A Moving Target

By ange Embuldeniya from Somewhere… (Stop Cyber Bullying Day Uploaded by Doktory), via Wikimedia Commons

Warning: This post may be triggering for people who have grown up in abusive homes or churches, particularly when there were unclear expectations, or for those who have been harassed/bullied (online or off).  Also, it’s long and kind of ranty.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to write today.  I’m feeling a little burned out.  I still love writing, and I still love talking about things that need to change in American evangelical Christianity.  But right now, being part of the blogging community doesn’t feel like a hopeful pursuit.  I’m not going to leave, as I believe I still own my words and have things to say.  But it’s hard to put my feelings into words these days, especially when I’m seeing online friends experience bullying by other bloggers.

I’ve been complicit in this because I haven’t wanted to be victimized myself.  This is probably understandable, given my long history with bullying.  When one has the appearance of having made it to the cool kids’ table, who wants to go back to being the outcast?  I was horrified when I realized that I was doing the very thing I’d experienced for years.  I stopped, and the repercussions were immediate; I lamented that blogging can feel like middle school all over again.  Some of my fellow writers, who happen to have encouraging online blogging personalities, really helped me feel better, and I started thinking about the power dynamics.

Have you ever been in a relationship where the rules keep changing?  Years ago, I was in a friendship like that.  The other person–I’ll call her Lulu–had a long list of expectations.  Disagreeing with her was never a simple matter of saying, “I disagree.”  She wanted me (and others) to use specific words and phrases.  If we made a mistake in our language, she would refuse to respond to our concerns until we rephrased things “properly.”  It could even result in weeks (or, in one situation, years) of being ignored or complained about.  This would have been annoying on its own, but what made it worse was that the line kept moving.  She would change her mind about what she wanted or how she wanted it on a regular basis, or she would add rules on top of rules.

It took me a long time to extract myself from that friendship.  I kept telling myself that it was me–I wasn’t a good enough friend; I was overreacting; her abuse wasn’t that bad; I would have the same issues in any relationship.  When I finally left, I discovered that there are people out there who like me for me, not for what I can do for them.  Friendship means being allowed to receive as well as give.

I experienced similar situations at home and at school growing up.  I never actually considered my home abusive, but my mother was highly unpredictable and could be volatile under certain circumstances.  When it came to peer relationships, the ones that always left me devastated weren’t the kids nasty from day one but the friends-turned-bullies.  The worst part was the inconsistency–the unpredictable nature of the abusers.  Which version would I have that day?  The kind, gentle loving person or the monster?  The friend who invited me to sleep over or the one who turned around the next day and told everyone that she made me eat candy she’d put down her underpants?  The mom who baked ten kinds of Christmas cookies or the one who spent the entire holiday raging and crying, holed up in her room?

That is how I feel about the online world.  Sometimes I feel like I’ve hit the bulls-eye.  I receive praise and encouragement from fellow writers.  Other times, I feel like I can’t keep up with the shifting expectations.  Every time I turn around, there’s a new thing I’m supposed to say differently in order to demonstrate that I’ve properly heard and understood something.  Just when I think I’ve gotten it, the target moves again.  For example, I thought I was doing pretty well as a parent, particularly in how I speak of my children on my blog.  Then along came some new rules:  Don’t say you’re proud of your kids because it takes away their autonomy.  Don’t talk about your kids’ issues because you’re speaking for them.  Actually, don’t write about them at all without their express permission, which of course you can’t get in writing because they’re not of legal age.  Also, don’t have any feelings about their needs at all because it’s not about you, despite the fact that you’re the one who has spent years learning to care for kids who have challenges or don’t fit in with societal expectations.

Seriously?

You know what?  I am proud of my kids, dammit.  And I do have feelings about raising kids with learning and behavioral needs–it can be emotionally and physically draining.  I will write about them because other than my husband, they are the two people I love most in this world.  The most common complaint I’ve heard is that if I think it’s hard to parent a neurodiverse child, I should try being one.  Know what I say to that?  Up yours.  Why the hell do you think it’s so hard to parent a child whose needs exceed his or her peers?  One reason is that we do know how hard it is for them, and all we do all day long is try to help it be less hard.  My kids tell me they feel loved, so I’m pretty sure I’m not screwing them up for life.

Writing about my kids is just one example.  There are rules for everything, including what words we should use (I’m not talking about proper terms for things or not using slurs or insulting phrases).  Today, one thing will be considered appropriate phraseology; tomorrow, another.  And through it all, the real problem isn’t so much the changing expectations but the fact that there are segments of the blogging world that have unpredictable reactions to the use of yesterday’s terminology–often on behalf of others rather than themselves.

