Don’t Protect Their Secrets!: Whisper Networks and Manipulation
This piece is a follow-up to this one called Widening the Bridges: Beyond Autonomy and Consent but can be read independently even though it builds on the topics developed further there.

Even as we nurture beautiful futures and tender solidarity, our networks are struggling. As Bobby London wrote, “The state cannot destroy us the ways we destroy ourselves.” In addition to the threats that freedom faces from outside, we have threats inside that we need to deal with in real-time. We regularly fail to address them until they fester, despite our starry-eyed hopes and ideals. In radical communities there can be a very kumbaya approach to harmony that fails to recognize how fundamental the freedom of dissociation is to a healthy community. We also have a kind of fetish for starkly separating and punishing physical over emotional abuse.1 Sure we recognize things like gaslighting, but we permit the public calling-out of rapists in a way that seems very taboo to do for someone who is “just” emotionally manipulative.2

Emotional manipulation is a form of coercion that works on the various quirks of human interpersonal relations to suppress the knowledge and agency of one or more people. When we are mistaken about reality we have less agency and thus freedom. One avenue of emotional abuse is to imprison us in delusions and confusions. When one person in a network enacts these repressions, intentionally or otherwise, they can poison the connectivity of a whole subgroup, leading to a drain on the individual or network’s health and degrees of freedom. It leads to all kinds of fighting, secrets, backstabbing, resentments, and fear. All of these are weapons in the hands of skilled emotional tyrants.

If we acknowledge that emotional manipulation can be a severely disturbing form of toxic aggression, why is it so counterintuitive to be transparent about someone in our network who is manipulative or abusive? Well, the good news is in–you don’t have to protect the people who harm you! You don’t have to keep the secrets of abusers even if they were your friends, your friend’s friend, your parent, an organizer, or marginalized! You don’t have to keep the secret of the manipulative person in your network because you feel like they’re not abusive enough. You don’t have to protect them because you don’t want to talk shit or be gossipy. You don’t have to protect them because you, being reasonable and self-critical, think “I too have problems. Who am I to judge?”

By hand-wringing about whether to discuss the behavior of someone who is recurrently causing harm, we are protecting them. This doesn’t mean that we’re responsible for their shitty behavior. The cause of their bullshit is generally a wormhole of speculation and the responsibility is theirs alone. It’s not that it’s our job to expose toxicity, but rather that, we can if we want to and feel able, and it may even save someone else the pain we endured.

1. Violence, although traditionally understood as being solely physical, is better understood broadly as a form of harm done that also recognizes traumatization for its physical impact on neurological structures mimicking the impact of physical violence. This is taken in context with the recognition that things like racism and structural oppression or regular emotional abuse can lead to c-PTSD, thus causing physical damage.
2. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule and times when the whisper networks failed to, for a very long time, take down rapists in radical communities such as with Morgan Marquis-Boire or Jacob Applebaum in the tech-radical scene.

Warning Your Sisters Ain’t Snitching: Whispered Truths

When deciding whether or not to reach out about someone’s harmful behavioral patterns there are a lot of dilemmas that we can go through. Personally, I’ve struggled to determine the line between the normal fucked-uppedness of everyone and that tipping point where I consider it to be abusive or at the very least a serious problem. Certainly, all of these behaviors are on a spectrum and we are all implicated to varying degrees. And yet, at some point, you do have to draw the line and there’s no guidebook. Maybe words such as “abuse” or “assault” are too loaded and complex and vague to be useful and we just need to stick to the behaviors themselves. In thinking, “Is this behavior a pattern?” we may start to recall red flags we either ignored or falsely felt prepared to deal with along the way.

At other times, abusiveness can really sneak-up into a relationship. We may look for external causes of their behavior such as trauma, mental illness, or situational adversity that we can use to sort of forgive or explain their behavior. The deeper we are in an abusive trap, the more we may have already internalized their myths about how all the problems and suffering are our own faults. Basically, we are trying to determine the legitimacy of our suffering. But did you ever stop to think how fucking weird it is that we don’t believe ourselves about our own suffering? There is nothing we could know better and yet doubt is ever present like a virus in our heads.

