Between theory and reality, pt. 2

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.

 

Between theory and reality, pt. 1

Every time I think I’m going to get on with the “Creepology” book, something happens to make me realise how full of crap I am, and I have to stop again.

There’s a rule of thumb in dealing with socially awkward people: if you tell them clearly and politely what they are doing that is socially awkward and how they need to change it, they will comply. If they do not comply, then they are either not socially awkward, just pretending for their own convenience, or not just socially awkward. We can therefore use this as a litmus test to distinguish between the people we may want to help along and those we can squish without compunction.

There’s a tiny problem with this: it doesn’t work. It’s a beautiful theory, but in real life I’ve only ever seen it play out with foreigners, and even then it’s not a definite. Someone visits a foreign country where they don’t know the rules, a local tells them that they’re misbehaving, and sometimes they will say thank you and adjust accordingly. Sometimes they’ll have a hissy fit about fucking foreigners and their backward ways instead. Even when they adjust, it’s not necessarily out of an interest in Doing Right: they might do so begrudgingly, patronisingly, because their politeness forces them to indulge even those who don’t quite know how to behave.

I have never, ever seen a socially awkward person be told any permutation of  “don’t do X” and oblige. Not once. It doesn’t matter what the underlying reasoning for the request was, whether it was about generic behaviour – “that’s grossly inappropriate” – the local environment – “we don’t do it here” – or personal preferences –  “I don’t like it”. I’ve just never seen it work out.

I’m not saying that out there there aren’t people who are oblivious to non-verbal cues but respond well to specific requests, and who’ve been waiting all their lives for someone to explain things to them in a way they can parse them. I’ve been told that they exist and I have no reason to doubt that. However, I’ve yet to encounter any of them out in the wild. It makes sense if you think about it: logical as the rule of thumb is, it doesn’t explain how so many people get to grand old ages still socially awkward. This society may be conflict-averse, but to the point that someone can get to their 60s without ever having been told in a useful fashion that, for the love of all that is holy, that behaviour is obnoxious and they really need to cut it out, or else. That’s the myth, though: that real socially awkward people will modify their behavior when given clear, specific instructions.

In real life, or at least in my real life, this is how it actually goes. Someone engages in a behaviour I deem inappropriate. I tell them about it, specifying why I consider it inappropriate, and clarifying whether it’s my beef or society’s beef. The response I get is invariably one or more of the following:

  • They tell me straight up that I’m full of shit.
  • They turn around and rule-lawyer me to death about why the behaviour is ok either in general, or because they’re doing it and they’re pure of heart so everything they do is by extension ok.
  • They tell me that they appreciate that it’s not ok but they’re going to carry on because it’s not that bad, not really, and the risk:reward ratio is stacked up right for them.
  • They tell me that if I don’t like someone doing X, I should engineer my environment so X can’t be done around me.
  • They have a hissy fit and never speak to me again.
  • They carry on with the same behaviour somewhere else where they think I can’t see it.

This doesn’t just happen around sexual misconduct. In the last six months I’ve had this kind of conversations for behaviours as disparate as approaching busy women in public places (“but I would like it if women approached me!”), making racist jokes (“but my friend lets me make them at him so you have to let me make them at you!”), interfering in third party conversations and/or mansplaining (“if people didn’t want my contribution, they wouldn’t talk where I can hear it!”), and, get this, going up to perfect strangers who are minding their own business without bothering anyone and correcting their behaviour or appearance in order to help them with their social awkwardness.

It is possible that every one of the people I’ve encountered in my misadventures has pretended to be socially awkward. I reckon that’s not the case, though. I reckon that this theory is overly simplistic and doesn’t take into account a rather important fact: that not everyone gives a crap about everyone’s opinion.

Plenty of people don’t care about what I know, think, or like. In their social hierarchy I’m a nonentity. I do not have the right to tell them what to do. I do not have the credibility to tell them that what they are doing is, here and now, inappropriate. I also am not important enough to them to make them modify their behavior to suit me; to them, their convenience or sheer habit is more important than my preferences, and why shouldn’t they be? Who the fuck am I to demand that they make changes? Aren’t they just as entitled to ask me to change my requirements?

It’s not just about me. I’m not that special. Those people react in a similar manner every time anyone tries to get them to modify their behavior. That’s how they got to be socially awkward at 30, 40, 50,… they discount information to the contrary. In umpteenth years’ time, they will still be having the same conversations on the same subjects, and still wondering why they struggle so much to retain people in their lives. (Meanwhile, my social circle will remain almost a dot because I’m a bitch; the social cost of speaking out is a whole other story, and this strategy discounts that, too.)

I’m not saying that telling people straight to cut shit out never works; I’m saying it works if and only if certain circumstances are in place. If one of my 6′ tall, 6′ wide, multiple-black-belt-wearing, armed friends tells someone that something is bothering them and could they cut it out, and that person complies, it could be that they’ve finally managed to help the poor bastard out by kindly explaining the rules of the world. Chances are, though, that they’ve just unwittingly intimidated someone into compliance, and that the compliance will only last as long as they’re around. That’s something that someone like me can’t easily do. The fact that for them it works every time can easily become evidence that the system works, though. The fact that it doesn’t work for the likes of me, or that it only works for me when they’re around, can be taken to prove that I’m just not doing it quite right.

 

Paraphrasing

When you live in a cabbage field and have no money, you have to make your own entertainment. Over the years I have developed a number of inappropriate hobbies. One of my favourite is paraphrasing what people are waffling into its core meaning, to reveal what they’re really saying. It costs me nothing (beyond occasional bouts of irritation), it doesn’t require any specialist equipment, and I don’t even have to leave the house to do it. I highly recommend it.

