Your friend has been accused of a terrible thing. Your first reaction is likely to be that you will want to believe this is wrong. The accuser has horrible motives of their own, perhaps (after all, this does happen). There’s been a mistake, a misunderstanding. Some explanation exists that makes it all ok. Not only do we do this when people we care about are accused of terrible things, we can do it when people we care about do terrible things to us. We love them, and so we want them to be decent people. We may shoulder the blame for what happened so that we can carry on believing they are good people.
We may believe that how a person has treated us is representative of who they are. This is often something that comes up when people defend abusers. What’s going on here is as much about the person offering the defence as anything else. If you believe that how a person presents to you, is how they are – which should be a sane and fair assumption – challenging that is uncomfortable. If they were hiding that part of themselves from you, why did they do that? Or were you not paying attention? Were the signs there all along? Should you have seen this? Did you unconsciously turn a blind eye? These are not comfortable places to explore.
We all like to believe in the value of our own judgement. In fact, believing that you can make good calls is a key thing for staying sane and functional. Of course we all want to defend our own judgement, because without that we’re horribly adrift. If my friend has done a terrible thing, and I didn’t see they were a person capable of doing a terrible thing, what does that say about me? What does it say about me if I truly loved a person who did a terrible thing? What if, knowing about the terrible thing, I can’t unlove them? What does that make me? If they lied to me and deliberately misled me, what’s wrong with me that I couldn’t see through that?
Sometimes it is easier to assume the best and be actively complicit at this point, rather than facing the painful alternatives. It may not be the accused person we are protecting, but ourselves, our sense of self, our confidence in ourselves. It’s an understandable response. It is also important to ask how much evidence you need to acknowledge that your friend has done a terrible thing. And that perhaps by association, you have enabled a terrible thing.
Sometimes, we don’t want to look too hard at the terrible thing our friend has done, because if we did, we’d have to question our own behaviour. If their attitude is rapey, maybe ours is too. If they are sexist, or racist and we haven’t seen that, maybe it’s because we have the same issues. If their shouting, temper tantrums and irresponsibility isn’t ok, maybe our similar actions aren’t ok either. And so we may be inclined to support them so that we don’t have to question ourselves.
Questioning yourself is hard. Recognising and putting down problematic behaviour and attitudes is hard. It all comes down to whether taking the easy path is always preferable, even if it means you don’t get to be an honourable person. It often means knowing, on some level, that you are out of order and having to live with the tension between who you want people to think you are, and how you are, and that can take quite a toll.