Various forms of mental illness and neuro-diversity can influence, aid, or obstruct the drawing of these lines especially when compounded by other variables such as trauma. When I feel broken and unworthy as the result of depression and strange coping mechanisms I can cling even tighter or self-sabotage. This both completes and restarts the cycle of self-retraumatization. Although neurodiversity and trauma may importantly impact our or others ability to draw the appropriate lines, this is not an excuse for them or us. Just because someone’s had a shit life or has a different neural architecture than you doesn’t mean you owe it to them to sign up for their emotional blackmail and abuse. If anything, by failing to treat them like a regular human being we may be sacrificing our own well-being, enabling them, and being paternalistic all at once, even if our goal is consciously to just to help or be supportive.

We can and often do have a wide range of cross-purposes as a result of having complexly networked selves. We should be skeptical of any voice that says we owe it to anyone, for any reason, to show up for abuse or keep the secrets of abusers even if that reason has some social justice or loyalty type logic behind it. Of course, though, the neuro-normative infrastructure and prescriptions for what makes something Healthy(TM) are not the goal nor world we’re trying to build. What we’re building is far weirder and better.

Once we’ve come to the realization, either alone or with someone else, that someone’s behavior is troubling to us (regardless of whether it is objectively wrong or justified) we then have to think about whether and how we can begin to talk about it. Again, they don’t have to be Hannibal fucking Lecter for us to start addressing our pain with others. Much of the subtle trauma of life is repeated and mundane, the microaggressions and petty or subtle coercions of which some are more prone to exhibiting than others. Maybe their behavior truly isn’t bad enough to burn down their house and chase them out of town but you should still be able to discuss it. But if we’re going to talk to someone about it, we have to decide how, when, and to whom. In a reasonably healthy relationship you can just address your concerns directly with the person, and where possible and safe, this is almost always a preferred method. But for that special kind of manipulative and emotionally abusive parasite in your life, that level of authenticity is generally impossible or distinctly dangerous. They turn it around on you. They explode in emotional outpouring to overwhelm you. They just never allow the space for it. Or the retaliation comes more painfully and sneakily. In any case, when that’s not an option, we either bottle-up — and often gaslight ourselves — or find someone else to talk to. A person like that doesn’t deserve the emotionally laborious favor of direct private communication.

There’s a method to why we don’t talk about emotionally abusive people. First of all, it can be very hard to put words to. If you haven’t yet encountered a proper sociopath or just extremely manipulative person– take my word for it– it’s almost incomprehensibly devastating. It can turn your entire world totally upside down and you may struggle to even comprehend that it’s happening. I’m not even talking about full-blown murderous psychopaths but just your run of the mill sociopath or person with extreme sociopathic tendencies. Their ability to destroy your life is not necessarily because all sociopaths are evil geniuses (they’re generally below average intelligence) but just because you get so wrapped up in it that it’s hard to see outside of the whirlpool.3 Maybe they’re exploiting some quirks in the consent or autonomy discourse or our structural abilities to process things. Maybe they’re using their own trauma (real or imagined) as a form of emotional blackmail. Maybe they’re a parent, long-term friend, or boss and they use their power as to silence you or obscure their own maladaptive strategies. If you’re an empath they are especially likely target you because you’re naturally an easy mark.

No matter how they pull it off, before you know it, you’re tied up in a mess and getting hurt repeatedly. It’s embarrassing to admit you’ve been conned, much less repeatedly. It’s even harder if you love the person or have somehow been convinced that you do. After mustering the courage to vaguely suggest some inkling of fault about someone’s actions, it’s common to get routinely shut-down by comments from others such as, “Oh they’re just like that.” or “It was probably a miscommunication.” or “That’s not what happened/what they really meant.” Often people like this are either ignorant to the threat, unable to internalize the suffering of others when it’s beyond their experience, manipulated themselves, or in the loop and worried for their own safety or comfort.

