The Choice Is Yours

[Content note: discussion of victim blaming]

Some discussion came up today on twitter that everyone agreed doesn’t really fit in 140 character blurbs, so the right thing to do seemed to be makin’ a blog about it and continuing the discussion in comments.

In my elementary school, we had the morning announcements every day, and each time they were ended with the platitude “Make it a great day—or not. The choice is yours.” This always bugged me at the time, and now that I have a few more clues than I did when I was 8, I think I can put my discomfort with it into words.

The message that I got from this boils down to “If you’re unhappy, it’s your own fault, no matter what other people have done to you,” which seems like a toxic message to be sending to kids. Something bad happened? Smile and move on, or else you’re a problem, and your unhappiness is your own fault. It’s victim blaming at its finest.

This isn’t to say that choosing to “get over” things (for lack of a better term) is the wrong choice. For some people, it’s what they need to do. But the whole point here is that word “choice”—people should be empowered to choose how they react when bad things happen, not pigeonholed into one response that’s been deemed the most appropriate by the rest of society. Sure, the “choice” is yours, but it’s a choice made under duress. Make it a great day or we’ll make it a worse one; don’t be a blemish on our perfect happy society.

What would be a better thing to say? Part of the problem with this is that it targets survivors* and makes them responsible for making things better, rather than targeting aggressors and attempting to prevent aggression. Of course, there  can and should be a healing process for victims, too, but the point is that it will differ from person to person. Unfortunately, “Respond to the shit life throws at you in whatever way you think is most healthy for yourself, also consider seeing a therapist, brains need doctors too” isn’t very catchy; neither is “Don’t make other people’s lives shitty—the choice is obvious!”, though at least that one’s shorter.

Maybe a better approach wouldn’t be to end the announcements with some kind of moral at all. Maybe the right approach is to create a culture within the school where people are treated well, malfeasance is discouraged, and sadness and anger are accepted as natural states of being that should not be unnaturally suppressed. I can’t help but wonder how many of my classmates heard those announcements (and other, similar messages that I’m sure were sent), took them to heart, and are now spreading victim-blaming and body policing on their own. Not to mention how many of us, despite our young cynicism, still managed to internalize some of it.

*I kind of want to say “victim” here, since “survivor” has very specific connotations to me, but I know some people don’t like the “victim” label, so I’m saying “survivor” instead. If someone has better terminology for this, please let me know.

32 thoughts on “The Choice Is Yours

  1. Rob Simmons says:

    Okay: so I agree with your central point, if you read “the choice is yours” as “in 15 minutes someone’s going to insult you in the hallway. the choice is yours whether you let that ruin your day,” then that’s dumb full stop. Especially if the environment manifestly supports the insulters over the insultees.

    And also the word “today” is dumb. We’re people, we have good days and bad days. Some days today will just suck and I’ll be sad or whatever, and you know maybe the choice was mine but I have limited capacity for making choices and today I just ran out. (“There’s some halfassed and probably wrong model of humans going on here based on my pop-culture derived understanding of the theory of having finite willpower which is uninformed enough to be potentially actively harmful,” Rob disclaimed.)

    And you heard that message the way you heard it. And so if I reinterpret the message the way I think it’s intended in the general genre of morning-announcement cliches, that’s not to take away from how you heard it. But I hear “the choice is yours” as a (dumb, but usual morning-announcement dumb) message as a very mild version along the very broad lines of the It Gets Better project. It Gets Better, of course, comes with an parenthesis: It Gets Better (don’t kill yourself as a teenager!). Which is *of course* (I hope this is an “of course”) not a message that is victim blaming to the survivors of homophobic (or otherwise) bullying and/or violence who do (or who don’t!) commit suicide. But It Gets Better *is* asking, pleading, begging young people not to respond their circumstances in a way that may make internal sense to those young people. And the arguments for why It Gets Better are largely along the lines of “you will grow up and be able to exhibit agency, make choices, not be a helpless victim of one’s environment the way teenage life is somehow designed to accomplish.” It gets better because you get to make choices for it to get better. Just sometimes not now. Sometimes not today. It’s not always your choice today.

