How We Help Breed Charming Sociopaths, Or: The Con-Bayashi Maru

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 3.618% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

A few weeks ago, I asked people who host kink parties how they’d deal with one guest claiming that another guest was under investigation by the police for sexual crimes.* And I’d say about 75% of the respondents said some variant on:
“Well, I’d talk to both sides and see who sounded more reasonable to me.”
Now, let’s set some opening criteria here by invoking the nerdiest possibly comparison: The Kobayashi Maru.
In Star Trek, there’s a training mission called the Kobayashi Maru, which puts Starfleet cadets into an unwinnable situation to see how they deal with defeat. (Kirk won, but only by reprogramming the computer to allow a victory.)
People do not like unwinnable scenarios. People like to think that their tactics have no down sides, and once they’ve decided on a course of action, they have this funny habit of shrugging aside the costs of doing business as somehow not being harmful.
My point in these writings on public spaces is that no matter what you choose, your choice carries the risk of harming someone innocent.
Ban people based entirely on hearsay accusation? Well, false reports do exist, and even if you act discreetly – because remember, you don’t have to tell someone why you’ve banned them from a private event – you still risk ostracizing an innocent who’s been targeted by a malicious person.
Ban people based entirely on whether the law has taken action? That’s got two problems: first, the sexual offender registry is notable for sweeping up teenagers who’ve accidentally had sex with someone a year too young, and second, have you noticed the humiliation that rape victims have to go through on the stand in order to get a 7% conviction rate? The court system is designed, as I’ve noted in the past, to make it very hard to convict – and for good reason! – but “not being convicted in court” does not mean that someone is harmless.
And you know what I feel the result of “We’ll just talk to them and see” is?
That you should stop fucking being surprised when yet another charming predator turns out to be a serial offender.
“I’ll determine who’s guilty based on who feels right to me” is as decent a method as any other, but you give up your right to go “HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN?” when hey, the person who’s very convincing turns out to merely be a great liar.
Because what you do in situations like that is to send a clear message: If you want to get away with abuse, make sure you’re likable. And the top-tier predators are smart. They figure out really quickly that “doing favors for other people” is a great way of incurring likeability, and they learn how to spin stories to gaslight other people, and they’re smart enough not to victimize every person but to only target a precious few.
And that’s not even counting the charming folks who’ve gone all rock star and have come, quietly, to believe that they’re such studs in the community that every person desires them. These folks can do serious damage – not because they’re trying to be evil, but because they’re like “Hey, if I’ve got her tied up, the last five people liked it when I stuck my fingers inside of them without warning, so this is sure to please!”
When you ask them? They’ll be confident, poised, sure that this was just a misunderstanding. They’ll be Very Concerned, just enough to ensure that you get the impression they’re a good person –
– and then the flip side of the “Who feels right to me?” test comes in, because not only are you disproportionately rewarding people who are charming, but you’re disproportionately punishing people who are traumatized in ways you think are unseemly.
Because not everyone’s a convincing victim. There’s a scene in the movie Spotlight, where reporters find a guy who’s on a crusade against molesting priests – and this guy is stuttering, and alternately brutally nasty and then cringingly apologetic to the reporters. He’s literally got folders full of sketchy evidence that he hands out to anyone who asks.
He looks like a complete nut case. The problem is, he is a complete nut case – but that’s because the abuse made him unhinged. He didn’t react well to being betrayed by an authority figure he idolized, and as a result he’s not together enough to present himself as being convincing.
And like him, lots of legitimate victims are angry, and appear vindictive, because shit, if someone hurt you or someone you loved, wouldn’t you want them not to get away with it?
Being violated is like grief: there’s a script you’re supposed to follow when someone you love dies, complete with weeping at the coffin and clutching loved ones for support, but everyone reacts in different ways. Some people go for isolation. Some people get nasty. Some people run away to drugs or sex.
That doesn’t mean they’re not in pain. It just means they’re not following the script.
So what happens when you adopt the “Who feels right?” means that you reward socially adept people and punish those who don’t follow the “good victim” script. And as such, when another superstar turns out to have a rotting underbelly, you shouldn’t really be too shocked.
Our community, largely, rewards these behaviors.
Now, at this point I anticipate a lot of rage and people shouting, “Well, I’m not a trained investigator! Yet you’re telling me not to necessarily trust the court system, and you’re telling me not to automatically believe the victim, so what do you want me to do?”
I want you to acknowledge the path you’ve chosen has drawbacks.
I want you to be aware of the failure modes of your choice, and to be prepared to walk things back when something hits those failure states.
I want you to admit fallibility.
Look. When I say, “My preference is to believe the victim, in the absence of better evidence,” I do so knowing full well that some percentage of victims make false accusations. And were I running an event, I’d be prepared for the eventuality of uncovering a false accuser, and ready to potentially undo a ban based on new evidence.
If you talk to people to see whether they feel right to you, I’m asking you to recognize that you’re not trained at this, and that manipulators can abuse your system just as off-the-script victims can fuzz your senses, and to be ready to try as best you can to correct for that liability.
If you only ban court-convincted people, acknowledge that the court is not a perfect method of safety – it’s the best way we have to administer justice, but “justice” and “safety” are not always linked.
This is the Con-Bayashi Maru. There’s no perfect solution. And what you do in a time of imperfect solution is to acknowledge the failure modes and try your best to apply workarounds whenever you can.
That’s all.
* – The actual investigation was for possession of child pornography, and there was some discussion of whether having child porn was a bannable offense or whether even “being an active child molester” was reason to bar someone from a party, but most people seemed to take this specific instance as a more general “What do we do when someone comes to us with serious hearsay?” Some may have altered their answers if it had been a case of, say, rape, which is a failure state *I* heartily acknowledge.

