Hidden Misunderstandings: Pain, Anger, Truth, and – Isms

There’s a meme going around the internet that says, in essence, that women prepare for going into the world in a certain detailed way that attempts to protects them from being raped. I don’t know that it’s true. I don’t know that it’s not true. I am certain that it never would have occurred to me to ask. Why? I don’t know what I don’t.

None of us know what we don’t know, but I was reminded, as I read this, of the stories a few years ago, of Black families that gave “the talk” to their kids about how to behave when pulled over by the police so that they didn’t get shot. Again, until I asked, I didn’t know if it was true or not (it is). Again, I wouldn’t have even known to ask. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

While I’m on the topic, I know many blackout drunks who will tell you, on one hand, that they had blackouts. On the other hand, they’ll say, “But I never hurt anyone while I was”. An honest assessment of this, via an alcoholic I know, is that if you blackout, you don’t know what you did or didn’t do. Again, you don’t know what you don’t know.

Whole classes of people have factual experiences that others don’t. For many of us who don’t have those experiences, there is often shock and horror that such things happen. For others of us there is shock and denial that such things happen. Such is the case with sexual abuse victims and those who have never been sexually abused.

Here’s the pattern: 1) X event happens and it is sooo horrific (literally “unimaginable”) to those for whom it has never happened.

2) The listener says, “Why would anybody do such a thing? It’s too horrific to think about.

3) The listener searches their memory and thinks, “Have I ever done such a thing or thought of such a thing?”

4) If the listener has done or thought such a thing, and they have any emotional capacity to do so, they will feel ashamed. I have seen examples of this in male friends recently regarding the #MeToo movement re: unwanted sexual contact — not rape, necessarily — but things akin to it. Those who are ashamed apologize.

5) If the listener hasn’t done or thought to do such a thing, the experience remains “unthinkable” and often comes out like “That couldn’t happen” or “I can’t imagine that!”. These are two, for them, “true” statements and their revulsion to it makes it powerfully true. The problem, of course, is that for the victim of such a thing, these are the very words you should never say. Their experience is sooo powerful to them, and true, that denying their truthfulness creates absolute chaos — anger, sadness, confusion all at the same time — in the experienced person.

++++++HERE’S WHERE THE ISMS AND BLAME HAPPEN +++++++++++++++++++++++

The experienced, hurt party (understandably) says, “because you can’t see this, you are racist, sexist, ageist, classist, homophobic” !

The inexperienced, previously un-hurt person (understandably) says, “I am not a racist, sexist, ageist, classist, homophobic person! And now they are hurt, having been now accused falsely.

[Note here: confusing matters, people with no ability to, or interest in, feeling shame also do this, making things worse]

But here’s how the divide happens, and it happens all the time in each respective camp.

So how do we heal the divide? First, maybe not do so many horrible things in the world.

Other than that: Here’s how to break the cycle of blame/shame:

1) Never, ever say “I can’t believe that” or “I can’t imagine that”. Instead, try, “That’s hard for me to understand, but tell me more so that I can”.

2) Believe that the experienced person is not saying this to hurt you. Their experience is not your guilt. It is simply their experience. Them labeling you “racist, sexist, ageist, classist, homophobic” isn’t helping matters, but understand that they are hurt, and they probably have been for quite some time. Say, “I’m sorry you feel that way. I’ll think about it, but I don’t think so”. Then think about it. If they are right, apologize. If not go back and tell them you’ve thought about it and disagree. This keeps you engaged.

3) On the other side, be able to imagine that the other person isn’t racist, sexist, ageist, classist, homophobic, or isn’t aware that they are. The possibility that they are just being a jerk shouldn’t be the first “go to” response. Assuming they are intentionally being a jerk — racist, sexist, ageist, classist, homophobic — isn’t helpful . It may be true, but assuming it always is just isn’t helpful.

I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on this. I’m just coming to grips with some of the ideas in it.

Resisting with Peace,

John

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