This is how it works. Someone says something that doesn’t quite sit right with me. It may not quite make sense, or bring about an emotional response apparently out of sync with current events: either way, it sticks in my throat. What I do is look at it closely, turn it into its component parts, paraphrase it, and repeat it back. The vast majority of the time, doing so reveals the source of my inability to swallow it.

A classic one we get at work (animal care) is people asking us to open early. We open at 8:30, but they need to leave for their trip at 6:00, so couldn’t we… Just this once… As requests go, I’d be tempted to class it as ludicrous straight up – do these people go to a supermarket and expect it to open at their convenience? When I disentangle the details of it all, it gets even more irritating. A simple solution to the problem of needing to leave early would be to bring the animals over the day before. That would incur a charge, though. So what these people are asking me, in their circuitous ways, is “could you start work 2 hrs + early so I can pay you less money?”

When I repeat their request back to them in those terms, those people deny sternly that it’s what they meant. It is, however, precisely what they are asking for. Whether they are doing so deliberately or because they haven’t thought it through is a different story, but not one that interests me that much. I am dealing with their behaviour, not their motivations, excuses, history, etc. We’re not close enough for any of that to matter. And, because of their behaviour, both in making the demand and in denying that it’s what they’re demanding, we’re never going to be any closer. I’m shutting the door on that.

With practice comes ease. These days, when someone wants me to write something so they can put it behind a paywall, I straight-up ask them: “So you want me to work for you for free, so you can sell my work for a profit?” Most of them deny it, but it makes them go away, so, yannow, I’m happy.

The game has worked well for me outside of work. Recently a prominent self-defence instructor came out with a length and rather convoluted public statement about gender-non-conforming individuals. He doesn’t have a problem with gay marriage, ’cause he’s all open-minded and shit. He doesn’t even have a problem with transsexuals: if a dude wants to be referred to as Mrs., he’s willing to indulge their delusion. Those gender-non-conforming individuals, though, there’s no way of knowing how to deal with them. They are making their own problems by being who they are. If they would only pick a damn gender, then their problems would disappear.

I read the lengthy waffle and paraphrased it thusly: “My problem with non-binary people is that they are non-binary. If they only stopped being non-binary, I would not have a problem with them.”

Put like that, the statement makes it quite obvious why the guy hasn’t been offered his own float at the local Pride parade. Things get even more interesting if you substitute pretty much any other term for “non-binary”. “My problem with gay people…” “…with Jews…” etc. The bigotry inbuilt in that circular way of thinking becomes pretty obvious, and, from my point of view, pretty damning. I’m sure the guy in question would disagree. I’m not sure I care.

Paraphrasing is also a great way to deal with people who try to get away with name-calling by using fancy terms. They’re not calling you “stupid”, they’re calling you “educationally subnormal”! That’s not an insult, it’s just a fact! Why are you getting so pissed off?!

 

 

Punishing – internal.

In the last blog I riffed about punishment – punishing success vs. failure. That was all external stuff – punishments imposed on us by the people or structures around us.

Pretty much the same mechanisms seem to happen internally with people, too. People tend to internalise the parenting/teaching mechanisms that were used on them and turn them into their style of self-talk. That kinda makes sense: when people parent or teach you, they’re supposed to be doing what it takes to make you become A Good Person – that’s the advertising slogan, anyway. The shittiest, most abusive parent/teacher/partner is unlikely to tell you that what they are doing is for their own shits and giggles. They’ll sell it to you as for your own good, or at least as the inevitable consequence of your poor behaviour or sheer sub-par being.

Even when you’ve managed to work out that the people who brought you up were really not up to the job and totally bodged it, it can be hard to remove those internal mechanisms. It’s exponentially harder to do it if you don’t see the mechanisms per se as pernicious – and often, they may not be. Sometimes it’s not what you do (have high standards for yourself, expect more of yourself as you get better) but how and why you do it (expecting the impossible, pushing yourself past breaking point). It’s not the tool that is toxic, but how it’s wielded. Sometimes the tool is fine in itself but comes with toxic adaptations: encouraging yourself to succeed is a-ok, doing so by calling yourself names you’d never use near anyone else, not so much. If those names are part of your internal vernacular because you’ve grown up with them, it can be hard to spot them.

It’s harder still to move on when you find an environment that rewards or seems to reward your kind of attitude. That is super common: people with a certain mindset find environments that support that mindset to be a good fit. If you like pushing yourself, you will find environments where that is supported comfortable. They’re familiar. They make sense. You make sense in that context. Your attitudes and behaviours are rewarded – suddenly all the crap of your life is treated as a good thing, as something that makes you exceptional, but in a good way, for a change – and that can be a very good thing or a fucking tragedy. It depends: what is being encouraged, and what is it bringing you to? People rail at those online groups that encourage and support behaviours widely considered to be problematic, such as eating disorders or cutting, but don’t bat an eyelid when people find a ‘fitness’ program that grinds them into shattered pieces, a ‘self-defence’ system that teaches them to always hit first, or a ‘prepping’ scheme that encourages them to cut themselves off from an all-too-dangerous world. It’s the same fucking mechanism, folk. Whether it leads to success or disaster is often a matter of luck.

That is pretty shitty. What is shittier still is when you break out of that. You keep your head down and inch towards the light, and eventually you find yourself in a place utterly unlike the one where you were brought up, with people entirely unfamiliar to you. You’ve broken the fuck out of the shit that was holding you down and choking the life out of you. You’ve fucking done it – and you’re failing more than you’ve ever failed before.

