Missing Stairs

Today’s question comes from Beverly.  She wrote: “The #MeToo movement has me thinking about what one article I read called ‘missing stairs’: people in a community who are known for their tendency to say and/or do hurtful things, but because of their contributions or status in the community, no one wants to ‘make a fuss’ about it. So instead community members pass on warnings to those most vulnerable: ‘Oh, don’t pay it any mind if Mary makes racist jokes. She’s just too old to know better.’ ‘Bob? Yeah, he likes to flirt with the young girls, but he doesn’t mean anything by it. Just steer clear of him if he bothers you.’”

“What is the best way for a loving community to deal with such “missing stairs”? How do you honor someone’s contributions and history while holding them fully accountable for hurtful behavior? How do you protect vulnerable members of the community without allowing them to be painted as “the ones who got Mary and Bob in trouble”? Is there a way to create a just reconciliation? And what do we do if that doesn’t work?”

That’s a great series of questions for the time we live in when many of those who hold leadership positions seem to incessantly model hurtful and inappropriate comments and behavior.

I learned an important life lesson in my very first job out of college.  I taught in a school located in a juvenile detention center, and the school used a very strict behavior modification system.  The system was built on first teaching the students the rules of acceptable behavior.  Next, the students were taught the consequences for breaking a rule.  So when a student acted outside the bounds of appropriate behavior, our conversations with the individual would go something like this …

“Stan, what is the rule about talking in class?”

“No talking in class without permission.”

“What were you doing just now, Stan?”

“Talking in class without permission.”

“What is the consequence for breaking the rule about talking in class without permission, Stan?”

“A loss of 5 behavioral points.”

“So, what is going to happen now to your point total?”

“I’m going to lose 5 behavioral points.”

In most cases, it was the students that doled out the consequences – not the teachers.  The beauty of that strict behavioral modification system was that it focused all of us on two things – and two things alone: (1) the rules (or what was defined as acceptable behavior); and (2) the consequences for breaking the rules.  That’s it!

Of course, the students would always try to divert our attention away from a conversation about the rules and the consequences for breaking the rules.  They would often try to make it personal by saying things like, “You just don’t like me!” or, “You are out to get me!”

No matter how many times they tried to divert attention away from the rules, however, we were trained to always keep our focus.  And that approach worked like nothing I had ever experienced before.

Of course, a behavior modification isn’t perfect (as nothing or no system ever is).  But it was a powerful tool of transformation in the lives of those who could not otherwise be reached!

As a result of that experience, I believe the first thing an individual in a position of leadership and the group must do is maintain a laser-like focus on their definition of appropriate behavior.  It shouldn’t matter how much power or history the offending individual has with the community.  The ONLY thing that matters are the defining values, principles, and rules of the group.

That’s why – when it comes to the #MeToo movement – I make it clear that as a Progressive I hold those in the movement I tend to see eye to eye with (people like Charlie Rose, Al Franken, and Garrison Keillor) to the same standards to which I hold leaders on the far Right.  NO ONE gets a free pass: no matter how much I like or agree with them on other matters!  This approach has helped me maintain credibility with those on the Right who see I don’t hold double standards in my approach.

And when someone lashes out in frustration and attacks the “missing stair”, it is critically important that the individual and/or group uses those same principles to protect the “missing stair”.  Only when everyone within the group understands that the rules are the rules and will be applied fairly to EVERYONE, do those rules take on added authority.  Even the “missing stair” will begin to respect the rules a bit more when she/he experiences first hand the benefit of the rules/principles.

This leads me to a second point about how to protect the most vulnerable members of a community against a “missing stair”.

When folks are living together in community, it is crucial that members don’t expect the individual targeted by a “missing stair” to be the one to call out the “missing stair” on her or his offense.  A group shouldn’t, for instance, expect an African-American member of the community to call a “missing stair” out on her/his racist remark.  Nor should the group expect a lesbian member of the community to call out a “missing stair” on her/his homophobia.

