I’m Not a Sunday School Teacher, I’m a Public Theologian
A Series Continuation
I have spent too many hours of my life in meetings.
Some though, stand out to me vividly regardless of how much time passes.
One of those meetings includes a high school principal, and every member of his administration and counseling staff. Specifically, an older white, male, gregarious principal, and his staff comprised exclusively of Black women. This isn’t the first time I’ve remembered this meeting and written about it, but it’s resonance remains loudly present with themes and images that persist for abuse.
In every interaction I had with this particular principal, he both inappropriately touched me, and flexed his authority over students and his subordinates. His intention was to show restraint and command, and the settings he placed himself in always included bystanders, and physical spaces not easily left. These features worked together to set a culture of power dynamics reciprocally maintained and learned.
I remember several years earlier going through a job orientation that included a session on rape culture. The entire workshop was rather casual; it lasted eighteen minutes and the instructor sat down and drank coffee as they spoke.
In their modeling, rape culture was as simple to learn about as it was to recognize and address.
I’ll answer just for myself and say that has not been my experience, in processing my own experiences or in supporting organizational, academic, research, survivor, service provider, adult, teen and child audiences in unlearning harmful beliefs and practices. As a facilitator I enumerate rape culture’s relevance to deconstructing power dynamics — in our public discourse, for white survivors, in caregiving, during transitions, in faith communities.
My favorite entry point for describing rape culture is through narrative power analysis.
As described by the Center for Story based Strategy, this framework asks, “how do you decide what is true?”
Truth, as humans relate to it, is a reflection of what has meaning rather than what is fact.
Quite literally, what is true to us now is a reflection of what we have accepted as true already.
Described as filters, these are the aggregated meanings we’ve accumulated and integrated.
Within this umbrella, we could ask questions more specific to patterns of violence.
Who is credible?
What is supportive?
What is safe?
What situations require consent?
And, who taught you that?
How do we reconcile contradictory information, or contrasted information and experiences?
This litany of questions is pertinent to where this blog series introduction concluded, and by listing them, I mean to invite you to reflect on your own attitudes and understandings.
Harm is not exactly the same as violence or abuse, and those distinctions implicate the role of socialization, as well as repeated messages in distilling accepted meanings.
As I’ve described previously within my conception of rape culture, experience outpaces meaning. Having experiences before we can process them contributes to a pattern of disbelief and honed use of language carefully aimed — as hierarchy, as targeted treatment, as buzz words and emotionality, and as actions.
Meaning, attitude, belief, action, response, meaning, this sequence repeats and reorders itself.
Gaslighting creates meaning through repetition, and then internalization.
By giving gaslighting meaning, we make it truthful.
By internalizing gaslighting we are vulnerable to its narrative power.
Maybe this framing offers helpful context for Britney Spears’ conservatorship as we react to her first public statement delivered to a California judge recently.
She narrates a disclosure of 13 years of past harm, but what she’s asking for is for the court to intervene in ongoing harm.
This distinction is so important for us to observe, because abuse is a self-sustaining cycle without intervention, and a key feature is that abuse is routinely mislabeled and enabled. The narrative power is first.
If this weren’t true, we might have heard the lyrics of songs like Lucky, or Overprotected, and expressed — what makes powerlessness, exploitation, or violence towards and control of her such frequent themes in her songs? We might hear her songs as disclosures, or at least as images that describe violence she’s experienced and navigated both personally and professionally. The Youtube video, “All the hints Britney Gave us about #FreeBritney over the last 12 Years” highlights that perception well.
What framework do we have for recognizing how much we’ve been affected by gaslighting?
This has been my constant question throughout my facilitation, and more vital as facilitation has become both more virtual, more public sourced, and more scrutinized for censorship.
At a minimum, learning spaces need rituals, practices, disciplines and frameworks that enable us to question the meanings we’ve been given.
And they need to intervene from the point that gaslighting targets us — as children.
There is not a single relationship that children navigate that doesn’t include hierarchy and interdependence, and that reality impacts their relationships with learning.
Institutions have a vested interest in moderating both leadership and participation practices to limit change and visibility, and in particular white led institutions. Institutions like churches and schools.
Importantly, if the meanings we inherit target us as children, accepted truth is learned during childhood.
The goal of gaslighting is to cause someone to distrust their experience. The distrust of feelings, instincts, and body communication is encouraged. Gaslighting isn’t targeted at an individual, it’s targeted at a larger environment.
The goal of grooming is to test our interpretations of our boundaries, and our awareness and responses to boundary violations.
The goal of gatekeeping is to set and maintain conditions for accessing resources and information.
Culturally, gaslighting, grooming and gatekeeping confuse us about the nature of violence(s). They make accountability a laughable idea. They function to restrict our conversations to one event or topic, one news story. Misunderstanding connections allows us to overlook patterns and involved concepts.
What pattern do you observe…?
An abusive parent given the authority of the state.
Serial abusers granted leniency.
Confirmed abuse acquitted.
A grandmother jailed for missing a phone call.
Disclosure after disclosure ignored.
An institution concealing unmarked graves.
Fury at a framework that equips us to name racism.
Mutual aid saving peoples literal lives.
Mass sales of rainbow franchises.
Changing weather, heatwaves, extreme storms.
In God’s name.
In safety’s name.
War on Drugs.
War on Terror.
For the devil’s advocate.
For future generations.
Repeated gaslighting becomes memory.
Becomes collective memory, and collected stories.
Our memories of our experiences are what we bring to our discussions, and what we pass on.
In the next blog in this series, I will speak more specifically to my experiences navigating relationships with institutions, and successful and unsuccessful ways I’ve interrupted gaslighting.
I invite you to bring consciousness and humility to your reflections on your relationship with meaning, truth, trust, harm, credibility, and your own learning.
I invite us all to engage in learning within more deliberately created containers for support.
This work is too hard without enough support, and even when we have the support required.
With that in mind, I say to you what I nightly say to myself.
Why is it worth it, today?
Why is more safety, and less abuse, worth cultivating?
Your answers might surprise you, and our answers may not be the same.