Photo credit: Kirsten Smith
Harassment (and worse) is not new to music. For as long as there have been humans seeking to dominate, there have incidents of abuse. For as long as there have been power structures, there have been incidents of abuse. For as long as there has been a music industry, you can be confident that there has been abuse within it. That is nothing new – in fact, there would be proverbial tumbleweeds blowing through what was left of our music libraries if we were to scan our most well-known celebrities seeking those who had never crossed those lines.
Although it feels like nothing has changed, it seems as though everything has: universal access to social media platforms are accelerating acknowledgment that certain historically acceptable behaviors — and resulting cultural norms — are incredibly damaging to others. As a result, we’re dealing with a world where it seems as though there are new accusations of abuse in music (and other branches of the entertainment industry) every other day.
In 2015, Kevin Lyman made the controversial (there are no words) decision to put alleged fan-predator Front Porch Step on a date of his popular, renowned music festival, Van’s Warped Tour. Until its final run this past summer, the tour was a teen destination, catapulting issues of fan abuse into the media spotlight: What constitutes abuse? Who is really a victim? Why should we care? And the ever-present question: what do these “embattled” predators have to do to earn their spotlight back? It’s a question that is inherently impossible to answer because it’s the wrong question. The very act of asking it is just another symptom of the issue – unlike the abusive behavior, the road to retribution is not about the person who committed the act. It is about the person they harmed…All of them.
We all know the cycle. It goes one of two ways; the perpetrator either categorically denies the accusations and issues a statement that usually implies their accuser is single-handedly responsible for the disbelief surrounding “real” victims. Or, the perpetrator accepts at least partial guilt for what’s usually a sanitized version of the alleged abuse and then offers a very some sort of apology. The statements usually feel very “straight from the publicist” and set the scene for the alleged abuser’s inevitable future return to the spotlight. For some, this is enough. For most, it doesn’t even come close. Why aren’t the apologies enough? What is the missing ingredient that would allow folks to just “get over it”? While the question entirely misses the point, I believe it can actually have an answer. This is where it gets tricky: not to put too fine a point on it, the key ingredient is demonstrating genuine remorse. If this is true, then there are two choices: choosing redemption, or rejecting it. And for the rest of us, there is one choice: between supporting victims, or “neutrality” and it’s insidious sibling, apologism.
Choosing Redemption: Swallowing Remorse
You cannot begin to be redeemed if you do not honestly feel the weight of what you’ve done to others. This is the missing piece of the puzzle. This is why so many react negatively to the delicately-crafted, publicist-approved apologies put out by the “me too’d” who bother even to acknowledge they might have something to apologize for. These statements make it clear that the person in question has no idea what they’re apologizing for. I believe they’re sorry – we all do. But sorry for what? It indeed isn’t for the pain they’ve caused. It’s for the pain they’re experiencing.
You don’t give an apology because of the response. That in and of itself renders an apology insincere and ultimately useless. You provide an apology to ease the burden on the person who is hearing it. It’s an act of complete selflessness that when framed as part of a redemption tour, is bastardized and turned into the most selfish thing imaginable – a tool for manipulation.
Sincerity and remorse, those most intangible of things, are what makes the difference. An apology cannot exist without demonstration of comprehension of guilt – what you did, how it impacted the person it was done to, and why you won’t be doing it again to them or anyone else. An apology comes with vindication for the wronged party and humility and self-reflection for the party who is apologizing. Otherwise, it’s just a tactic, an empty gesture, rusty metal plated in fool’s gold so that folks who don’t really believe they did anything wrong can say they’re doing all the right things. After all: PC culture is the real devil here, right?
In fact, self-aggrandizing public remorse misses the point entirely – that at the end of the day, this is about how we treat other people. This is about being better than we are. Someone who is remorseful accepts responsibility, along with the knowledge that thanks to their own actions it is their burden to continue being accountable so long as the legs of what they did are hurting people. And unfortunately, the larger your celebrity, the longer those legs will be. The other side of fame is that your actions carry the ability to harm so many others, because of the nature of how trauma works.
