Activism and Alienation – Why I Feel Excluded

I’ve seen a trend over the years and it’s not a good one: activism is increasingly becoming a bubble, an echo-chamber where the only people listening are fellow activists.

There are reasons for this and one of the most telling ones is that the message is not reaching the audience. How often do you read an article or listen to a speech by an activist? If you’re not one yourself, the answer is probably close to never.

The big question is why?

For me (and I suspect for others too) there are a couple of elephant-in-the-room type problems. Activists seem to speak a different language, they bombard us with academic jargon and unfamiliar terms. Even the words that we recognize have subtle shifts in meaning so that understanding remains elusive. And then if we don’t use their preferred terminology or accept all of their ideological rhetoric as the gospel truth we get attacked. To put it simply, we are excluded.

What a great way to convince people to listen to you! Yes, that is sarcasm.

With far too many activists it’s a case of “my way or the highway”. You either interact with them entirely on their terms or you get bullied into submission or retreat. And most people won’t submit, so the audience dwindles until the only ones left are those who echo the activist’s ideology.

What’s the point of being an activist, of fighting for social justice, if in the end you are only preaching to the choir? The congregation has gotten fed up with your hellfire and brimstone and the pews are empty.

You’ll notice the overt religious imagery I’m using here. That’s deliberate. Running into an activist has a lot in common with running into a fundamentalist preacher. They are so convinced of the rightness of their beliefs that to question them in any way brings down their full wrath.

 

 

Last weekend there were the largest protest marches in US history, responding to the inauguration of Donald Trump as President. These protests were instigated by women in response to fears about the actions and intentions of the new administration.

But what were the majority of posts I saw on Facebook saying? Were they talking about the historic scale of the opposition? About the importance of standing up for rights that are visibly under threat?

No, the majority of posts I saw were basically saying that the majority of those protesting did not have valid concerns, that they should be ignored for not doing things the way the activists would prefer them to.

That because they were marching for reasons that meant something important to them as individuals but did not explicitly seek to include other groups they were somehow hostile to those other groups.

Now I’m not saying that ignorance and privilege are right or fair. But they exist. And unless activists engage with these people they will continue to exist. Shaming women who believe that sexual assault is wrong and got behind the “pussyhat” because “not all women have a vagina” is a shitty thing to do. For a lot of women the vagina (and associated organs) is something they strongly identify with as symbolic of their gender. Denouncing this as binary gender essentialism, or reducing people to their genitals doesn’t change the way so many women feel. It might not align with the activist’s beliefs but that doesn’t make it less real.

The culture of calling out and shaming people is wrong. It’s the tactics of the oppressor, the bully, of those we are trying to fight. It doesn’t advance the cause of understanding or acceptance. It’s just asking for them to turn around, say “Fuck you!” and decide you’re irrelevant. You might get kudos from fellow activists for being “on-message” but you’ve been counterproductive. You’ve stopped someone from listening to you before you even explain your point.

Bullying people into complying with your wishes and demands breeds resentment and opposition. If they comply they do so under duress, and as soon as they feel they are no longer under scrutiny they will actively undermine you. It’s about hearts and minds, not about coercing people by threat.

If we truly want to achieve equality, acceptance, understanding and all the other good stuff we need people to come to us willingly. Every person we alienate is a potential opponent, every person we support is a potential ally. We have a lot of opponents and some of them are very powerful. We need allies and supporters. We need to include them, not shame them and drive them away. Once they’re in the door we can educate them, teach them why some of the things they do might be problematic.

I’ve stopped interacting with activists online. It’s a toxic environment, like traversing a minefield where the slightest mis-step leaves you injured. I’m excluded, and I’m saying this as an autistic trans woman who ought to be feeling supported by rights activism. But I don’t feel supported. I feel threatened, unsafe in those spaces. I feel I have to watch every word I say or write, second-guess everything. And I’m not willing to do that – it takes energy I can’t spare to avoid any mistake that will bury me under an avalanche of bullying verbal assault.

I support many of the aims of activism for rights, but too many of the tactics are actively dangerous to my health and well-being. That’s why I am alienated. That’s why I am excluded. That’s what activism is getting wrong, for me and for others.

Bullying: Resurrecting Buried Trauma

When I was about 13-14 I was bullied at school. Not physical attacks; it was nothing so obvious. Name calling, “teasing”. I was the quiet one, the one who didn’t get involved in playground games but would rather spend time around books. I didn’t have anyone I’d call a friend, not because I didn’t want friends but because I had no idea how to form friendships.

