Returning Force With Equal Force

As some of you might know, I see a therapist and I often find that my therapist offers me Sage Wisdom. Oftentimes I also find that the Sage Wisdom offered by my dear shrink is applicable not just to my personal life but to the larger currents in the skeptical, atheist, or feminist movements. This week I had one of those experiences and a light bulb went off in my head.

In this case, we were talking about feeling helpless or weak as a child and she encouraged me to imagine what my life would have been like if I had equal force to respond to those people who treated me poorly. She pointed out that even legally if you’re defending yourself you have the right to return force with equal force: if someone is threatening you with a gun, you’re allowed to have a gun right back.This probably should not have been as revolutionary as it was, but it struck me that all my life I had been trained (particularly as a woman) to never respond with any force. Turn the other cheek and all, ya know?

And then she asked me to think about people I look up to who could model this kind of behavior for me. My mind immediately jumped to my fellow Skepchicks. I’m sort of the baby here, and I’ve always found it amazing how people like Rebecca, Elyse, and Amy have been able to stand up to the vitriol thrown their way on a regular basis. But part of me has always held back, uncomfortable with the kind of shots they throw back at their attackers. Oh no, I think, I couldn’t do that. I need to be nice.

This concept of equal force blew the “I need to be nice” voice wide open. There are many people out there who think that the response of the Skepchicks and other like minded feminists need to be polite, need to take the high ground, or some other bullshit nonsense when they are attacked. The problem with these ideas is that they leave us defenseless. It’s all well and good to speak about it on the organizational level, but let’s think about what would happen if we encouraged all little girls (as we often do) to take this approach to problem solving.

Say a boy comes up to a girl on the playground and punches her on the arm. She tells him to stop it and he continues punching her. There are no adults around, nobody to protect her. She remembers that her parents told her never to fight back because that’s rude and mean. So she sits there and takes it. Eventually someone comes by and finds her bruised and possibly bloody because she just stood there while someone punched her.

What if instead we told our girls that they’re allowed to stand up for themselves if they need to? What if we told them that they could return force with equal force (in this scenario there is no adult to go run and get because the internet doesn’t have Internet Mom to save us)? In that scenario, the girl might place a well-aimed kick to the groin and be left alone. None of this is to say that I advocate violence, but rather that sometimes the choices are violence to yourself or violence to others. We’ve told women and girls for too long that they must choose violence to themselves.

Back to the Skepchicks. When people demand that we respond without anger, without cussing, with only reasoned and rational responses, they’re telling us that our recourse while being punched is to curl up in the fetal position and hope it stops. Maybe get in a few pokes if we’re lucky. Every human being has the right to defend themselves, and defend themselves with some amount of force if necessary. As an adult asking another adult to respond respectfully, you may think that your actions are unrelated to the ways that girls are trained to be submissive, but they are in fact deeply related.

When we tell girls that they should just ignore little boys who harass them, or when we tell young women that it’s not that big of a deal if they are cat called or harassed, or when we tell women that their rapes are not actually that big of a deal, or when we tell women online that they cannot respond to harassers and attackers, we build an entire culture that tells women that they don’t get to defend themselves with equal force. They get to come to the gunfight with a water pistol and if they get shot it’s their own fault. Some of these are small and subtle things, like when my mom told me not to respond if my brother bothered me because it was what he wanted, and some of them are big things, like when we tell women that their rape is not legitimate. But each of them says in some small way “Shut up. Sit down. Don’t rock the boat because you and your rights are not worthy of defending”. And because we have been told those little things from the time we were born, we’re more willing to accept the huge and impossible task of never setting our own boundaries in case we hurt a man.

The next time you think about saying to a woman that she’s overreacting or that she shouldn’t defend herself in her own chosen way, imagine handing that woman a flower and sending her against some gunmen. It’s a pretty picture, but you have no right to put her in danger like that. If she’s surrounded by open fire then you damn well better arm her. I am picking up my arms and my armor and I’m done hurting myself for the sake of others. I am done taking up less space so that others can walk over me. Return force with equal force.


Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at

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  1. Well put, and I agree completely.

    Way back when I was in college, I walked into the dorm and found one of the males harassing one of the females. He was an eccentric individual. He was a heavy drug user, and whether his behavior was due to that, or mental illness, I don’t know, but he was clearly not rational. In this case he was closely following a female, ignoring her demands that he stop it and stay away from her. He simply kept mumbling he wasn’t following her, and kept following her. So I interposed myself between them and blocked him while se went on her way.

