A familiar story of pettiness and spite

I haven’t seen a lot of George Waye recently on the blogotubes. Once upon a time, we fought shoulder and shoulder on the topic of rape with nascent MRAs before I even knew the term. I know him to be a principled, insightful and strong person, whose blogging time is limited these days by being a father-of-fiveish . Even the strongest people have skeletons in their closet, though, and George shook one free from his closet and set it to electronic paper to illustrate a point.

My girlfriend and I once broke up around the end of May in my Grade 13 year. The whole thing was rather anti-climactic as far as break-ups between us usually went; there was no yelling or fighting or schisms within our group of friends. It was really just her telling me that things were done, and me not really liking it but trying my best to be mature about the whole thing.

There was an end of school party planned by several of our friends- we were all going to camp out in tents and toast the end of another school year. My ex didn’t want me to go to the party. She made that pretty clear to must of our common friends, perhaps hoping that I would get the hint. At the time I thought it was pretty childish of her to try and prevent me from going to this party, after all these were our mutual friends and I knew and had good relationships with many of them. Why should I have to stay home while she has a good time? In her defence, this party was going to be overwhelmingly occupied by people who were closer to her than to me- and I knew this. In my mind though, these were my friends too, and I was not about to sacrifice my social life for the increased comfort of my ex girlfriend.

Just to make sure my bases were covered, I took special care to let as many people as possible know that I was going to be coming to the party. Most were very supportive of my coming, though some indicated some trepidation at the prospect of having to be put in the middle of things. Those who were closest to me were of course excited that I would be coming and considered my ex’s protestations to be petty and unfair. The friends who were closer to her tended to suggest that maybe my going was not necessarily wrong per se, but that it might significantly impact the enjoyment of everyone there and that I might want to avoid her as much as possible if I did decide to go.

This story drew a rant to the surface, if you’ll indulge me.

I’ve told a story about my own break-up with my first girlfriend, and reading this story sorta put a few facts about myself into sharp relief. When we broke up, I disengaged. When my mother essentially gaslighted my father and had him put on drugs he didn’t need, I disengaged. When my father started in on my sister for being gay, I disengaged. My standard tactic when encountering someone so hostile or damaging to my own well-being by virtue of being, for instance, dogmatic about certain things, refusing to engage honestly with ideas I might have that run counter to theirs, is to disengage. I try to give people a fair hearing, to engage with them once, but if there’s no indication of any possibility of give, or if there’s too much abuse wrapped up with the dialog, I disengage. I walk away. I might do it with balled fists, but I always walk away.

In some cases, people don’t like that. They follow you. They try to force you to engage, they demand your attention. They “troll”, as diminutive and inaccurate as that word is.

Sometimes I stay put and ignore them until they go away, but sometimes that’s still draining on my sanity. On the internet, you have precious few tools at your disposal to prevent people from doing that kind of chipping damage (damage that they can do to you over time with no repercussions to themselves). Many of those tools take the form of curating your own online experience: using scripts to “plonk” them, so that you don’t see those damaging and absurd and libellous (a.k.a “troll”) comments, for instance.

That’s often not enough, though. If you run a blog, or if you have a popular Facebook or Google+ account, others will be exposed to the harassment and will incur chipping damage themselves. The libel spreads and everyone who’s ever been “wronged” in any way by being told to stop, swarm and internalize this instance as another wrong against them and take up the banner. You can block people from sending you @-messages on Twitter, or block them from posting in your posts on Facebook or Google+, which might save your sanity and your community, but it’s a pyrrhic victory as new trolls and new sockpuppets spring up. And even maintaining a clean-ish community in your own space doesn’t even prevent them from spewing their libel elsewhere.

In George’s example, the people siding with his ex-girlfriend were incurring some chipping damage due only to George’s lack of empathy as a teenager. His actions were not “illegal”, even by the “rules” set forth by the social conventions and everyone’s agreed-upon standards for this party; but these actions were certainly wrong. Someone throwing George out of the party would have been within their rights to do so, even though nobody did. Because nobody did, his ex was made an emotional wreck and a number of her friends were alienated from George altogether. That’s a lot of damage done because nobody curated that experience. Sure, George might have felt really wronged about being curated out of that party, but he might still have some friends in the people he alienated by hurting his ex so transparently — it might have been for his own good, even at the expense of short-term pain. And sure, the perfect solution would have been for George to simply recognize where his presence would do others harm and stay clear, because he knew he’d gain nothing but spiteful revenge for all the damage he’s doing.