It tends to work out that the ‘better’ you do (for an hitherto undefined and utterly subjective value of ‘better’, sorry ’bout that), the better the people you find yourself surrounded with. Seriously, it’s like fucking magic: suddenly you look around and everyone you know is wonderful. You may also find out that your friend group is pretty damn rarefied; a lot of people are either allergic to or incompatible with the behaviours required for self-improvement and change in general. The crab bucket is a thing, as is the risk of becoming so obsessed with certain work that you’re neglecting your old friends and they end up falling by the wayside. There are costs to this, and one of the possible costs is loneliness, or at least a mismatch between the amount of in-person interactions you get to have and what you need/want.

The other, perhaps greater cost is that suddenly everyone you know is exceptional. They may not be all-round exceptional – the tropes of geniuses who can’t tie their own shoes or remember to feed themselves are there for a reason. Chances are, though, that they’re exceptionally good at something, and that you can notice it. They may be exceptional at something you don’t give a crap about, but that doesn’t invalidate their exceptionality.

I’ve got friends these days who are luminaries in their fields. Those fields may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but that isn’t the relevant issue here. The fact is that I can wake up one morning with a question about photography or astrophysics or medieval swordpersonship or quantum computers or the legal system in Oklahoma or Chinese soup, and I can ask an expert. If they don’t know, they’ll probably know someone who does – and, because they are cool people, they will admit to not knowing. I watch exceptional martial arts, eat exceptional food, listen to exceptional music, watch exceptional art, and struggle to follow exceptional conversations. I am surrounded by people with exceptional bodies, minds, and souls. And those are the standards I measure myself against.

The measuring isn’t inherent in the process. It’s the way I do business. Whether it’s a bad thing, a good thing, or just a thing kinda depends on the hows and whys of me doing it. It’s not very Zen – and yes, I judge myself on that metric, too. Tell you what, though: you don’t get yourself out of the shit without measuring yourself and striving for improvement. It just doesn’t work like that. Whether the measuring is a good or bad thing kinda depends on what your next step is. Which rolls back round to my last blog: the tangle of punishing failure vs. success, and how it pretty much all sucks.

When I measure myself against the standards ‘my people’ live by, I find myself wanting. I’m punishing failure: I’m not doing as well as I’d like to. I’m also punishing success: the only reason I’m getting to see those standards up close is that I did fucking well to get to where I am. Either way, it smacks of putting the boot in, because I’m not fucking well failing because I fucking well want to.

And this is where I veer firmly into the world of crap that is exclusively mine, so I’m going to drop this here. Make of this what you will.

 

Punishing – external.

I’ve been talking with Rory (hi, Rory!) about punishment, and in particular how some environments are set up to punish success and/or failure. It’s all still pretty mushy in my head and I have no idea where it’s going to go, so here’s a random regurgitation of possibly disparate concepts.

Punishments of both failure and success is waaaay more common than people seem to believe. Some bits are so ingrained in the way people do peopling that they’re almost invisible. The whole thing also seems to be tangled into chaos, to the point that half the time I can’t tell wtf people are being punished for. I reckon half the time the people doing the punishing haven’t got a damn clue themselves.

[Though this may be my blind spot, because my family’s parenting would have been dramatically improved if they’d just dropped me into the penguin enclosure at the local aquarium as a toddler and left me there, I routinely talk to people about it and they’re shocked when they start to disentangle the underlying mechanisms. Selection bias could well be at play, though.]

Example: A kid does badly in a subject or activity. The kid is punished for that failure, often without any considerations as to why the failure took place. Were they lazy? Or were they ill, tired, emotionally or mentally drained, overwhelmed by other problems that took up too much of their bandwidth? Are they simply not very talented at that thing, requiring more support than the average bear? It is in fact possible for someone to be very, very bad at something, even though they are very good at other things (for me it was physics; it’s the wrong shape to fit in my brain). Our school system is often not geared up to accomodate that. When parents can’t or won’t parse the issue, the problem can be compounded. Facing a challenge knowing that you’re likely to fail, because it’s set up at a level you can’t operate in, and that you will likely be punished for that failure, because nobody gives a fuck about your problems, frankly kinda sucks. If you did that to an animal you’d get reported. And all of that discounts that for some people knowing that they’ve failed is punishment enough. A bad grade, for someone who cares about grades, is a punishment. Everything on top of that is just putting the boot in.

Is all of that punishing a failure, though? Half the time the issue seems to be worst for kids who actually do well at most, if not all, other things. If you’re good at most subjects, that creates an expectation that you will do well in general. Suddenly you find yourself entirely unable to parse a subject or part thereof, or your performance dips because of external issues, and people are disappointed. Doing well has become part of your identity. You’re not “a student who does well”, let alone “a student who works hard”: you’re a “good student”. If you fail to perform up to your normal standards, that failure is measured against your successes. An A student who suddenly gets a D often attracts a lot more notice than a C student who does the same.*

Behaviour attracts the same problem. A ‘good’ kid is expected to behave in a certain manner. Something that would be considered a minor slip or just the usual crap on the part of a ‘bad’ kid attracts more attention when they do it. It’s the drop in ‘performance’ that is punished (failure), but the reason that drop is noticed is that the performance is normally high (success).

To a certain extent, all systems where you advance kinda punish success. A yellow belt is supposed to perform better than a white belt. An orange belt, better still. We rail at the egregious behaviour of trainers who punish students who perform better than they do – and we have a right to, because that is truly shitty teaching and those people have no business being in education in the first place. But the way in which a lot of standardised training systems operate is effectively geared to ask more and more the better a student gets. The Peter Principle and people’s personal needs and wishes are often disregarded. Whether that’s a good thing, because it expands students’ skills and comfort zone, or a form of subtle but effective torture depends on how the game is played and by whom. It really can go either way. People have been broken, sometimes beyond recovery, by being pushed by people whose stated purpose was to help them learn and developed.

