spend in the wilderness before you’re allowed to come back?

I mean, I think it depends, don’t you?

I suspect this question is asked in reference to the #MeToo movement, in which prominent men who have sexually coerced, assaulted and harassed women (and others) have been called into account and have, to varying degrees, been banished. But while the answer to this question in reference to those men feels relatively simple (i.e., “to hell with them”), in a larger and more general sense, the question of when (and if!) to no longer factor transgressions that people have made against you or others into your view of them is one I’ve wrestled with personally. Because, you know. Over the years, people have gotten themselves onto my personal shit list, and from time to time it’s worth revisiting that list to see whether those people should be paroled from it.

And as it happens, in thinking about this I’ve realized that over the years I’ve mostly unconsciously developed an informal rule for taking people off my personal shit list. You know how it takes seven years to take a bankruptcy off your credit report? For me, and generally speaking, it takes roughly ten years before I stop counting what I personally consider a major fuck up against you.

Why ten years? Because ten years is enough time not only to see if you’ve learned, but to see if you’ve incorporated that learning into your actual life. Like so: Have you recognized the error of your ways? Have you accepted responsibility for your actions? Have you (when allowed) made amends to the people you’ve wronged? Have you avoided minimizing or excusing your actions, and avoided trying to place the blame for them on others? Have you not repeated the same bad action again, or with others? If the answer to all of the above is “yes,” and for ten years running, then, fine. We probably all get to move on. If not, then not, and every time the answer to one of the questions above is “no,” well, then. The ten year clock resets.

(I also tend to credit this retroactively: We just met and I learn you fucked up a decade ago, realized your error, worked to fix it, and didn’t do the same fuck up again? Fine, the decade clock for you has already run down.)

I think this is a reasonably good informal general rule (for me) because, look: People can and do change, and people can and do work to rebuild their lives so they can be a better version of themselves. I feel it’s not unreasonable, after an appropriate amount of time and evidence of work done, to credit people with effort and assume they have gotten themselves right. Maybe that’s optimistic of me, but I think optimism isn’t a bad thing to practice with people.

That said, I’m not especially squishy about these things. I don’t, for example, equate absence of bad action with contrition. I think there are a lot of harassers out there who have stopped harassing not because they recognize the error of their actions, but simply because they just can’t get away with it anymore. And, yeah. You don’t get credit for that, bucko. This is a wagon it’s supremely easy to fall off of.

While I’m at this: not holding something against you is not the same as pretending a thing had not been been done; or more simply, forgiving is not forgetting. I don’t tend to forget. Oh, and: Not holding something against you anymore isn’t the same as liking you. Just because I no longer hold a previous bad action against you, it doesn’t make us friends. That’s an entirely separate process.

(Likewise, I can and have liked people who I think have fucked up, and can hold their fuck up against them, even as sometimes I have helped them recover from that fuck up. What can I say, people are complicated sometimes.)

(That said, it’s very rare I do that. Specifically I tend to drop people I have determined have willingly transgressed against me, because life is short and I don’t have time for assholes in my life anymore. So, you know. If you go out of your way to fuck with me, don’t think having being a friend will have much weight on that score. Friends don’t go out of their way to fuck with you.)

(Gosh, that just got dark, didn’t it.)

I should also note that for me this formulation generally works better for people you know in your own life than in the world of celebrity and notability, if for no other reason than it’s easier to see people doing the work to right themselves when they’re in your personal sphere of social perception. It can work with celebrities and notable people, I guess, if you’re super-invested in them, on the grounds that some people know more about celebrities and their lives than they know about their neighbors. I’m usually not that invested, so my practice with celebrities tends to be a bit more ruthless — out they go, generally speaking. There are always more celebrities and people making cool things to enjoy, and people to move into positions of power. I do have a small stack of celebrities on my “possibly enjoy again after they’re dead” list, but while they’re alive they won’t get another penny or another moment of my time. That seems reasonable to me.

At this point it’s fair to ask whether I would be comfortable with people holding the same standards against me, should they determine that I’ve fucked up or transgressed. The answer is: Well, I probably should, shouldn’t I? I’m not special, after all: I’ve fucked up, and transgressed against people, and otherwise people have made their own determinations about whether or not I’m worth their time. I’ve frequently apologized for my actions, made amends when I could and when allowed, and have continually made efforts to be a better person, with varying but hopefully positive results.

How much credit I get for that, if any, is up to any individual person. I have an informal rule for all this, but it’s not to say my informal rule will work for anyone else. Everyone gets to make their own rules about who to forgive, and when, and if, and who gets to be in their life. There are probably some people who will be happy never to see me again, for whatever reason, and that’s fine. I prefer not to inflict myself on people who want nothing to do with me.

(And as for the “celebrity” portion of that as an author — well, I mean, definitely don’t buy my stuff if you think I’m a terrible person.)

So this is generally how it works for me. I give credit for work done, but I also don’t grade easily, or on a curve. Whether this sort of formulation works for you will depend on a whole bunch of factors, mostly related to you. It’s okay if it doesn’t, or if you have some other formulation entirely. The thing about all of this is, it’s personal.