Often when the first person in a network starts to open up through a whisper network about someone’s behaviors, they find some resonance with others who have experienced the same thing. Chances are if they keep doing it to you, they’ve done it to others too. By finding the people who have had the shared experience, we find a hidden safety in the scary waters of recognizing harm in our circles. It’s scary to find these hidden allies because we never know who will turn on us or be in the snares of the person we fear. Whisper networks, or quiet and private circles of warnings and shared stories, are deeply valuable because they tend to better protect the anonymity of their members, but also dangerous because they can often fail to alert potential targets of the perpetrator by staying siloed. Public transparency is more effective but far more dangerous as it opens you up to skepticism and reprisal. This is why it’s so important to have both systems and norms for protecting whistleblowers from any form of social, emotional, or physical retaliation. Anonymous public callouts have some of the strength of shareability but less credibility than an attached name. But before we even get to any of this, much of the time we fail even to reach the stage of whisper networks. There are very potent unspoken social morays about not discussing certain things.

There are risks to speaking out in any form and yet we often hesitate not because of these risks but because of internal feelings and hidden social rules. If the truth does get out that someone’s behavior is legitimately problematic to one or more people we have the question of, “What now?”

Our distaste for the freedom of dissociation is a huge obstacle to overcoming our internal destructiveness. This is part of where you get noxious, hell-spawned, shitstorms such as “left-unity” but it’s also where you get so-called accountability processes that are really just about smoothing things out rather than deeply transforming the harms. Of course, peace is an admirable goal! Who doesn’t love some harmony! But we need some goddamn context to make sense of how these goals, when pursued outside of an imagined vacuum, can be deeply harmful.

Because we want to avoid things like disposability culture that are real and pressing problems, we over-correct to the point of protecting abusers and keeping jerks in our lives. This is not a unilateral defense of the reactionary shit-flinging infighting so deeply leftist in nature. I’m not saying we should treat everyone with some issues like they’re garbage. If we did that, we’d have no friends nor power as activists. But, we can both deeply value a tender and furious solidarity that is healthfully loyal while also respecting that a degree of factionalism, infighting, broken relationships, hurt feelings, and extreme disagreement is not just normal it’s actually healthy. That means we’re addressing the truth beneath our artificial peace not just living in the land of feigned sheen.

Many readers may be thinking, “We have way too much bullshit gossip and infighting as is. The last thing we need is more support for shit-talking. People will abuse the hell out of this advice!” First of all, the whole notion of people abusing systems of reporting harm is vastly overblown. Of course, it’s a real problem and definitely bad if someone lies about being sexually assaulted, but the number of false reports is so fucking nominal compared to the violence of a culture that represses the truth of abuse. One false report is worth a thousand survivors feeling able to call someone out. Bite that bullet so goddamn hard your teeth break. Of course, don’t fucking lie about shit and hold people accountable if they do! I’m not saying go around and gossip about people you just don’t like or make shit up. This type of process demands rigorous attention to detail and honesty. Telling the truth about someone is not gossip even if it can be used as a weapon. When used as a weapon, the ethics of truth are situational, but the cost of silence far exceeds the risk.

There are people who have no problem talking shit or telling their truth. This piece isn’t so much for them. People often need different types of advice depending on their particular baggage. This essay is for those stuck in the culture of problematic silence and secret keeping in radical communities. Of course social capitalists, sociopaths, and petty tyrants will attempt to abuse this type of advice with varying degrees of success. We should stay vigilant because call-outs or whispers can be used as a form of emotional abuse or manipulation. They can be used to alienate or block people from their network and the resources it holds. We just have to keep getting better and better at thwarting them as we already do our best to do. The parts of our networks and ourselves that value kindness, compassion, and empathy are healthy and crucial. We should nurture them and apply them to this type of honest truth telling in as much as is appropriate but, we shouldn’t let them silence us.

