A Public Figure’s Guide to Messing up and Learning in Public

This week, several people asked me to listen to the intro of a yoga podcast in which the host, J. Brown, defends a blog he wrote refuting the firsthand account of Christie Roe about how yoga teacher Mark Whitwell sexually assaulted her.* [See below for a link and content warning.] The people who asked me to review this intro were understandably confused. They had many questions. What made them so viscerally uncomfortable? Was the host entitled to tell “his side of the story,” as he put it? If he apologizes for his actions and seems contrite, even tearful, should he be given a third, fourth, fifth chance at making things right? What comprises a full apology (as opposed to an emotional one)? Why are so many people defending his intentions? And what exactly is learning in public?

There’s so much to unpack here, and others have already addressed several of the questions. So here, I focus on one of my passions, learning in public. A clear understanding of what that entails is essential to the work we do as thought leaders, teachers, healers, therapists, bodyworkers, and anyone with a public platform. You don’t have to do all this if you don’t want to learn in public. But if you do, and you claim that as part of your platform, laying the groundwork is essential, both to avoid causing harm and to remedy harm when it happens.

The following reflections are informed by my experience as a psychologist, trauma specialist, yoga therapist, contemplative practice teacher, research collaborator in the science of well-being, social justice student and advocate, and survivor of sexual assault.

What is learning in public? People often use the term to mean the act of learning something and sharing it with one’s audience. Yet increasingly, it’s come to refer loosely to the process of someone with a platform (podcast host, public figure, etc.) making mistakes and owning up to them in front of one’s audience of listeners, followers, readers, students, and others for their learning and growth. The process includes but is not limited to the following: You share your mistake, why you made it, what makes it a mistake, what you learned from it) and you make amends for the mistake. A quick note: As a listener, follower, appreciator, you don’t need to do the work of learning in public yourself. But you do have a responsibility to speak out when harm is being done (read down to the last couple of paragraphs here for more on that.)

Learning in public is a social justice issue. The most important thing is to do no harm. What you don’t know can hurt you, and will almost certainly hurt others. The mistakes you make will often occur in social context, be motored by privilege, and frequently entail misuse of power. They will involve areas in which your privilege makes you blind: white supremacy and systemic racism, misogyny, misogynoir, gender inequity, sexual assault and harassment, cultural appropriation, disability issues, transphobia, fatphobia, and more. By definition, your mistake will marginalize the voices of those you hurt. To learn in public, you’ll want to amplify their voices and turn the volume down on your own. This also requires you to not focus on your intentions. It’s not your intentions that matter, but their impact. If you find yourself talking repeatedly about what you intended or didn’t, or getting others to defend your intentions, learning in public is no longer “on tap.”

On apologies. Often, people who claim to learn in public feel that a heartfelt apology is enough. Yet making mistakes shouldn’t be a regular occurrence, with apologies tossed off as panaceas for all forms of harm and thus, as implicit permission for you to continue to do harm. A true apology requires an acknowledgment of the harm done in a way that allows others to understand and learn about the intricacies of your actions and why they were harmful. This includes discussing your privilege and how it contributed to the harm, as well as a full, mature, granular understanding of its impact. If that didn’t happen, it’s not a true apology. A mature apology is actually one of the most effective tools that enables learning in public to occur for everyone’s benefit.

Learning in Public is not a personal act, but a social and relational one. When you commit to learning in public, you agree to center the learning itself. You resolve to center the needs of others: the people who come into your space, colleagues, students, listeners, followers. This means reflecting on what others are receiving, digesting, feeling, and going through in response to your actions. This requires vulnerability and perspective-taking, not self-protection.

Learning in public requires a hella strong container. The term “container” is derived from the field of psychotherapy, and connotes a “holding environment.” We need to set strong containers as yoga teachers, too; it’s part of our responsibility. Think of this as a metabolic container in which the teacher, teacher trainer, therapist, podcast host, bodyworker, healer, etc. creates a frame of safety around the experience. This means we have to metabolize our own stuff before, during, and after building the container so that we don’t create leaks or render the container unsafe. The safety of all participating should be your first priority. This requires that you do a ton of processing and metabolizing of your reactions in private, so you don’t ask too much of those for whom you’re holding space. This requires good boundaries, and the ability to discuss them clearly, and to acknowledge when you have transgressed them. This is hard! Even when you really, really want to unload your own feelings and lash out at others or protect yourself, you’re called upon to apply your yoga and mindfulness skills to hold space for others. Some of you might be thinking, “Really? Even a yoga teacher or podcast host needs to do this?” If the host is going to address social issues like sexual assault and abuse or racism or cultural appropriation, etc., the answer is yes. If the teacher is going to offer public classes in which anyone with anxiety, depression, health issues, disabilities, or trauma attends, the answer is yes. If you can’t create this kind of container, don’t tackle these issues.