    But that is an argument in the limit, and the abstract, and the extreme. And yeah, your morning announcements were dumb and false and would probably just make sad or helpless feeling people feel worse about themselves.

    • Yeah, I think the key distinction is that the announcements put the responsibility on survivors, whereas the It Gets Better project puts the responsibility on…no one. Which is incredibly problematic in and of itself, but that’s mostly off-topic for this discussion. They do both serve as ways for people to pat themselves on the back without actually doing anything, though. “It gets better! How? Dunno, it just magically does! It happened to me, a queer white man, so it will definitely happen to all of you, too!” I think a recurring problem here is an unwillingness to put the blame where it actually belongs and an unwillingness to actually own up to the fact that the world is shitty and we need to use effort to change it.

      I think part of the solution, again, is to be respectful of people’s choices. “If someone takes away a choice from you, we’ll give it back and support you.” That’s probably pretty far from perfect, but it might be a start.

  2. Rob, the “It Gets Better” project actually generated a lot of criticism that it erases the experiences of people for whom it _didn’t_ get better, which is actually incredibly apt to this discussion.

    • dang, beat me to it c.c

    • Rob Simmons says:

      That’s totally valid. In fact, I’d say it’s another way in which It Gets Better (henceforth IGB) is like sparks’s shitty morning announcement messages (henceforth SMAM).

      I guess the point I wanted to get across was downthread – both IGB and SMAM are imperfect attempts at encouraging people to aim themselves in a positive direction. Am I misguided in believing that it is okay to set out a vision of directions that are “forward” and try to encourage other people towards it in a respectful way — even knowing that doing so is *always* going to backfire in some way (as both IGB and SMAM adequately demonstrate). I may be, but I admit that that’s challenging to my identity (or maybe just my privilege… I’m a bit lost now).

      SMAM also has the school-based coercion aspects that make it a little bit different – it’s an imposition on a society rather than an intervention within a society. Maybe it’s helpful to think about the pros and cons of IGB-SMAM-type interventions together.

      • I don’t know; here’s where I run out of actually-relevant points and just apply my hammer: people should tell their stories, even if they’re sad stories, but also if they’re happy stories, and especially if they’re under-told stories. We can only grow from learning about more experiences, like or unlike our own. Abstract platitudes like “It Gets Better” and “The Choice Is Yours” will get reinterpreted ten ways by five brains, and some of those interpretations will be negative, and no one will have new thoughts. Attaching actual stories to those principles has the potential to change the last point, at least.

      • Rob Simmons says:

        Fair ‘nuf.

  3. Rob Simmons says:

    So to put a finer point on it: “please do not hurt yourself physically” and “maybe see a therapist” are both concrete suggestions as to how we both think people *should* respond to bullying, trauma, etc. Probably we’re also both going to agree with “please do not commit violence against others beyond the necessities of self-defense.”

    But it’s gonna get fuzzy in the limit where the “respond this way” becomes prescriptive in a pigenhole-y, You Must Conform To My Happy Societal Expectations-ey way. Certainly, in certain situations or for certain people, your “maybe see a therapist” is gonna be as upsetting as someone else’s “just suck it up.” I’m comfortable with dealing with a lot of fuzzy lines. I’m just agreeing with you while acknowledging the fuzziness.

    • Yeah, these are all things that I struggle with a lot. I think suggestions are okay as long as it is abundantly clear that that’s all they are—suggestions. If you recommend a therapist, the person declines, and you get all pissy, that’s not a suggestion. It’s a command and an attempt to control the other person.

      Violence (and specifically, what constitutes “self-defense”) is another sticky area that I think is substantially less clear-cut than a lot of (privileged) people seem to view it. In particular, there’s the “DIE CIS SCUM” meme that’s been going around in response to…well, cis scum. It’s caught a lot of flak, but as the folks using it point out, it’s being used against people who are in favor of eradicating (in some form or another) anyone who doesn’t identify as cis. So does saying “DIE CIS SCUM”/doxing radfems count as self-defense? I dunno, but the folks doing it say it’s a matter of survival, and I’m inclined to agree (or at least not argue with people whose situation I have never been in).