3. The studies on intelligence and sociopathy are at times contradictory but basically suggest that in general, sociopaths are below average general intelligence but may develop certain specific forms of intelligence such as verbal in order to obfuscate or forward their agendas (1, 2). Additionally it is possible for certain sociopathic persons to develop a utilitarian non-empathic form of ethics that allows them to be basically decent but this is not the manner of person here referred to.

Can You Vouch for Them?: Reputation and Restoration

The point of being able to share accurate information about people in our networks is such that we all develop dynamic reputations. Reputations can be positive or negative and can be skewed by a wide range of variable forms of power. But nonetheless, as both game theory and reality bear out, knowing that the way you interact with others will impact our choices in the future changes the way a society functions. It decreases the breaking of trust (defection) and increases cooperation (Pareto-optimal results). Elinor Ostrom said:

“When many individuals use reciprocity, there is an incentive to acquire a reputation for keeping promises and performing actions with short-term costs but long-term net benefits. Thus, trustworthy individuals who trust others with a reputation for being trustworthy (and try to avoid those who have a reputation for being untrustworthy) can engage in mutually productive social exchanges, even though they are dilemmas, so long as they can limit their interactions primarily to those with a reputation for keeping promises.”

You’re less likely to rob someone that you know you will see the next day and need to rely on for support. But artificial silences, whether caused by taboos or power, obstruct the functioning of these dynamic reputation markets. These artificial silences act to centralize information, resulting in knowledge problems where we can’t know what we need to know in order to make better decisions. These obstructions make it harder not just to know what’s true about someone else, but also what’s true about ourselves. Trust is hard to build and even harder to rebuild but, as a species, we are capable of pretty remarkable levels of forgiveness. When we have reasonable expectations of people and know how likely they are to fuck up or fuck us over, we can make more informed decisions about how to associate with them. Interestingly, a degree of imperfection can actually positively contribute to trust-building when it is kept to a minimum.4 We appreciate and want to do right by people who give us a second chance when we know we messed up. Ideally, we can build and maintain healthy networks of accurate information sharing and we are able to discuss both problematic and laudable behaviors in our networks. Once we do uncover legitimate threats through our networks of honest sharing, what do we do?

I am an advocate of the carebear belief that people can change and that restorative and transformative justice is not just possible, but deeply desirable, even if practically, we kind of suck at it. There are many practical concerns such as that we really don’t have the infrastructure to do a very good job at restorative justice. Things often go sour, with people ending up retraumatized or the primary aggressor getting off too easily. Alternatively, we sometimes just absolutely destroy someone with a level of retribution completely at odds with their supposed crime. This is all the more ironic from anti-police, prison abolitionists.

Restorative justice takes labor from everyone– both emotional and physical. So first off, the survivor has to want it and the aggressor has to be worth it and that’s not always easy to determine. The scale of harm done and severity of the behaviors also deeply matters. Even if we lack the words to really distinguish between them, a breakdown of consent and intentional assault are different even though they can both be deeply violent and traumatizing. Further, for nonphysical crimes such as those focused on here, we have to even more deeply interrogate the question of, “What degree of restorative justice and accountability does the situation warrant and are we willing and capable of providing?”.

Then there are different scales of response such as mediation, private accountability, public callout, full-blown accountability process, or total alienation and possibly physical defense. Generally, someone with strongly sociopathic tendencies is not an appropriate candidate for restorative justice or mediation because they just abuse it. But then what do we with them? Beat them up and kick them out of town so they just end up on someone else’s lap — fleeing from one devastated community or victim to the next? Chase them around in every place they go warning their potential communities? Just let the nihilists counter-recruit them like they so often seem to do?