I became more and more fearful of being at school. I used to fantasize on the journey there in the mornings about opening the car door and jumping out, although I was too afraid of injuring myself to attempt it. At the time I couldn’t articulate how I felt: I wasn’t able to put a name to my emotional state. My grades declined and I often didn’t complete homework, leading to punishments. I felt completely alone, insecure and vulnerable.

Things reached a climax one morning. I’d dressed in my uniform as usual but I guess my fear and anxiety had risen to some critical threshold and when my father called for me to get in the car I stayed in my room. He got impatient, started shouting and came into my room to fetch me. I was afraid of the shouting and when I saw a clear path past him, out of the room, I bolted.

I ran across the hallway and into the room opposite, slamming the door shut and leaning up against it. He banged on the door, demanding that I open it and come out: I didn’t move or respond. He broke through the door, breaking it from its hinges. I think at that point I had broken down in tears: my memory is not clear. I think my mother must have intervened because he left and I was able to return to my bedroom, wedging the door closed with a screwdriver driven into the door frame.

I stayed in my room for weeks, even months, only venturing out occasionally during the day when I knew it was only me and my mother at home. I don’t know what went on outside my own little world during that time but eventually, because I’d not been attending school, social services became involved. I was taken, rather unwillingly, to see a couple of child psychologists.

They spoke to me as to a young child, completely failing to make any kind of connection with me. I think when I did respond to them I was monosyllabic. There was never any indication that they had any insight into how I was feeling and I wouldn’t have been able to enlighten them given my alexithymia. I knew I couldn’t go back to that school, but I couldn’t even explain the reasons inside my own head. Not for years, until I eventually learned to identify and put names to my emotional experiences.

You’ll notice I haven’t described, except in the broadest terms, what bullying I suffered. If I do retain any detail about it in my memory I am unable to access those portions of my life. Approaching where they are locked away triggers warning pangs of fear even now, nearly 30 years later, and I back away.

I know I still have issues that stem from being bullied. Any teasing is immensely hurtful to me. I’m often afraid to be as expressive as I’d like to because I expect to be ridiculed. Even though I often don’t show much feeling, particularly negative emotions, I make an effort to give nothing at all away about how I feel unless I’m somewhere I feel comfortable. I’ve suppressed some aspects of myself for so long I wonder if they’ve withered away.

Most days I don’t think about that period of my life, and I’m happy about that. However the recent activity centering around an awful article on ADN that casts bullying in a beneficial light has brought old feelings back up towards the surface, unsettling me. I hope I’ve explained here why I fail to see anything positive about bullying.

UPDATE: Starting to wish I’d not written about this: it’s triggered stuff I’d rather not have to deal with. It’s too late now: the damage is done and I’ve got to let the tears and residual anxiety pass. Get on with my life. But we can never completely leave our past behind us.

Reflected in Others’ Eyes

One thing I said to people when I came out as a trans woman was that I’m still the same person. And indeed I do not feel like I’ve become somebody different at all. I do however feel less constrained, more free to express myself in a way that feels natural. I no longer feel that I’m playing a role, fitting in with what I believed people expected of me when I presented as male. It’s as if I had been confined, a square peg in society’s round hole, but by taking the step to be true to my own sense of identity I have been able to cast off the false act.

Some of the changes that Anne has noticed since I started my transition:

  • The first thing she said, which others have also remarked on, is that I appear much happier.
  • My gait has changed. I used to be heavy-footed, walking with feet splayed, and also what she described as bouncing. I now walk with my feet in line, placing them rather than “stomping”, and the weight is distributed more evenly instead of being mostly on the heel. In some respects it is similar to how I used to walk as a child, before I acquired “bad habits” (I often used to toe-walk). In fact I am now unable to reproduce my former gait as it feels too unnatural.
  • I am more expressive. She described my face as being more animated where before I had a flat affect. I also gesture more with my hands when speaking where before I would usually stick my hands in my pockets because I didn’t know what else to do with them.
  • I appear more sensitive and understanding. She told me I am more patient and responsive to her needs; I used to have a short fuse at times and would be snappy.
  • I’ve discovered color in my wardrobe. I’ve gone from wearing exactly the same black shirt and jeans every day to a variety of dresses, tops and skirts in different colors, never the same two days running.