It all gets even more funky when you take into account that it’s easier to punish good people. Good people respond to punishments. They actually give a fuck about that kind of thing. Bad people often don’t: if you want to put a truly ‘bad’ kid on the naughty step, you may have a fight on your hands. Suspending kids who don’t want to be in school in the first place is no punishment at all. People who flip a finger at society at large can often only be punished by the use of force.

[Interesting personal revelation: I was a good student and a shit-awful kid. My performance was usually stellar. My attitude was, in a school setting, beyond reprehensible. I’d learnt at a very young age that the adults in charge did not necessarily have my best interest in mind and did not necessarily warrant my respect. I wasn’t even anti-authoritarian; I didn’t care enough about authorities to rebel against them. I just did my own shit because I wanted to do my own shit. Whether that aligned with the system’s wishes for me was largely immaterial. That was treated as grossly offensive, regardless of whether the shit I was doing was in alignment with the authorities’ wishes. It also caused them a huge degree of internal conflict: when I’m misbehaving by performing better than my peers, better than my teachers, how the fuck do you punish me? Particularly when I’m not one to take it lying down.]

Punishing ‘good’ people – those who will not fight against the punishment – is easier. It’s also more tempting, because their falls from grace are more noticeable: they are falling from a greater height. It’s also the most unwarranted kind of punishment there is, because their are probably already punishing themselves internally and trying to do better.

I’m increasingly unsure that this kind of punishment is devised to improve behaviour. I reckon a large proportion of the time it’s meted out either out of habit (this is how we parent/teach/relationship because this is how we parent/teach/relationship) or out of a thirst for retribution. Either way, it’s pretty damn shitty.

 

*If you really wanna fuck people up, you can make perfection the minimum requirement. For instance, you can make a 100% mark the pass grade. It makes sense if you squint: after all, it’s the grade that shows that you did everything you were supposed to. Everything below 100% is a fail, because you failed to do what you were supposed to do. 100% is not a win, though: you just did what you were supposed to. There can be no ‘winning a system geared up like this. Put this system into someone’s head, and you can make a victim who is going to go on victimising themselves throughout their lives.

A lot of ‘gifted’ students struggle with perfectionism, performance anxiety, depression, etc. I will forever wonder how  much of that stems solely from the fact that they are the children of people who identify as the ‘parents of a gifted child’, and demand they perform accordingly.

Speak out.

There’s a conversational set piece that happens so routinely in the self-defence world that it’s become a trope. It goes as follows:

  • Someone posts a self-defence video showing a woman defending against a man. The techniques shown are appalling and likely to get women injured or killed.
  • People jeer at the video, pointing out its uselessness.
  • One or more men decide to make sexually explicit comments about the woman in the video.
  • One or more women speak out against that kind of behaviour, objecting to it in general but particularly in that setting.
  • One or more men speak up to defend the guys who made those comments. They’re good guys, they’re just joking, etc. The rest ignore the conversation or contribute only mocking remarks.
  • The conflict becomes polarised. On one side, a small number of guys staunchly defending the honour and intentions of the guys who made the remarks. On the other side, a greater number of women trying to explain how that’s not the issue at hand; the problem is that this kind of behaviour is interwoven with the attitude underlying the bulk of violence against women.
  • Eventually everyone becomes exhausted and leaves, or the thread degenerates so badly that it gets pulled down.
  • Nobody wins, nobody changes their mind, and nothing gets better.
  • We do it all over again.

 

I’ve been involved in this kind of conversation so often that by now I can run both sides of it. I’ve exhausted myself with it. I’ve watched other women exhaust themselves with it. I’m now starting to think that we, the women speaking out, are dead wrong. We’ve been trying to convince those guys to try and act as if they believed women to be deserving of respect and consideration. We shouldn’t. We should encourage them to express their views about women precisely as they are.

I want all the men who look at a small woman failing to defend herself from a large guy and think of her as a hole to fuck to say so. I want all the instructors who believe that this behaviour is ok to stand up publicly and defend those men. I don’t want those guys to learn to pretend to be decent human beings: I want them to unleash their inner asshole for everyone to see. I want it all out there: loud, clear, blatant, as graphic as they can make it, because it’s such a red flag that it will hopefully keep women away from those guys, those clubs, those instructors.

Avoidance, when it’s an option, is the best self-defence option there is. If an environment is toxic or dangerous we should do our best to stay out of it – that’s the lesson and all of the lesson. There’s no small print stating “unless it’s a self-defence seminar, in which case you should ignore your instincts and observations and put up with alllllll the crap”. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise does not have your best interest in mind and should be avoided, too.

If women turned away from every self-defence club or forum that fosters their objectification, that would undoubtedly make them miss out on training under some very capable instructors. Capable, however, doesn’t necessarily correlate with “clued up”. I’m not sure if an instructor who fails to understand the nature of the most common problems women face has any business teaching them self-defence. How can they provide valid solutions if they don’t grasp the questions?

And there’s more. How would these instructors react if the problems escalated? If I can’t trust someone to back me up when someone is making unwarranted sexual remarks right in front of them, can I trust them to believe me and support me if that same person purposefully slips a hand in my no-no area while we’re training? Would they back me up if I didn’t want to train with someone because of a thousand small-but-not-insignificant misbehaviors I’ve noticed? If their theory teaches me to trust my intuition and set boundaries, and their practice teaches me that doing so is either futile or carries heavy social costs, what lesson would I be learning?