This doesn’t mean there’s no way back. It means the way back is painful and intensely uncomfortable, and there is no discernable end point. The way back, if one genuinely wants to find it, is a path that has to be walked as long as the echoes of one’s crimes still can be heard. Remorse isn’t an instant panacea – there’s no way to tell what positive impacts may be in each individual scenario. But joy in one’s family and friends, hobbies, work – these are all things one finds on the path back. But expecting an apology to mean “business as usual” is the antithesis of accountability. Genuine remorse requires no expectations.
And to be entirely fair, not everyone is going to care even if you DO demonstrate sincere remorse. For some, it may never matter or be enough. Accepting that falls under “bare minimum” for what one needs to do to find redemption. That’s part of remorse. But for every person who will never see you the same way again, there are just as many so-called keyboard warriors and survivors who will recognize sincerity when they look at it. It’s a chance well worth taking.
Fighting Redemption: The Faux-pology
We don’t really have examples of what a demonstration of genuine remorse in a public figure would look like (that I, your absolutely NOT omniscient author, am aware of). The Aziz Ansaris of the world likely would be forgiven if they demonstrated genuine remorse. Instead, these men are “lumped in” with the Weinsteins and Cosbys of the world because the former shows exactly as much self-awareness as the latter. To be clear: you are not genuinely interested in mitigating the harm of your actions if you expect that doing so will not require personal sacrifice.
Your apology cannot be about you. It is not about appeasing your sense of guilt so that you can sleep at night. Guilt is valueless. Remorse is everything. So if you are committed only to the former and unwilling to embrace the latter, why on earth should anyone forgive you?
Now, say an apology is made. If your apology is not being received the way you would hope, and that enrages you, you are encouraged to take a step back and do some soul-searching. What did you really say? More importantly, what didn’t you say? Why did people respond the way they did? Then consider: Perhaps you are not ready for forgiveness. When you are, letting go of the guilt that prompts defensiveness becomes unavoidable. You’d be amazed at how much good just hearing someone out and validating them can do. “I hear you. I acknowledge you. You’re right, and I’m sorry.” And then you get to go on with your day. Remember: there is no road map for surviving abuse, either. We’re all finding our way back from something.
Simply put, it is illogical to say that you can simultaneously defend your innocence and accept accountability. You cannot offer a genuine apology if there is an expectation on your part that merely the act of doing so wipes the slate clean. That expectation is just you doing your penance, all about how it can benefit you. In case it wasn’t clear, the entire point of an apology is that it is your first act of penance, something that exists solely for the benefit of the person/s you harmed. After all, isn’t making your interactions with those you’re apologizing to all about you and your desires what got you into this mess?
If you can come to terms with “nobody owes me fairness on this because I didn’t stop to consider fairness to others when I behaved the way I did,” accountability becomes easier to live with. Can you really pretend you are remorseful about what you did if you still believe you are owed anything by the people you hurt? Remember: remorse, personal accountability, and demonstration of change are ALL required for redemption. If you can’t accept that, then you aren’t sorry, and you are seeking absolution, not redemption. That is actively rejecting redemption. I am not saying it’s easy. I’m simply saying it’s how remorse works.
Apologism, Neutrality, and What to Do When It Hits Close to Home
Then again, this isn’t all about the accused. If you’ve ever heard the term “enabler”, “complicit”, or “apologist”, this refers to the people who defend and support an abuser through the process, ranging from a simple “separate the art from the artist” all the way to actively antagonizing, gaslighting and in turn emotionally abusing the survivor in question. They are often the ones asking this question in the first place:
“So what else should they do? At what point is it okay to come back? Can they never do what they love? Would their death satisfy you?”
It is, perhaps, completely normal to feel defensive over your faves and your loved ones in the wake of a call-out, especially depending on the level of the infraction. To that point, proceed with as much caution and situational awareness as possible. You are as biased as the accuser without carrying their trauma from the events in question. (I am, of course, not speaking of the statistically rare false accusation – those tend to out themselves in time, and they’re a much, much smaller percentage of the problem.) Not choosing isn’t an option – in fact, “neutrality” in these scenarios is a choice in and of itself, and it’s an incredibly harmful one at that.
We might not feel like any of that is our problem, and we might even be right. But if we are willing to put our neck out for someone who has been accused of wounding someone this deeply, we must also be willing to accept that we are just as complicit in re-traumatizing the victim. There is a very real possibility we do not know the whole story. At any rate, it is singularly cruel to refuse outright to entertain the fact that who someone is to us might not be who they are to someone else.