Supervision is Gold. To establish a safe container like this, much of the work has to happen behind the scenes. I’ve now had regular clinical supervision at my own expense for over thirty years (and wow, was that necessary).

Learning in Public requires a resilient nervous system. In the intro to this particular podcast, the host describes reading a few unflattering comments and says, “I couldn’t take it.” We’ve all been there—but again, the most important thing is that we’re able to metabolize, contain, and process difficult emotions. Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race is good. So are Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race and Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility. (You can stretch the term “white fragility to include male fragility, yoga teacher fragility, etc.)

Learning in Public requires de-centering yourself. It asks that you remove yourself to the periphery of the circle and de-center yourself, your platform, your pride, your public “face.” It’s not to say that your needs won’t be front and center in your own mind. But they’re best left there and addressed with all the support you need off-stage. Especially when you’re feeling exposed and defensive (and if you’re really learning in public, you will), it means returning to others’ are experience and de-centering your own thoughts, feelings, needs, and importance. If you’ve done harm and either consciously or unconsciously solicited the support of your followers, you’re not only centering yourself. You’re also compounding the harm you’ve done.

Who’s doing the bulk of the labor? The answer should be you. Audre Lorde and others have spoken eloquently about the phrase “emotional labor.” This refers to the unpaid, often thankless labor that those of us with privilege (that is to say, most reading this post) ask of those who have less. Lorde said in 1995, “Black and Third-World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbian and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.” If others’ labor is required to get you to see when you’re actively harming someone, it means you’re learning at the expense of your public, not on behalf of them. And you’re draining the public energy required for true social change.

Learning in Public is a practice, not a platform. Let’s just acknowledge that this is freaking hard. And it is built on learning in private. In fact, learning in public is like graduate school. You’ve got to log in the hours. This requires years of labor–most of which is unpaid, or which you have to pay for. To invest the kind of time, energy, and care learning in public requires, you have to deeply care about the issues. Learning in public asks you to educate yourself fully, not just on the issues you’d like to learn about, but on subjects peripheral to those issues. This requires you to take courses, and not just the online kind. It asks you to put yourself in situations where you risk exposure and which carry considerable social pressure to hide. It demands that you experience situations in which doing the right thing comes with considerable social risk (e.g. the probability of ostracism or attack).

Evaluating your results. In many decades of receiving supervision as a psychologist, I learned is that we couldn’t accept the verbal feedback of clients as a sign that we were on the right track (or the wrong one). We had to pay attention to people’s non-verbal feedback. If you’re committed to learning in public, here are some ways to know when you’re doing it well. First, you won’t get much sympathy or support from your followers. If people are defending you, you’re not being vulnerable, and they’re not learning. Also, if people are defending you, it’s highly likely you’ve polarized your audience, signaled fragility, elicited sympathy, and are learning at other people’s expense. Instead, look to see what people have learned from the experience. Are they writing not about you, but about how they’re learning? Do you see them commenting on how they’ll engage with these issues going forward? You can also check in with your body: Often, the somatic signal of good learning in public is the fatigue that comes with doing hard emotional work. (And minimal to no righteous indignation or lingering critical narrative of the other people involved.) 

Why this host is not learning in public. In this particular podcast intro, the host elicits sympathy from his listeners in several ways. He signals his fragility and refers to his own struggle multiple times. He introduces his guest by saying how helpful and supportive she was to him as he was going through “his” difficulty, which draws her into the appearance of complicity. He follows a weak apology by interrupting his female guest repeatedly, as though to signal that his voice is more important. (I heard her say that the body is like a wilderness, which is something I teach about globally. And because I know this guest a bit, I’d like to have heard where she took this concept. Also, she’s an intelligent and dynamic woman. At one point, she’s talking about what excites her and he says he doesn’t want to “go there yet.”) This isn’t just a case of interrupting; he signals that the voices of women are less important than his own. He shows that even when he’s made aware of it, he won’t center their voices. And finally, he facilitates an “either you’re with me or you’re against me” mentality by thanking his supporters. You can see in the comments section on his blog how polarized his listeners have become, and how this stems directly from his signaling of fragility. Ultimately, he stands by his attempts to shame a survivor of abuse. In doing so, he replicates the somatic microaggressions that contribute to the problem and make it difficult for others to come forward.

