On the toxic effects of secrecy and secret groups
“Shhh…this is our little secret. Don’t tell anyone, anyone at all.”
How many cases of abuse, of both children and adults, begin with words that use that basic format?
They’re usually followed by threats, both veiled and actual. I remember being threatened with death by the kid who abused me when I was around 8.
I don’t like secrets and secrecy; it makes me quite ill to even think of these things. For clarity, I don’t mean privacy. Everyone has a right to privacy and to keep their own counsel. Once you create a secret, though, the dynamic changes. Human psychology is prone to this. We want to feel special; we want to feel we are trusted and part of something exclusive.
Years back I was added to a secret group on Facebook, for writers. At first I was flattered to be included, but it became clear that the secret nature of the group was not for a good reason but rather to fly under the radar of various strictures, and I’d been added because I might be a good little foot soldier for promoting the work of others. I left. I flounced, actually.
Nobody knows how many secret groups exist on Facebook. I’m sure a large amount of them are intended simply to protect the privacy of their members, especially if those members are vulnerable in some way, or if like many, they don’t want to chat in the open.
But some groups are intrinsically toxic. If there are consequences of leaving them, that’s toxic. It makes people feel uncomfortable at best, trapped and frightened at worst. They can and do have rules that are arbitrary and enforced without chance to appeal. And some exist for very sinister reasons; witness the British MP (who will remained unnamed) who was outed as belonging to a group that is secretly trying to bring back such horrors as the Workhouse.
Secrecy and secret groups encourage an unhealthy state where remaining safe and secure as a member becomes the priority; to speak up against abuses within the group means being expelled from the safety of the group, of being ostracised and ignored and vilified. You risk losing friends and allies and possibly even status (if you had any to begin with!) and any benefits the group may have offered. Over time, those benefits become more important than the ethics they may conflict with.
Some groups have secrecy as a condition for good reasons but it depends heavily on moderators to ensure that this secrecy does not become toxic, and it’s too common for mods to become quietly victims of a form of Stockholm Syndrome and be unable to be dispassionate or reasonable.
The other thing that bothers me is recruitment. In these times when our secret services actively (and openly) recruit at university careers fairs, how do secret FB groups find new members, for if the first rule of Fight Club is you never talk about Fight Club, how come Fight Club became so big? It’s clear that people do talk about Fight Club… but with the whisper in the ear, that begins, “Shhh, it’s a secret. Don’t tell anyone, anyone at all!”