I’ve also noticed some changes in other people’s behavior towards me since I started to present publicly as female. When I’m shopping the checkout assistants are more likely to engage in conversation. More people at work say “Good morning”, and I’m more likely to receive a smile; I’ve actually had more non work-related conversations at work in the year since transitioning than I ever did in the previous seven years! Even a few compliments on my attire, which pleased me very much since I try to make an effort.

Some signals have been more mixed: a couple of times I’ve noticed men speaking to my chest rather than my face! Not sure what they’re looking at: I’ve not much development there to speak of. Perhaps it’s just habit with them? On a brighter note I had a very positive encounter with a real gentleman last summer: I was driving to work one morning along the M4 when, while overtaking a pickup, something like a string bag full of straw fell from the back of it and lodged under my car. The driver of the pickup noticed this as I pulled in front of him and he signaled for me to pull over. I pulled onto the shoulder and he pulled over behind. We both got out, and without hesitation he walked to my car and practically lay down on the asphalt, reaching far underneath to remove the debris. I was most grateful and not a little surprised since I’d never experienced anything like this before.

All this is wonderfully validating and has increased my self-confidence. Together with discarding inhibitions it all contributes to a greater sense of calm and a reduction in my general stress levels. These inhibitions were to do with my internalized view of appropriate male behavior, a collection of rules I had acquired since early childhood. How I had learned I ought to act to avoid negative reactions: certain mannerisms, displaying physical reactions to my emotional states, even the way I walked.

Some of my inhibitions were a result of as well a cause of anxiety. Being on the receiving end of teasing or bullying will affect your behavior as you work hard to suppress the things you do that seem to be the triggers. Catching yourself doing one of those things causes a huge sense of panic: you stand there waiting for the expected hurtful reactions from those around you.

Societal gender roles have a lot to do with what is seen as acceptable by people in general. Presenting as male I had the advantage of privilege and the protections deriving from that, but only as long as I conformed to the expectations of that role. For me it was uncomfortably confining because I wasn’t able to be myself, but for such a long time I was too afraid of the reaction if I didn’t “play along”: I was trapped by my fears.

Now, presenting as myself, I don’t experience those fears. I do feel more vulnerable when I’m out and about which I believe is a result of no longer hiding behind a role, a mask. I’ve written before about how I used to feel I was safely hidden inside an avatar of flesh that was all the rest of the world ever saw of me. That’s gone now: what I show is my inner self, the person that was always there behind my protective wall of conformity.

Occasionally I regret that I took so many years to build up to the point of coming out, but that’s not how my life turned out. The simple fact is that I am here now and wishing things were different can never change that; it can only make me sad. It’s true to say that I am happier now than I had been for a heck of a long time and that’s worth a lot.

Righteous Anger

There is a time and place for reasoned debate, for putting a point across politely but firmly. Such as when your meal at a restaurant isn’t what you ordered, or when you’re comparing favorite bands with a friend. Situations that really don’t affect your life very much: maybe a temporary disappointment at most.

But there are other times, other places, where the stakes are higher.

A matter of life or death.

There are many hate groups. They target individuals and groups that they perceive as different, as lesser people — sometimes not even people at all. They will spread disinformation, try to sow doubt and fear to stir up feelings against their targets. Ignorance breeds fear, which can lead to hatred and persecution. The purpose of these hate groups is simple: to drive out or eradicate their targets.

Who do they target? It might be you, your family, people like you, friends, neighbors, people a couple of blocks over, people in the next town, state, country. Where do you draw the line and say that somebody is no longer your concern? At what point do their differences make them undeserving of your support and compassion?

If you are the target of persecution, injustice, hate, are you going to respond calmly? Some might. I probably would. At first. But when that doesn’t work, what then? You have two choices: run away or stand and fight.

If somebody else is the target, what then? Do you walk on by, leaving them to their fate? What if it was a woman walking along the street and getting hassled by some guy? What if she was your daughter? Well, she is somebody’s daughter. Probably somebody a lot like you.

Does the thought of this happening to somebody close to you anger you? I know it angers me.

Those people on the receiving end of persecution: they’re a lot like you and me. They can try to run away or they can try to fight. If they run the haters win. If they fight the haters are likely to win: like most bullies they pick on the weak.

But if you and I stand with them… If we bring our friends… If we harness our righteous anger and direct it at the oppressors…

All of us standing together become strong. Stronger than those who would destroy others.