Our role as witnesses of people who learn in public. Learning in public is involves meta-learning (i.e. high level information that teaches us about learning). It offers deep information that can transform us on many levels, and that can effect social change. Those of us who partake of it need to take part in it as well. We have a responsibility to intervene in wise ways, to call in those who are abusing their privilege rather than sitting by passively and watching them do so.

As people of privilege, it’s important for us to consider: Why do we feel such a strong urge to protect others with privilege from the discomfort that results when they do harm and are called in or called out for doing so? This kind of discomfort is generative, a tremendous teacher. Why would we want to deprive anyone of the discomfort that’s necessary for social growth, the discomfort that helps them recognize harm and do the inner work that this involves? I think that part of the reason we do so is that sexual assault is to borrow a term from Kimberle Crenshaw, inherently intersectional. That is to say, women with compounded forms of privilege like myself are the only ones who can afford to exist in a category solely defined by gender. In a culture where the body is the central node of oppression, not only sexual violence but other forms of oppression thrive, such as racism, genocide, and climate injustice. For survivors of color, Trans bodies, and vulnerable bodies, sexual violence is inextricably intertwined with other forms of oppression, including genocide, settler colonialism, land theft, slavery, police brutality, redlining, the policing of neighborhoods, mass incarceration, unfair drug policies, and challenges to food sovereignty. It can hit close to home when a nice, well-intentioned person just like us is called in for doing harm. Perhaps this is at the root of our instinct to protect them. And yet, our role is to excavate and befriend our own discomfort so that we can witness others’ discomfort, and so that our actions are wise rather than complicit.

Rescuing others from their generative discomfort is part of why our most insidious social patterns like systemic racism and prejudice stay the same. Time and again, we see how the urge to protect others from the discomfort of learning might make them (and us) feel better in the short run. And yet, they often go on to do more harm in the long run- all because we have a tough time being with the sensations and emotions their discomfort engenders in us.

Is this podcast host a nice guy with kind intentions? Most likely, yes. But we didn’t get to the age of #MeToo (or, for that matter, systemic racism and prejudice and so many other social diseases) at the hands of a few bad perpetrators. We got there also because of all the “nice” bystanders who are complicit in historical harm.

Neuroplasticity refers to the way our brains change throughout our lives, and to the ways that these changes are in service to what and how we practice. But neuroplasticity isn’t just personal; it is a social construct. It evokes the way not just our brains, but our communities shape themselves through practice. We change or stay the same because of and in relation to one another. Think of the unspoken agreements in your family that determine who holds power, how you regulate intimacy, whether or not you acknowledge important truths, the way you negotiate boundaries. Large social groups have similar unspoken contracts. To understand the dynamics of sexual violence writ large, we must examine the infinite agreements that shape it, the defensive structures that support it, and the roles each of us plays in its longevity. We are where we are because neuroplasticity is a social construct, and because of the many forms of complicity and disembodiment that enable it.

Our actions and non-actions affect the way we treat survivors, how we express power, the personal and social relationships we have with the body and its intelligence, who determines the burden of proof and whose shoulders it rests on, how we adjudicate sexual violence, and whether we pass on legacies of repression, denial, and abuse to future generations. Domination of vulnerable bodies is a social disease. Just when we think we’ve made progress, it adapts, mutating into new and often subtler forms.

Learning in public is an antidote to historical and present harm. But it requires a strong practice, and a lot of support, to do it well. And it requires a willingness to sit with deep body and mind discomfort, and with the shame, anger, sadness, and reactivity that we’ll encounter.

Still think you want to learn in public? Grab some Pepto Bismol and probiotics. You’’ll need a strong stomach.

Want the short-and-sweet version of this article? Get it on my Instagram.

*Note: This article doesn’t link to the podcast because the podcast contains explicit harm to the survivor of sexual assault (and by extension, to other survivors), and because my intention is to limit this harm by not giving the host any more play time. 

1 thought on “A Public Figure’s Guide to Messing up and Learning in Public”

  1. I would love any helpful advice on how to be helpful to others in a way that doesn’t make them feel angry or invalidated. I am quick to jump in and give advice but often b4 I fully listen and I hate it. I want to stop but anxiety fear of missing something up and my mind going 1000 Mile’s an hour doesn’t help.

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