(There is still time to ask a question for Reader Request Week! Go here for all the details, and to ask your question.)

46 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2018 #3: The Reputational Reset, Or Not”

  1. This is about how I work, except I conceptualize it differently.

    I don’t forgive, for major/patterned stuff. That thing you did will never be okay, and the person you were when you did it will never be an okay person.

    Ten years is enough time to become, functionally, a new person. Do that, and we can talk.

  2. Yeah, I get this completely. I definitely think people have room to change and if I see someone I once trusted who’s hurt me truly change for the better, there’s a possibility I’ll give them a second chance. It really just depends on the situation though because some actions are unforgivable.

  3. I think I use a similar process, but a lot less than ten years. Someone can become (and demonstrate their being) a new person in a couple of years with enough work. At least enough for my satisfaction.

  4. For me, age is a real consideration. If someone does something at, say, 15, the rehab time on that may be different. Whether or not it’s a recurring thing is a huge factor. A one-off with no pattern of behavior is different from repeat behavior. There are some things where the statute of limitation=forever.

  5. I’ve never felt the need to formulate a policy on this, myself, which maybe says something about my life experience. I have been wronged (I grew up gay in an oppressive religious group), and I don’t forget, but at the same time, those people are simply not part of my life anymore, so there’s no need to think of them at all.

    Well, it works for me.


  6. I have a problem, compared with others, of “holding grudges” too long. Maybe I’m too self protective.

    As for a time frame, I think our ancestors had the right idea with seven years. I despise the implied advice that anything on the Internet “should” be on there forever. No it shouldn’t. We should have the grace to have a statute of limitations, to do like a juror and say old things are inadmissible. I don’t want to know what a backslapping conformity-loving “frat boy” did scores of years ago, not even if he is former President Bush.

    Before someone says that a statute means “Hitler” or my brothe-in-law would get away with stuff: No he wouldn’t, for he would keep having “bozo eruptions” at intervals of less than seven years.

  7. I cannot disagree with a single word of this. You have described, with at most trivial differences in detail, the way I approach this topic.

  8. This really depends on what the fuckup was, and what the person is doing “in the wilderness”. Without specific examples, it’s almost impossible to say, and so many people don’t want to talk about specific examples because we’re all back in whisper-network land for some of us, and we ‘don’t want to be mean’ for others, and still others are worried that making waves against a famous person might fuck up a career, or attract trolls. There’s actual dangerous people out there who’d think nothing of calling one’s workplace or family if they get criticism about being a bigot.

    For example, Junot Diaz. I’ve met him a few times in passing, said a few words, was interested in some of his problematic books.

    How long does HE have to wander? It really depends on where he goes and what he does. If he just vanishes off the scene then comes back? He can wander back out. If he spends a few years publicly fixing his shit, and ALSO starts helping men with problems get better? He did what he did, but he might get some measure of welcome, and he’d better NEVER stop working on fixing his shit and calling out men acting badly.

    For example, he’s friends with people I know. If they defend him, I’d expect a contrite Diaz to correct them and tell them not to defend him. That he was wrong, and anyone defending him is making things worse. Because that’s what one step towards being a better human being looks like.

  9. My policy is slightly different. Context: I have had 54 street addresses in 52 years (3 continents, 8 countries, 7 states). Because I turned “let’s move intercontinentally” into a habit[1], mostly before the Internet[2], my policy towards others depended on three labels and one Rule.

    1) Ok
    2) Toxic
    3) Toxic_Sticky
    Rule: Don’t be someone others would label as Toxic_Sticky.

    Ok people may or may not have been people I would hang around with at a party[3], some of them were truly a ‘piece of work’, but they still had some redeeming qualities. So they got the benefit of the doubt.

    When I labeled someone as Toxic, if we were at the same party, I would leave.

    Toxic_Stick, however, meant that not only would I leave the party, but I would also never go to another party hosted by that same group. My thought process was, /If you find this person interesting, then there must be something wrong with YOU, too, and I ain’t got time for that/.

    Keep in mind that I probably was going to move in less than a year, and I would probably not be interacting with exactly that group, even if I moved back to that city in the future[4], so I didn’t need to worry about things like the OP’s /when do you forgive and forget/ requirement.

    [1] Soldier, Student, Diplomat Spouse, Employee, Manager, Homeless.
    [2] I’ve heard of it. It’ll never catch on. (Scots taxi driver, London, late ’90s)
    [3] For ‘party’, substitute “workplace”, “school”, etc.
    [4] Expat groups being fluid, with everyone moving constantly.

  10. I generally consider four factors.
    1: How serious is the infraction?
    2: Is their contrition commensurate with the seriousness of the infraction?
    3: How invested am I in this person?
    4: Is there something to hang mercy on, given that forgiveness is a virtue? Lord knows I’ve made enough mistakes that I’d be grateful for mercy.