But when you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t have that sort of perspective, who doesn’t have that ability to recognize when their spiteful actions obfuscated by the rubric of being a mere assertion of their rights, or an attempt to paint one’s self as the rationalist just trying to engage in dialog — by following and harassing people that have repeatedly told them to please leave them alone — there are often not many good options. In the case of a certain persistent troll looking to “engage in dialog” with people he’s slurred repeatedly, to “engage in dialog” with people who he’s attacked over instituting a fucking harassment policy at conventions (gee, that really must have touched a nerve, telling people they’re not allowed to harass others)… there are zero good options. You pre-ban him for his other harassing actions of the people who will be speaking at this event, despite the fact that he’s never actually done anything illegal, and you’re “overreacting” because feminazi witch-hunting something-something. You wait for him to get there and harass people repeatedly, and you’ve let him do damage to people, per his goal. You enforce the “no harassing people” rule when someone tells him to back off and he doesn’t, and you’re right back in the nazi-stasi-feminazgul yadda yadda hyperbole soup. You let him flame out spectacularly, and you’re asking every participant to be calm and emotional in the face of a persistent threat to that calm and risk him finding some gotcha moment to report back to his haters — you don’t have to engage the haters to feed their hate, remember. They feed each other.

The only good answer is for this persistent troll to acknowledge that in these plans to show up at WiS, he’s only looking to hurt people, not to engage in that so-called dialog, and to simply back down. Civil discussion can be had about all these topics, but not in this context, not without cost, and not in the way that this troll wants those discussions to be had. And such discussion requires goodwill, which this persistent troll — being a persistent troll, and all — has already exhausted.

Many of us just want to disengage. But we can’t, with the threat following us from space to space. So the people who really just want to disengage, they resort instead to documenting the harassment, to documenting the persistence and the following from space to space. If it was as simple as saying “please stop”, and they did, perhaps we wouldn’t keep bringing these people up. Perhaps time would heal the wounds, goodwill would return, and productive dialog could actually resume. But we are the witches being hunted — not, as some have suggested, the other way around.

Anyway, yeah. Go read George’s post. And sorry for the rant.

A familiar story of pettiness and spite
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15 thoughts on “A familiar story of pettiness and spite

  1. Rob

    The point you’re making is much more obvious and supportable once you include this line from George’s post:
    In her defence, this party was going to be overwhelmingly occupied by people who were closer to her than to me- and I knew this.

  2. 3

    Rob: I needed to trim it somewhere. But you’re right, I did myself and George an injustice in our arguments in where I trimmed it.

    Bah. To hell with length. I’ll put that whole paragraph back in.

  3. 4

    I think it’s a pretty good post for explaining how apparently relatively minor, at least superficially acceptable behavior, can really harass and bully others. Those relatively minor annoyances that can make life rather miserable, but which other people don’t want to deal with. I experienced some of it myself as a kid – including the frustration that there’s nothing egregious enough that bus drivers, teachers, and parents are willing to act on sufficiently to stop it.

    It does seem to me like there’s a significant portion of the population that thinks that kind of low level hassling isn’t something to be complained about. Just ignore it or something and it will go away. Life isn’t fair and some people are jerks. Complaints of that sort of thing are just whining and playing the victim. It does appear to me as some sort of failure of empathy.

  4. 5

    Microaggressions. I’m living it now.

    My ex husband has quite literally excluded me from most of my previous social circles simply by turning up to events that he knows I’d want to go to. I can’t go, because if I do I’ll spend the entire time trying to avoid him, and he’ll spend the entire time trying to be seen by me. He doesn’t need to do anything more than that.

    In fact, I just received a letter from his lawyers stating he wants to attend our son’s next medical examination. No reason other than to be near me and be seen by me. It’s utterly horrible living in the knowledge that all someone has to do to hurt you is to be near you, and know that they -want- you to feel that. And have the power to make you feel like that. 🙁

  5. 6

    These type things aren’t always clear cut. This instance is clear cut because of the line “In her defence, this party was going to be overwhelmingly occupied by people who were closer to her than to me- and I knew this.” He knew that he was intruding.