I get it, this is really, really hard. There are levels of awareness: realizing the people we love are capable of awful things is a painful process. It can cause us to question our own perception or our personal relationship to the person or to their work. It’s far easier to refuse to entertain the notion that it’s even possible, either from denial or from pure loyalty.
It isn’t that simple. The reality is, the world isn’t split into “good dudes” and “monsters.” Whether we hurt people doesn’t have to be what defines us – but what we do when we’re confronted with that pain absolutely does. Again, this may not feel fair, and that’s understandable. At the end of the day, we have to decide what matters more to us; helping our friend or idol to learn and grow from their mistakes, or continuing to go about our day as though nothing happened, aware of the immense pain that failure to acknowledge injustice causes its victims.
There is a happy medium between “publicly defending my friend at the expense of those they’ve harmed” and “publicly dragging my friend and turning my back on them for what they’ve done,” and it’s this: be quiet. We don’t have to perform either of these services, although there will be those that demand it. It’s okay to calmly say “I do not condone their actions, and I’m working to help them be better,” and then to actually, you know, DO that. Encourage them to get help. Check them when they need it. Being a yes-man isn’t the same as providing support or loyalty; instead, it ultimately sabotages any possibility of the growth that my friend or idol very badly needs.
Just the allegation ruins careers! They’ve suffered enough.
Remember: If allegations ruined careers, there wouldn’t be an overripe tangerine in the White House. If accusations destroyed careers, the music industry would have said “boy bye” to R. Kelly. If allegations ruined careers, Falling in Reverse and Slaves would (allegedly) need new frontmen. If allegations ruined careers, William Control would’ve had to wait longer than one month to start his “comeback.” If allegations ruined careers, we wouldn’t still be reporting on Louis C.K. If convictions ruined careers, As I Lay Dying wouldn’t be selling out tour dates. All men who have “made mistakes.” All unrepentant and defiant. All with countless supporters who want to know about the road to redemption – after all, haven’t they suffered enough?
Just a reminder: the purpose of this piece is not to explore the “guilt” or “innocence” of any particular party or the veracity of any specific accusation. This isn’t a court of law: many of the types of abuse that fall firmly into the “me too” camp aren’t illegal. Legality and morality are in no way, shape or form, the same thing. The purpose, instead, is to attempt to posit an answer to the question: what does redemption look like in these cases?
Trauma is pervasive. Trauma is insidious. Trauma manifests itself in a myriad of ways, many of which are unpredictable and at face value, illogical – but also largely involuntary on the part of those who are still trying to heal from it. Those living with trauma don’t have the option to turn off what happened. They don’t get to talk about it once and be done with it. “Just move on” isn’t an option for them. Like it or not, fair or not, the “road to redemption” makes it that much harder, that much more painful for survivors still trying to find their own redemption for what was done to them. It’s in this way that what once was a transgression between two people becomes much, much bigger than that when the abuser has a platform. It isn’t just the victim they’re making amends to – like with secondhand smoke, that damage has to be mitigated to everyone it washes over. It isn’t fair, but as people are so fond of telling survivors, very little about life is.
So what is the road to redemption? For lesser offenses (read: Ansari), it’s entirely possible that simply taking that first step – of demonstrating that you understand what you did, de-centering yourself and honestly expressing remorse might be enough. It’s the doubling down and refusal to do that, even in alleged apologies that drive so many up the wall. For the rest of us, demanding anything less means prioritizing the redemption of those who aren’t willing to do the bare minimum to be worthy of it, over the humanity and healing of those that they hurt. That’s a personal decision – but it’s one that has very telling and authentic roots, and we’re moving into a world where we can’t run from the reality of our decisions. At the end of the day, it’s absolutely crucial to remember that the end game here is to create a world that’s just a little softer, just a little kinder, and a little less full of pain. This is about demanding a higher standard in how we treat each other – particularly in a world where social hierarchies and power imbalances leave so many groups all the more vulnerable to abuse and mistreatment. What’s certain: we’re long past the time where assuming that a lukewarm statement (or the mere passage of time) will absolve one of responsibility was good enough.
If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then the road to redemption is undoubtedly paved with remorse.