    I later found out he had been harassing her for some time, and several other females as well. The school finally responded, and moved him to a different dorm. A larger dorm with even more women to harass, which he immediately set about doing. And he also kept returning to our dorm. If he couldn’t get in the door he’d climb the balconies and enter an unlocked door. The school kept warning him not to, but that didn’t work. Finally a group of males caught him trying to sneak in, and didn’t touch him, but made it very clear he was going to get his ass kicked if he came back. That finally worked..

    When the situation was discussed at a dorm meeting, the female from the beginning of the story loudly proclaimed that “violence never solved anything!” And I admit, I was floored.

  2. “Back to the Skepchicks. When people demand that we respond without anger, without cussing, with only reasoned and rational responses, they’re telling us that our recourse while being punched is to curl up in the fetal position and hope it stops. Maybe get in a few pokes if we’re lucky. Every human being has the right to defend themselves, and defend themselves with some amount of force if necessary.”

    It depends on what you’re defending against. I think everyone should interact without anger, without cussing and with only reasoned and rational responses. And, I think even if someone is being irrational and lacking in reason, they should still react without anger and without cussing. I think that if someone espouses an unpopular opinion or even an offensive opinion in a calm manner then the reaction to that should be without anger and without cussing, etc. There is no subject that ought not be calmly discussable. Even if someone was to say, like in the article about the female pilot, that piloting a plane is no place for a woman — what reason is there to respond with anger and cussing?

    Now, that being said — if a guy is making nasty comments, harassing, being a jackass, engaging in personal attacks or is himself angry and cussing, then I see no reason a woman needs to hold back, if she so chooses. She has the right to tell the guy to fuck off, or whatever. No problem. I wouldn’t raise my daughter to be a withering flower. To the extent that society tells women to sit there and take it, I say, no way.

    “What if instead we told our girls that they’re allowed to stand up for themselves if they need to? What if we told them that they could return force with equal force (in this scenario there is no adult to go run and get because the internet doesn’t have Internet Mom to save us)? In that scenario, the girl might place a well-aimed kick to the groin and be left alone.” Here here! And, I’d take that one step further. I see no reason “force” needs to be met only with “equal” force. In the literal world of “force”, I think force should be met with overwhelming and disproportionate force. If a guy slaps a woman, then she should not only kick him in the groin, but continue beating until the jackass can not apparently continue the fight. She should not just fight a punch with a punch — she should use whatever force is necessary to win.

    Translate that to the internet and the metaphorical “force” of a guy jumping around a message board and making impolite or harassing comments — she should, if she wants, feel justified in raging on the guy with equal nastiness, or even double down on it if she wants. If he starts the lack of civility, then she can throw down.

    That’s not to say that I advocate throwing down seriously. For me, I have the temperament to deal with all sorts of conversations and remain strictly calm. I tend not to get upset, even when people attack me. And, it’s all in fun for me. I can sign off the computer and go about my day knowing full well someone on the internet was nasty to me. But, not everyone wants to do that, and I think that’s fine if they want to engage their attackers in keyboard to keyboard combat. Only “equal” responses are almost never successful. If you want to get in a scrap, real or on the interwebz, you should fight to disarm and disable your opponent.

    1. Really? “Cussing”? Oh, fuck that shit. Curse words have their place. I will fucking “cuss” as much as I want. You’re not my dad. Although, never mind, my dad fucking curses, too. How ’bout you concentrate on context and content rather than tone? And being so pearl-clutchy about “cussing”?

      1. I never said I was your dad, nor do I care how often you cuss on the internet. Moreover, I used the word “cussing” in my post because it was used in the article.

        I am not “pearl clutchy.” Please do actually read what I wrote. I suggested that women not only respond equally to internet nastiness, but actually respond with an increased level in response to nastiness. If one is going to respond in kind, double down. Just responding with “equal force” is more like wound-picking. It won’t help.

        That being said – I don’t generally curse in internet discussions. That’s not the same thing as telling you what to do. Please try to understand that. I just added my perspective, which is that any discussion on serious issues ought be done civilly. If that’s not your cup of tea, then so be it. It’s a free country. I never told you the words you have to use or refrain fro m using.