Be angry! Be passionate! Fight for what is right. Stand up against those who would harm the innocent and helpless. Because if you don’t, who will? And when your turn comes, who will stand by you?

Those people who are being targeted right now by various hate groups bent on their destruction are your brothers and sisters, your fellow people. And like these Muslims in Pakistan who banded together to protect Christians while they prayed, you can show that being fellow human beings gives a connexion that transcends any difference.

You can always recognize hate speech. Whenever a group is being singled out, portrayed as different to the speaker, as less than the speaker, that is hate speech. Whenever a group is denied a voice so you only hear one side, that is hate speech.

And when members of that group express their anger, instead of ignoring them or telling them to be quiet, think about why they feel angry. How they are being treated to provoke such a reaction. And listen to their voices. Understand them. And stand with them.

This post was inspired by the ongoing activism in the Autistic community against the hate speech of Autism Speaks, their tactics of portraying Autism as a disease to be feared and eradicated. But what I wrote applies everywhere there is hatred and fear. Please make the effort to reach out to those who are the targets of such hatred. Understand them. Support them. Be for what is right by standing and fighting against wrong.

Thank you.

Teasing Trouble

I find teasing very hurtful; this is a consequence of being unable to read people. I have to take everything I am told at face value, take it literally, because I am unable to determine intent based on anything other than the words spoken. I have to rely on people’s honesty.

This means that whenever anybody says something about me I have to assume that it is their honest opinion of me. Because teasing involves negative comments – criticism or accusations – that paint me in a bad light, that suggest the speaker thinks ill of me, I experience feelings of betrayal that cause me great pain. My trust in that person is compromised.

An example: I have a close friend, somebody I used to work with, who is like a sister to me. Yet there are people I see socially who persist in teasing me by suggesting that there is a sexual attraction or relationship between us. As a married man I have an unshakeable loyalty to my wife – strong loyalty like this is not uncommon in Aspies – not to mention the implied insult to my friend. Knowing that behavior like that would be unthinkable to me – such impropriety – I am forced to conclude that these people are being deliberately malicious.

I fail to see their motivation, unless it is to cause me hurt. Yet when I challenge them they just say that they are “only teasing” and lay blame on me for not humoring them, for not joining in their childish games. They appear to assume that I can distinguish between this teasing and serious talk. Am I supposed to feel flattered that I can pass to this extent? Would they “tease” somebody in a wheelchair about their more obvious disability? I believe that  less visible psychological conditions like autism, because they’re not obvious like many physical conditions (I prefer not to refer to disabilities – we may be defined by society at large in terms of our impairments but I would rather focus on our abilities than dwell on those things that are difficult or impossible to achieve through accident or the roll of the genetic dice), are considered less real, less valid, as if these people believe that we could choose to think and act in a way they consider “normal”.

Small-mindedness; unthinking, petty, vindictive cruelty. And for no better reason than their own amusement. I may be no saint myself but at least I would not intentionally cause someone pain. I would feel remorse and apologise if I was brought to understand that I had unwittingly done so. I would not try to pass it off as “only teasing”: I would feel as hurt because I had hurt them.

Teasing. It is in the same vein as bullying in my book. And I have no truck with either.

Peer Pressure

I’m the first to admit I can be a stubborn character. Once I decide on a course I can dig my heels in and pursue it come hell or high water. For the most part I choose to do things I enjoy – that includes being helpful because that makes me feel good as a result. But I don’t do anything because I feel I ought, because I want to conform, because everybody does it.

I really don’t care be pressured by people into doing something I don’t want to do. Any time I get that kind of pressure I start to feel irritated and I can quickly get angry and snappish. I’m not a naturally rebellious type. I don’t take stands to make a point or to be contrary. I do it for purely personal reasons, not to fit in with some group of people.

I’m the eternal outsider; I never feel fully part of any group: I don’t get that involved. And to a large degree that leaves me immune to the pressures that social groups can bring to bear on their members to conform. I feel no need to think, speak or act the same way as others. I have enough confidence these days not to worry if people don’t like what I do. I’m comfortable in my own company, doing my own thing.

I keep trying to understand peer pressure; to work out why so many people have a need to be part of a social circle. I find it all very confusing. Are these people’s values really so malleable that they may be changed to match the group norm? My values are deeply ingrained and have been consistent throughout most of my life. Do these people go against some of their natural inclinations to follow a stronger urge to conform and be accepted by the group? If so, wouldn’t this cause an internal conflict, some feelings of discomfort or even guilt?