Such a dynamic would send two painful messages: (1) that the directly affected individual is the only one who cares about the slight; and (2) that the offensive remark was offensive only because it hurt Mary’s feelings – and not because it violated bigger principles.  There are no words for how powerful it is when someone from a social location NOT directly affected by the remark stands up and calls the “missing stair” on her/his inappropriateness.

And in to your final question about how you can stay in relationship with a “missing stair” and perhaps even achieve reconciliation – here’s my thought.  The group makes it clear that the arms of the community are always open – to those who are willing to live by the values and principles of the group.

If an individual decides not to respect those values or principles, it is the individual who is removing themselves from good standing in the community.  And when the individual is willing to live by those guiding values and principles, the group will be ready to embrace them: no matter how many times they have struggled to do so in the past.

In other words, it is never the community that is excluding individuals.  It is always the individual who chooses whether or not to step outside the bounds of community.  And it is always the individual who decides whether she or he wants to come back into community.  The power (and responsibility) lies within the individual – and the community honors and respects her or his decision.

Those are just a few thoughts I had in regard to Beverly’s excellent questions.  What things do Beverly’s questions raise for you?

About Pastor Craig

I'm a 54-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, CA with his black Labrador Retriever named Max. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. My passions include spirituality, politics, and sports (Go Houston teams, go!). I use my blog to start conversations rather than merely spout my perspectives and opinions. I hope you'll post a question, comment, or observation for me to respond - so we can get the conversation started!
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3 Responses to Missing Stairs

  1. Beverly Marshall Saling says:

    Thank you, Craig. This is great stuff, especially the parts about the rules applying to everyone and not expecting the targets of hurtful behavior to be the ones to call it out.

    It does bring up another question for me, which is: How can a group create a set of clear rules and consequences that everyone buys into and understands? With many of the groups I’ve watched struggle with missing stairs, a lot of the fighting is about whether X behavior “counts” as racist speech, sexual harassment, trans-exclusionary, or what have you. For example, one community had a guy who liked to tell women he thought they looked “hot” today in a way that made them uncomfortable. When called on it, he insisted that him telling women they looked hot was no different from a woman in the group telling another woman she liked her new hairstyle—and because some of the other people in the group were worried about “compliments being banned” and “unreasonable expectations” for predetermining whether a specific compliment might be welcome, the group was unable to come to a consensus on how to clarify the rules and several of his targets quit the group.

    Another group had trouble with a white guy who had previously been disciplined for racist speech wanting a black guy wearing a BLM T-shirt to be disciplined because “BLM is a racist hate group.” Even though most of the people in the group disagreed with his characterization of BLM as racist, his insistence that they “prove it” before he would accept that ruling divided the group on “who sets the standard for standards” and again, several people quit.

    Having clear rules is especially important if you’re going to apply the “infinite patience” principle to missing stairs who say they are ready to live by the rules of the group again. So often we see that the offender still doesn’t understand (or perhaps want to understand) where they went wrong and is perfectly happy to continue the cycle of reoffending and promising to do better while their targets feel less and less welcome in the group.

    • capete67 says:

      One thing I should have added as it relates to community life is an example of “rules” that can guide the group. There are a lot of excellent resources out there. One of the most common that I’ve found helpful is Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements. At our church, we have a helpful Covenant Statement that spells out our ways of being with one another. It reads as follows:

      “As a member of Woodland Hills Community Church (UCC), I agree to treat others with the same respect and honesty with which I would like to be treated.
      • I will assume the best about people and their intentions;
      • I will speak for myself openly and not repeat hearsay and rumor;
      • I accept that disagreements are natural, and I agree to listen to people who disagree with me with tolerance and an attempt to understand their position.
      These things I do as a part of my choice to follow in the life and teachings of Jesus, the Christ, who is my model and brother.”

      The specifics of such an agreement or covenant will vary from community to community. What is important is that the group take time and spell out its vision for the way it expects its members to be with one another. Once that it done, it will help the community promote (and defend) its core values. If you try going this route by creating your own covenant, let me know how it goes.

  2. sandi says:

    Thank you for your wise words. My father, brother, son – these ’emotional’ places are there, too, and don’t always cooperate with the rules.

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