That’s the thing I can’t do anymore.  I can’t follow all the rules, and I’m not going to try.  If someone wants to be pissy that I talk about what it’s like to parent a kid with ADHD (or even that I mentioned having one with ADHD), so what?  Be pissy, then.  Don’t like how I apologize when someone has told me I’ve hurt them?  Fine–go make amends your own way.  Think I’m not the perfect [whatever kind of] ally?  Then what you want is a robot, not another human being (and honestly, I’ve never heard this from people I’m being an ally to–only from other allies).

I know why I’ve spent so much time trying to fit in.  I desperately want to be accepted, and part of that is trying to offend as few people as possible–or at least those who seem like the cool, popular ones or the influential ones.  Today, I realized that I view everyone I meet in these terms–when will they stop liking me and start behaving erratically?  I’m done.  I refuse to try to contort myself for the sake of someone else’s unpredictability.  I can’t live like that.  I wasn’t able to maintain a friendship like that long-term, and I can’t maintain online relationships that way either.

None of this means that I will stop working for change or pointing out where we can improve.  But I don’t want to be part of an unhealthy system.  I did that growing up, I did that in my former friendship, and I did that at church.  At this point, I need to protect myself from further harm, and that includes not allowing myself to be influenced by my need to fit in.  This thing called life is hard enough without feeling like if I so much as twitch it might be taken the wrong way and I’ll get an earful of how I’m defending some terrible injustice even when that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Maybe one day, I won’t feel the need to be on the inside anymore.

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16 thoughts on “A Moving Target

  1. Thank you for your honesty and courage! When you let others see your authentic self, your give them a gift. Whether they accept it with grace, or abuse or resent your gift, that’s on them. Don’t let it affect you thoughtfully and mindfully sharing through your writing.

  2. Have you ever read Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye? I just finished it and a big portion of it is about the type of friend-bullying exactly like you described.

    Then what you want is a robot, not another human being (and honestly, I’ve never heard this from people I’m being an ally to–only from other allies).
    Exactly THIS. This is what I was trying to get at with the “perfect activist” post I shared with you recently. It’s one thing for people to say, “This is offensive to me” and another for someone to constantly be saying, “That’s offensive to X people” about everything. Which is how we end up with the perfect activist standard.

    Sometimes, the “rules” are inconsistent within a marginalized group as well, which can be difficult to navigate as an ally. I wrote a follow-up post about this.

    • I haven’t read Cat’s Eye. I’ll have to put it on my reading list. I do like Margaret Atwood.

      I loved the “perfect activist” post and the follow-up. I’ve definitely noticed that myself. The people I know offline have different needs and wants when it comes to being their ally. But that, for me, is easier to keep up with than online–in person, we can talk about what they need from me and there aren’t really any more expectations than mutual respect.

  3. I have mixed feelings about this. One the one hand I agree that everyone is different and expresses things differently and I am fine with that. What makes me hesitant I guess is a recent interaction I was in on facebook. I try not to engage usually, especially in other person’s space, but a facebook acquaintance posted something about transgender right and bathroom usage, and said she was nervous about the idea of “a transgender” using the same bathroom as her and her daughters. I still wouldn’t have commented, but then her friends showed up and started agreeing with her, but in a really rude and hateful way, saying that transpeople are perverts and disgusting and hated by god, they also name called quite a bit, things like “woMAN” “he-she” etc, very hurtful and mean things were being said. Well, not only have I written on this topic before, but I am married to a transwoman, so I commented, saying that some of the comments were sounding hateful. She responded by saying that even if she didn’t agree with everything being said, she is “tolerant” and therefore can’t delete them, and reaffirmed that “transgenders” was a controversial topic. I replied, saying that I was not aware that tolerance included hate speech, and I also corrected her repeated use of transgender as a noun rather than a descriptive adjective, She got extremely defensive and called me a grammer Nazi., I disengaged at that point, but it was frustrating to have my entire perspective ignored despite my personal experience because I tried to explain a common courtesy/ issue of respect regarding transpeople. :/ So I get the whole moving target thing, but sometimes I feel like boundaries simply aren’t respected, because people refuse to hear any other perspective but there own. It’s frustrating, and hard to navigate.

