Should have seen it coming.

I love it when people spout belittling generalisations at people who are suffering. Partner treating you badly? Parents driving you demented? Friends bringing chaos to your doorstep? You should have seen it coming!

Aside from the fact that, until anyone invents a time machine, this is fairly useless advice; aside from the fact that hindsight is always 20/20; aside from the fact that not all predators and psychopaths are also nincompoops, and those whose life depends on exploiting others can get pretty damn good at misrepresenting themselves. Aside from all this, what this pearl of wisdom completely ignores is the fact that people are actually capable of change, and can’t always control the nature of that change.

Everyone changes over time. Events can take place in people’s life that change them beyond all recognition – break them, warp them, corrupt them. People who used to be a blessing in your life, people who used to bring you happiness, security, joy, and support, may tomorrow turn into negative influences, bringing only grief and struggles.

Sometimes you can extrapolate how people will react in certain circumstances, but that’s not always a given. Furthermore, you can’t always anticipate what circumstances they will have to go through. Spouting that you ought to have been able to foresee how people may react to an event you did not anticipate, and that is unlike any other event they have gone through, is a bit optimistic. Different people have different limits, but everyone is ultimately breakable. (If you think you’re not, I hope for your sake that you are never proven wrong, but more than that I hope that you understand that this makes you unlike most mere mortals. I personally don’t know anyone without a breaking point.)

Spouting that we should all immediately jettison anyone who doesn’t come up to scratch any more ignores that sometimes people don’t fall as much as stumble, and we can actually help them back up. It also ignores the fact that by dumping people at the first sign of trouble you may cross the line between “injured party” and “contributing factor”. We are each other’s safety nets.

Sometimes broken people find a way back to themselves, and to us. Sometimes they don’t. It’s the hope that they will that keeps us holding on to them – that, and soppy stuff like friendship and love and honour.

All and still, sometimes people go to far, and force you to chose between them and yourself. And then you have to take steps to sever your bond, which can be less than simple when you’re dealing with a damaged person. There may be all sorts of risks, costs, and losses associated with making that cut. And right at that point, when you’re trying to protect yourself from them while you rebuild your life sans them, some bright spark comes over and tells you that “you should have seen it coming”, because today’s nightmare person is obviously no good… completely disregarding the fact that the person you originally formed a bond with was entirely different, and you may still be grieving for the loss of them.

Advertisements

Thoughts on words.

Three things that came up from the last blog.

Firstly, a quote by Michael Hill via Cornered Cat:

“Only say what can be heard.”

Practice saying only those things that the people around you can hear. For an ongoing conflict, spend some part of each day extending your understanding of the ideas your opposite can hear. Do not waste your time and your opposite’s by re-iterating unhearable words. Doing so is not only non-communication in the moment, it is building a context of non-communication across the long term.

Secondly, a thought from me:

I’m a very small person. My tits enter a room a few minutes before I do. I’ve got a back injury and I don’t objectively know how much that shows. For a lot of predator, I’m a pretty good victim profile.

Call me an “easy target”, and I’ll punch you inna face (eventually, I’ll need to find a chair to stand on, but your time will come). Aside from the fact that it’s kinda insulting, it’s incorrect. There’s nothing “easy” about targeting me: I’m pretty switched on, and rabid. It also makes it sound like things I can’t do a damn thing about are somehow personal faults – I can’t change the fact that I’m a semi-disable titsy quasi-midget. Stilts and a double mastectomy are not at present an option. All you can achieve is to piss me off.

You can, however, call me a “desirable target” all day long. It says precisely the same damn thing, but in a way that makes it sound like, well, a compliment.

Communication problem resolved. Tah-dah.

(A question arose as to why I object to “easy” and accept “desirable”, given that in that context they mean the same durn thing. I think that’s precisely the wrong question in that setting. What is important: where my foibles originate from, or how to get the message through to me?)

Thirdly, something I’ve stolen from an entirely unrelated source, but fits just about everywhere:

“If you wish to offend, speak for everyone.

If you wish to…not offend unnecessarily…speak for yourself.”

Message.

I had two conversations last week with two completely different friends, talking about my writing and more generally the field I’ve stumbled into. (Note: not a day passes that I don’t regret focusing on something this heavy.) It was interesting to see how they took completely different approaches, and how I disagree with both.

The first friend reckons you just can’t talk about the subject at all. It’s become virtually impossible to say what needs to be said without incurring accusations of victim blaming or misogyny, so there is no point in even trying. You’d have to leave out so much information that it would make the whole thing worthless, and you’d still probably get lynched.