This is a conversation that activists opposed to police and prisons, but facing the reality of these institutions everywhere are having. But this is at the more extreme levels. Long before dealing with these systems, we have to deal with that person who is just pretty shitty but not a psychopath or rapist. How do we deal with them? The level of response these situations call for is contextual, but just because someone is  “only” shitty and manipulative, doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to dislike them, share with others our experiences of them, or even respond more dramatically as is called for by the situation. Often times, we try to think about what we would do or need to do if we started talking about a person who is harming us– running through all kinds of these types of dilemmas and possibilities in our head. But we don’t need to have all of the answers and a future-seeing ability to start being honest.

I am truly torn between the kumbaya worldview of wanting people to work out their shit and transform the conflict and a deeply held belief that free-association also implies free-dissociation. I think this tension is a healthy one though. We shouldn’t just give up on people willy-nilly at the slightest break in comfort, nor should we show up for bullshit. The line is chaotic and moving constantly in the sand. The problem is that lines like this are deeply emotional and often haunted by contradictions (Oh but they’re trying to get better!). If they were cut and dry like abuse can be, we’d know where to stand, but because they’re so deeply confusing, we don’t know where to draw the line.

It’s more confusing when, for example, they may not even be intentionally manipulative, but just acting on old subroutines. It’s hard to see our own subroutines too because we live in the ecosystem of our personal intricate conscious reasoning and belief structure. We have only our experience for direct comparisons so, “as for them, so for us” it can be really difficult to know what the right thing to do is or when we’re in the wrong.

Parts of me are prone to the horribly stupid belief that I can take a lot of suffering if it is for a good reason. This means that I sometimes show up for some bullshit because I think that the possibility of a better future outweighs my short-term suffering. This is often a system flaw. I am inadequately gauging the importance of my own pain and as such, I do not draw the line soon enough– becoming codependent or a martyr. But then, once I start to notice this in some situations and become acutely aware of it, I can fall into the opposite problem of drawing the line too soon– being brutalistic or cold. For emotional matters, we just have to process the shit out of it and do our best. This is why compromises and break-ups are so damn hard.

4. There’s a lot of different angles on this such as grim triggers, noise, and trembling hand perfect Nash equilibria.

Sometimes You Need to Rig the Bridge with Dynamite: Setting Boundaries

If the lead-up piece to this one was more about building bridges, this piece is more about burning them. Free-dissociation doesn’t just mean that you can betray the trust of the jerk, but that you can also leave them, toss ‘em to the side, or just generally not fuck with them. Although some modicum of decent effort at appropriate boundary setting is ideal where possible, other times you gotta just slam the plunger on that dynamite switch, blow the bridge, and walk away singing. It’s like a cult, when you’re so deep in it, sometimes there’s no graceful way out except in flames. Short of all that drama you can just ghost too. Stop responding to texts. You don’t actually have to expend the effort of proper negotiations of boundaries if it’s unsafe for you to do so or you truly don’t have the energy. This is what free-dissociation means. In many situations, we can just set boundaries, very strong and coldly or with a great deal of compassion. We have options.

What’s truly amazing about the freedom of dissociation is that, like other freedoms, it has internal mechanisms that allow for ripples of other freedoms. When we break a toxic bond, a huge amount of energy is freed up to dedicate to other more fulfilling tasks. Even at the level of networks, in a relay of internet signals, if one server or node is malfunctioning and poisoning the other signals, a network is designed to route around it. Through this new pathway, a more deeply interconnected network can emerge, more resilient and alive through diverse connections.

It is similar for human networks. If one person is just creating damage, trauma, and infighting for a bunch of people in a network, they’re damaging the health of the entire network. Tons of resources are getting bogged down into dealing with that one black-hole when they could be devoted to our shared and individual thriving. We don’t need to go down with the ship. We’re not in some bullshit macho fantasy. You never know, sometimes being disliked by dangerous assholes can make you new friends with the others who see through their bullshit too. There are often surprise allies hiding in the wings.