    You have to take these things on a case by case basis. If someone met their best friend though their ex, do they have to stop talking to their best friend because their ex got there first? If you both work for the same company, does one of them have to quit? On the other side, if you work in the same place and there are many ways to get from point a to point b and you chose a path that goes right by your ex simply to annoy you them, you are a jerk.

  6. 7

    Here’s the thing, scenario. We don’t have to talk about any of those other cases just because we’re talking about cases like the sort George and Jason describe. Those are clear cut. No need to drag irrelevancies in.

    This is what we’re talking about. If you want to talk about something irrelevant, maybe this isn’t the time or place.

  7. 8

    This is a clear cut case. George and Jason’s cases are clear cut. When the main reason that someone goes somewhere is to annoy or even worse intimidate their ex, it is wrong. Harassment, even subtle harassment is not ok.

    I just afraid of it being taken too generally. I’m also sure that it is too easily ignored because it’s subtle and hard to prove in many cases. Unfortunately, it really has to be looked at on a case by case basis, which leaves it open to conscious and unconscious bias.

  8. 9

    scenario: I might suggest to you that you do not understand that this post isn’t about George and his ex-girlfriend at all.

    When you understand what this post is about, maybe you can come back with a little more-focused opinion on the matter. Until then…it is best to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

  9. 10

    First, thanks for the link Jason. I haven’t forgot about the good old days when we used to attack irrationality together. Good times. I’m trying to ease myself back into a blogging schedule, and maybe I bit off more than I can chew with this post. Justin posted it to the slymepit (at least he reads my posts) but he has remained noticeably absent from comments. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting John C. Welch and Pitchguest- who seem to like to “non-argue”, which is to say bloviate without ever tying themselves to a position.

    I just want to make this perfectly clear so that I don’t have to keep reiterating it. I consider what I did to my ex as harassment. The “not harassment per se” is a rhetorical device intended to point out that people can harass without necessarily doing anything indefensible. I wish I didn’t have to clarify that point, but alas…..

    Anyway, great post- it gave me several other things to think about as well.

  10. 11

    Thank you Kevin and Stephanie. Point taken.

    I reread the post and I agree with Jason that it is very difficult to deal with someone who cannot understand the line between getting your point across and harassment. I’m not sure what you can do with someone who really seems to believe that there is no such thing as harassment (or that they have a right to harass people), to the point that they verbally abuse and actively stalk people who want to put in policies to stop harassment.

    I can understand crossing the line into harassment like George did and then realizing that you stepped over the line later. But there seems to be a lot of people who deny that the line exists at all.

  11. 12

    Safe hugs, Sophia
    Yeah, the question remains why a mature adult would even want to go to an event where they’re clearly not welcome and where they’ll mostly ruin some of the fun other people would have without them being there.

  12. 13

    I noticed with happiness and relief that Phil Mason was not in attendance at the recent American Atheists convention (as far as I observed). I wonder if they barred him from attending?

  13. 15

    I’m really glad I went to read George’s post. As my experience is informed by mostly incredibly congenial relations with ex-boyfriends (and our mutual friends), I did not see at all how the excerpt posted here supported your discussion.

    The part that clearly demonstrated your point to me was

    Once it became apparent that I was most definitely going and that I wasn’t about to change my mind on this- my ex made a very public decree that if I were to show up that I was not to speak to her at all. She told everyone that if I was in the same circle of conversation- that she would leave, if I attempted to speak to her- she would not respond, and that several people she knew who were very close to her would be avoiding me as well. Lines were drawn- and the ball was in my court.
    So the day of the party I did what any reasonable person would do…. I showed up and made it my mission to make her look bad.

    I didn’t go up to her and speak to her directly because I knew that she explicitly had said that would be wrong. No, instead I told everyone that I thought it was just so childish that the two of us couldn’t exchange cold pleasantries- that I understood how hurt she was, I understood her decision, but that perhaps- just maybe- it was a little immature and petty and cheap. I took special care to join into conversations in which she was one of many participants- surely she could not tell me when and with whom I could have conversations, right? I made a concerted effort to involve myself as much as possible with her close friends, thus forcing them to choose between being being dicks to me or anger her. If she was in a certain area- I was happily found within earshot, but never speaking to her or hanging out with her specifically. I made a conspicuous show of just how much fun I was having with everyone, laughing a little louder and drinking a little more and hamming it up in general.

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