I agree with the fact that the whole subject is a minefield. That doesn’t make me want to stop trying, though – the fact that an increasing number of people are missing out on knowledge they need makes me want to try harder, not give up. The important thing for me is getting the message across, not winning a popularity context.

I do, however, think that it’s critically important to try and get the message across in a manner as uncontroversial as possible, which seems to be increasingly hard to do. This day and age, there’s very little anyone can say that won’t offend (or mock-offend, now that “being offended” has been weaponised) someone. I still think it’s important to try, though, and I raised this issue with the second friend.

His opinion was that I shouldn’t be concerned about that at all. I should just say what needs to be said and let people screech about it if they so wish. Chances are that some ill-mannered extremist will go off on one and actually save me a job by proving how much saner my view of the world is.

To a certain extent, I can see the value of that point. These days, if you want to avoid saying anything controversial, your only option is shutting up. That’s not what I’m on about. What I’m concerned about the message getting heard, which is why I think softening blows whenever practical is terribly important.

Genuinely insulted or hurt people don’t tend to hear you very well. The moment people’s backs go up, they become infinitely more concerned with defending their position, their worldview, their ego, than with honestly evaluating the information you are presenting. Yes, there is a minority of people that will have that reaction no matter how mildly you present your case, but they are still a minority. They might screech the loudest, but I don’t believe they are terribly representative of the whole of the population. I think the vast majority can still be reached, provided a modicum of care is taken in the process.

As far as I’m concerned the important thing is getting the message across. I know I can’t do that and spare everyone’s feelings, because of the nature of the field. I can’t do that by ignoring everyone’s feelings either, though. And finding a happy medium is tricky as hell, but I can’t see a viable alternative.

What Women Want.

Before I trashed my back, I used to be addicted to kettlebells. (No, the two facts are not related. That’d be almost normal.) I have lost count of the number of times I’ve had the same conversation with kettlebell instructors frustrated at their inability to get and/or retain female students. The instructors were absolutely convinced that women either baulk at hard work, or are simpletons who fall for the latest fad with a pretty logo instead of looking for what gives “real results”. I happen to know from experience – from actually talking to women who were talking about quitting or had quit, as well as countless women horrified at my hobby and my results – that a considerable number of them were concerned about bulking up. The instructors kept insisting that kettlebells don’t make you bulk up, and for their standards, for their interpretation of the word, they are perfectly right. Unfortunately their standards are not universal, and they are most definitely not shared by those women who not only don’t want to look like Arnie, but are horrified at the prospect of looking muscular at all. (Incidentally, from personal experience, it’s not shared by many men, either.)

I’m not saying this is “right”. I’m not saying this is “wrong”, either. I’m saying this IS – it is a real issue, an important factor, that always seems to be discounted.

Many or most women take up fitness activities to stay in or get into shape. If the shape you’re trying to sell them doesn’t match the one they want, they won’t buy your product. Unless you can show them that your product fits their need, by tailoring both the advertising/marketing/presentation AND to a certain extent the product, you will not be able to sell it to them. Who wants to spend money, time, and effort to achieve a goal they loathe?

The same issue seems to apply all too often to self-defence instruction. There’s this constant wringing of hands about the fact that women are so often a very small proportion of the student body, even though being a woman does definitely not guarantee you immunity from violence. Much is said about how this is a social problem: that women are indoctrinated to be horrified by violence to the point of preferring to ignore the entire issue, that it’s not considered womanly to learn to hit for a hobby, or some suchlike thing. And I’m not saying this is not true, but I don’t reckon that’s an insurmountable problem. Careful advertising, over time, can change people’s minds about the suitability of a product; hell, just think about the rabbit.

I reckon that the main problem all to often is that no efforts are made to present the product in a way that makes it actually appealing to the average woman. Instead of highlighting those aspects of the training that match women’s wants, a lot of emphasis is put on how the training can change you – into the kind of person many women don’t want to become. And when women don’t buy, this is seen as a failure on their part, rather than a failure in communication and advertising.

E Cup.

True story, real people. Three women. Same age – mid 30s. Same socioeconomic background and educational level. Living in the same town. Same bra size – E cup. The similarities stop there.

Woman no.1 is nearly 6′ tall and built like a brick outbuilding. She packs plenty of curves in her size 22 (US 20), but people’s first impressions of her tend to focus on the fact that she could carry a pig under each arm without struggling. She works from home. Although she has a very active life, she usually goes out with her husband and/or daughter, who are also built. When she’s out and about, she hardly ever gets any bother from guys – catcalling, unwanted advances, anything of the kind. She absolutely believes that’s because she’s oozing so much confidence that the creeps just don’t dare approach her.

