This blog is going to be peppered with parallels to problem behaviours up to and including various types of abuse, so all the content warnings apply. It’s also long as hell. Make yourself a pot of tea.
There’s a new breed of problem person around. I mean, it could well be that they’ve been common for a long time and I’ve never bumped into one because I live under a rock, but my first encounter with one was yesterday, and I didn’t enjoy it one bit. It was the kind of situation that escalates into a total clusterfuck in no time flat and it took me way too long to react to it, so the clean-up is ongoing and I’m as yet unsure of the fallout. I’d like to spare y’all the same experience; so, in the spirit of gift-giving so appropriate to the season, here are my mock-scientific observations based on a sample size of one, extrapolated from a situation I totally failed to navigate, and worth precisely what you paid for it.
Imagine the worst possible caricature of the entitled, self-centred, emotionally illiterate guy with no sense of responsibility or agency over his own internal states (I know, personality types are not an inevitable result of one’s gender, but our society raises people differently according to their gender, and this type of personality is most commonly fostered in guys). I’m talking about the kind of guy who cannot manage how he expresses his feelings, puts them ahead of everyone else’s, and believes that, when he feels bad, the world owes him a resolution.
In a sexual setting, their mental process goes as follows:
- “I looked at you and I felt turned on, hence
- You turned me on – you did this to me.
- I am now uncomfortable because my needs are not met, hence
- You owe me release, and
- If you don’t provide, you’re being unfair and actively hurting me, so
- You should either be made to give me what is owed to me, or, if I can’t get that, you should be otherwise punished.”
I’m not talking here about a situation where you flashed your bits at the poor dude while he was going about his business; I’m talking about the kind of scenario where you were going about your business – going to work, having an ice cream, just existing in a public place – and something about you activated the guy’s horn. Now, we could spend an unhappy eternity arguing over the acceptable length of miniskirts and the like, but that’s not really the issue: the main problem is the next step, the guy’s belief that his horniness is solely and totally your responsibility.
I have no idea where some guys derive their belief that they have no control over their internal states, but it’s a thing. Sometimes I wonder whether it feels nice, like shrugging off one’s responsibilities on someone else’s doormat. Sometimes I wonder whether it feels terrifying, like being the ball in a pinball machine, careering out of control and getting whacked from all directions. It doesn’t matter either way, because the result is the same: because of his belief in his lack of emotional agency, the guy firmly believes that you are responsible for his feelings.
Step three would be totally cool and uncontroversial as a stand-alone realisation. Hell, it’d be healthy: when one’s needs are not met, that causes discomfort, and realising that is the first step towards emotional self-management and, quite possibly, towards happiness in general. It is very useful indeed when people are capable of realising not only that they feel crappy, but why; it gives them the opportunity to work towards meeting their own needs, hence towards self-regulating their emotional states. Unfortunately, in this process step three and step four are interlinked. In fact, step four follows on so quickly that the two become an unholy mishmash.
The guy is turned on, hence you owe him release. As a syllogism it’s rather weak. As a belief, it can give people the impetus to do horrifying things.
Step five is an almost automatic reaction in our society. On the surface, at least, we hold the values of fairness and responsibility. If you are responsible for causing someone harm, it’s only fair that you should put that right; most people would agree with that, even though they may grossly disagree on the means and methods of achieving that result.
Step six follows in a similar vein, and would be fairly innocuous in a different setting. As a society, we have a ton of established systems for ensuring that those who cause harm are made to pay back for their actions, one way or another: suspensions, demotions, fines, community service, prison. We don’t have a problem with punishing the guilty (though we have no end of structural problems determining guilt and establishing fair punishments; but that’s another story). We embrace retribution, and so does this type of guy. Alas, he also embraces his right to set himself up as jury, judge, and executioner. When he is in conflict, he doesn’t feel the need to call upon someone impartial to help him navigate towards a solution; in fact, he couldn’t do that if he wanted to, because to him his feelings are central and absolute. Their primacy is unassailable, and their accuracy is a given. Anyone who doesn’t agree with how he’s feeling or what he’s doing about it is inherently wrong and should be ignored. Therefore, the guy is literally incapable of hearing anything that clashes with his feelings and beliefs.
