You’re not obligated to be bulletproof

[Content note: infertility, suicide]

One of the things I touched on in my last post is the idea that being upset when people call you names, whether that’s you specifically or they’re generally targeting a group you’re in, is a totally normal human reaction. You can train yourself to care less, to avoid dwelling on the negative, and to consider the source of the information, but the idea that you should be able to blithely disregard any offense, no matter how awful and no matter the source, isn’t realistic.

I see a lot of anti-PC memes about how people are weak, broken, and helpless if they can’t just “deal with” any negative that comes their way. How tragic it is that college kids need safe spaces, or that they might want a heads up before having to read a poem about rape. And the method of “dealing with” it can’t inconvenience anyone else or show your emotions in any way. There seems to be an expectation that people be bulletproof. In that worldview, it goes without saying that everybody, or at least everybody who’s a worthwhile human being, is mentally healthy. You should be able to just “deal with” depression or anxiety or the lingering effects of trauma, because it would be too much work for anyone else to make allowances for those issues. Even knowing that you’re upset is too much for them to be asked to deal with. (And don’t forget, they’ll mock you mercilessly if you do show any emotional vulnerability, because they’ll see it as weakness.)

Recently, something I read on Facebook hurt, probably more than the anti-PC police would consider an acceptable amount of emotion. Someone I’ve known, even if just online, for the last decade and a half, whose writing I’ve followed and whose opinion I valued said, in an argument about same-sex marriage, that he didn’t think people who didn’t want kids, and people who it was 100% proven could not have kids, should be allowed to get married.  As someone with infertility, this was like a sucker punch.  Initially, I felt like my reaction was “wrong.” This person doesn’t have any power to invalidate my marriage, after all, and *I* know that Mr. Thinkstoomuch and I have a good marriage, kids or no kids. And they didn’t mean it as a personal slight to me. But then I realized that *of course* I’m going to be hurt by that kind of comment. Like I said, it was someone I respected, someone who I had looked up to when I was a college kid, and someone who I would consider a friend, if not a close friend. To have someone like that say that my relationship isn’t worthy of legal recognition, that if I’m in the hospital in a coma, my husband shouldn’t have a say over what happens to me, how could that not hurt? I got over it, but I didn’t get over it by pretending it didn’t matter or that I didn’t care.

Another event made me realize how much I’d internalized this attitude that I was supposed to be bulletproof, supposed to handle everything all by myself. A little over a year ago, I lost a coworker to suicide. For the past six months, we’d sat next to each other, and she was my mentor in this new job. And then I came in one morning and she was dead. In the midst of shock and grief, my first two instincts on hearing the news were 1) call my husband and 2) get out to my car ASAP before anyone sees me cry. I was embarrassed, mortified, at the idea of being seen crying at work. On the day we lost a coworker to suicide. Crying was a totally normal response. The coworker who told me the news teared up, and I’m sure other coworkers who’d been close friend with her and known her for years shed some tears in their cubicles. But I didn’t feel safe expressing that grief.

Sure, part of that is just a desire to appear professional, but I think it’s also part of the mentality that showing emotion is a personal failing, a sign of weakness. It’s not. Yes, you usually need to tamp things down a bit at work, and you don’t want to dump all over other people, but you’re allowed to express sadness or anger or fear without first hiding away by yourself to make sure your emotions don’t ever irritate or inconvenience anyone else.

The double standard of “you’re not allowed to be offended”

Ragen has a really good post at Dances with Fat pointing out the ridiculousness of the idea that if someone is offended, that they’re the bad guy, not the person who said the offensive thing.

The meme she’s responding to says:

To be offended by what someone else says is your own choice, as you don’t have to care about what other people think, and nothing has actually happened to you. Information merely passed from their mind to yours.

To state that you are offended means that you wish the person hadn’t said it and won’t say anything similar again. In other words, you actually want to stop certain information from being communicated. You must believe that you have some sort of right to dictate not only what people can and can’t communicate, but what the can and can’t think.

To be offended is to take the first step in being a totalitarian megalomaniac

It appears to come directly from bizarro world, because I can’t find any earth logic in the chain of arguments they’re using.

First off, yes, you get to control your reaction to what other people say and do. But people are social animals. We have strong instincts to fit in and be loved and accepted. Separate us from the group, whether it’s a kid who’s socially isolated or a prisoner in solitary confinement, and we don’t do well. Nobody has a “Gives no fucks” switch that they can flip to completely turn off any concern about how others perceive them. You’re probably healthier if you save those fucks for people with worthwhile opinions and people you care about, but unless you’re a sociopath, you probably can’t just “choose” not to care if people close to you say horrible things about you or about others you care about.

It also completely ignores the fact that ideas don’t exist in some magical vacuum separate from actions. “Information” like the false allegation that Planned Parenthood delivers healthy babies and cuts them up to sell body parts directly resulted in an act of terrorism. The stereotype of black men as dangerous criminals means that police in training exercises are more likely to incorrectly think they see a weapon when they see a black face. And, in turn, more likely to shoot when they didn’t have to. Both of these pieces of “information” lead to the very obvious and tangible harm of people being murdered.

Stereotypes about groups of people, whether they’re fat or disabled or a racial or religious minority, excuse and encourage bad behavior toward those people. If you say that fat people are worthless, dirty, lazy, and stupid, that may not hurt me directly. (If you are….that is *were* a friend of mine, it’s obviously going to cause me pain because I am not a robot.) But what happens when someone in a position to make my life tangibly worse believes those things? Everybody from my doctor to my boss to the person sitting next to me on a plane? Yes, that’s going to cause me actual harm. People in disadvantaged groups suffer more illness, live shorter lives, because that stress does actual physical harm.

Describing any and all offensive statements as “information” is particularly sneaky, because we think of information as neutral and objective, unclouded by emotion. But often, what’s being transmitted isn’t anything of the sort. If it has any informational content at all, it’s often factually incorrect. But what information, exactly, does a racist slur convey? Mostly, it’s just verbal bile. It conveys hate and disgust, and that’s about it.

Next we have the amazing leap of “To state that you are offended means that…you want to stop certain information from being communicated.” all the way to “You must believe that you have some sort of right to dictate…what [people] can and can’t think.” For real? Again, this is not earth logic.  Expressing a preference does not mean that you want to force people to abide by that preference against their will.  Just like you can think Crocs are ugly or country music is insipid without demanding that they be outlawed, you can wish the world had fewer racists or homophobes without actually wanting them forcibly reeducated.

And let’s look at the double standard too. The person who says the offensive thing not only has freedom of speech, but freedom from the consequences of that speech. Not just major consequences like losing a job or being kicked out of an apartment, but the relatively mild consequence of having someone express disapproval. Meanwhile, the offended person isn’t even entitled to *speak.* No matter how incorrect or harmful the “information,” no matter if it was a screed about how people like them should go die in a fire, they aren’t even allowed to object.

Like Ragen says, it’s okay to be offended. It’s a completely normal reaction. Like any completely normal reaction, it can be taken overboard, and how you handle it matters. But when people say things that are dangerous, or harmful, or flat-out evil, it is absolutely okay to tell them that you object. And if they can’t handle that, then maybe they should take some of their own medicine and remember that their reaction to what someone else says is a choice.