Woman no.2 is also a size 22, but she’s barely 5′ tall. She never goes out unaccompanied; if she doesn’t have someone to go out with, she stays home. She never goes out after dark. She has never used public transport. She takes a pre-booked cab to her part-time job. When she’s out and about, she doesn’t bother from guys either. She absolutely believes that’s because by dressing “properly”, i.e. both conservatively and expensively, she shows the creeps that she just isn’t “that kind of woman”, so they don’t dare approach her.

Woman no.3 is also just about 5′ tall, but a size 6 (US 4). She leads a very active life, including a number of activities which she attends alone. She routinely uses public transport, walks, bikes, and jogs. While she’s out and about, she gets bothered all the damn time. Not only she can’t go to a bar or club without getting propositioned, but she gets bothered in pretty much any location: on public transport, in parks, at the shops, at work, at the gym, at the library, you name it. She routinely receives “advances” that are not only unwanted and unpleasant, but bordering on the criminal.

Woman no.1 is 100% convinced that her problem is that she lacks sufficient confidence. Woman no. 2 is 100% convinced that the problem is that she doesn’t look respectable enough. It has never crossed their mind that, as victims of sex pests, their risk-reward ratio are completely different.

Creeps might be assholes, but they are not usually suicidal. They generally know what they can get away with. Although confidence undoubtedly can help keep them at bay, they are also likely to take into consideration factors such as whether their prospective victim looks like she can punch through concrete. Although looking respectable may put some or even many of them off, being constantly chaperoned or hardly going out are likely to have more of an impact.

None of these considerations have ever crossed these women’s minds. Women no.1 and 2 are completely convinced that their answer is the One True Answer, so they constantly give Woman no.3 an earache with their solutions to her problem. And over time they’ve succeeded in making her believe that her creep problem is a reflection of her inadequacy, rather than of the fact that we live in an imperfect world.

Discrimination? It’s shitty.

A friend of mine was recently accused of discrimination. He runs a free Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) class as part of a community project. Anyone can participate, regardless of income, age, gender or ability level. It doesn’t precisely sound as a project designed to create or perpetuate any kind of social oppression, but for a short and exciting while the Powers That Be were convinced that it was.

It all started when Social Services decided to take a Romany child to the class to facilitate his integration in the local community. Unfortunately, nobody wanted to train with him. He was left to train with the instructor, session after session, which is a bonus if you’re trying to develop mad ninja skillz but pretty awful if you’re trying to make new friends. The Social Services folk complained to my friend. He said that he couldn’t/wouldn’t ask or force other members to train with the kid. As a result, an almighty and very official stink got kicked up.

In this country, you’re not allowed to discriminate on the basis of “race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin”. A lot of people and organisations still do it a lot of the time, mind you, but they are not allowed to do it openly. Saying that you are effectively supporting discrimination against a member of a highly persecuted ethnic group and a minor to boot is NOT something that goes down well. The result was a shitstorm.

Once everyone had finished screeching, my friend got his say. The problem wasn’t with the child’s ethnicity. BJJ, for those unfamiliar with it, is essentially a game of full-contact Twister. There is a whole lot of physical contact, and it’s not unusual for people to end up in shapes and configurations that would be frowned upon in polite society. If you want to play, you’ve got to become comfortable getting really up close and personal with every part of your partner’s body.

The kid would come to class visibly unwashed, smelling of stale sweat and urine, and often in brown-stained trousers. None of this was his fault: his living conditions were difficult and his parents weren’t providing him with an adequate level of care. It was all very tragic. Alas, for most people those considerations became secondary to a very practical issue: training with him would have meant getting inevitably covered in whatever he was covered in. People weren’t discriminating against him because of his ethnincity. They just didn’t fancy potentially ending up with their face in his shit.

This ought to have been obvious to any unbiased observer. Alas, if are poised to fight iniquity, you might end up seeing it where it isn’t. If we expect poor gypsy children to be ostracised, we risk seeing ostracism either were it isn’t, or were it is justified by the circumstances. The same applies, to racism, sexism, ageism, every “-ism” or “-phobia”. Anyone who is the odd one out in a given situation can immediately assume that they are being discriminated against if they fail to connect, to belong, or to succeed. It’s easy to explain away one’s interpersonal problems by using an “-ism” because it takes away the stigma of personal social failure. It’s not that they don’t like ME, they don’t like PEOPLE LIKE ME. What assholes!

Numbers.

A wee while ago I decided to check out “Happify.com”. Don’t judge me! There was an article in the New Yorker describing it as “the science of happiness”. I like science. I like happiness. I could do with a great deal more of both in my life. It was free. I thought it was worth the try.