Oracle

The Oracle sat upon the mountain. Billy and I had walked a long way to get there, which was bloody hard work if you don’t mind me saying, so we sat our respective asses down and listened. And thus the Oracle spake:

“If thou want to live a long and fulfilling life, thou shalt avoid violence and abuse. Thou need to learn to use the skills of the violent and abusive person, just in case thou need them, but thou shalt remember that the best response is avoidance, always. The only way to really win the game is not to play it.”

I nodded, because that sounded good to me. I’ve always found pain painful and paperwork boring, and it seems to me that violence and abuse have a tendency to lead to at least one of the two. The Oracle carried on:

“Thou must think ahead and avoid situations where violence is likely. Not doing so is extremely foolish, and if thou find thyself hurt as a result you’ve only got thyself to blame. The same applies to abusive situations. When thou see an abusive situation developing, thou need to get the hell out of there. Otherwise it’s a case of play stupid games, win stupid prizes, yo.”

I kinda got that, but I also kinda didn’t, so I raised my hand. The Oracle gazed upon me and said:

“Toilets are the second tree down the left-hand path.”

“I don’t need to go. I’ve actually got a question.”

The Oracle blinked a few times. “I don’t normally do this, but ok.”

“I’m having a problem at home…”

“Then thou must raise it! Thou must make the problem known, so that it can be resolved!”

“Yeah, well, I did that, and it didn’t really help. I was told to shut it and stop making shit up.”

“Then thou must bring it up to the authorities!”

“I tried that too. The authorities don’t seem too interested. You see, I’m managing not to get beaten up or fucked, so nothing much is effectively happening, and apparently they don’t have a great deal of power in that kind of situation. It’s like I’m doing too well to get help. But it’s exhausting, it makes me feel like shit, and I don’t know how long I can keep it up for.”

“Then thou shalt leave your home!” boomed the Oracle. “If thy community does not support you, thou shalt find one that does!”

“Yeah, but, it’s not that simple. I can’t just…”

“Oh yes thou can! Thou just choose to make excuses for thyself instead of taking action!”

“But if I just take my shit and go I’ll literally end up living in a cardboard box somewhere, for a while at least. That strikes me as a situation that is pretty likely to put me in the path of violence and abuse. Things are bad now, but at least I know I can manage them. And, like, I won’t die of hypothermia.”

“Whatever. If thou doesn’t want to listen, then thou can continue making excuses. I shalt not waste my precious time over thee until thou gets thy shit sorted out!”

My friend Billy raised his hand next. I like Billy. We go back a long way.

“Oh, go on, then!” sputtered the Oracle. “I’ve completely lost my flow anyway!”

“I’m having a problem in school…”

The Oracle sat up and suddenly looked really keen. “Then thou shalt face it!”

“Say whut?” said Billy.

“Thou cans’t run away from thy problems! Thou must face them, because only in resolving them there is growth! Also,” the Oracle whispered conspiratorially, “thou will gain a lot of experience in the process. A few years down the line thou’ll be bloody glad of it. The chicks dig men with experience.”

“Yeah, but, like, you just said that the best thing to do with violence and abuse was to avoid them. So if I changed school…”

“NO!” shouted the Oracle. “If thou start running, thou shalt never stop! These problems are to be conquered!”

“But you literally just said that if we have a problem at home or in the street we should just up and leave.”

The Oracle leaned forward to stare into Billy’s eyes. “Look, man, thou need to get this, because it’s really important. School is thy assigned place of responsibility. If thou have a problem there, thou need to resolve it. Thou can’t just leg it.”

“But I’m paying to be in school. My family and the taxpayers are paying for the privilege of having me spend a ton of hours there, day after day, for the purpose of my personal development. And what it’s boiling down to is that all that money is buying me the privilege of being forced to interact with people who seek to harm me.”

“Wherever thou go, thou will find people who seek to harm thee. Thou needs to learn to deal with them by thine own self.”

“But while I’m in school I can’t. When I’m there I’m under someone’s supervision. Each and every interaction I have is covered by a strict behavioural code. So not only going to school is putting me in the path of harm, but my school is failing in its stated obligations to me.”

“That’s not the point. The point is that thou can’t learn to deal with thy problems by avoiding them or farming them out to third parties. Running away from those problems makes thee a weakling and a fool.”

“But if they were at home, or in the street…”

“Then it’d be totally different. Then thou’d be a weakling and a fool for not running away.”

Billy pressed his thumbs against the bridge of his nose. He does that when he gets confused. “So, if I have a problem at home, I need to learn to leave it. If I have a problem in the street, I need to learn to walk away from it. But if I have a problem in school, I need to learn to face it? Even knowing from the onset that chances are that I won’t manage, and that if I do I will be punished for doing so?”

“Yes.”

“And if I left home, as you advised, and found myself in another difficult living situation, because it’s not as if I’m overburdened with good options, then I should learn to leave that, too?”

“Yes!”

“But if I got a job to support my new life, and that job put me in the way of harm, then…” Billy squinted, “then I should stick with it?”

“Precisely!” beamed the Oracle. “I’m so glad thou get it!”

“To be honest, I don’t. I don’t understand why you’re applying different criteria to different situations.”

The Oracle started to look pissed off. “Because those situations are different! Some things thou gets to choose, and some thou don’t!”

I piped up. “That doesn’t cut it. I’ve got more of a chance of choosing my school and my job than my parents or my neighbours. And with partners half the time you only get to know what you’ve chosen after you’ve chosen, it seems.”

“Thy job and thy school are thy assigned places of responsibility! They’re not meant to be fun!”

