Reorientation is author JS Lee’s monthly column about reclamation & actualization as an unwilling Korean import to the US.
While it’s become more commonplace to condemn the abusers and bad actors we’ll never meet, we still allow too many in our personal lives to skate by unchecked. Problematic Faves aren’t limited to public figures. We often give passes to loved ones when they cause others harm. Sometimes we’re not ready to face them, the truth, or what it reveals about ourselves. We might fear what we could lose, so we distract ourselves with their better qualities and decide they’re good people who make bad decisions.
The truth is, “good people” don’t exist. Everyone is capable of doing terrible things—whether intentional or accidental. When we excuse those we love for offenses that aren’t ours to forgive, we enable greater harm.
When we excuse those we love for offenses that aren’t ours to forgive, we enable greater harm.
Society wants us to believe that all rapists are incels who lurk in the dark, stalking strangers. That racists have white hoods in their closets and no friends of color. We’re told that abusers are alcoholics with anger issues and murderers are psychopaths with toxic mothers. While that’s sometimes true, many rapists, racists, abusers and killers are the ordinary people among us. They’re in our homes, families, schools, offices, and friend groups. They’re people who’ve lived alongside us and helped us celebrate meaningful moments. They might offer support when we’re down or send money when we’re in need. And while some surely do, not everyone acts in kindness to upkeep the facade that they are “good people”. Humans are complex beings.
We paint simple pictures of how good and evil look because it creates a false dichotomy that protects us and those we care about from culpability. It’s hard to reconcile how people we love can do awful things. Yet, our tolerance can signal to those they harm that their suffering isn’t worth consequences. It also perpetuates racism, rape culture, abuse, and all kinds of oppression.
One of my exes is a loving brother, son, uncle, and friend. At the time we met, he volunteered at a homeless shelter to help take care of kids. He’s an intelligent man with an impressive career who wrote poetry and supported my artistic endeavors. He was also emotionally and sexually abusive, racist, and misogynistic—and he excused the same behavior from his friends.
I’ve only recently been able to closely examine that relationship and why I stayed for three years. In hindsight, I recognize our beginning was a grooming period. The way he showered gifts and adoration made me think he was an attentive and thoughtful guy. Any discomfort I had was squashed by the idea that I just “wasn’t used to nice guys”. Over time, he slowly became more possessive, critical, and manipulative. Because I’d experienced more blatant abuse in the past, I struggled to see his behaviors as such. Gaslighting works because gradual shifts are hard to notice. When I aired my unease, he masterfully used my traumas against me. The issues I tried to address were redirected to his concern about my mental health, bringing up irrelevant pieces of my past. During each confrontation, he’d flaunt his inflated good qualities and convince me that my grievances were unfounded. When I tried breaking things off, he’d throw terrifying fits as a form of intimidation. It became such a dizzying mess that I’d eventually cave from exhaustion.
His other relationships seemed healthy in contrast to my own. He and his family were close and exceptionally supportive of one another. My adoptive family was deeply dysfunctional. And while I’d just recently begun to form healthy friendships, he invested a lot of energy in friendships from various stages of life. He often referenced these differences as proof that I was the broken one. How could someone with such positive relationships be doing what I claimed?
While friends and family have different access to a person than an intimate partner, on many occasions he was open with his mistreatment. Sometimes he verbally and emotionally abused me in front of others, laughing it off as a joke. Other times, he’d regale them with shocking stories. At most, they’d playfully scold. I got the feeling he was like a toddler pushing boundaries to see just how far they’d let him go. Their acceptance seemed to reinforce his behavior and normalize it for me. It enabled him to carry on guilt-free as if he’d done nothing wrong. Thankfully, playing in a band expanded my circle of friends and self-esteem. I eventually got him to leave—but of course he found a way to drag it out for several months.
When I recently shared with a friend what I’ve been processing, she recalled witnessing some of his abuse but then immediately spoke of his goodness. She wasn’t trying to invalidate or hurt me, but it stung. It was his goodness that kept me with him for so long. I suspect that her reaction was more about her discomfort than his defense. This isn’t to shame her. I don’t expect my friends to be perfect but to work through sensitive conversations in a healthy way—which we always do. I mention it because it’s a common response that’s worth broader examination. We’re conditioned to react this way. We live in a culture that’s more instinctively protective of those who harm than those who are harmed.
We live in a culture that’s more instinctively protective of those who harm than those who are harmed.
While we’re all imperfect, there’s a difference between acceptably flawed, problematic, and outright toxic. We hopefully remove the flagrantly toxic. But, what do we do with our personal problematic faves?
I don’t think the answer is always exclusion but there should be accountability. When someone we care for does something abhorrent, we can guide them toward awareness, repair, and changed behavior. That is real love. It makes healing possible. If they can’t go there with us, then maybe we should question why we hold on. Do we truly benefit from our silence while others suffer?
And there must also be room for survivors to share their stories. We can learn to sit with the discomfort of their experiences. If we feel defensive of the offender or even ourselves, perhaps it’s best worked through in private at another time. Otherwise it can have unintentionally triggering and compounded effects.
We have more influence in the world around us than we want to believe. I suspect it’s because once we accept that power, we’re called to act more responsibly. Sometimes it’s tiring and overwhelming, but I do believe our efforts count. Every day we set the tone for what’s acceptable and have the opportunity to make social change.