As it happens, it was worth precisely what I paid for it. All I achieved was the start of yet another ulcer, because within minutes I landed on this priceless gem:

“People with stronger social relationship have a 50% lower risk of mortality.”

Now, call me picky, but last I checked mortality is 100% for all of us. And it’s not a risk – it’s a certainty. You, me, the dog, everyone you know, everyone you don’t know, we will all die. If this is science, then I’m the Queen of Sheba. Hell, it’s not even grade-school statistics.

Aside from demonstrating conclusively that I really would not be cut for selling happiness, the above paragraph is representative of a trend that has bothered me for ages. As a society, we seem to have the unfortunate tendency to swallow the most ridiculous statistics as if they were gospel. We seem willing to accept any “fact” or “theory” as long as someone throws us a number to back it up. It doesn’t seem to matter if they clash horribly with what we know to be true: our experience, knowledge and rational abilities just aren’t worth as much as statistical evidence, because science.

As it happens, if you have the slightest familiarity with statistical techniques it can take a handful of seconds to work out that a lot of the numbers thrown at us are basically worthless. Most of the time, however, we don’t seem to go through that analytical process. It can’t be just laziness. It’s not that we don’t make the effort to demand the actual data and run our own statistical analysis on it – if we had to do that every time someone throws us a figure, we wouldn’t have time for anything else. What worries me is that we seem to just swallow numbers even with they come complete with a disclaimer, such as those shown in ads. “90% of users found an improvement!!” followed by small print along the lines of “the sample size was so small we ran the test in a telephone box, and the improvement is subjective and temporary anyway”. Those numbers are ridiculous – we are clearly told that they are – yet they still work on us; if they didn’t, advertisers would not use that trick.

It seems that numbers carry an authority that can cause our brain to go on stand-by. If you combine official-looking numbers with an emotive content, then the brain switches off completely. It may be a defence mechanism. If you try to question the numbers attached to sensitive subjects, not only you have to do high-level thinking, which is hard, but you also tend to get verbally assaulted for being insensitive and uncaring. How DARE you question our DATA! Can’t you see how bad this is? Whose side are you on?!

The Temptation of the Victim Card.

I get so tempted at times to play the victim card, or at least the narrow-escapee card. I see people spouting stuff that’s even stupider than the national average on subjects over which they have zero practical experience, and I know that with a handful of words I could shut them up. I would probably not change their mind, but I could stop them repeating whatever they’ve learnt by rote long enough to listen to another side of the story, at least for a while.

The temptation of the victim card is vexing on a number of levels:

Firstly, it works when it shouldn’t. However, I absolutely and categorically should not be able to say that I’m an expert on every aspect of a problem just because I have gone through it. If I got hit by a car, I wouldn’t magically be transformed into an expert on traffic. I may be able to state that a suggested theory or solution would not have applied to my particular circumstances, and that fact ought to be taken into account. The same logic ought to apply to any other life event, regardless of how shocking and traumatic it may be.

Secondly, it’s damn annoying that it’s so damn hard to open people’s minds to unpleasant subjects without showing them some scars. Also, I wonder whether pulling the victim card actually activates a part of people’s brains that has nothing to do with learning, and everything to do with gawking. I know that many people learn more from stories than from theories; they feel more “real” and are often easier to process. I also know that many people get more involved in real life stories than in fiction, but I  don’t see that tendency as fully benign. It could be a function of people wanting to face up to real life, but it could also be just a symptom of emotional vampirism. People don’t buy gossip mags because they want to learn from the plights of celebrities, after all; however they may justify their interest, to me it seems like a modern-day freak show. The victim card may get you a platform, but it may completely change the way in which people process what you say.

Thirdly, there is an issue of privacy. I don’t want all and sundry to know every details of my private life. The gorier something is, the less I want people outside of my inner circle to know about it. I don’t want to be part of the freak show. Also,  certain events happening in your life change the way people look at you, and create a barrier that can be hard to overcome. I could use my friends’ experiences as teaching tools, but my friends also have a right to privacy and respect. I don’t want to toss them in a freak show, either.

Fourthly, sometimes this backfires, particularly when your life experiences have taught you lessons that go against current dogma. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been talking about sexual assaults to be told that my opinion does not count because I’m clearly emotionally scarred by events, so I am naturally unable to see the issue as clearly as those who’ve never encountered the problem. Admittedly, it could be true. Unfortunately, this is used by indoctrinated people liberally discount any real-life experience that doesn’t fit their dogma.

Still, it would work, so it’s tempting. Even when I know that I would be using sloppy logic and underhanded tactics, regardless of the risks involved, it’s tempting. I really wish I could think of a better way to achieve the same results in modern-day debates.

