Heroes never escape unscathed: Bringing toxic behaviour to light

“I would like to turn the Kaiser into a good man — a very good man — all at once if I could … Don’t you think, Mrs. Blythe, that would be the very worstest punishment of all?”

(Rilla of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery)

Sometimes, we don’t realise that something is wrong until it has started to change for the better. Sometimes, we don’t realise how hard something has been, until we’ve reached the apex of the hill and have started coasting down the other side. And sometimes we don’t realise how bad we’ve been feeling until we start to feel better.

Being embedded in an unhealthy culture is tricky; we only know what we know.

Encountering new cultures, communities and experiences helps us to evaluate what we have experienced in the past, or what we might be experiencing in the present. But what if we become aware that a particular culture we’re involved in is destructive or diminishing of human life? This can be a painful realisation.

There is significant current discussion around the topic of toxic leadership. The idea that destructive behaviour of any kind should be called out is becoming increasingly accepted and embedded in our social consciousness. But when one attempts to follow this imperative to ‘call out’ toxic behaviour, particularly in leadership, it can become almost impossible to distinguish a thread of ‘the right thing to do’ from the knotty tangle of human reality. It sometimes doesn’t seem to exist, particularly when a person’s violation of others breaks the spirit of the law rather than the letter.

Additionally, when someone is hurting others, exposure involves those who have been hurt as much as it involves a perpetrator. The differing perspectives and experiences of various witnesses make for muddy work. When an organisation’s reputation is also at stake, complexity is raised to a whole new level. It might almost be as complicated as navigating one’s way out of a toxic family environment — almost.

Faith communities are particularly vulnerable to misuse of authority.

People cannot generally be boxed up neatly as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ — human life is much too complex for this — yet we must at times make definitive calls about what is unquestionably diminishing to the dignity of others. How does one do this without reverting to such a simplistic response as labelling someone a ‘baddie’? One could yearn for simplicity. Or is there a sense in which complexity can work in our favour, for the betterment of our relational skills, knowledge and interaction?

I would like to raise two key areas of concern — or rather two clusters of questions (but not the only two) —arising from recent passionate imperatives by Christians to call out destructive relational patterns.

Both clusters seek to avoid an either-or mode of approaching these issues; that is to say, truth here is inherently multidimensional. It is affected by questions of unique personhood, relational constellations and environment or context.

What reinforces toxic behaviour?

The first cluster of questions pertain to theological frameworks which reinforce unhelpful interpretations of authority and faith.

Authority is related to role; roles are implicitly about relationality with others.

A mother or father might claim authority ‘over’ their children because of their role; actually real authority is earned when a child looks up to a parent who has earned respect (often through displaying vulnerability or kindness).

Faith communities are particularly vulnerable to misuse of authority. Why? Because not only might a person within a faith community claim authority based on a role of responsibility — but because this role of responsibility might lead a person to make a claim to divine authority. To defy authority in this context is to defy God (apparently).

For our own protection, we must be intelligently critical of any absolute claims to authority, any voice that claims to speak on behalf of the divine. It is disrespectful to attempt to shape another person’s behaviour by implicit fear-mongering or by assuming the authority of God (which can be couched in smooth tones, apparent care, or words like ‘grace’, ‘love’ and ‘faith’).

I am conscious that this may raise questions about our day-to-day modes of language use in faith-community contexts; these questions are healthy and can lead to growth.

What theological frameworks reinforce our understanding of destructive modes of authority? What is a destructive mode of leadership? (Graham Hill’s recent article is particularly illuminating in this regard). How does Christ actually help us to structure criteria for weighing our responses to these questions? What are our values? What indeed, is our understanding of the central message and person of the Christian faith? And how do we read our own propensities, predilections and past experiences back into these narratives? If a person has never encountered genuinely self-emptying (‘kenotic’) leadership, how do they know what they are looking for?

I had grown up in a ‘Christian’ home but this was utterly, shatteringly foreign.

An anecdote: In one of my early theology classes, the lecturer likened the grace, or generosity, of God, to that of a parent who absorbs the cost of a child’s mistake — say, for example, responding graciously when a child breaks a window. The implicit message was clear: rather than attempting to equal the score by making the child pay, either literally or by bearing the brunt of the parent’s anger (or both!), the parent absorbs their own annoyance and is able to focus on how the problem might be constructively solved, rather than its becoming a vortex of debt.