It’s worth bringing as much kindness and compassion as we can to bear into decisions like this though. At least in my experience, the exhilaration of knowing that we have this ability can be its own kind of addictive high. Although we should absolutely do what we need to do to get and stay right with ourselves, if we abuse it, we can ourselves become the damaged node spewing toxic poison. Fortunately, we have choices to self-correct, heal, forgive, and make amends at every step of the way.

Are We the Baddies?: Facing Up

Emotional abusiveness can come from many places including as a coping mechanism or just as part of one period of our lives. Although we all develop toxic coping mechanisms and we all reside somewhere on the spectrum of sociopathy, we get to decide how and what we are willing to show up for in our lives. Some issues may be fine for one person and totally triggering for another. That’s why we all have to come to our truth ourselves with boundaries. We get to weigh the trade-offs and come to decisions even if those decisions may change when given new information such as seeing that person in a different period of their life.

One friend, Javetta Laster, wrote, “It’s like I knew this energy needed to be in my life but I thought in order to have those connections it had to come with their hurt. But now I feel like the things and people and connections you are drawn to come in your life repeatedly, just in different packages.” The same is true of us. We know we have met and been seen by some people in the worst parts of our lives and probably didn’t make the best or healthiest impact. This can give us compassion even if we know that it’s still reasonable to detach with love sometimes.

So of course, these issues we should be able to call out in others, are to varying extents true of us as well. Sometimes we’re not the ones bravely facing down detractors and speaking out against abusive manipulation, but rather the ones being whispered about or called-out — and it fucking sucks. It’s terrifying and deeply uprooting to get really clamped in the town square stocks and put to shame, especially if you, like me, already struggle with a deep and semi-constant sense of shame and unworthiness.

Much has been written on how to respond to being called-out or called-in for oppressive behavior or even what to do when you’ve been accused of assault. There are even pieces on how to receive feedback with an open and brave heart even as much of this can be itself allyship theater, not true solidarity. No matter how much of this I’ve read though, or how many times people have given me their bit, it still hurts like hell. I want to be as graceful as possible but I still usually bristle with defensiveness and fear even if I shove the feelings down so that I can receive the critique in proper form.

That being said, even if it hurts, we gotta do it and people have the right to their experience of us, just like we have the right to our experience of them. It gets nice and complicated when you get into the edge cases where-in a call-out becomes actually a form of abuse and domination itself emerging from trauma and oppression, but in general, this uncomfortable aspect of being rapidly made to see truths about ourselves is absolutely necessary to a healthy networked social ecosystem. If we can be transparent about people being shitty, so can they. We don’t get to always be the good guys. Sometimes we have to be the ones who fucked up and have to account for it. I’m capable of being a proper messy asshole sometimes even if I hate it. There are plenty of people who have had serious and legitimate issues with aspects of my behavior in the past, even while I had issues with them as well. We both get to experience our truth even if the goal should be for everyone involved to have a better understanding of what actually happened, beyond what any of us think or felt happened.

We’re Just Teddybears with Switchblades Sometimes

Practicing emotional anarchism is hard, in part because it’s never finished and in part because of the problems that haunt the practices of autonomy and consent. This realization should make us humble in the sense of knowing that we can do wrong, but not so humble as to deny our right to the same basic emotional freedom that anyone deserves. No matter who the culprit is, if they’re being shitty, we don’t have to keep their secrets. Whether it’s safe to talk and to whom or how is up to the context, but we should, as networks of radicals and anarchists fight to make the freedom of information a central pillar of our struggle even if all we can have at the time are fragile whisper networks.

Aside from just undermining and correcting against toxicity and network connectivity blockages, this form of honest communication helps us to steer the ship of a swarm of cat-like anarchists trying to do something decent for the world. Reputation networks, built of honest and nuanced conversation, have the potential to kill the nefarious forms of social capital and socialize that wealth into the hands of those who work hard to deserve their trust. Sometimes we should forgive and build bridges. Other times we should throw knives and fight. The choice should be ours because it already is. You don’t owe that asshole anything, much less your silence.

 

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