  11. Thinking about this reminds me of Michael Richards’ (Kramer) appearance on Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”. Richards speaks about his racist outburst at a comedy club years earlier – he says “I busted up after that event seven years ago, It broke me down… it still kicks me around.” To which Seinfeld responds “That’s up to you, to say, ‘I’ve been carrying this bag long enough. I’m going to put it down.’ ”

  12. I experienced this and figured out my own personal ruling on it around fifteen years ago.

    At the time I was the primary instructor for my martial arts group and into said group comes this fellow who REALLY got on my shit list (and was generally an awful person) about twenty years prior. This was rough. My responsibility was to teach this person and teach them properly, but it’s considered bad form to spar with or compete against those with whom you have issues. if someone were to get hurt, in particular seriously – was it because of the grudge or really just an accident? Better, ethically, to be clear on the matter.

    So, having no easy way out of this, I made the decision to teach him, but to have other students and fighters do the sparring and testing. I would personally stay out of it. Seemed a good compromise and I’m still happy with that decision.

    However, I learned as part of that process that, well – twenty years is a long time and people DO change. There were a lot of folks in my group that didn’t want to give this person even a slight chance, as he’d been a real piece of work back in the day and upset a great many people. But the more time I spent with him for teaching the more I discovered that he just wasn’t that person anymore. He’d been married, become a parent, divorced, got his dream job as an EMT and saved lives and had folks die in his arms and then gotten hurt and had to start building a new career from scratch that could not be his dream job etc. He was a great dad. He had, in fact, become a very solid person.

    One night, at an out of town event we were sitting on the porch of a cabin after an evening of fighting and I told him essentially all of the above. What I’d thought, what I’d learned and the like. I said, “Look, this doesn’t make us friends. However based on what I have seen over the last year – as far as I’m concerned you have a blank slate with me. What you write on it is entirely up to you, but the past is clearly not relevant to who you are today.”

    Poor fellow was literally in tears.

    And, in the end, we did wind up being friends and still are. And it’s been worthwhile and I’m glad for it.

    Anyway, that was my experience. Maybe it will help some other folks trying to figure out their personal standards.

    And John – I entirely approve of your thoughts on this as a good ‘general’ rule of thumb to at least start considering the concept of. As with so many of your posts, very insightful. Thank you.

  13. I’m not altogether sure molesting and abusing women (or anyone) is something someone can change in themselves. Obviously there is something in their past or DNA which makes them think this is acceptable behavior, as well as providing the desire to do so. And unlike other sexual crimes, you don’t have the penalty of jail time as a motivating factor to possibly modify your future behavior. Finally, like rape this isn’t generally about sex. It’s about control and manipulation.

  14. @robertreynolds: Yes–that and the time period, for me.

    For instance, as it’s come up recently in discussions of period TV shows: marrying someone with whom your sexual orientation is incompatible, and then cheating on them. Granted that I’m strongly of the “fidelity is between the people who agreed to it and nobody else’s damn business” mindset in general, I’m still a lot more sympathetic toward someone who did the above in, say, 1955 than I would be in 2018.

    Obviously there are things that are wrong in virtually every time and place, and this doesn’t excuse bigotry, but there’s a level of ignorance/necessity that comes into play with some things at some points in the past. Because the past was awful.

  15. I must admit, I am a soft touch on people who screw up. If they get it, genuinely get it, and do change their behaviour going forward then that is good enough for me. If they don’t get it, or they get it but try and weasel out of it then they are dead to me until they do. With me it is the ability to understand why they were wrong and what they have to do to not ever do it again. I admit that I am very much on the extreme end of the forgiveness/punishment scale though. I find it hard not to forgive, but I know that probably is just as unhealthy as the never-forgive in some ways. I wish I knew why I found it so easy (too easy?) to forgive, it has certainly cost me personally a few times.

  16. I think asking for a specific time has a whiff of rules-lawyering that I don’t care for. It’s kind of like the guys who harp on about the legal age of consent in very specific jurisdictions. The fact that you, hypothetical questionasker-type person, are focusing on the fine print and not on the big picture (which is DONT HARASS PEOPLE) suggests you’re just trying to work out how to get away with doing bad shit with minimum harm to your reputation. That makes you a shitstain.

  17. There’s no statue of limitations for hurting my children. My ex son in law violently abused my daughter. He is effectively dead to me. He is also the loving father of my grandsons. I don’t interfere in that relationship and I don’t speak badly of their father. But I will never speak or associate with him again. Family functions find me very busy with other people and projects.

  18. Well reasoned, as always. I think a couple things need more exploration:

    First, intent. There’s a big difference between someone who uses words with deliberate intent to hurt and someone (for example) raised to use a specific racial epithet without ever having met a member of that “race”, and who subsequently meets such a person, recognizes them as a person, and stops using the epithet. It’s hard to forgive the former, but possible to forgive the latter.

    Side note: This ties somewhat into age and social indoctrination issues, since each of us does stupid things when we’re young that hopefully won’t scar us for life. For example, I’m told when I was really young, I used to crap my pants regularly — and this was normally and socially acceptable. I appear to have grown out of that antisocial behavior, and hopefully won’t grow back into it for another several decades. Depends. *G*

    Second, there’s an issue of personal attitudes towards forgiveness. I have a spectrum that ranges, depending on the bleakness of the day and gravity of the offence, from “everyone deserves a chance to be forgiven” and “some things should never be forgotten nor forgiven”. I like to believe that people can change for the better, and should be rewarded for that change, but often fall into the misanthropic side of the spectrum.