This models to a child how to deal with inevitable mistakes and failures. A child with an angry parent might internalise the anger and direct it in pointless self-flagellation at future mistakes. Another will learn to focus on the problem at hand, recognise the cost involved, and work collaboratively with others to meet it, thus taking redemptive responsibility.

I had grown up in a ‘Christian’ home but this was utterly, shatteringly foreign. Wasn’t it ‘right’ to call out ‘sin’? Wasn’t it essential to ‘grace’ taking on its full weight that one must realise the gravity of one’s error first?

How to call out toxic behaviour

This leads to the second cluster of questions. These develop around the question of how one might go about calling out toxic behaviour.

We know what might happen if whistleblowing goes wrong, if those one appeals to fail to see the seriousness of what is expressed, or if they do not act in reparative ways. In an employment situation, a whole livelihood — a whole family’s livelihood — may be at stake. A family’s belonging within a community that is central to its identity might be at stake. Reputation is at stake, because a whistleblower will carry the burden if it comes off wrong!

It might seem a romantic or heroic vision to be a whistleblower, but it is a painful, traumatic process.

It lays one open to exposure — and here we think with gravitas of those who step forward to confront and prosecute those who have perpetuated the most intimate violations, and who must undergo the process of reliving the horror to see responsibility taken in the form of social restitution. Destructive behaviour begets pain for all involved.

What we actually want to see in a perpetrator is self-awareness.

We see today some of the consequences for organisations which have chosen to protect the identity of abusers, moving them on to different locations to escape their own reputation. At the time, no doubt, such decision-makers believed that their actions were justifiable — or at least, justifiable enough — to proceed in the manner they did. It is in hindsight that we realise how manipulative, deplorable and heinous these decisions were. Many feel angry to think that a perpetrator’s dignity should be considered at all, when they have shattered another person.

What is the purpose of calling out toxic behaviour? Is it to join in vociferous ‘name and shame’ game? Does this not perpetuate the very dynamics it decries? Surely shaming a person reinforces the very dynamics which are likely to have given rise to toxic behaviour in the first place! Do we believe in punitive approaches to correction? (And our theological narratives here must again come under close inspection). Does hurting people reduce the likelihood of their hurting others? Yes, perpetrators should understand the grave consequences of their actions. To morally denigrate a perpetrator however, is not necessarily the path to anything like rehabilitation or restitution.

What we actually want to see in a perpetrator is self-awareness; in self-awareness, we gain awareness of others (and vice versa). Self-awareness, and so awareness of others, begins the process of recognition — that is, of learning to be considerate. We begin to sense the gravity of what we have done when we realise how we would feel if we were on the receiving end. We realise that the way we love others is entwined with how we love ourselves.

As referenced at the start of this article, there is a poignant scene in the book Rilla of Ingleside, the last in the Anne of Green Gables series. This book is set during World War I. In this scene, characters are venting their anger at the ‘Kaiser’, imagining cruel and unusual punishments which they would like to inflict upon him. Then, a child pipes up:

“I would like to turn the Kaiser into a good man — a very good man — all at once if I could. That is what I would do. Don’t you think, Mrs. Blythe, that would be the very worstest punishment of all?”

The adults do not understand this at all, until the child explains that “if he was turned into a good man he would understand how dreadful the things he has done are, and he would feel so terrible about it that he would be more unhappy and miserable than he could ever be in any other way.” 

… Meaningful relationships of trust and respect are the price of undermining the dignity of others

And what if such change is too unrealistic to bank on? We can’t rely on an about-turn occurring, even if we can hope for it. What if healthy relationality in a position of leadership is currently outside the realm of a person’s capacity? Can a vocational trajectory be found beyond ‘leadership’ that works with that person’s particular capacities in such a way as to develop their positive skills and cease to fuel the destructive tendencies? Can (or should?) we reshape relationships with difficult people so that they are formed by manageable modes of engagement which both protect us from unnecessary damage, and keep the line open? This is a very personal question whose answer can only ever be contextual.

It is relationships which the rotting fruits of toxic behaviour sully; meaningful relationships of trust and respect are the price of undermining the dignity of others and treating them with disrespect.

I am conscious that this article raises more questions than it answers, but precisely in this, this essential topic of conversation continues on as we wrestle with its outworking.

Sarah Bacaller assists with online teaching development at Stirling Theological College and is writing a PhD in philosophical theology (Western Sydney University). She is also an audiobook narrator.