[Commenting Note: This post is absolutely not a place to host discussion of certain recent events in the rationalist community. Comments referring to those events will be deleted and the commenter banned.]
Let’s say you have a community. Like most communities, it has harassers and abusive people in it. For whatever reason (the actions don’t rise to the status of ‘crime,’ the victims would prefer not to bring the police into it, or your community is leery of the police), you can’t go to the police. What do you do about the problem?
There are three primary ways I’ve seen people I know respond to the problem, and all of them– while suited for some problems– are imperfect.
A whisper network is when someone pulls you aside and says “hey, watch out for Alice– she’s a rapist.” When you see Alice flirting with someone new, you pull them aside and warn them.
There are three big problems with whisper networks.
First, whisper networks are often inaccurate. Sometimes people make false accusations, for various reasons, including most tragically an abuser accusing the person they’re abusing of abuse. Sometimes the accusation itself is not false, but gets changed or exaggerated as people gossip: I myself have seen an accusation of harassment transform into an accusation of rape. Sometimes people hear “so-and-so is a harasser” from three or four different people and conclude that they’re a serial harasser, when in reality the person fucked up one time while they’re drunk. Neither the accused nor people who might have witnessed the event have the chance to give their own perspective on events.
It’s not just inaccurate in the “false accusations” direction, either: whisper networks can make it really fucking hard to put together a pattern. Many people won’t bring up an interaction that made them feel somewhat uncomfortable but isn’t a big deal, unless they know it happened to a dozen other people. Sometimes there are four or five events, each individually somewhat minor, that together add up to a pattern of serial harassment– but no one knows about all five of the events.
Second, whisper networks never get to everyone. New people, relatively marginal members of the community, and people who are widely disliked will almost never hear the accusations. These people are likely to be some of the most vulnerable to abusers and harassers. Whisper networks might protect the well-connected, but they do so at the expense of those who are less well-connected.
Third, whisper networks have a major missing stair problem. Even if you manage to warn everyone to stay away from Alice, the result is that Alice continues to be part of your group and you have to put constant effort into making sure that everyone is aware of Alice’s bad behavior. Eventually you’re going to think someone else told the new person, eventually someone’s going to not believe you and decide to give her a chance, eventually someone is going to forget to assign her her Rape Babysitter…
And then someone gets raped.
A callout is when someone publicly posts– perhaps on social media or a blog that many members of your community read– a list of all the misdeeds a person commits.
Callouts get a bad rap. Partially, this is because a lot of callouts are about genuinely trivial issues, and many callouts that aren’t about trivial issues pad themselves out with a bunch of trivial issues. (“Alice not only commits rape, she’s also an aphobe!”)
But there are also lots of problems even with callouts about genuinely serious issues.
A callout is inherently public. That’s its advantage over the whisper network: new and marginal people can see the callout and the accused can write up a defense. But that also creates a whole host of new problems.
It is really, really unpleasant to be a victim making a public callout. You have to think about an experience that might be painful or traumatizing. People will be passing judgment on your reliability. Sometimes people will send you hate, or dig through your past to find reasons you’re a Bad Victim, or deny your pain and trauma. You can lose friendships. For sufficiently public callouts, it may show up on Google for your name, and you can find yourself explaining the situation to future employers. (You can use a pseudonym sometimes, of course, but then you have to worry about being doxxed.)
Because the experience is so unpleasant for the victim, many victims refuse to participate in public callouts. It’s generally considered unethical to share private information against someone’s will, particularly if it causes them misery. If you anonymize the accusations to protect the victim, they’re less credible. If you just say “I’ve investigated it and Alice is a rapist,” it’s less credible still.
If the accusation is false, it can be really hard to retract the accusation.
If the accusation is true, it may follow the perpetrator for the rest of their lives. That might be a desirable outcome for some misdeeds, like rape or abuse. But if you harassed someone when you were eighteen, and it was ten years ago, and you’ve changed and haven’t harassed anyone since, the callout might still be in the first page of Google results for your name. (Some victims, aware of this, will refuse to participate in callout posts because they don’t think it’s fair to punish someone forever for harassing them; then you get the problems I discussed with public callouts.)
Some communities, such as the kink community and the feminist community, have counter-communities of unpleasant people who hate them. Members of these communities can access public callout posts and use them to smear the entire community. In addition to being unpleasant, this makes victims less likely to want to participate. Similarly, the callout post may be a subject for voyeuristic gossip on the part of uninvolved people, which the people involved may find very unpleasant.
Expulsion is simple. You investigate the claim. In some cases, you might have a designated point person whose job is to investigate claims of rape, abuse, and harassment; in other cases, this might be part of the job of the moderator, store owner, party host, or other person who gets to decide who’s allowed in a particular space. If the person in charge finds that the charge is validated, that person is no longer allowed in the space.
Assuming the person doing the investigating is honest, capable, and willing to expel harassers and abusers, expulsion is absolutely the best method of dealing with harassment, rape, and abuse accusations. It protects future victims and allows past victims to participate fully in the community.
However, it only works for relatively centralized communities. If you’re no longer allowed in a game store, a church, an online forum, or a club, you can be successfully expelled from the community built around that game store, church, online forum, or club. On the other hand, some communities are relatively decentralized: they’re extended groups of friends, and the community spans dozens of meetups, parties, events, knitting circles, and book clubs.
There’s a word for communities where the leaders can say “no one talk to this person anymore” and that immediately causes everyone to stop inviting them to every meetup, party, event, knitting circle, and book club. That word is “cult.”
In non-cultish communities, sometimes a person is going to decide that Alice is her friend, she believes Alice and not some silly community leader, and Alice is absolutely going to come to every one of her parties. That’s actually good: it’s an important protective factor against Alice being expelled from the community because she brings up uncomfortable truths or says things popular people disagree with or defends abused people. But it means that expulsion is inherently limited as a tool to protect against abusers, harassers, and rapists.