Taken to its most extreme, this is the kind of guy who firmly believes that “cock teases” should be punished – and a “cock tease” is “anyone who causes him to be aroused and doesn’t fuck him.” He might not see anything wrong about forcing himself on his targets, because all he’s doing is taking what he’s owed. He isn’t causing harm; he is making the world a fairer place by taking what he’s due. If he can’t or won’t go physical, he might make your life unbearable in other ways – multi-platform harassment, doxxing, online identity theft, or simply poisoning the social waters you swim in. Or he might not to do anything to you, but he will add your conflict to a long list of slights committed upon him by people like you (e.g, all women), and slowly poison his own soul with the resulting bile.
I’ve used a sexual setting because it tends to make situations very clear-cut in our collective mind. Most of us believe that it’s not right for a guy to jump a girl just because he found her attractive. That’s an obviously fucked-up reaction, so it’s easy (though unpleasant) for us to walk through the process that led there and spot exactly where the problems are. The same kind of process applies to non-sexual settings, though, and it can be much harder to identify and navigate. There are guys who apply the same mentality to totally different emotional reactions, for instance:
- “I you said/did something and I felt angry (or I felt any kind of negative feeling that, due to poor emotional granularity, ended up lumped under “anger”), hence
- You made me angry – you did this to me.
The rest of the steps is exactly the same. You made the guy angry, so now you owe him his release from that feeling. Whether that involves him pasting you into the wall, trashing the house around you, screaming his brains off at you, or going off into a sulk, that will likely depend on what he’s been brought up to believe is acceptable, or what he thinks he can get away with. The underlying mentality is the same, though: you gave him a bad feeling, and now you are responsible for fixing it.
If you refuse to play your part in the resulting kabuki – because, for instance, you have an unreasonable aversion to getting your nose plastered across your face, or because you find apoplectic guys overly threatening – then you are compounding your sins. You made him angry, and now you’re failing to do your bit to put it right. That calls for a punishment big enough to atone for the sum total of your misdeeds, and that’s the recipe for a very bad time indeed.
In its most extreme manifestations, it can be relatively easy for us to evaluate this type of situation, but that clarity evaporates rapidly in less extreme settings. Most of us don’t believe that it’s ever right to punch our partner in the face, but what about raising our voices? Our biases and values will come into play here; for instance, we may hold the physically stronger partner to a higher set of standards, because their behaviour is inherently more threatening. Whether that’s fair or unfair on our part will call into play even more of our biases and values, until we can be so bogged down in our ethics that our ability to navigate the situation will be severely impaired.
For less extreme a situation, it can be hard to even establish what actually happened in step one. It is possible for people to upset people on purpose, and the resulting feelings of injury and unfairness would therefore be justified. It can be hard for us to begin to disentangle that. As outside observers, we may lack enough context to make an accurate call. Who started it? When did it even start; is this a one-off, or part of an ongoing pattern? As active participants, we can be even more clueless, because our own emotions may run so high that they override all other considerations. That’s why I jumped straight to a sexual setting: it’s easier for most of us to wrap our heads around that kind of situation, because we have some very clear-cut ideas as to what’s OK and what isn’t. Those who don’t share my ideas on sexual consent are most likely going to think that I’m totally full of shit, anyway, so nothing’s lost there.
That was just part one. Make yourself a fresh cup, if you’re still here, and prepare for things to get worse.
A second, separate component went into creating the clusterfuck I found myself embroiled in. It isn’t uncommon for people to pick up the jargon of a subculture or movement without having embraced the relevant ethics and values. This can be done on purpose, in order to infiltrate said subculture or gain cheap popularity points, or by accident. People are capable of some awesome feats of mental gymnastics, and that includes subscribing to the theory of something, or picking up its lexicon, without having embraced or even understood any of the underlying ethics. That’s how you get people speeding their Jaguars past the homeless camps so they can get to church and nod along to sermons about the primacy of Christian charity. Some people rationalise those contradictions, and some just block them off from their awareness. Some embrace them and weaponise them.
In my days, it wasn’t uncommon for a certain type of guy to declare himself a feminist, and then proceed to subtly violate women’s consent under the guise of helping them with their sexual liberation. Sexual freedom was taken as an essential component of women’s overall freedom, with the ability to empower women both as individuals and in their sexual and romantic relationships. I personally don’t have any problems with that; but I do have a problem with guys who use that rhetoric as a reason to try and talk their partners into sexual acts they’re not keen on. To put it very bluntly, I’m talking about the kind of guy who talks the feminist talk, but is constantly “encouraging” you to take it up the ass because it’d be good for you. You’d overcome your inhibitions. You’d be empowered. You’d probably like it if you gave it a fair try; really, you owe it to yourself to give yourself that chance! Don’t let the patriarchy deprive you of your pleasure! Cue endless circular arguments where your clear “no” is treated as a personal problem that your hero is graciously volunteering to help you overcome.