  19. This is one aspect on which my Catholic upbringing comes in handy, and interestingly is supported by psychological research. In brief: forgiveness doesn’t come for free. It can only be paid for.

    First of all, I agree that the degree of the offense matters, BUT
    Second, simply saying you are sorry is not sufficient. Nor is acting differently now without any reference to the past.
    Third, you must act in a way that rebalances the scales. This means:

    a. You must honestly acknowledge the error, no hedging or blaming the context or others. Own it.
    b. You must change your behavior visibly, measurably, and positively. You can’t just stop the bad behavior and avoid the good behavior. You must take better action.
    c. You must find a way to make it right to those you have harmed, insulted, or otherwise offended, AKA penance, in old Catholic terms — the new term for the sacrament is “reconciliation,” which is really what we’re talking about here.

    I have no timeline as such, because it really depends on the magnitude of the offense and in turn the magnitude of the penance. If someone is rude to me once in passing and apologizes credibly, fine, everyone has bad days. If someone makes a small error and takes major action to make up for it, that’s cool. Overall, the bigger the offense, the bigger your payback HAS to be to show credibility, and realistically someone being systematically awful for years on end will probably need years on end to make up for it systematically.

    Frankly, I will be nice to someone who apologizes nicely, but I won’t trust that person until they have proven they really mean it.

  20. Lots of sensible views here.

    I have slightly different rules for politicians and celebrities, since image is part of who they are. The public, representative nature of their job means their behavior is relevant. For me, they’ve got no right to future endorsement money, selling products based on people aspiring to be them or political public standing if they’ve done something particularly heinous in the past. Low level criminals in some states lose the right to vote for life; some celebrity bastard can lose the right to glossy mag coverage.

    They can get a job in a non-profit, back-room political roles where they’re not representing constituents, or an innocuous business position. There’s no reason for them to trade off image again.

    I’m not 100% in any of my rules, but, whatever.

  21. This is a topic that I’ve been thinking over a lot lately, but from a different angle. Full disclosure: I’m a 20-year registrant on the sex offender registry, and a convicted felon for the crime of possession of “sexually explicit materials,” which is to say, images of children being sexually abused.

    I’ve been through years of counseling and probation, gone through hours and hours of psychological examinations, passed multiple polygraph tests, and built a social support system for myself that’s made up of people who understand what I did, why I did it, and why I need to be held accountable for how I manage my thoughts and emotions in the present and the future. I also return to my sex offender group once every month to do a self-check and to help the other people in the program in any way that I can.

    But this act is something that I can never put behind me. I will always be a felon, and I’ll be on the registry until I’m in my 50s. For the rest of my life, all of the available options and opportunities for how I exist in the world will be affected by other peoples’ perceptions of me.

    Which is not unfair. It’s a consequence of my actions, and I accept it. I’m in the unfortunate position, however, of needing to be in the public sphere if I’m going to make a proper living. The only work I’ve ever done, or been qualified to do, has been in music, writing, and game design. I’m currently back in college getting a music degree, and I plan to get my master’s in choral conducting. I eventually want to make at least some money running my own choirs and teaching voice lessons. In addition to that, I love to compose and to write stories, and I’m working on developing a new method of teaching music theory.

    If I am going to have any success at all in any of these endeavors, I’ll need for people to accept me; as a leader, as a teacher, and as a creator.

    I understand that’s a lot to ask! So far, things have gone relatively well for me socially since my conviction. There have been comments here and there from people, always behind my back, and I was once evicted from an apartment complex I was living in because the owners didn’t want to deal with the possibility of the police notifying the other residents of my status, but otherwise I have been very, very fortunate. The people who loved me before still love me now, and the new people I’ve met and told about my status have chosen to continue to build relationships with me. In fact, the biggest social challenge, for myself and for many other sex offenders in my position, has been getting the people who care about me to accept that yes, I really did do a terrible thing, and yes, if I was capable of doing it once then I am capable of doing it again, if I don’t take care of myself and maintain a healthy balance in life. I can’t let anyone make excuses for me or let me off the hook, and that’s tough for people to understand sometimes.

    But expanding outward into the world through my creative and educational work is going to be an entirely different challenge. What will happen when I put my creative work out there into the world? What will happen when I try to start a choir of my own? When I start publishing papers about music theory, and putting my ideas into testable form? I genuinely don’t know, and it’s hard to find answers to those questions, as most of the stories we hear about sex offenders are of current or past offenders being caught and finally being held accountable (or not) for their actions.

    It’s far more difficult to find stories about people who were already caught, already paid a significant price (a price I’m not going to harp on here; this comment isn’t about me trying to engender empathy), already did the years of work it takes to actually change one’s behaviors and thoughts, and then found success as an artist. I genuinely can’t think of one off the top of my head. And that’s scary.

