Assorted Opinions: With Malice Towards None (part four)
To Whom Do You Refer
(With Malice Towards None: part four)
Scenario One: Darrin has a habit of walking up behind Willa while she works at her desk, putting his hand on one of her shoulders, and leaning over the other to see what she has on her computer screen.
Willa, after a while, says, “Will you not? And please say my name if you want my attention.”
Darrin begins to “playfully” just touch her on the shoulder, or arm. When he says her name, he uses an insinuating sing-song.
Scenario Two: Sean is Jason’s college roommate. Allie is Jason’s younger sister. Jason has told Sean that his sister hates the song, “You’re Beautiful”. When during Siblings Weekend Allie comes to visit her brother, Sean “teases” her by singing this at the moment Jason ushers her into the room.
What is the point of Scenario One?
Darrin makes Willa uncomfortable. When she speaks up, Darrin reacts by prodding at the boundaries she has specified. He imagines she puts him in the wrong; that he can win this argument by touching just a little, making her accept it, using her name in a way that communicates disrespect.
Because…Darrin feels falsely accused. He sees himself as a man who isn’t rapey towards women. Darrin can be a jerk, and still be entitled to have the limits of his jerkiness, by his co-workers, acknowledged. But, he isn’t having an argument with Willa. She has not accused him of anything; she hasn’t threatened him with retaliation, overtly, or by bad-mouthing him to their colleagues. As to the latter, Willa would be at fault if she did. In the workplace, as everywhere, we have the right to know what we’re accused of, and be given the chance to make a defense, rather than suffer unaddressable consequences.
Here we have the principle that lends its title to this series:
Language that inherently refers to a person, and that is offensive, is always offensive. Writers use these words when establishing the nature of a character, and the impact of his behavior on other characters, and we use them when quoting the actual words of real people. We don’t otherwise question why words, why attitudes, make others uncomfortable, or why we can’t use offensive terms ironically, or what is the difference between someone calling himself by a term, and a stranger calling him that.
As Darrin should with Willa, we accept that we’ve been asked not to.
But this raises the question of Darrin’s “turning it around” on Willa. He prods at her until she snaps, acts out in some way. He then claims her anger is an aggression, and that he is afraid of her. He asks her to respect him by not doing this and that…
Willa may ask, “Isn’t there a better rule than just going along with someone’s preferences…or why, if this is the best we can do, can the rule be so easily exploited by people with clearly bad intentions?”
Campaigning behavior, when an individual targets another individual, or when a group decides to drive off someone from their neighborhood, their workplace, their school (a particular misery for bullied kids, who are being repulsed by harassment while forced to return to this treatment every day), relies on its representation of itself as innocent.
And so the better answer, which is true for both Darrin and Willa, if either ends up on the receiving end of a series of attacks, is the Face Value strategy, or Forcing the Position.
Willa yields no part of the truth in her dealings with Darrin, and will not allow him to alter the narrative. They’ve had this conversation; he has agreed to her requests. Nothing can be in play if it hasn’t been seen and heard: thus, face value.
She may say (cheerfully), “Darrin, you’re the kind of person who gets so lost in thought, you don’t realize what you’re doing!”
Darrin can accept this, or object to it. No, I did mean to touch you…no, you’re right, I forgot. If he is passive-aggressive to the point of mental illness, he may “forget” continually, but if Willa steadfastly refuses to see anything other than what Darrin shows on the surface, and refuses not to see this—that they have an agreement, that he has reinforced his admission he understands this; that if he forgets frequently, it can only be because he is remembering to the best of his ability—Darrin will get no payoff. No escalation of hostilities, no opportunity to be the victim, only an unflattering self-representation.
Consider those governments elected in various countries due to nationalistic trends. How much of the story we’re meant to believe about these people has to do with hints of covert genius machinations, triggered by strange symbols, part of deep and mysterious plans?
And how much better, if our journalists would make their reporting strong and tenacious on this point? Of never allowing that someone who does his job incompetently or corruptly can have a secret master in the background, promulgating a Plan of devious complication; but, utter face value… Believe it, say it. Whether the subject is a Committee Chair or President, Prime Minister or Party Chief, when his actions and words suggest he doesn’t understand the nature of his job, or of his duty to his country, what you see is what you get. He works to the sum total of his ability. If he had more, he would give it.
Do not admit another story, than the one told by verifiable facts.
The caveat is that this rule works for interpersonal relationships. It works for distant relationships that are still essentially one accountable person to many owed accountability. (Why, for example, would you not replace the entire board of a company that would split hairs on supplying and training, as to a safety feature that could save lives? Where is their competent leader? Where is their established protocol that demands anyone who raises an objection be heard, no matter what his/her status?)
When problems are cultural, as with systemic sexism and bigotry (or systemic suppression of whistleblowing), the culture needs to be addressed, safety provided for victims of it, and that is most effectively done by law-making, by electing representatives who are not tools of bad culture.
Next time: The meaning of Scenario Two, a review of certain contentious words, and a summary of all To Whom points. Then onwards, to Near Enemies.
To Whom Do You Refer
(2019, Stephanie Foster)