Beware of collectors

There are people who I think of as collectors. Collectors like to maintain collections of people who they can manipulate. Often, collectors target marginalized people — especially activists and advocates who are growing into their own voices and power.

Collecting often works like this:

  • The collector will find someone who is starving for respect or struggling to be seen as a human being deserving human rights. 
  • They will give you something that feels like an unusual amount of respect or allyship.
  • Often, this comes in a the form of expressing an opinion that it’s unusual for privileged people to have.
  • Eg: An autism professional might express opposition to ABA, or the opinion that communication should always come before behavioral intervention.
  • They might talk a lot about centering marginalized voices, and give you some access to space that people like you don’t normally have.
  • Eg: They might be a man who refuses to speak on all male panels and proactively gets you invited to speak at male-dominated conferences.
  • This support comes with a heavy price. In return, they expect you to act like part of their collection and avoid doing anything to upset them.
  • (And somehow, everything you do that shows power or independence tends to upset them.)

Once you’re collected, it tends to feel like this:

  • They make you feel like they’re “one of the good ones”, and there’s a constant implicit threat that if you fail to please them, they might stop being so good.
  • They make it clear that you’d better make them feel good and validate their self-image, or else they’ll stop.
  • They’ll do all kinds of things you’d normally object to, and say all kinds of things that you’d normally be offended by.
  • One of the most sure-fire ways to upset them is to point out the threat, or to make it clear that you’re acting out of fear in any way.
  • It gets harder and harder to say things that you know will upset them. It gets harder and harder to express opinions that you know contradict theirs. It gets harder and harder to even have *thoughts* that will upset them. 
  • It gets harder and harder to realize how much you’re acting under duress, because noticing the threat will likely result in emotional retaliation. 
  • They might put you in a position in which all of your options feel blatantly unprofessional in one way or other. 
  • (For instance, they might make you choose between violating the professional ethics code in your field or else withdrawing from a project you’ve publicly committed to in a way that will cause the project to collapse.)
  • They might harshly criticize everyone else you’re allied with, and every community you’re part of. It can feel like you’re supposed to separate yourself from everyone but them. It can be difficult to resist, for the same reasons it’s generally difficult to resist deferring to their views.
  • It gets harder and harder to trust anyone else, or to have positive opinions of people who would treat you better than the collector does.

 

Collector manipulativeness tends to be excruciatingly confusing, in part because they also keep offering you things that feel important and rare, eg:

  • They’ll often tell you how important your work is, praise it effusively, and help you get access to professional opportunities. 
  • They’ll often keep expressing unusual good opinions that make you feel like they must be on your side, deep down, because hardly anyone ever agrees with you.
  • You’re usually not the only one in their orbit. They’ll often be tolerated and praised within your community, even though they blatantly do things that would normally be seen as horrifically unacceptable.
  • (Eg: Maybe they argue for autistic rights but also express graphic sympathy for parents who murder autistic children. Maybe they get women onto panels but also make gross sexual comments and mansplain to everyone who contradicts them.)
  • They’ll often be involved in projects that get publicly praised as a major step forward, despite major flaws and despite the way that they treat marginalized people.
  • Often, open they say and do things that your community normally finds unacceptable, but are perceived as an ally and a friend.
  • (Or even a uniquely valuable and indispensable ally and friend.)
  • It can get really hard to trust your perceptions of right and wrong under those circumstances.
  • Collectors are confusing and it can be hard to extract yourself from them.

When you’re trying to extract yourself from a collector, the most important thing is to find ways to stay oriented. Collectors gain power by confusing you, and they become much less powerful when you’re able to notice what they’re doing. 

Some ways to stay oriented:

Notice when your opinions are shifting in ways that might not be coming from you:

  • When you have conversations with the collector, do you tend to feel ashamed of yourself for disagreeing with them or questioning them?
  • Do you tend to go out of conversations feeling like you were wrong about everything and that they’re right?
  • Does the change in your opinions make sense to you, or does it feel like the ground is shifting underneath you in incomprehensible ways?
  • If you’re finding yourself confused after conversations, it can help to have a policy of not making decisions about what you’ve discussed until you’ve been away from the collector for at least for hours (or a day, or however long it usually takes for the effect to wear off.)