    I do have one answer, so far. One thing that I know I’m going to do is start a choir for prison inmates, in the vein of the East Hill Singers in Kansas (about which there is a powerful documentary called “Conducting Hope”). There are several similar prison choirs all over the U.S. and Europe (and probably in other places as well), and they all have the same purpose: give their members a sense of community, a shared goal, a feeling of pride, a boost in confidence, and the knowledge that they are valuable people who can do beautiful things. These choirs an are enormous help in the process of reintegrating prisoners into their communities, getting them jobs, and reducing the chance of them committing future crimes.

    Running a prison choir is something that I know I am qualified to do, and it’s something that will actively make the world a better place. It’s also a situation in which my criminal conviction and past actions won’t be a hindrance. In fact, they will help me to identify and connect with the people I’ll be conducting.

    Beyond that, though, I worry about how my past will affect my ability to work. And yet, I have no other choice but to keep moving forward and keep creating. Creative work is all I have. Asking people to accept me and the things that come out of my head is all I can do. So I will.

  22. Frankly, it sounds a forgiveness of little practical significance to me. If I screw up, you drop me, I go fix myself and stay fixed for ten years and at the end of that period you are willing to (I cannot find a better word) consort with me again, that’s great in theory. But in practise we don’t have a relationship anymore. How likely is it that either of us will have the motivation, the energy, the time, to rebuilt a connection? Is it good to know that you are no longer out in the world hating me? Sure. But in a totally abstract way.

  23. Perfection
    This essay is one of your best, in line with “Being Poor” and “The Child on the Train”.
    It nails why I was never able to reconcile with my mother, nor with a sister. Ever.
    They never changed, let alone: acknowledged or apologized or atoned.

    The BIGGER question: celebrities, Hitler, “depends on the crime”, etc – How long must you atone?
    The late, great Jullian May asked this in The Adversary. Marc Remillard was directly responsible for death of uncounted billions of lives, and spent 6 million years atoning for the wrongs that he did.
    Was that enough?

    Thank You again, for your amazing words.

  24. Stephen Kelner noted: “Third, you must act in a way that rebalances the scales.”

    Excellent point. This is the focus of restorative justice, which has roots in many cultures and seems (anecdata) to be more effective than punitive justice. I’ve most often heard this concept discussed in the context of Canada’s aboriginal peoples, but there are many other variants. This recognizes the importance of the point that it’s ideally not me nor thee nor society who decides whether someone should be forgiven, but rather the victim.

  25. With the best will in the world to love all that is living, trust a Power Greater than myself, let myself be authentic and vulnerable and show the world who I really am and so forth, it’s only a “keep trying” skill for me to be that way. I’ll never master it.

    I grew up in a Situation that made me believe I was required to become a Jedi Master at Protecting Those I Love From Harm. When you start learning that at a very young age, without much leavening perspective of maturity and/or sane, trustworthy adults in your life, those skills can become remarkably toxic.

    And because, in such Situations, in order to Protect Those You Love From Harm, the price is frequently accepting, minimizing, and denying harm to yourself, the toxicity cuts both ways. You become to yourself, if not always to others, one of the people we’re discussing here.

    Ultimately I realized that and committed myself to a lifelong process of recovery. But “forgiveness” of myself eluded me entirely, until I tried to give up the mechanism of judgment and forgiveness altogether. That has finally helped.

    So I’m committed to the “keep trying” skill described above, while walking the line of determining what is (and isn’t) tolerating, embracing and/or enabling toxic others. When I identify that happening, I do whatever is necessary to keep myself from being harmed by their toxic crap. No judgment, no forgiveness, no second-guessing or assumptions about who they are or what their intentions are, etc.

    Just doing what I can to keep the toxic shit from occupying space in my head, heart or life.

  26. “This recognizes the importance of the point that it’s ideally not me nor thee nor society who decides whether someone should be forgiven, but rather the victim.”
    This is a great idea in theory, but falls apart when the victims are all dead or when the victims only demand vengeance instead of justice.

    SA dealt with this with Truth and Reconciliation.
    Israel and Palestinians will never Reconcile.

    How would the colonizers of the americas atone for what happened to the natives, given that most tribes were wiped out? The victims are gone.
    In the end, there needs to be both options, or you can never atone.

  27. I find it perplexing when people talk about, say, Tom Cruise having rehabilitated his image when his 2005 antics on Oprah are still quite prominent in my perception of him, or when Kanye West made an ass of himself when Taylor Swift got that Grammy award. I still remember those things, and I don’t foresee them not being part of who those people are.

    But then, I don’t expect to meet any of those people or have a personal connection to them, so it’s not that important to how I live my life either.

  28. Dear John,

    There’s something implicit in the question that fails to acknowledge that different fuck-ups deserve different degrees of punishment, even beyond personal feelings. That’s built into any human system of punishment. Going 5 miles over the speed limit is not considered anywhere as serious as going 50 miles over the speed limit. Driving while drunk is a whole lot less serious than driving while drunk and killing someone.

    And there aren’t going to be hard and fast rules. If we could rely on those, we could hand all traffic violations over to the law computers and dispense with judges, et al, entirely.