        If you curse at me or are nasty to me, my choices are to engage in retaliatory nastiness, or ignore the nastiness thrown at me. I generally choose the latter category. You can choose whatever response you want to, as can all men and women. Nobody needs to tell anyone else it’s o.k., or not o.k.

        One reality, though, is that sometimes responding to a person’s nastiness with more nastiness backfires. It can be less satisfying than one thinks it might be. Even if one wins, one has descended to the level of the attacker. Typically, in my view, it’s better to keep to the high ground.

        1. That was a nice condescending brain nugget there, Socrates. I have noticed through your comment history that you are very bright and have it all figured out and you want everyone to know it.However you aren’t very good at self-reflection (although you seem to be great at self-justifying your ideas) when they are challenged, maybe someday humility (rather than civility) will seem more important to you, I won’t hold my breath though.

          Hey look at that, no swearing. I guess that means it was really fucking civil.

          1. Condescending? How so? Well, it wasn’t meant to be condescending. I was intending to explain my self to someone who seems to have misunderstood what I wrote.

            I try to reflect on things. Maybe this format is not great for people to demonstrate their self-reflection. I haven’t seen self-reflection demonstrated by anyone here.

            As for self-justifying ideas — or, well, justifying ideas – that seems to me to be in the nature of a discussion. Person A has ideas and communicates them, providing justification. Person B has ideas that may be different, and states them, also providing justifications. Discussion ensues whereby both participants may explore each other’s justifications and thereby probe the quality of each other’s ideas. Often no resolution is reached, at least in the sense of one person changing their opinion. However, persuasion is only one aspect of discussion. Another is elucidation. And, wisdom comes, as Aristotle said, from being able to entertain an idea without accepting it.

            You’re suggesting my posts seem to you to lack humility. I thank you for your view of it, and I’ll consider it.

            The swearing thing seems to be something to which people are reacting oddly. I haven’t said people shouldn’t swear. I said I don’t swear much. I don’t think swearing means one is necessarily lacking in civility. It depends how. Directing profanity at a participant in a serious discussion is uncivil. Joking by swearing. Discussing in casual language, slang and profanity not directed at a person can be civil. I just think that swearing AT people is unproductive, if the goal is to have a serious discussion.

            The topic raised here was whether women should be told to meet online discussion force (harassers and such) with equal force. I think a person attacked in a discussion has every right to fight back, and with disproportionate force. All I said was that I don’t do that. I see it as counterproductive in my experience. Experiences may vary.

          2. Look up the term “manspalining” and maybe you’ll better understand.

            And the justification of one’s own ideas, if it is to mean anything important, should be tempered by evidence to the contrary. You have shown that you like to find small flaws in articles (in and of itself, that’s fine) and when told they are beside the point, continue to push them. Your comments in the student loan thread is a prime example. You continued to argue a case that was tangential to the topic at hand, and then when you did address the actual topic (and was shown to be mistaken about the real-world applications) changed the subject slightly by throwing out more and more ridiculous “solutions” to the cluster-fuck of a system that is FAFSA. (Go to an affordable college, get a job and go at night, etc.)

            If you want to seem humble, acknowledge when you have lost a point before moving to a new one or it looks like goalpost moving.

          3. O.k., I will. Mansplaining is a portmanteau of the words “man” and “explaining” that describes the act of a man speaking to a woman with the assumption that she knows less than he does about the topic being discussed on the basis of her gender. If you can point out one time where I’ve done that, then I’ll eat my hat. I’ve not explained anything to any women assuming that they know less than me, based on their gender or otherwise. I stated my opinion on the topic, and I in fact AGREED that women have every right and should be taught that they have every right to defend themselves, not only with equal force but with overwhelming force. I’ll leave it to you to explain how that can possibly be considered “mansplaining.”

            We’re not in the student loan discussion here. And, clearly there I was not “mansplaining” either, because it’s a youth issue not a per se female issue. Recall I was told that the example of the NJ student suing her parents was a tangential or irrelevant point to the topic. I also did not “continue to push” my ideas. I stated things once, and when probed by other contributors, I responded to their probes (once). I have since left the discussion because there isn’t much more I can say. I don’t need people’s agreement. I don’t know why mine would be needed.