I’ve seen people act in certain ways when in a group that they would never consider doing when alone. This can include being critical of and putting down people who are not members of the group, and even bullying. There appears to be a suspension of personal responsibility: whatever the group does is the responsibility of the group rather than devolving to each individual within it. There appears to be self-censorship: there must be no disagreement within the group, so no member feels able to take a dissenting position on anything.

I find it all rather depressing and dispiriting. Is it a failure in education that people are so reluctant to think for themselves and stand up in defense of their values? Or – a darker thought – is it just human nature? Are we doomed to a society shaped and dominated by inter-group rivalries and conflict?

Enough of this – I dislike ending on a negative note and this subject is getting me down. I’ll just continue to hope for enlightenment and respect, and treat others as I would like to be treated in return. Perhaps it’s just a drop in the ocean, a solitary candle against the darkness, but at least I can hold my head high.

Puppetmaster

You said I made you do it
When you treated me unkind,
As if you were a puppet,
My strings controlled your mind.

I think you chose to bully,
Tried to make me feel at fault.
My skin is thick and calloused
From the injuries you wrought.

So now I keep my distance,
Ever watching, on my guard.
Getting close to you again
Would push me much too hard.

I Think I Need A New Word

I’m struggling to think of one word that will describe the feeling of acute mental discomfort and anxiety I get when I hear somebody making hurtful remarks about anyone I know. I don’t know if there is a word for it: maybe those people never feel like this. It would explain how they are able to behave in that way.

This feeling I get is so intense that I find it hard to describe, especially when I try to tell the people causing it how they are making me feel with their malicious comments. I don’t do that very often – it invariably ends up with them turning on me. But it still makes me angry that they feel so superior that they have the right to put others down.

And then they try to justify themselves by saying they are being honest and direct. No, they’re not. They’re simply being rude, voicing their opinions behind people’s backs and presenting gossip and rumour as fact. I’ve noticed that they never explain why they hold those opinions. There’s an arrogant, unspoken assumption that the reasons are so obvious that any “right-thinking” person would be in agreement.

I don’t know how to handle this kind of behaviour except by walking away – it upsets me so much that I overload. I feel that I’m letting the target of the comments down by not standing up and defending them, but I’ve tried and I can’t handle the stress of the confrontation that results.

I guess there are just some people out there who are hazardous to one’s health – poisonous if you like. Certainly incompatible with my peace of mind and general well-being.

To All The Bullies

There are some people out there who enjoy hurting others. I’m not talking about the sadistic psychopaths detained in high-security hospitals and prisons, although there are similarities. I’m talking about bullies. Those contemptible people who inflict mental and sometimes physical abuse on those they perceive as weaker.

I’ve suffered the teasing, taunting, name-calling and threatening behaviour. I’ve felt too afraid to even bear to be within sight of any of those responsible. I’ve ended up with depression, withdrawing – literally locking myself into the safe haven of my bedroom.

I would wonder why I had been singled out, what I had done to deserve such hateful treatment. Typical victim mindset, blaming myself – assuming the fault lay with me. Because I never fitted in: the quiet, shy one on the edge of things. Always nervous and awkward in social situations and with a set of unusual behaviours such as hand-flapping and repeating my words to myself that made me stand out.

I’d love to be able to say that I rose above such things and didn’t let the bullies bother me. But it wouldn’t be true. It bothered me to the point of breaking down in tears of pain and frustration. I ran away with my tail between my legs. I never confronted any of those responsible – that’s something I can’t handle. I shut down when faced with that kind of situation – confrontation and aggression.

I think it would be understandable if I hated those who had bullied me. But I don’t. I fact I don’t think of them individually at all, but rather as a class of people who are poisonous and to be avoided. They are narrow-minded, insensitive, morally-deficient and totally unnecessary and unwanted in my life. I have absolutely nothing to do with them. I carry on with my life, stick with the people who are my friends, and exclude any who would harm me.

The bullies may or may not care that I have excised them from my life – either way it doesn’t matter to me. Because I now accept how I am – I’m content to be myself. Different is good in my opinion. I have supportive friends and a loving wife. I got told I’m “special” by one of my friends last night – little things like that make me feel good about myself. I have people who care about me. Why would I allow negative, destructive influences into my life? So I’m not even going to say goodbye to the bullies from my past – they are long gone and aren’t missed.