Billy folded his arms. “My cousin has a kid with her partner. Seems like her home is her assigned place of responsibility, too.”

“Then she needs to take the kid with her and start a new life for them both.”

“That’d be, like, illegal?”

“One must do what is right, regardless of what society dictates.”

“But I can’t cut school to avoid getting my head beaten to a bloody pulp against a toilet, because going to school is my socially dictated responsibility?”

“Yes! Thou shalt learn to manage that!”

“And my sister should try to change her life completely, regardless of the consequences, apart from her job? She should stick with that even if it sucks?”

“Yes!”

“But why? There isn’t just one single, monolithic Job. There are tons of jobs. Some suck more than others.”

The Oracle looked too pissed off to speak.

I leaned over towards Billy and muttered in his ear. “Dude, are you getting this?”

He muttered back. “Nope. It makes fuck-all sense to me. I’ve only got one life. I figured I should take every step I can to make it as good a life as I can, regardless of the setting.”

“Yeah dude. I thought oracles would be, like, more holistic and shit.”

“Me too. Hey, did you spot those bushes we passed coming up the path? Those were blackberries.”

“Really? I love blackberries.”

“Fancy getting some?”

“Yeah man. I’m peckish.”

So me and Billy got up, said our thanks to the Oracle, and made our way back down the path to pick some blackberries. For a long while we could hear the Oracle talk about us, explaining to people that we’re what’s wrong with our generation, that we’re quitters, that we don’t know what’s good for us, that we don’t want to listen to our elders and betters, and so on and so forth. But in all honesty we didn’t give a fuck, because between an Oracle spouting bullshit and a bellyful of blackberries it ain’t even a competition.

 

Puzzlers

Three things I routinely see/hear and can’t quite fit in my head.

 

“Anger isn’t really an emotion, it’s a mask for other emotions.” According to this theory, anger is never a reaction to an event, but the result of your thoughts/feelings about said event. The corollary is that, instead of dealing with your feeling of anger, you should spend time disentangling your real feelings on the issue.

What puzzles me about this theory, aside from the fact that it’s entered the dogma and it’s now treated as unassailable,  is that we’re singling anger out. We don’t apply the same criteria to any other emotion, even though they’re blatantly in play.

For instance, fear is not a direct reaction to a situation, but the result of our assessment of that situation. That’s why some people find a situations scary, while other people find the exact same situations exciting, boring, etc. That’s why a person can become “immunised” against a specific fear by successfully dealing with its source. Yet fear, under the same theory, is a “root” emotion, a real emotion, one of the emotions we should look for in the hidden recesses of our minds when we’re feeling pissed off.

We could make the same kind of assessment about pretty much any other emotion/feeling. We could disembowel our fear, joy, sexual attraction, love, and anything else that passes through us. We could simply say that human reactions are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for, and that by exploiting the gap between experience and emotion we can better regulate our responses, regardless of how we feel. But we don’t. We only do that with anger.

I wonder whether the real issue here is that anger is socially inconvenient, so we’re trying to pretend to ourselves that it’s not real, trying to marginalise it into nonexistence.

 

“You can’t say that consent must be ‘reversible’, because that will be willfully misinterpreted to give people the right to change their mind after the fact and cry rape.”

I appreciate that the term ‘reversible’, as applied to consent, can be misused and misinterpreted. Surely, though, the way to deal with this kind of problem is to make the term and its contextual meaning more widely known, rather than refusing to talk about it. Making everyone aware of exactly what the concept encompasses would reduce its misuse. I can’t see how ignorance, in this instance, can help anyone – apart from those people who want sexual consent to be in fact irreversible.

 

People who mansplain mansplaining, and still don’t see it.

I personally hate the term mansplaining, partly because it’s unhelpfully divisive, and partly because it seems to ignore the fact that being a patronising know-it-all is not endearing regardless of gender. What really tickles me, however, are recent efforts in some quarters to popularise the theory that mansplaining is simply not a thing.

Men never, ever talk down to women. What is actually happening is that women are incapable of parsing the technical register that men use when talking shop, and as a result get unnecessarily offended. Every single woman who complains of having being mansplained to is simply misinterpreting her own experiences and having an unnecessary, excessive emotional reaction to a non-event.

No prizes will be available for guessing the gender of the people expounding the above theory. A medal, however, will be provided to anyone who manage to explain to them that the reason they can’t see mansplaining is that they’re too busy doing it.

 

 

Creepsponses.

The most amusing aspect of writing about creeps was watching the responses roll in. There were many, mostly sent privately (which doesn’t mean that I feel obliged to keep them so – consider this your only warning).

The responses could be broadly classified into four groups:

  • “Ohmygawd I had no idea I was doing a creepy thing, why didn’t anyone tell me sooner” quickly followed by “but actually I will continue doing the creepy thing, because there’s a chance, however slim, that it will result in me getting laid.”

I have a lot of patience for those who don’t know How Things Are Done Here. It kinda comes with the territory, what with having been a foreigner all my adult life and not being good at peopling. However, if I tell you that something is almost certainly going to creep the fuck out of someone, literally, and you carry on because heeeeey you never know, you might get lucky, and it’s just too bad about all those people negatively affected by your behaviour… then maybe you’re not a creep, but you’re 100% an asshole.

  • “Stop writing about this, it’s boring/it’s sexist/it makes you sound obsessed.”

No prizes for those able to guess the gender of the people telling me this. Surprisingly (though perhaps not very), some of them were self-defence instructors.