Pain. 3.

In times of trouble, I risk-assess. It stops my brain running around in panicky circles. It forces me to focus on reality instead of obsessing over unlikely possibilities. It reminds me to look for practical solutions. So there I was, weak as a kitten and not half as endearing. Did that mean that I was doomed to be stomped?

I took a long, hard look at the realities of my life, and this is what I found:

  • I live in a rural area, with low crime rates but good access to emergency services.
  • There are no nearby pubs, clubs, football stadiums, mental institutions, or drug clinics.
  • The local village is small and does not attract strangers or passing traffic.
  • I’m too far from the village centre for louts to walk here, and not in a place where anyone has reasons to drive to.
  • The local drug of choice is marijuana, so unless I get into a fight over the last packet of cookies at the local store I don’t see a problem.
  • The risk-reward ratio makes me a poor target for a robbery: I live alone but I have next door neighbours, a house alarm, and loud (though actually useless) large dogs; my house and vehicle are old and cheap.
  • I routinely go to very isolated areas, but I go there with the dogs. Also, the total lack of cover would make an ambush/kidnapping quite tricky.
  • I do not have a fixed routine, so it’s hard to anticipate my movements.
  • I am not in a job that forces me to antagonise people, or makes me a target for criminals.
  • I do not engage in criminal activities, nor associate with anyone who does so.
  • There are a couple of people from my past with axes to grind. However, they are hundreds of miles away.

All in all, the chances of someone specifically targeting me are pretty low. There is always the chance of becoming a random victim, because shit happens. All in all, though, I’m about as safe as I can be given my means and interests. Destroyed back notwithstanding, the level of safety inbuilt into my life is greater than anything I’ve experienced before. This did not happen by accident: I have spent enough time doing stupid and/or dangerous stuff that I know how to avoid it. Making “the right choices” has become a habit.

My self-defence has never really been about the physical skills, anyway. It’s always hinged on recognising, assessing, avoiding and de-escalating situations. With all manners of precautions in place reducing the risk of things going physical, I wasn’t really doing all that badly. Realising that was both a shock and a relief.

What I realised soon afterwards is that the only reason I am comfortable assessing my current safety is because of my past lack of safety. Good, sensible people, like my mum or many of my older customers, share my physical weakness but don’t share my background. Rather than assessing their personal safety based on their individual circumstances, they often just accept whatever they are told by the media, which tend to exaggerate and awfulise. I would hate to live inside their heads.

Pain. 2.

So there I was, with a newly-destroyed back, pretty much unable to do anything that required putting any pressure on my lower back (which turns out to be almost everything) or reliably use my hands (trapped nerves). I was out on my first walk after the accident, tentatively taking Geisha steps, when it hit me: I was completely vulnerable. There was absolutely nothing I could do to defend myself.

I thought I’d always been aware of my vulnerability. I’m a very small person, and most people over the age of 12 could hurt me. However, I’d also always been aware of my willingness to make sure that the experience would cost them. They would most probably win, but it would cost them. It’s amazing how many situations you can get out of when your opponents take stock of that mindset. It ain’t the size of the dog in the fight, or the size of the fight in the dog: it’s the fact that the dog is rabid. People looking to engage in a duel seem to pull back when they realise they’re facing someone with no brakes. People looking for an easy target either give up before they start, or get surprised and amusingly offended when things don’t turn out as expected. All in all, the strategy has served me well. I always knew that it was useful, but I hadn’t realised how important it was to my identity and peace of mind.

Pain took it all away. I couldn’t fight. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t even walk away briskly. Absolutely anyone could have hurt me, and I couldn’t have done a damn thing to stop them. (This may or may not have been different if I lived in a country that allowed weapons for self-defence. If I couldn’t reliably hold a spoon, I don’t think I could reliably shoot a gun or use a knife.)

I was completely vulnerable. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the feeling, and I liked even less the possibility that it showed in how I moved, how I carried myself. Looking vulnerable increases your chances of being targeted. If anyone with ill intentions noticed it, I was completely screwed. I’ve been scared in the past, and with good reasons; but I’ve never been this scared.

So I did what I always do in times of trouble: I risk-assessed. It’s the best thing I’ve found for putting a stop to circular thoughts and converting concerns into practical changes. What I realised was that, without consciously thinking about it, over the years I had made a number of lifestyle choices that increased my safety. Working towards safety hadn’t been my stated goal, but it’s such an ingrained habit that I got there nonetheless. Although I could do very little to deal with any trouble coming my way, I’d managed to engineer myself a life where the possibility of trouble is greatly reduced. After a lifetime of fuckwittery, that’s quite an achievement.