On autonomy, harassment, and kindness

I’d like to say that this election didn’t result in any “lost friends,” but that wouldn’t be the truth. It is true, however, that the disagreement over politics wasn’t the reason I lost that friend. It was his behavior towards me, in point of fact, his repeated harassment of me, that was the breaking point. Politics, in specific HRC, just happened to be the topic that started the downward spiral. 

That broken friendship isn’t exactly the point of this essay, though. It’s merely the latest in a long line of harassment/abuse I’ve experienced, and it led me to some important realizations. 

I strongly believe that, even in the face of hostility, we must be compassionate and kind. Hatred and hostility cannot be defeated by more of the same, they just amplify each other and make everything worse. If someone behaves awfully towards me, I will do my best to give them the benefit of the doubt, make my boundaries clear, and allow them the opportunity to do better the next time around. 

I also happen to be the sort of person that, when I care about someone, I’ll give them many, many chances to do better. In part, it’s because I hate losing people, but it’s also because I’d want those same chances given to me. I’m not perfect any more than the next person. As a result, I’ve been in relationships where I was verbally and emotionally abused, gaslighted, manipulated, and as a result pushed well past my boundaries, all while making excuses for my partner’s behavior and/or accepting blame for their actions, and hoping that the next time would be better.  

One of those things we are implicitly taught is that, as women, to speak up for ourselves is to be considered selfish, brash, and unattractive. Men, when they speak up for themselves, are brave and strong. Men who stick to their goals/boundaries, even at the expense of others, are considered innovators. Women who stay firm on their goals/boundaries, even when they do not impinge on others, are not given the same glowing assessment.  So, without realizing it, I learned to constantly shift my boundaries to accommodate others. I learned to be flexible, and I learned that on my shoulders rested the onus of being humble (humiliated) and responsible (blamed). 

The problem was that I had no idea this was happening. If anyone had asked me, and many did, I would have said I’d never allow someone else to manipulate me for their own goals. In point of fact, I was vociferous about my own autonomy and boundaries, certain that I was an independent woman with agency. In some ways that was the truth, but in many others, it was not. When I did reach the breaking point, many of these self deceptions became evident. The excuses I’d made, and much of the blame I had shouldered, simply fell away. I have experienced few things more devastating, but my dedication to compassion and kindness, and second chances, has remained. 

Fast forward to this recent presidential election. HRC has been a polarizing figure, and I have several friends who believe that she’s unqualified and unfit for the office of the President. I don’t take any issue with that opinion, though I don’t share it, and I have had several constructive conversations with people who dislike her and supported 3rd parties, and even with some Trump supporters. I don’t shy from those who disagree with me, and neither do I avoid discussing hard topics with them. I look forward to those discussions, because I want to learn what is important to others, discover things I didn’t know, and generally expand my world view. 

One person could not keep his comments based in fact or civility, and despite many chances given, repeatedly violated my frequently stated boundaries and attempted to incite me into arguments with him. He apologized a few times, but would return to the same trolling behavior days or weeks later. I finally lost all patience with this behavior on election night, explained one last time how his behavior was unacceptable, and thought I’d blocked him. I hadn’t. He later replied to one of my comments on another friend’s post, where I had been talking about treating each other with compassion and kindness, with a sarcastic comment about how I hadn’t afforded him that benefit. 

He’s blocked now, of course, but this experience led to a few realizations: 

Men who behave this way online are much more likely to behave this way in person, and much more likely to disregard physical boundaries as well as emotional. Intellectually, I realized this long ago, but somehow it took his behavior to really drive it home emotionally. There are some who will say this is taking things too far, but the truth is that I no longer feel safe in this person’s physical presence. I know how to defend myself, I’ve done it before, but why should I take the chance, however slim, with someone who has proven he can’t treat me with respect? 

The follow-on realization, here, is that my knee-jerk reaction was to chalk this up to “bah, he’s just a jerk online.” To make excuses for how this exchange couldn’t possibly indicate any tendencies to physical harassment. To sweep it under the rug, and pretend it isn’t a real risk, because accepting that as a possible reality is so incredibly upsetting and uncomfortable. What cemented this was talking to someone who works in a security organization. She immediately began giving me information on how to get help if the situation devolved into a threat to my physical safety. She’s a practical, skilled woman who has dealt with these kinds of situations before. If that’s her immediate reaction, there’s a good reason for it.  

I also realized that, in the eyes of many people (particularly men), compassion & kindness are incompatible with standing up for yourself if you’re female. In other words, by disallowing his abuse I was no longer behaving with compassion or kindness. Women cannot have boundaries and be kind. To be kind is to allow others to treat you however they want, and if you stand up and say “No” then you’re a bitch, and a hypocrite. 

Lastly, I do not OWE anyone my friendship. Also something I understood intellectually, but now it’s really hit me emotionally in a way it hadn’t before. What I owe others in this world is limited to compassion and kindness, and anything else is given by my own choosing. That doesn’t make me unkind, or weak, a hypocrite, or a bitch.  It makes me strong. 

I choose to be strong. To stand up and make my voice heard, with love and kindness, but to be firm in my convictions and my boundaries. To show my daughter that she is more in this world than what others tell her, that she is the only one who gets to decide who she is, that she can be strong as well as kind, and that kindness isn't the same thing as weakness.