Yeah, I wrote about creeps a lot. I found there was quite a bit to say on the subject, it being non-simple, and people asked me questions I saw value in answering. Besides, dealing with creeps is quite possibly the most frequent self-defence/conflict management problem women face. I have thus far met 1 woman who has never dealt with one, and she’s pretty damn fierce. I’m sure there are more, but my experience thus far suggests that this is a seriously widespread issue, and that it’s not innocuous. A bunch of ‘not-quite-rape-rapes’ start with a case of the creeps. Why so many self-defence instructors elect to ignore this problem is an interest subject in and of itself. That some would actively push back against it being discussed is frankly depressing.

  • “You shouldn’t say what you’re saying because SociallyAwkward™ people will be unfairly punished.”

A. No. The first thing I’ve banged on about is how to tell socially awkward from creepy, because that’s what worries people the most, and often what keeps them from reacting or causes them to over-react later on.

B. No. What I’m saying is going to give people the skills to negotiate the situation in a non-confrontational manner, with the proviso that if that doesn’t work then confrontational is definitely on the menu. Those people who don’t respond to being told clearly and calmly that something is not appropriate or is simply unpleasant to the person at the receiving end are not just socially awkward.

C. Seriously, no. Genuinely socially awkward people don’t want to be. Their awkwardness is a problem, not a lifestyle choice. Having people talk to them about problems with their behaviour in a calm and clear manner is doubtlessly unpleasant, but it helps them long term.

D. Socially awkward people are actually more at risk of being picked on by creeps than the average person, and usually less able to deal with this kind of situation. So if your goal is to protect them, for real and no shit, you should want this information shouted from the rooftops, not suppressed.

If your goal is to continue creeping people out without getting called out on it, that’s a whole other story.

  • Nopeologies. These are a bit like apologies, but mostly not, and have been hilarious.

It’s amazing, really. Start talking about creeps in a vaguely popular forum and every Tom, Dick, and Harry comes out of the woodwork to apologise to you about past misdeeds. It could be that, moved by my stirring prose, those people realised the error of their ways. It could be that those people knew full well at the time that they were misbehaving, and grew alarmed at the prospect of being publicly called out on it. Hmm. How can we possibly tell? Let’s look at my favourite examples.

A. “It just so happens that I make inappropriate sexual remarks to all my female friends, and though you’re barely an acquaintance, I just like you so much that I do that with you too because you’re so very special.”

This ‘apology’ is actually a demand for my continued tolerance of the behaviour.

Yeah… Nope. Don’t pee down my back and tell me that it’s raining. If you do something inappropriate, and you know it’s inappropriate, and you know I find it inappropriate, and you carry on doing it, this isn’t some kind of endearing quirk of yours I should just learn to live with. Cut that shit out.

B. “I’m sorry if I came across as a creep.”

This ‘apology’ doesn’t even try. It doesn’t address the behaviour (‘I’m sorry if I acted like a creep’). It doesn’t address the impact of the behaviour (‘I’m sorry if what I did creeped you out’). It doesn’t in fact admit that anything the person did was wrong – all it is addressing is how they might have come across, which is merely a miscommunication issue. At best, the only thing they’re worried about is my opinion of them. At worst, they’re trying to cast doubts in my mind as to my interpretation of their behaviour, which is more than a little bit gaslighty.

C. “I’m sorry if these terrible things happen to you and yours but actually you are wrong and all women are wrong all the time because I keep being called out for creeping when actually I am not, ever, and this is so unfair, poor me.”

Which brings to mind the joke:

A man was driving down the freeway when his wife called him:

“Herman, I just heard on the news that there’s a car going the wrong way on Route 280.”

“Hell,” said Herman, “It’s not just one car. It’s hundreds of them!”

If you keep getting called out for a behaviour by different people, at different times, in different settings, and you manage to convince yourself that this is the sign of a conspiracy against you, then you’ve got problems beyond my ability to manage. If those people mysteriously happen to be all of one gender, because your inability to parse social interactions only seems to manifest itself with people who sport a certain style of genitalia, I’m going to grow suspicious. Mostly, though, I’m just going.

Apology

It’s funny, really. It’s particularly funny because the people in questions apparently failed to realise that they’ve blown their own cover. The reason people get away with creeping is that the people around them give them the benefit of the doubt. If the creeps are aware enough of what they’re doing to volunteer an apology for it… coincidentally at a time when I’m publicly blogging on the subject… then there’s absolutely no shadow of a doubt as to the game they’re playing.

Oh, guys, if you’re reading this and decide to get unpleasant about it:

I kept your messages in a special folder I made just for you, just in case I ever feel like publishing them. ♥ ♥ ♥

Boys

All my life, I’ve been mostly into “boys’ stuff'”, and not so much into what girls are supposed to like. I was born in the 70s, so that was a big deal. Hell, it still is now, if we care to admit it. I have never given a damn about it, though, because that part of my brain is happily missing. As a result, I’ve followed my inclinations with glorious disregard to gender and found myself surrounded by guys most of my life. They were in the places where I wanted to be doing the things I wanted to do. I’ve worked, played, and lived mostly with guys. Most of my friends are guys. I get on with guys just fine, and better than I do with women.

Every now and then, I think I could expand my guy-related activities. I’m not entirely adverse to the concept of dating some of them. Alas, the inclination never lasts more than three days. Never.

I can work, play, and live with guys, but I can’t date them. I can’t manage the interactions that are designed to lead to dating. I can’t go to the places where people go to meet for dating purposes, either in real life or online. Hell, I can’t even go places where people go for entirely different purposes and out myself as a single woman because of the resulting fallout. Every  time I try, within three days I’ve lost a large proportion of my faith in humanity and I’m spending a lot of energy reminding myself that #notallmen are giant douchebags.