            But, regardless, it’s really pointless for these conversations to devolve into policing of my manner of discussion. I keep to the point, I address the issue, and I avoid fallacies including ad hominem and such. Just because someone thinks they’ve “shown” me to be wrong (when they’ve really just “said” it) doesn’t mean I have some obligation to concede the point. There are many times where I believe I’ve “shown” people to be wrong, but I don’t get bent out of shape if they refuse to admit it.

          4. You were speaking to women in that tuition thread, correct?
            You restated the rules as you understand them even in the face of said women telling you that is either not the case or not how it works in reality, from their own experiences, right?
            In a way that dismissed their experiences to put your understanding of the rules forward, is that not what happened?

            That, my friend, is a textbook case of mansplaining and that is with me not even knowing if you are indeed a man. Talking down to someone because you have the “better” understanding of an issue, even if those you are talking over have actual experience, is mansplaining (it has become a metaphor) and it happens all the time. Don’t do it, not doing that is far more important to showing respect to those you talk to then banishing naughty words from your speech.

          5. Is it correct that I was speaking with women? My understanding is that some were, and some weren’t. My initial post was not directed at a person, male or female. It merely commented on the article above. Then there were some responses made and I guessed a woman was involved, but I think (could be wrong) that a man was involved too. I really don’t know. Even when someone’s avatar “looks” male or female, that doesn’t mean they are. I generally don’t worry about the sex or gender identity of the people I’m talking to. My points of view don’t depend on that.

            Regarding “restating the rules” in the face of women telling me they think differently, or hold different opinions as to the state of affairs – sure, I think that’s fair to say, although I did not restate all the rules, which are complex and lengthy. The fact that the persons responding to me said they were working from their own experiences doesn’t invalidate my experience — not anymore than my experience invalidates theirs. And, because they say they’re talking from their experience doesn’t mean the conversation is over.

            As for “dismissing” their experiences and putting my own experiences forward — I deny the former and admit the latter. Sure, I put forward my own experiences. So what? So did they. I did not, however, “dismiss” their experience. I disagreed, partially.

            I did not, moreover, “talk down” to anyone. Stating my opinion — even if it is wrong and even if it is certainly and strongly held, is not “talking down” to someone. I did not state or imply that my opinion is worth more because I’m a man or their’s less because they were women (if indeed they were). Mansplaining involves the assumption that man has a better explanation about a woman’s issue than a woman. If an individual person, male or female, thinks they are right on an issue that is equally relevant to males and females, that’s not mansplaining at all. Financial aid is not a per se woman’s issue, and believing oneself to be right over the viewpoint of a particular woman is not the definition of mansplaining.

          6. He’s just misunderstood and explaining and he has all these brain nuggets that he needs to share with no less than several hundred words and he’s definitely not condescending or dismissive just because that’s how everyone’s reacting to him, that’s not on him, that’s definitely on us, if we were just better or less emotional or smarter or something, we’d appreciate all this opinionating….

        2. You used the world cussing in the way that they were implying OTHERS use that word (and other words used to silence). Do you not even GET that? Oh my god.

          At this point ,I am tired of your tl;dr responses to EVERYTHING, as if you know EVERYTHING. So maybe I’ll respond later. Probably not, though, because you’re never going to get it, no matter how many times we tell you you’re being a dismissive asshole.

          OH NO I CUSSED.

        3. “That being said – I don’t generally curse in internet discussions.”

          What the fuck. Why do you think that was important to share? I don’t care. None of us care if you care. We really, really don’t. But I’m sure it makes you feel superior to share such useless information and turn the conversation right around to you. And about how you feel and think. Always about you.

  3. Yeah, nonviolence sounds nice in a vaguely hippie, “all life is sacred” kind of way, but a certain amount of violence is necessary in life. You can’t stop injustice or aggression with words and kindness.

    1. For me, one of the things that helped my recovery was self-defense classes. Can’t say it’ll work for everyone, but it made me feel safer.

      I should add that Gandhi was a racist; he had no problem with apartheid, so long as they remembered Indians were caucasoid. And no, Mahatma, I’m pretty sure the correct response to Nazis banging down your door is less helping them kill you and your family and more krav maga. Just sayin.

  4. Non-violence, like violence, is a concept that is usually misunderstood.

    Basically, violence is the concept that you can get what you want by simply doing more and more horrible things to those who you think are standing in your way, or that being more willing and able to kill and destroy than anyone else will make you safe. BTW, this is the basis of arms races. People support torture, say, in terrorist situations, not because it is effective, but because it makes them _feel_ powerful. It’s like smashing a window because you missed the bus. (Boy, that bus won’t drive off without me again!)