9 Comments

  1. Gray Miller
    May 27, 2016

    I mostly agree with you. The dissent comes in a couple of ways:
    One, you fell into the same trope of completely humanizing the possible victim while reducing the potentially false accuser to a percentage. This is a common persuasive technique used to minimize the impact of actual numbers. I’m not saying that the numbers aren’t less, of course, I’m saying let’s talk about humans the whole time, not humans vs percentages. If anything, that strengthens your argument that this is a complex issue, not one that can just be easily worked out.
    Which is my other concern. The reason the Rashomon ( http://rashomon.info ) was created was because I agree, it’s complex, and that we as event producers can do better. But it takes more work, more training, more staff…but it is possible.
    My concern with calling this a kobayashi maru is that it gives people the excuse that a Really Smart Guy said it’s an unwinnable situation, so guess we’ll just do what we can, but be satisfied that minimal effort is fine because we can’t win anyway.
    And yeah, there is no “victory” here. There is no population in the history of humans that has completely eradicated the charming predators. But can we do better than we have been? Yes, I think so. And I do not think it requires ignoring real people, regardless what percentage they are.

    • Fred Gore
      May 30, 2016

      You can’t “humanize” a human. You can only dehumanize them.

  2. L
    May 27, 2016

    I actually had a situation like this handled extremely well. Here’s how it happened:
    -I had an issue similar to the one above (where a “respected” kink community member crossed sexual consent lines, was with me and another newcomer escalating sexually during scenes without discussing before or at the time)
    -I asked a few people whom to talk with and found myself talking with the main munch leader. He said before confronting the person we should gather as much evidence as possible. He met with me in person and asked me a bunch of clarifying questions to get my statement on what had happened. I showed him email transcripts where I’d discussed the issue with the accused and he’d denied it was a problem. Another person had similar complaints. I messaged people in other cities where the accused had been in the kink community and got similar stories that I had forwarded to the main munch leader. Even though it was hard, I kept attending events the accused was at and he saw me talking with the community leaders (and avoided them at these events, though he normally talked with them).
    -On the basis of these multiple sources of evidence, the main munch leader issued a statement on the invitation to the biweekly munch that consent violations had been reported and there would be consent education at the next few munches. The person in violation immediately changed his Fetlife location, unfriended the community leaders, and stopped attending community events.
    I feel like it worked because he was never given a chance to be charming and discredit me – because the community leaders were smart to build up as much evidence as possible before confronting him (that was going to be the next step, but he banned himself voluntarily first). Had they gone to him as soon as I mentioned anything it could have turned into a bad situation where he was more charming/respected/sociopathic than I was. They were smart to give my side time to build evidence first.

  3. Abigail Hanley
    May 27, 2016

    I generally agree with you. I’ll add that false rape and abuse accusations are demonstrably rare, and that “doing nothing” is also not a neutral response, because if the accusations are true, it drives the victim out of the community or forces them to interact with their rapist/abuser/etc. It really is a rough situation. I broke with most of a social circle because in multiple cases they were either siding with the accused (who in one case had also hit previous partners) or claiming to be neutral in a way that amounted to inviting all the parties involved to their events.

  4. Katessa Harkey
    May 28, 2016

    This is a really good article, but it leaves out a very important variation on this scenario that I have encountered multiple times: the preemptive accuser. In this situation, after a disagreeable encounter one party will accuse the other of wrongdoing, because whoever reports first gets treated like the victim — often exaggerating the situation so that accident appears to be malfeasance. This is also a result of the tactics organizers employ to try to sort these things out.

  5. Allison Moss-Fritch
    May 28, 2016

    I have had to work with serial offenders, I was a D.A. Deputy. Without fail, they were charming if they chose to be….but that doesn’t stop them at all from being violent, abusive, manipulative, and unprincipled.

  6. Sonya Mann
    May 28, 2016

    I loved this post. I have also noticed that people are reluctant to acknowledge the tradeoffs they accept whenever they make choices. We live in a cruel world — might as well admit it.

  7. Max Green
    May 29, 2016

    (Apologies if I’m not very clear, I’ve been up much too long.)
    I find this rather counterintuitive, which is very strange. The reason I find it counterintuitive is because my hindbrain is saying “Wait, what? There are people who *don’t* carefully plan out how they would respond if one friend accused another of rape, or they caught their spouse cheating, or…” The reason I find this strange is that the reason I do that is because I know people usually handle these situations really badly!
    I can see the following components of an explanation:
    – willingness to seriously contemplate things going disastrously wrong, which I think is mostly about thinking in terms of concepts rather than experiences, and so not having anything to flinch from
    – tendency to take precautions against things going wrong, which is partly risk aversion and partly a healthy respect for the planning fallacy; in particular, tendency to see potential problems and take precautions other people don’t think of (which is presumably whatever trait makes people good at computer security)
    – tendency to analyse things and seek optimal solutions (I’m not nearly so good at planning things in my everyday life, I think because System 1 sees one as a puzzle and the other as a chore)
    Nate Soares’ blog posts from here (http://mindingourway.com/being-unable-to-despair/) through to here (http://mindingourway.com/dark-not-colorless/) might help teach people to “see the dark world”, particularly the post with that name.

  8. Suzie
    May 29, 2016

    In my opinion, all you can do is acknowledge the accusation with the acused and remind him of the rules regarding consent and respect. Keep an eye on things. Even the non accused can behave badly.
    A Google search the following day could be helpful too.
    Regardless of the club/party, anything can happen. People are just more vulnerable here.

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