#notallmen. I know. I know better than most women, because my studies and my work and my hobbies and my life in general have brought me into contact with splendid guys. I just struggle to remember it when I’m having to navigate what passes for courting behaviour in this place and time. It only takes so many dick pics, so many “I want to eat your ass” in lieu  of “hello, how are you”, so many ignored nos, so many temper tantrums in reaction to rejection or boundary setting or simply not being available enough, and I can’t even. I can’t even with the guys in question, and I can’t even with guys in general.

I know that my reaction is unfair. Men are no more uniform than women are, and shouldn’t all be lumped together. If you get bit by a dog and that’s made you dog-averse, that doesn’t mean that all dogs are bad. Positive interactions with pooches will help you get over your negative experience.

…except that what I’m talking about isn’t a one-off, an unfortunate exception in an otherwise positive environment. It’s not the one odd dog biting you: it’s getting bitten day in, day out, and being told that you’ve got to keep petting mutts because there are good ones out there, believe me, and one day, if you’re lucky, you’re gonna find the right one for you. You may not have any fingers by then, but it’ll be totally worth it.

It’s a matter of taste, of course, but to me the modern dating world is a stream of shit that I’m expected to wade through in the hope of finding someone who doesn’t suck. And the conclusion I keep coming to, time and time again, is that it’s just not worth it. I’m not unhappy enough on my own to justify the energy, time, and revulsion involved in trying to date guys. The numbers just don’t stack up.

It’s at this point in my rant that I’m normally told what I should do. I should shrug off the assholes. I should accept that that’s how it is. I should remember that it used to be much worse in the Bad Old Days or lament that I don’t live in the Good Old Days. Either way, it’s just one of those things and I should get on with it.

The people doing the shoulding are mostly guys, perhaps purely because of how my life is structured. That’s the bit that surprises me, though. It’s not the pressure on me to fix and accomodate and carry on regardless and generally make everything niiiiiice for everyone: that seems to come as a stock feature when one is even remotely female. What really surprises me is that some of those guys are also having terrible difficulties navigating the dating world, and they seem to think that the fault lies with women like me.

Dude: what if I told you that the reason you can’t give your end away is not the iniquity of women, but the antics of men? What if that woman didn’t give you her number because of the scores of guys who used that opportunity to send her unsolicited dick pics? What if that woman told you to fuck off when you complimented her because the last umpteenth times someone did that he treated it as entitling him to an evening of her undivided attention? What if you can’t buy a nice woman a drink because, in her experience, it never bloody ends there and it never bloody goes well? What if the problem wasn’t that she, they, didn’t like you, specifically, but that they’re just primed for conflict, because conflict is what they get all the damn time? And what if the source of that conflict wasn’t them, or other women, or sociopolitical theories, but guys – guys you see, maybe even guys you know – guys who are pissing in the dating pool to the point that only the most resilient, determined, or desperate are bothered to swim in it?

Obviously, feminism is the root cause of all these evils. I won’t deny it. If I didn’t have access to education, like my grandma; if I was forced to marry the man who made me pregnant, regardless of whose idea the sex was, like my other grandma; if I couldn’t earn enough as a woman to support myself, like my aunt; if I got treated like a fallen woman for moving out of my parents’ home without getting married, like my mother; then I’d probably plug my nose and wade in. I’d need a guy, so I’d have to put up with whatever was thrown at me in the dating process until I snagged one, and pray that it was a good one. But I don’t. Here and now, a partner for me is an enhancement to my life. If I have to put up with a constant stream of harassment, pressure, insults, threats, and general unpleasantness in order to find one, then sorry, I’ll pass. And it’s not about you, dude, or even about me: it’s about them, the douchebags.

I would like to find someone whose company I enjoy more than my solitude, I really would; I just don’t like it enough to put up with all the attending  crap. And I’m not alone in this: I speak to other women who are single and not looking, and we are all saying the same things. We say them loud and clear, in private and in public, and in response we’re invariably told that it’s our fault or at least our responsibility. Our standards are unrealistic, our expectations too high, we chose to muddle up the gender roles and now we’re reaping our just deserts, we did and do this and that, and now dating is a minefield that only a few can successfully negotiate. Our bad.

Ok, dude. So you think the problem isn’t that men send dick pics; it’s that women are so quick to take offence. Whatever. But I’m telling you, your friend Steve who does that, and you know it, and you shrug it off because he’s a nice guy, really, and it’s not as if he’s hurting anyone; he’s the reason I didn’t give you my number. Your cousin Michael who responds to every no with a “don’t be like that” is the reason I didn’t talk to you in that bar. Your uncle Bob who likes to dress formal and talk dirty to strangers half his age is why I don’t trust ‘old-fashioned gentlemen’. It’s not feminism, Hollywood myths about romance, Channing Tatum, or the articles in Cosmo putting me off you: it’s the men I have to deal with every goddamn day. They stand between us, and I’m too fed up with their shit to be bothered pushing my way through. And maybe, just maybe, if you put a fraction of the effort you spend lecturing me on how it’s on to me to get over it into getting Steve and Michael and Bob to cut their fucking crap, in five months or five years we may reach a place where the prospect of trying to find someone like you wouldn’t fill me with dread.

 

[For all those men who are upset by my rant because men have horrible dating experiences too, and I’m ignoring their plight:

How about you write your own?

Blogging is not a zero-sum game. I’m not filling up the internets and leaving no room for you. If you have a problem you want to air, write it out and press “publish”. And I promise you, if you do it well I’ll link you on here. But don’t you dare tell me that I shouldn’t talk about my shit because you can’t be bothered to talk about your own.]