    • See, I don’t think what you describe constitutes a “moving target” because it’s completely consistent with everything I’ve heard from transgender individuals. The people who “disagreed” with you were not arguing for what was best for transgender people, and that’s the difference.

      An example I gave of a moving target in my post on a similar topic was the idea of person-first language, and how some people say, “Always use person-first language!” and some people say, “Never use person-first language!” In both cases they are arguing for what is best for the people being described by such language. I think that’s an important conversation to be had within the disability community, and one where it’s important to honor people’s individual preferences as applicable. But to Amy’s point, it’s difficult to know what language to use when you’re likely to be attacked for being offensive no matter what, and it’s particularly frustrating when those attacks come from people to whom the language does not directly apply but who have designated themselves Protector of All People and want to police other’s language based on whatever the latest information they have about what the appropriate terminology or phrasing is.

    • I definitely see where you’re coming from. That’s not the moving target I was referring to–it’s not the changing terminology that I find hard; that’s no big deal. I can easily adapt to whatever people prefer. It’s the not knowing whether the reaction (usually from allies) to my misuse or confusion will be angry ranting, shunning me, or talking behind my back–or if it will be one of the times I’m shown grace and freedom to learn where I went wrong. There’s no consistency to the emotional response. This is not everyone, just people I had been viewing as online “gatekeepers” of sorts–those who are or have been activists and allies longer than I have. I’m also frustrated by not knowing when my words are allowed to mean exactly what I’ve said and when one of the perceived gatekeepers will decide I must have been implying something I didn’t say. “Words mean things” gets thrown around a lot, but the phrase itself has lost its meaning because it now seems to mean “words mean either what the dictionary says OR what I think they must mean.”

      It sounds to me like your response to your acquaintance was entirely appropriate and you’re right in that your boundaries weren’t respected. I’m very sorry that someone behaved that way. (And I have soooo many thoughts on the really gross implication that transwomen are not women but transmen are also not women, because the only people who are REAL women are women born women living as women. Patriarchy and male/men as default at work right there. Blech.)

  4. Hi!

    Well, I so get what you are saying, mostly because I tried to please everyone at one point in my life. Is quite draining, you get your sense of self lost somewhere in the “To-Do List” of someone else. Someone told me that it happens a lot to people that are so good empathizing with others, you take their problems as your own, you take their mood changes as personal and try to better them somehow. It is frustrating and you hardly recieve the appreciation you deserve. And when you stop pleasing them, some people can be quite nasty and mean.

    What I learned is that you must look for yourself first. Maybe not always, I am not saying this is a sort of frozen truth. But I understood then that not everyone was going to like me, and that does not mean I am a horrible person, because objectively I am a good person to have around! Why do I want to keep people who won´t appreciate me for who I am? It is impossible and distracts you from the people that matter.

    If you want to have a blog and write about things you love, and you do it in a respectful way, not a childish way and you put thought adn heart into your words, then go for it! Yor words won´t make sense to some, but they will get sooner or later to the right ears: people that need hearing them and will appreciate them for what they are worth.

    As a personal rule, I don´t read comments that are disrespectful from the get go. If they can´t have empathy for fellow human beings, any advice coming from them is flawed from the start. If they don´t have the ability to argue objectively instead of jumping all over the place with prejudices, do they really have anything worth hearing? My personal experience is that no, they don´t have anything to say.

    • Thanks for your kind words. I’m sure that a good part of my problem was that I believed that all people are unpredictably volatile, and some of my school and church experiences confirmed that. Fortunately, many wonderful people have assured me that’s not the case, so I’m slowly learning that I can trust my instincts and I don’t need to please everyone. I’m also learning that popularity isn’t equal to authority, which means that the bloggers who shun people or get nasty don’t have the power I’ve assigned them in my mind.

  5. Maybe because I “don’t really like people” either or perhaps because I don’t like being manipulated, but as someone who has never really fit in either I mostly try not to “care” what other people think about the way I live.

    This does not mean that I don’t try to avoid hurting people directly, but if they are indirectly insulted by something that does not really have anything to do with them then I mostly ignore their opinion of how I should behave.

    “Try not to manipulate or control other people” is a primary life rule for me, and is how I want other people to treat me as well.

    • “Try not to manipulate or control other people” is a great primary rule. It’s one I’m trying to keep in mind as a parent–there’s a difference between keeping my kids safe and helping them navigate new experiences and protecting them from ever having a negative experience at all. Boundaries are good; control is not. So far, my kids seem to think I’m doing ok. The occasional “You’re ruining my life!” doesn’t bother me. 🙂

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