    And those rules will change with time and as the culture changes. We deal with (and punish) child molestation and drunk driving a lot more seriously today than we did 50 years ago. Most of us think that’s a good thing. Conversely, we criminalize consensual-sex “crimes” a whole lot less than we did 50 years ago. I think that’s a good thing. I hope most people agree, but now we’re into Culture Wars and for all I know there’s a “silent majority” out there who firmly disagree. In which case I hope they stay silent.


    Dear Ron,

    “I’m not altogether sure molesting and abusing women (or anyone) is something someone can change in themselves.”

    Yes, they can. I know people who have, unquestionably and without a doubt, done that. (Sorry, can’t give details, privacy issues. You’ll have to trust me on it.)

    But I certainly don’t think it’s the norm, or even common; I think it is a rare thing. ( Caveat — I have zero data to support that opinion.) I feel you’d be an entirely solid ground considering it very unlikely.

    But not impossible.


    Dear Marina,

    Different people, different circumstances. John (and I) are both members of the science fiction fan community and authors. There is a very large group of “regulars” — hundreds, maybe thousands — who we are repeatedly going to cross paths with socially and professionally whether we wish to or not. So, yes, opportunities exist for both forgiveness and reestablishing relationships.

    Conversely, there are two people in that universe who transgressed against me so seriously, almost 40 years ago, that I decided they would never be deserving of forgiveness. They are the only two people who receive the Cut Direct (the etiquette death penalty — people who are unfamiliar can Google it). Several times a year I will encounter one of the other of them and it is entirely clear (to them, not to others, which is one of the points of the Cut Direct) that they are invisible to me.

    On the other hand… This is a true story, as unbelievable as it will sound…

    I went to my 20th high school reunion and at some point in the evening a man I didn’t recognize (’cause, 20 years) came up to me, introduced himself and said he needed to apologize to me. It was the fellow who’d been my primary bully, physically and mentally, for six years of public school. Paraphrasing — this was 30 years ago and who remembers exact conversations — he apologized with clear and heartfelt sincerity, told me he knew how badly he had treated me all that time, and that after he had graduated it had started eating at him, and it hadn’t let go for fifteen years. He said it forced him to become a better person, to learn how to treat everyone better and to never do anything like that to anybody ever again. It stayed so much a presence in his mind that he wrote a play, disguised autobiographical, addressing this. It was what motivated him to come to the reunion, that I might be there so that he could apologize. But he was trying to justify any of this to me, he wanted me to know how sorry he was and to apologize.

    I accepted his apology. I don’t know that I said much more — I wish I had — because I was stunned. It was like one of those Hallmark Specials that never actually happens in real life.

    I haven’t seen him since. I don’t know that we would be friends, because we might not have anything in common. But we COULD be friends.

    – pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. 
    — Digital Restorations. 

  29. Ctien:

    “There’s something implicit in the question that fails to acknowledge that different fuck-ups deserve different degrees of punishment, even beyond personal feelings.”

    I think the questions brevity is the cause of that. My own answer has the phrase “major fuck up” in it, precisely because, as you note, there are major and minor fuck ups, and they should be considered differently. Also, I think my “ten years” formulation generally compensates for “it was a different time” aspects of things, although I think “different times” is an excuse people should use avisidly if at all, since in many cases it’s not as applicable as people might hope (see: Harvey Weinstein’s initial note about his actions).

  30. How long does an In-cel man have to remain celibate before society owes him sex?
    Really a crazy question. The obvious answer is never.

    When do we owe people friendship, acceptance. The answer is the same. We don’t. We might owe freedom, toleration, access to public offered accommodations and services, to not be discriminated in opportunities based on irrelevant traits that are often just bigotries. We don’t, however, owe a personal relationship.

    Most people, in Adam Smiths words have a desire to be both “loved and lovely”.
    Loved by others for reasons they find lovely in themselves.

    These men have behaved in a very unlovable fashion. I don’t think they should find themselves lovely at this point in time.

    They can learn to be lovely. I recommend it to them. I think the path of learning that Jon puts forth is a great one.

    But here is the thing. There are many lovely people who are celibate, yet would prefer not to be. There are many lovely people who are great people who would excel in these industries who don’t get the chance. No one says that they are owed privileged a way out of their “wilderness”. An equal playing field without bigotry but not an exceptional privilege.

    In fact, time in the wilderness, by itself, is meaningless.

    People might choose to love you again, or new people might give you a chance. This is probably greater if you follow the path Jon highlights.

    From me, People on the path get some more acceptance, and possibly assistance. Years on the path they might get some more trust. I might finally move past, depending on the person, the crime, and how lovely they appear. Time matters but even that depends. It is only a factor, and the process isn’t really on or off but a scale.

    Forgiveness is the province of the victim. It is not my place to judge whether they give it or not, nor when or if. That is not my relationship to these men. In a broad sense I find forgiveness to lovable reformed people, itself a loved expression. But its absence is not unloved any more than an absence of extreme bravery.

    On major offenses like these. I won’t forget, and I don’t think they should either. This is part of who they are, and how they move on with this is what matters.

