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.