Making things explicit can also help:

  • One way collectors confuse people is by shaming you with innuendo instead of using direct language to discuss what they want you to believe and do.
  • They know that if they came out and said it, you would likely disagree with it — so instead of saying it, they manipulate you into losing the ability to contradict it.
  • (Eg: They might not say “it’s ok for parents to use electric shocks to control behavior”, but instead go off on a rant about being understanding every time you mention the issue. 
  • Or they might not *say* “we should tolerate men who grope women when they’re also major donors”, but instead talk about how important fundraising is to your organization every time you say that the groping needs to stop.)
  • If you notice what, exactly, it is that they want you to do and think, it can make it *much* easier to figure out for yourself whether or not you actually agree.
  • Some questions worth asking (either to yourself or in conversation with someone you trust):
  • What do they want me to believe? 
  • What do they want me to do?
  • What are they suggesting without coming out and saying it directly? 
  • What do I think about this? Why?

It’s also worth paying attention to contradictions. Sometimes when you notice that someone is contradicting themselves, it becomes much easier to feel ok about disagreeing with them. It can help to think about these kinds of questions:

  • What things do they want me to believe? What am I supposed to believe about them? About myself? About my community? About other marginalized groups? About privileged people? About my field? About the world? About other things? 
  • Do those things contradict each other? 
  • Is it actually possible to believe all of those things at the same time?
  • If so, what would be the likely result of pointing out the contradiction? Would they be interested in figuring out how to reconcile things, or would they be angry at me for noticing?

More generally speaking, it’s easier to figure out what your own opinion is when you notice fear. Questions worth considering:

  • What do I think about the things they want me to believe? Why? 
  • What do I agree with? What do I disagree with? What do I have questions about? 
  • What questions am I afraid to ask? Why? What do I think the answers to those questions might be?
  • What opinions am I afraid to express? Why?
  • Am I saying yes when I really want to say no? Why?
  • What do I think when they’re not in the room? What changes when they are?
  • What would be the likely result of expressing uncertainty, asking questions, or saying that I disagree about something? 
  • Would I be able to say what I actually believe without having a fraught emotional conversation in which I have to praise them and struggle to find ways to say that I agree with them after all?
  • What I am I afraid they might do to me? Realistically, could they do that? Would it be worse than the situation I’m already in?
  • Is there any way to mitigate the threat?

It can also help to ask yourself concrete questions about their actions and how they are percieved:

  • Collectors typically act in ways that blatantly contradict their reputation.
  • Then they manipulate people into not noticing, or they manipulate the conversation to prevent people from having language to describe it.
  • It’s worth asking: *Why* do they have a good reputation? Is it based on anything they’ve actually done to earn it? 
  • Does their good reputation depend on excusing an awful lot of statements and actions that would normally be considered dealbreaking if someone did even *one* of those things?
  • If you feel like they’re great and worth putting up with despite the way they treat you, why is that?
  • What’s the best thing they’ve done for you? What has letting them do that for you cost you? Is it worth it? If so, why?
  • Do they really mean the good things that they say? If so, why aren’t they acting like it more consistently?

You’re not as alone as you might feel:

  • Collectors are really good at looking much more powerful and influential than they really are. 
  • They may be giving the impression that everyone in your community is ok with what they’re doing, but it’s almost certainly not true.
  • Often, a lot of the silence and praise is because people are afraid to contradict the collector, not because they actually think everything is ok. 
  • The collector may be manipulating the conversation in ways that silence others, but you’re not the only one who notices what they’re doing, and you’re not the only one who sees it as a problem. Connecting with others who think that the manipulation is wrong can help, a lot.

It also helps to remember that the world is bigger than the collector is making it seem:

  • Collectors aren’t God, and they’re not the source of all good things.
  • They are not the only ones who will respect you or work with you. 
  • There is a whole world out there that is not about them, at all.
  • There are people who don’t care at all about the collectors opinion. There is work being done and art being made that they’re not part of.
  • The world does not revolve around collectors, and your life shouldn’t either.
  • You’re a real person, and you deserve respect in your own right.

Tl;dr Sometimes people build creepy collections of other people they’re manipulating. If a collector collects you, the world can end up seeming like a tiny and terrifying place, and it may seem like they’re a refuge. This can be very disorienting. Scroll up for some thoughts on how to notice when you’re being collected and some methods for getting your perspective back.