Imagine an old house shared by roommates who've been there a long time. There's a bathroom upstairs, and a bathroom in the dimly-lit basement. At some point, there's a leaky pipe that drips onto one of the basement stairs. Nobody notices it for months, and when they do, they discover one of the stairs has rotted through, leaving a dangerous hole where the step should be. The roommates recognize it's a problem, but on the other hand it's not a big deal to just step over the hole, is it? Nobody's willing to pay for the repair. So, they argue about it for a bit, nothing gets done, and then they just get used to stepping over that one missing stair as they head down into the dim basement. Everybody knows it's there, so nobody stumbles and gets injured.
It goes on like that for years.
But one night there's a party and they have some new friends over. One of them, on finding the upstairs bathroom occupied, heads down into the basement. Nobody thought to tell her about that missing stair they were all so comfortable working around, and she steps into the hole and breaks her leg.
The concept of the missing stair is a metaphor originally coined by blogger Cliff of The Pervocracy in 2012 to describe an abuser or harasser tolerated and worked around in a community, even though he or she is a well-known problem for the people there.
Why is the abuser or harasser tolerated? It's usually because the harasser has some kind of power or social capital in that community, because he or she is seen as too useful to risk losing, or because people simply feel sorry for him or her. Regardless of the specific reason, nobody wants to take on the distasteful work of challenging his or her behavior. In fact, those who try to fix a missing stair are frequently discouraged by others in the community: "Oh, that's just Bob being Bob. Just let it go."
Meanwhile, the people who are standing by refusing to fix their missing stair problem also refuse to see that the continued presence of the abuser or harasser is driving other people away from their community.
Here are a couple of real-life examples of missing stairs that I've encountered:
- A local writing group has a member with a few professional writing credits. The others look up to her, and she maintains an air of superiority. She gets breast cancer and survives, but her brush with mortality has made her cynical and bitter. She is needlessly brutal in her critiques and is sometimes outright verbally abusive. The workshop organizer feels so badly about her cancer that he can't bring himself to tell her to either change her behavior or stop coming; meanwhile, fewer and fewer former regulars attend because of her caustic negativity, and the new people the organizer recruits are repelled by her behavior and don't come back.
- A science fiction convention welcomes an editor from a well-respected publisher. It's an open secret that he has been creeping on women at conventions for years. The female authors and editors he's harassed are afraid of professional blowback if they make a public report; nobody wants to be the first person to call him out. People use private communications to warn new women about the editor, but of course not every newbie gets the warning. Finally, he harasses a woman who is willing to file a report; the dam breaks and more accusations follow. His publishing house ends up firing him because of the charges ... and the convention organizers invite him to participate the next year as if nothing had happened. And they seem baffled when the Internet explodes at them.