I routinely get asked questions I can’t answer. Something has happened to somebody, they can’t make any sense of it, so they tell me about it in the hope that I can. Most of the time, I can’t. The situations described fall into grey areas, and making an assessment would require me to be able to evaluate what motivates people’s actions. Alas, I am a very poor oracle; I can’t see inside people’s heads.
As a result, I tend to shy away from grey areas issues. It’s so damn hard to produce clear-cut answers I can trust enough to dish them out. All I’ve got is a series of maybes, and ain’t nobody got time for that. Other “experts” are much better at this kind of thing. I’m not entirely sure whether their assessment skills are better than mine, or they’re just less concerned about making a mistake, but that’s a whole other issue.
The problem with avoiding grey areas is that these days they are often the main battleground. In mainstream Western society, we’ve criminalised or made sanctionable a whole load of behaviours we regard as unacceptable. The more certain behaviours and attitudes result in a punishment, the less people are willing to openly display them. That doesn’t mean that the beliefs that underline those behaviours and attitudes have magically gone away, though, particularly at the individual level. People don’t abandon their beliefs just because they’ve gotten unpopular; they’re just quieter about them.
An abundance of grey area issues is the natural result of stomping over more overt issues. That’s what’s happening with sexual harassment. 50 yrs ago it was ok in some settings to slap a server’s ass and ask her to come to your car for whatever. Now that kind of thing would get you arrested, so people choose sneakier tactics to get the same result. The same kind of adaptation applies to a whole host of other issues. If doing X thing is going to get me arrested, I’m going to go for the next best thing, the thing I can do that will give me a similar result without putting me at risk.
That’s the fallout of winning certain battles: the fight is taken into situations that become murkier and murkier. That’s a good thing, in many respects. Problem is that a lot of well-meaning people tend to label things as “not so bad”, “not as bad as they used to be”, or “not as bad as they are in X place”, and determine that the right thing to do is to let the whole thing slide. This plays right into the offenders’ hands. I’m not well-meaning, so that kind of approach just bugs me.
It’s interesting to see how common that point of view is in self-defence. It’s even more interesting to see how often experts are willing to take a “let it go” approach on certain issues while advocating early detection and intervention in other settings. It’s frankly mind-boggling when the same instructors advocate both things at the same time.
For instance, a bunch of instructors are super hot on telling women that they need to spot the early warning signs of sexual misbehaviour. If anyone is being overtly sexual and that feeling is not reciprocated, you need to manifest how disinclined you are early and clearly. If anyone is trying to skirt around your consent, you need to spot that and stomp on it.
…but if you’re at a con or a festival and someone’s decides to follow you around declaiming sweet nothings, they’re just trying to establish a human connection. If someone sticks a camera in your crotch and takes a photo without asking you and despite your protestations, you should see that as a compliment. If someone tries to touch you up, hey, how much on display are you, really? Anyway, it’s just a bit of fun. That’s why people go to this kind of gatherings; to befriend other people. Don’t be such a hard-ass!
This is one example, but that type approach is ubiquitous. I find it particularly interesting when it’s applied outside of the sex & violence settings. What it boils down to in practice is that if you can’t justify punching your way out of an issue, literally or metaphorically, then it is a non-issue and you should just get over it. So if your boss is being sexist, but it’s nothing bad enough to get HR involved, let it go. If someone’s being racist, but they’re being subtle about it, let it go. If any kind of issue is developing but it’s not bad enough yet that you could justify taking physical or legal action, let it go.
I can’t make any sense of this. Letting small problems grow until they’re big seems a recipe for trouble, as well as going against everything I know about boundary setting. It can also make for a very sucky life; small portions of shit coming at us day in, day out, can add up to a large manure heap. This kind of approach has to work for those pushing it, though; otherwise they’d stop pushing it. My guess is that I’m looking at it from precisely the wrong angle.
I occasionally think unkind thoughts about people whose skillset is so limited that they need to redefine what issues are worthwhile. Limiting their efforts to those situations for which they are equipped means that they’re more likely to prevail. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; you won’t see me volunteering to get into a fistfight any time soon, because I suck at that kind of thing. I appreciate that other people may have the same feelings towards formal debates. The mechanism goes beyond that, though. If I really want to make sure that I won’t find myself ill-equipped to deal with a situation, what I can do is try and prevent everyone else from creating that situation. That not only reduces my chance of getting dragged into something I suck at and losing, but it also means that I don’t have to admit to be less than all-capable, all-powerful. If I define as worthwhile issues only those issues I can successsfully manage, then I’m suddenly bloody amazing.
Maybe this attitude sucks at dealing with issues, or stopping people from getting hurt by those issues, because it’s simply not designed for that purpose. Maybe it’s sole goal is to prevent some people from having to come to grips with their inadequacy.