Once upon a time I had to attend a drug awareness class designed to teach us how to recognise different substances, anticipate their effects, and handle users and paraphernalia as safely as possible. The trainer gave us the statistics for various communicable diseases drug users are likely to carry. They were reasonably low, which was reassuring to us as first aiders. However, they explained that if we ever got stabbed with a needle, the chances of that needle carrying a communicable disease was almost 100%. The reason for this apparent discrepancy is simple: the drug users who practice unsafe needle use and disposal are also the drug users who catch and spread communicable diseases. Lo and behold, there is a correlation between certain bad behavior and certain problems.
This sounds obvious, yet we have a tendency to forget this when giving people certain types of self-defence advice, particularly that covering the low end of the violence spectrum (I’m going by Rory Miller’s model: Nice, Manipulative, Assertive, Aggressive, Assaultive, and Murderous). Assertiveness in particular is often sold as a socially-approved cure-all for all kind of low-level problems. For instance, if someone is trying to manipulate you into giving them your money/body/whatever, all you need to do is assertively state that you won’t. If you do it right, the problem will go away. Hey presto.
There are a few tiny issues with this. Firstly, the success rate of assertiveness very much hinges on the social context in question. Assertiveness is designed to work between equals. If a person deemed to be inferior tries to be assertive with a superior, that person can get squashed, metaphorically or literally. Toddlers who are “assertive” with their parents don’t gain a new level of respect within their family unit; they get a session on the naughty step. Pretty much the same dynamic is in operation if I (a small, ostensibly female, foreign person) act assertively at someone who deems me inherently inferior (e.g. someone who is a misogynist, xenophobe, or a might-make-right advocate). Who the fuck am I to talk to them like that?
This isn’t a groundbreaking concept. If we think back at Peyton Quinn’s five rules of social violence, four of the no-nos are “do not insult them”, “do not challenge them”, “do not threaten them”, and “give them a face-saving exit.” I can blow through all of them by acting assertive at someone to whom I am an inferior. I’m insulting them by treating them as my equal. I’m challenging them by demanding a change in their behavior. I’m threatening them by stating potential consequences. If I do the above in the presence of their peers, who are likely to be equally biased against me, letting me get away with that kind of thing would bring about a total loss of face. It’s obvious when you think about it. Often, we seem to prefer not to, possibly because it’s unpopular to point out that, diversity statements notwithstanding, some people are still classed as subhumans by a proportion of the population.
The second ignored issue is that, unless you’re a problem person yourself, most of your problems will occur when you’re dealing with problem people. You won’t find yourself struggling to defend your boundaries from respectful people who have healthy boundaries. You won’t have to protect yourself from consent violations by people who are invested in consent. If you were dealing with someone on the same page as you, these kinds of issues would not arise or, if they did, they would be resolved so quickly and willingly that they wouldn’t be issues at all. The fact that you’re having to fight that corner inherently proves that you’re in dangerous waters, dealing with someone who doesn’t play by your rules.
Some of the perpetrators of these transgressions are people who know the rules and deliberately choose to break them for their convenience. Depending on how far they push their activities, they could be classed as predators or criminals. Some, however, will be people who cannot parse the rules or somehow believe that they’re optional extras. The latter can be infinitely harder to deal with, even though they don’t even mean to do anything bad. Criminals, unless they’re newbies, tend to act like professionals. They assess whether picking on you is worth it based on the perceived risk:reward ratio. If you can tip the ratio in your favor, they may respond by fucking right off. Chances are that they’ll fuck off and try and victimise someone else, because that’s what they do, but for your intents and purposes the problem will be over.
Not so with people who fail to parse the basic dynamics of social interactions. You express a request, and they ignore it. You issue a demand, and they ignore it. You threaten a repercussion, and they ignore it. You exact the repercussion, and they move on to doing something else at you. They don’t get the point. It’s like punching treacle. In the same way that pain compliance doesn’t work against someone who doesn’t feel pain, social repercussions do not work against someone who operates in their own little world. Carrying out antisocial repercussions against them can land you in the shit if it makes you the one escalating the situation. You can end up in an endless struggle against someone who doesn’t even understand what the problem is, or doesn’t see it as an issue.
We give people, women in particular, handy tips on how to deal with problem people, but most of those tips assume that the problem person in question has ‘normal’ responses to stimuli. That’s often not the case. The person who pesters you with messages may stop when you tell them to… or they may carry on. They may stop when you stop replying… or they may carry on. They may disappear when you block them or change your number… or they may find you on social media. They may give up when you block and report them… or they may proceed to create false account after false account just so they can continue to contact you.* If you disappear from all virtual communications, they may give up… or they may decide that they need to find where you live to make sure that you’re ok. And none of this is because you didn’t handle the situation right: it’s because that tool doesn’t work against that person, because their responses aren’t normal, which should be damn obvious to start with because normal people do not deluge people with messages against their damn will. Duh!
This isn’t a good thing or a bad thing, but it definitely is A Thing, and it’s A Thing that often gets ignored when these techniques and principles are taught. I guess it’s hard to sell anything with the caption “this may or may not work”. Not doing so, however, is putting people in danger. Not only it can cause them to overestimate their chances during a situation, but it can make them blame themselves if things don’t go as they planned.
*Before you go on about “yeahbut if someone behaves like that you just call the police on them”, consider what chances you may have of getting help from the authorities when your complaint is “this person, to whom I willingly gave my number, continues to ask me if I would like some pizza.”
And before you go on about “but how could that be a problem”, consider how you’d feel if you’d told that person “no” and “go away” three dozen times and still they carried on.