    Non-violence is the idea that tactics and strategies that aren’t violent may be better at getting you where you want to go. It is a philosophy of trying to figure out alternative tactics and alternative ways of relating. It doesn’t always work (but violence doesn’t always work, either.) And it requires more creativity, foresight, and self-restraint than simply “solving” all problems by beating on people.

    What women are taught is not non-violence. It’s passivity.

    1. To be successful, nonviolence as a tactic as advocated by Gandhi and King relies on it being a mass action carried out in public. There need to be witnesses and allies present or participating.

      Bullies and predators attack from a position of strength and security. They try to isolate and intimidate and outnumber their victims when they have no one present to help them, or in social situations where they know (from experience) no one will intervene and they have a quick escape route. (See the recent Quickie.)

      The circumstances of personal self defense against bullies and harassers are completely different from those where political nonviolent resistance are applicable. Teaching people to passively acquiesce to their own oppression is exactly the opposite of the goals of nonviolence as used in political or ethical movements.

      PS I’m not sure I expressed this any better than amm1, but I did find a lot of interesting links and links to links (I think the Wikipedia articles are a useful starting place), so I’m posting it anyway.

  5. It is a very progressive idea that someone should take a hit in order to show an aggressor that they are not a threat and potentially deescalate a situation. However, that doesn’t apply if the aggression IS the situation.

  6. The part that I have a fairly fundamental disagreement with is this: Return force with equal force

    To stick with the literal meaning of the word for a moment, let me put it this way – i’ve spent several years training in, and occasionally teaching, a fairly violent form of self-defence, and the attitude that i’ve picked up, and tried to pass on, can be summed up as two ideas:

    1) Violence is only ever appropriate as a response to somebody else having initiated it first
    2) When it becomes appropriate, it needs to exceed that which it is responding to. We don’t teach women that the correct response to having their arm grabbed violently is to grab the guy’s arm back. We teach them how to break his wrist.

    Point 2 is particularly important when teaching women how to defend themselves, because they’re likely to be weaker than an attacker; in the same way, it’s necessary that people whose voices society tends not to hear be louder than those who are usually heard.

    I guess my point boils down to this – meeting force with equal force leads to stalemate, not victory.

    1. A related problem is that people have been proven to be poor judges of when force they’re giving out is equal to force they’re receiving. It’s human nature to underestimate the pain one causes others. This leads to the problem that if one returns with what one thinks is equal force, the other person involved will likely perceive the response as being slightly disproportionate – but not disproportionate enough to encourage them to back off. In fact, if they view that they’re receiving slightly disproportionate retribution and it’s not enough to make them fear a worse response, they’re then likely the ones who will react with much greater force.

      This is something that young boys who get bullied tend to learn: If you fight back and it isn’t enough to cripple or scare your aggressor, their torment will immediately get much worse. You have to either go for a crippling blow (if you’re untrained, a kick to the groin is the best bet for a male attacker) or respond with a different kind of greater force: Call an adult. (Though unfortunately adults all too often side with the bully, leaving little recourse to those who are being bullied.)

      Of course, most of this only applies to situations of physical force. When we’re talking about things like harassing someone over the internet, the situation is quite different. Neither can (usually) go for a crippling blow, and invoking fear is a much trickier proposition (depending on the circumstances, only one party involved may have the capability of this). Once you take these out of the equation, equal force (or at least force that attempts to be equal) is a much more viable option.

    2. I’m in agreement with bittys. (And I appreciate what the therapist was trying to get across.)
      I’ve been interested in force, violence, and non-violence and have been curious about it for years. I’ve found it to be a rabbit hole that runs pretty deep, and find myself with more questions than answers. Might I suggest interested readers look into the martial art of Aikido, which espouses a powerful non-violence response to force. There’s lots of discussion in the Aikido world (on-line and others) about force, non-violence, and violence. Better yet, try out a couple of Aikido classes yourself.

  7. with only reasoned and rational responses

    I don’t think we should be moving to irrational responses. We condemn those roundly, and for good reason.

    It is perfectly rational to respond to vitriol with vitriol, though. Don’t shy away from tearing your attackers apart – rational doesn’t have to mean soft-spoken or nonconfrontational. It is at times rational to fight back.

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