Some of these guys are straight-up abusers, using the feminist talk to gain access to their targets. Some are just as abusive, but not deliberately: they don’t mean to harm anyone, but they cause harm just the same. If you ask me, all are to be avoided; even if they’re not physically unsafe, they’ll fuck with your head.
The same kind of lexical hijacking can take place in literally any movement. Where there are words, there are people who’ll misuse them. Whether they do it on purpose or by accident can become a secondary concern in the moment, because you’ve got a real clusterfuck on your hands. You not only have to deal with the issue itself, but also with the confusion created by the misapplied lexicon. You’re fighting on two fronts, the personal and the philosophical, and the resulting strain can be severe.
That was part two. If are with me thus far, part three is gonna be a cakewalk: all you’ve got to do is combine the two.
Imagine a guy who is entitled, self-centred, and has no sense of responsibility or agency over his own internal states. He believes that any unpleasant emotions are the responsibility of external agents, that those agents are responsible for fixing them, and that, if they fail to do so, retribution is called for. Then give him the lexicon used by the subculture of your choice – for instance, the social justice movement. Teach him to use terms like “emotional labour,” for instance, but purely as words, rather than as concepts encompassing a set of values and ethics, and demanding a certain behaviour. What you can end up with, if you’re very unlucky, is a guy who:
- Believes in the inalienable primacy of his own feelings over anyone else’s;
- Believes that his negative internal states are fully someone else’s fault;
- Believes that, when he feels bad in response to what other people are doing, he is performing emotional labour for them; that emotional labour can mean simply having unpleasant feelings, rather than managing those feelings or their expression;
- Believes that, when he performs that “emotional labour” for you, you owe him; that if he has a feeling about what you did, then he has the right to emote at you in any way he chooses, until his internal equilibrium is restored;
- Believes that his emoting, regardless of its impact on you, is further emotional labour he’s performing for you, and adds to what you owe him;
- Believes that, if you refuse to play that game with him, you are being unfair and you should be punished.
From my point of view as someone who’s encountered the phenomenon a grand total of once, it’s doubleplusungood. It is always hard to try and defuse situations when your antagonist doesn’t have a handle on his emotions. It’s twice as hard when he doesn’t feel any kind of moral imperative to self-regulate or self-modulate. But when you add to that a lexicon that, on the surface, puts an inherent value on emotions, things can get really fucked up really quickly.
My go-to response to escalating situations I have no control over is to get the fuck out of the way. I really don’t enjoy pain, neither my own nor anyone else’s, so I’m all about damage control. Even if the situation doesn’t put me in danger, I am one of the elements keeping it going. I look at the issue as fire triangle: it takes heat, fuel, and an oxidizing agent to keep a fire going. If I don’t want that fire to grow ever bigger, I’m going to have to remove one of those elements. I can’t make situations less emotionally charged for someone else, and I might not have the power or right to remove a third party from a public forum, but I can remove myself (if I can’t, that’s a massive red flag). Unfortunately, backing out of this kind of situation is perceived as a grave offence by the guy in question: you’re backing out of a deal, after all. He’s given you his emotional labour, you owe him, and you’re trying to skip out on the bill. The more he emotes at you, the more he’s adding to that bill, but that doesn’t seem to register.
I don’t know whether you could adequately resolve this kind of situation (from his point of view, anyway) by sitting there and taking his shit until his mental colon is cleansed. I know, however, that I don’t want to do that. It smells too much like abuse to me. I also know, though, that an emotionally out of control person with a sense of thwarted entitlement and a grudge can be a powerful opponent; even more so when they are happy to use and misuse the lexicon of your tribe. Language is often link to values. When a community holds certain values dear, any claim that they are being violated can escalate into a community-wide clusterfuck. Other members will feel called upon to sit in judgement, decide who was to blame, and dish out the appropriate punishment. And when what they’re looking at is you trying to hold your shit together to the best of your abilities, and a dude who’s falling apart at the seams, it’s easy for you to look like the bad one.
So yeah, that’s probably my biggest lesson from last year – or maybe just the most vivid one, because y’all, it got REALLY BIG REALLY QUICKLY. I’m sorry it took so long to get through it, but I don’t at present have the words to sum it up any more concisely. Thank you for bearing with me, have a good New Year’s eve if you celebrate it, and catch you on the other side.