    But if the Trump it. If they deny what they did, don’t apologize, insult their victims, continue to be unlovely. They can go fuck themselves. Like the incel guys should. Until they start down the path, I won’t even consider anything else.

  31. Peter Cibulskis responded to my point that “This recognizes the importance of the point that it’s ideally not me nor thee nor society who decides whether someone should be forgiven, but rather the victim.”

    Peter: “This is a great idea in theory, but falls apart when the victims are all dead or when the victims only demand vengeance instead of justice.”

    Yes, of course. My only point is that restorative justice is a neglected concept that deserves more attention. No solution will always work, but some solutions should be tried more often. The Hatfield-McCoy feud is an example of how even bitter hatreds can eventually wind down when someone on each side agrees to stop calling for blood. Marriages between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims are another example; they’re not yet ubiquitous, but they’re surprisingly common. (Obviously, Israel is a more complex situation than can be handled easily and concisely here, as there are many factors beyond revenge involved in this particular conflict.)

  32. I think that what complicates it for me is that not everyone forgives at the same rate, and that people (especially women) are frequently asked (okay, demanded) to forgive before they’re ready so that things can “get back to normal”. I feel very strongly that a) nobody should be forgiven until their victim is ready to forgive them, and b) the answer to that is “as long as it takes and if that answer is ‘never’ then so be it, enjoy the wilderness forever.”

    Take conventions, for example. We’ve all seen this where Asshole Everyone Inexplicably Loves sexually harasses or assaults Perfectly Normal Woman. Almost within seconds of her coming forward, assuming she’s believed, someone is guaranteed to ask the question, “Well, how long should the ban last before he’s allowed to come back?” Indefinitely is always treated as “way too harsh for a single indiscretion”, and people are constantly calling for more compassion for AEIL and his poor self who’s exiled from his community! FOREVER! Being ostracized from the group is always treated as far too heinous a punishment, even for someone who clearly did a bad thing.

    Meanwhile, PNW is forced to decide whether she wants to rub shoulders with her harasser/assaulter or give up on the community. She’s forced to wonder why nobody cares enough about her to keep that from happening–and that’s assuming that all she experiences is the passive ostracization of being forced to occupy the same space as her tormenter. Many women are dragooned into vocally endorsing their own continued trauma (“oh, if you could just make a public statement on his behalf showing that you’ve forgiven him, I’m sure they’d let him back in”) or publicly disbelieved and slut-shamed (“well, why do you think he went after you? What did you do to give him the impression that you wanted this?”) Those women are excluded from the group whenever their harasser is included. Intentionally or otherwise.

    So to me, the key is to support the victim at all times. If they never want to see the person who wronged them ever again? If there is no way for me to forgive the person who did a bad thing without hurting the person further who was originally hurt by it? Yeah, enjoy the wilderness, pal. You may be contrite, you may have learned your lesson and become a better person… but you can go apply those lessons somewhere else. Because the harshest lesson of all is that some wrongs can’t be fixed.

  33. Dear John,

    Vehement agreement.

    I don’t wish anyone to take my “change with time” comment to be used as an excuse for dismissal. When a Weinstein (I wonder if that will become a generic term, like Benedict Arnold) says in so many words, “things were different back then,” my immediate thought is, “But times changed. Did you?”

    We know what the answer is in the case of a Weinstein — they think that what they could get away with “back then” is what they should be able to get away with today. And the similarly dubious, “Well, I was raised to be an asshole…” Hey, y’know, many of us had to outgrow that. Even late in life, it’s possible. So what’s your excuse?”

    I’m pretty tolerant of folks who improve with time (well I fancy I am — I might well be fooling myself). The ones who use past allowances to excuse their present behavior? Not so much.


    Dear Geoff and Peter

    Related to this, and hopefully not too far afield — the idea that this should be up to the victims is what kicked several conventions’s Codes of Conduct proceedings off the rails. We have learned the hard way (well, I hope we’ve learned) that this is a fail. Violations need to be treated as an institutional problem, not an individual’s problem (which puts the burden on them), or it goes pear-shaped.

    In part that’s because it really is an institutional problem — violations are often not isolated incidents, and in any case it reflects upon and impacts the local culture. Equally importantly, victims of harassment/abuse/assault usually don’t know their own minds, not in the short term and sometimes not in the long term. The victim will bounce between “I want to kill the fucker” and “well it wasn’t really that big a deal” and all places in between.

    Been there. Done that.

    Giving the victim a space to speak on remedies and hearing them is hugely important. Requiring them to do so is inappropriate, and giving primacy to their opinion as to how the matter should be handled puts you solidly on the road to hell. (Oh yeah, I can cite cases.)

    – pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. 
    — Digital Restorations. 

  34. Dear John Seavey,

    I fear, due to an accident of timing, that my post could be taken as disagreeing with you on hearing the victim and taking their needs into account.

    I wish to make it most emphatically clear that I am not! The primary purpose of Codes of Conduct is to ensure that “reporters” (the usual official term) *DO* get listened to and their Concern addressed. Not suppressed, addressed.

