There Are No Good People, Only Good Actions

There Are No Good People, Only Good Actions February 3, 2015

Several weeks ago I called Rachel Held Evans out for the way she responded to Julie McMahon’s allegations of abuse by her ex-husband Tony Jones. Rachel and Tony were co-sponsoring a convention, and one of Rachel’s followers posted a comment asking her about the abuse allegations against Tony. Rachel responded by saying that there was no truth to the allegations, that this was not the right place to air abuse allegations, and that time spent on the allegations detracted from the church and from her and Tony’s efforts to uplift women’s voices in the upcoming conference.

As I stated in my post, if we are going to take abuse allegations seriously, we must take all abuse allegations seriously, including those against our own associates. I explained my concerns with her response and expressed hope that she would listen to the criticism she was getting and understand why people were troubled by her response.

Yesterday, Rachel posted another comment on her blog:

Here’s an update on production of the “Why Christian?” event, which is no longer being produced by JoPa:…

On a personal note, I want to apologize for expressing my opinion regarding the veracity of the disclosures Danica published to my blog comment section. It was not my place to do so. I especially grieve that my initial response may have triggered memories of not being believed in the lives of abuse survivors and regret that I said anything that took the focus off of where it should be, which is on whatever healing is possible for all of those personally involved in this difficult situation.

As you know, I greatly value the contribution of your life experiences in the comment section of my blog, Facebook page, and Twitter. However, the public forums I’m responsible for cannot become platforms for reporting abuse or publishing private information. Local authorities, qualified counselors, and victim support groups are created for these purposes and respecting their findings and direction are of paramount importance. I continue to support utilization of those channels and oppose efforts to circumvent them.

Thanks for your feedback, even when it is critical. I am grateful for the ways in which you challenge me to be a better advocate, a better storyteller, and a better person.

I for one am glad that Rachel was able to see that her first response was problematic, and that she was willing to take a step back and apologize for it.

I want to use this post to discuss a bigger issue, of which this is but one example. We as humans like to consign people to groups. And so we create categories where there are “good” people and there are “bad” people, and when someone in the “good” group messes up, we can be quick to consign them to the “bad” group. I worry that this approach misses a lot of nuance. As a friend of mine once told me, there are no good or bad people, only good or bad actions.

If we expect people to be prefect, we are bound to be disappointed. This goes for leaders, too. Everyone needs a little bit of space to mess up now and then. Of course, just as we would like to be called out when we misstep, even so we should call out others when they misstep. After all, if no one calls it to our attention when we make mistakes, how will we learn from them and grow? Mistakes are okay, but they should be accompanied by a willingness to listen to criticism and to rethink our own positions, ideas, or actions as needed.

I hear concerns, sometimes, about “call out” culture. I understand the concerns, and I do sympathize with them. But if we never call someone out when they make a mistake, how are they to learn and grow? I think the issue boils down to two things. First, what do we mean by a “call out”? What does it look like, and feel like? And second, what happens when calling someone out doesn’t lead them to change their mind? What do we do when there is actual disagreement?

Now first of all, I strive to call attention to a person’s missteps in a way that gives that person room to listen and rethink. I have found that this approach works best for me, so it is what I use with others. But I do recognize that what a call out may look like can be situation and person dependent, and that how we call people out may also depend on how likely we think they are to actually listen. I would respond differently to a misstep by Rachel Held Evans, for example, than I would to a misstep by Debi Pearl, and I would expect a cis ally to respond differently to transphobia than a trans person who has to deal with it every second of their lives.

But second, what happens when we call someone out on a point, but even after they listen to what we have to say there is still disagreement? I for one am very much against trying to force someone else to share my beliefs, and while I find it frustrating when someone still disagrees with me on something I feel passionate about even after they listen to me explain it, I do respect people’s right to disagree. Of course, that does not mean I see all beliefs as equally correct or equally good. I don’t. We must each make our own determination about who we are or are not willing to work with, or to see as an ally, and how much disagreement we are okay with.

I find that for me, it helps to remember that categorizing people as either “good” or “bad” is both without nuance and often unhelpful. Even people we consider “good” can make mistakes and, yes, sometimes people we consider “bad” do good things too. As Lana reminds us, it’s not helpful to characterize Duggar-type homeschooling as all bad when that’s not generally how children experience it, and an all-bad categorization can make them question the veracity of the critic.

What you do with Rachel Held Evans’ apology is up to you. But for me, if nothing else, I am appreciating the reminder that even people I have a lot of respect for can—and do—make mistakes. And sometimes they end up apologizing for them.

Addendum: Some readers have pointed out in the comments that in her latest comment Rachel urges victims to keep discussion of their abuse in “proper channels.” I understand this concern, and I suppose I may be interpreting her statement in the best possible light—i.e. I see many blogs as part of informal “victim support groups.” I also respect her desire for her forums—her facebook and her blog—to not be places for reporting abuse. I have a comment policy too, and she can have hers. I did not read her comment as an attempt to dictate other people’s policies for the forums they control, but if it is, I do have a problem with this. I have further elucidated my thoughts on this here.

What with Tony’s confirmation that he was diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and statements by those who have read private documents that Tony includes falsehoods and glaring omissions in his official statement, I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the willingness of so many to trust Tony’s word on this issue. However, my original post called out Rachel not for her failure to condemn Tony but simply for the way she responded, regardless of the truth or falsehood of the allegations. In her comment, she acknowledges that she responded badly, and I do appreciate that. It is now my hope that Rachel and others will do some research on NPD and take Tony’s condition seriously.

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