The metaphor of the Missing Stair came from The Pervocracy. It’s a very useful metaphor for a toxic person.
The basic idea is this:
“Have you ever been in a house that had something just egregiously wrong with it? Something massively unsafe and uncomfortable and against code, but everyone in the house had been there a long time and was used to it? “Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you, there’s a missing step on the unlit staircase with no railings. But it’s okay because we all just remember to jump over it.”
“Some people are like that missing stair… Like something you’re so used to working around, you never stop to ask “what if we actually fixed this?” Eventually you take it for granted that working around this person is just a fact of life, and if they hurt someone, that’s the fault of whoever didn’t apply the workarounds correctly.
“…Just about every workplace has that one person who doesn’t do their job, but everyone’s grown accustomed to picking up their slack. A lot of social groups and families have that one person. The person whose tip you quietly add a couple bucks to. (Maybe more than a couple, after how they talked to the server.) The person you don’t bother arguing with when they get off on one of their rants. The person you try really, really hard not to make angry, because they’re perfectly nice so long as no one makes them angry.
“I know not all these people can be fixed, and sometimes they can’t be escaped either. But the least you can do is recognize them, and that they are the problem. Stop thinking that your inability to accommodate them is the problem.”
You know Racist Christmas Uncle? He’s a Missing Stair. It’s a person with whom you have to socialise who damages other people. They make racist/sexist/homophobic statements, or inappropriately sexual comments. They tell rape jokes. They talk about your weight, and whether you should really be eating that. A Missing Stair enjoys upsetting people to some degree, even if they’re not deliberately baiting you.
The Missing Stair is someone you can’t just avoid. They’re a relative, or a co-worker. They’re the partner of a friend, or a friend of your partner. They belong to the Group that does your Thing: gaming, or wine club, or whatever else normal people do…
This isn’t just a person who’s a bit socially awkward. You know you have a Missing Stair when the thought of going to a social event you know they’re going to be at makes you feel sick. You really know you have a Missing Stair when you complain about their behaviour to a mutual friend and they say, “Oh come on, you know what he’s like. Don’t let him get to you.”
Because that’s the thing about the Missing Stair: everyone knows what they’re like. If you quietly say, “I don’t know, one of the guys there, he kind of creeps me out,” everyone knows who you mean. Everyone knows the stair is missing. Nobody fixes it. Everyone is expected to work around the Missing Stair.
People will not handle you being rude to the Missing Stair. The Missing Stair has a free licence to be a jerk, that’s just the way they are, but you are socially obliged to not make a scene. The Missing Stair can tell you you’re raising your children wrong with no sanction at all. Yet if at any point you call them a fucking moron, somehow you’re the one starting a fight. You can be told you must support the Missing Stair because they are family, or a friend – as if you somehow magically aren’t.
If you ever do manage to get a Missing Stair out of your life – by moving city, for instance, or through a death – that’s when you really start to realise just how much energy you were putting into constantly working around it. The relief is amazing. I have, a couple of times, been rude enough to deal to a Missing Stair, and having other people come up and thank you afterwards is little compensation for the stress and adrenalized sickness of the confrontation they totally failed to back you during.