    Expanding on your thought, this is why being on a Convention Code of Conduct committee (a.k.a. C4 and, yup, joke) is a tough job and it requires specific training. Effective C4’s spent a lot of time studying past cases, running role-playing scenarios, and figuring out how to be effective adjudicators and advocates for both the victim and the convention. To use the highly inaccurate and functionally inappropriate legal metaphor, they have to be judge, jury, and executioner all in one.

    If anyone thinks you just sit down cold at the table and can successfully do that… well… You can look at the folks who’ve tried. Their corpses litter the reputation highway.

    – pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. 
    — Digital Restorations. 

  35. “If you fuck up, how long should you have to spend in the wilderness before you’re allowed to come back?”

    When you phrase it like that? Assume your exile is permanent. Assume you have permanently lost these folks’ good opinion, and permanently forfeited any claim on their good will. Don’t clock-watch.
    Don’t plot to restore yourself to their good graces. Go make a new community, and don’t fuck up this time.

    Because phrasing the question that way makes it sound a whole lot like you agree you fucked up, but you’re petulant about the consequences, so you’re looking for an ‘objective standard’ you can use to bully the people you’ve hurt into reconciling with you.

    No. That bridge is burnt. Pick another direction and start walking.

  36. Ctein notes: “Equally importantly, victims of harassment/abuse/assault usually don’t know their own minds, not in the short term and sometimes not in the long term. The victim will bounce between “I want to kill the fucker” and “well it wasn’t really that big a deal” and all places in between.”

    Yes, and this is why restorative justice tends to assume the presence of a skilled mediator who guides the process towards a mutually satisfactory resolution. No miracles, obviously, and the more severe the infraction, the harder it will be to achive a satisfactory resolution.

  37. I long ago formulated my “Good Faith Rule”. If I’m dealing with someone and I find that they have not acted in good faith, I’m done. One strike and out. Because I’ve found over mumblety years that it’s almost never a one-off. It’s who they are…a person who might not/will not/does not act in good faith. I’m not going to try to pass the insanity test by continuing to engage with or work with them expecting a different result. Life’s too short and there are lots of nice folks out there who do act in good faith, are trustworthy and if they screw up (which would be everyone at some point) they own it.

  38. Geoff Hart said:
    “Yes, and this is why restorative justice tends to assume the presence of a skilled mediator who guides the process towards a mutually satisfactory resolution.”

    This is a big deal, and part of why I’m so twitchy about hearing someone suggest ‘restorative justice’–I’ve seen it used as a buzzword for “let the bad actors off without consequences”. I’ve seen a case where a kink convention justified not only letting in a serial rapist, but allowing him to present classes and monitor play spaces with the claim, “We practice restorative justice.” It turned out that the ConComm was composed entirely of people with a personal connection to the abuser. A skilled mediator is a must, and I would also add ‘impartial’ in there as well.

  39. Typo: “don’t think having being a friend” -> been.

    Also, as for the last paragraph, how can I burn your books if I don’t buy them? ;)

  40. Dear Whybird,

    Well, you could steal them, he said helpfully.

    pax / Ctein

  41. One thing I’m not seeing clearly articulated here is the role of the power differential between the perpetrator and the victim. Yes, sometimes petty thieves steal from a Mafia don and wind up with cement sneakers on, but for the most part personal trespasses include someone taking advantage of a power differential to do what they want at the expense of another person. That, for me, plays a huge role in when/whether I’ll be able to have a normal relationship with the former fuckup. People who take advantage of the powerless or the frightened are both worse human beings and less likely to change for the better.

    Oh, and Ctein– after ten years in Women’s Health nursing, I can tell you for certain that it’s not that victims “don’t know their own minds.” It’s that trauma recovery involves several stages, and people cycle through the stages (or bounce around them, especially at first) multiple times. It’s a completely normal mental and emotional reaction, and it can go on for years.

  42. Dear Jill,

    I do believe we are saying the same thing. You have described it with much more clinical accuracy.

    (Let’s not try to dive too deeply into the semantics– it’s a colloquialism.)

    Anyways…. yeah! Fer shure! Been there, done that.

    pax / Ctein

  43. The old saying is ‘forgive and forget’. I can forgive, but I can’t forget. Just not how my brain works. And some things are unforgivable.

  44. John Seavey noted: “A skilled mediator is a must, and I would also add ‘impartial’ in there as well.”

    Yes, and that’s an excellent and important clarification. You make a clear distinction from the kind of “binding arbitration” that’s becoming common in the U.S., where a manufacturer chooses a sympathetic party who will overtly or subtly slant the decision in the manufacturer’s favor. This is one of those things often buried in the “you accept this 137 000-word software license without reading it, because, really, who has time or legal skills?”

  45. “If you fuck up, how long should you have to spend in the wilderness before you’re allowed to come back?”

    In the cases of Harvey Weinstein and Eric Schneiderman?

    The rest of their natural lives.

    Some consequences should be permanent – if only to give the Weinstein/Schneiderman wannabes second and even third thoughts about behaving like that.

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