      I can’t remember all the stuff I’ve read about being a supportive friend/ally, but the overwhelming trend seems to be that there are few—if any—ways in which you can say “do this thing!” without it being the wrong thing to say. But I’m still more ignorant than I’d like to be, so my position on this is constantly changing (even if the only change is making the position more concrete).

      • Rob Simmons says:

        I am comfortable with your reminder that “don’t respond with violence” is also a fuzzy line, at least from your perspective or from the perspective of people whose voices you respect. I’m sure there are people who think “don’t commit suicide” is a fuzzy line! So, point taken.

        Now, more abstractly: I think a healthy utopian anti-kyirarchian or whatever society would still involve some process of finding, sharpening and blurring, and pushing around these fuzzy lines, and that maybe you still give people you care about encouragement and advance to be on the societially-expected side of the lines. This necessitates that some people will have trouble with those lines. Does that make sense or am I still being recklessly conformist?

  4. k says:

    So, here’s my thing about victim-blaming, and I’m really hesitant to do this because it has gotten me flamed before, but I am trying to understand.

    Saying “you can do something that statistically might prevent this horrible thing from happening to you” does not imply that if you do not do that thing, the something horrible is in *any* way, shape or form *your fault*. That is the leap of logic I have never understood.

    Yes, people just shouldn’t rape. Or steal. Or murder. I absolutely agree that is the world we would all love to live in, and I absolutely agree that the fault in any of those situations lies wholly and completely with the person taking the abhorrent action.

    But it is not the world we live in. We live in a world where, hey, if you park your nice car in a shitty neighborhood, somebody might break its window. If you flash hundred dollar bills on the subway, someone might pick your pocket or mug you. If you get really wasted and then stumble home through that sketchy deserted park, you might get raped.

    Does that make it your fault if you do? No. Am I blaming you? Not even close. Am I going to say you made some poor choices and they contributed to you getting yourself into a bad situation? YES.

    Why? Because I don’t want that to happen to you, or anyone. Because there *are* things you can do that will help keep you out of situations where it becomes easy for bad people to do you harm, and we should all DO THOSE THINGS. It doesn’t mean live in fear, and of course you can’t live in a bubble and never take any risks. It just means, take sane risks. We don’t live in a world where no one rapes, steals, or murders… so for the love of god, can we please talk about how to keep from ending up in a shitty situation?

    Yes, “Just don’t rape.” Thanks. Also, “Just don’t steal.” Now, while we’re waiting for everyone else to take that advice to heart, can we please, you know, talk about how best to protect ourselves?

    Jumping on this for “victim-blaming” is disempowering. No, you shouldn’t blame yourself. And it’s not about living in fear. It’s about being smart. And yes, sometimes bad shit happens and there’s nothing you could have done to prevent it. But personally I’d much rather live in a world where I can *reduce the likelihood* that bad shit will happen to me by *actions I can take* than to just say “well, if someone’s going to rape me, they’re going to rape me and there’s nothing I can do about it.” (Even though, yes, that is certainly true, just as putting a good deadbolt on your door in no way guarantees that your house will not be broken into.)

    Now the back-story: This is from someone who was date-raped at the age of 16 after having snuck out of the house after midnight to hang out with a person I barely knew from a BBS chat room. I didn’t tell a soul that I was going out, let alone where I was going, or who with.

    After the fact, I was grateful nothing worse had happened, and took the lesson to heart — I needed to never allow myself to be in a situation like that again. And it infuriated me when I tried to talk about this to people, and everyone jumped on it: “Oh no! It was not your fault! You must never say it was your fault!”

    I was like, no, it *was* partly my fault. I did a really, really stupid thing, and there were consequences to that. And people got *angry* with me for saying so, for wanting to learn from that experience, for wanting to be able to take action to keep myself safer from people like that in the future.

    So, this is one thing that majorly drove me away from feminism for a long time.

    Now that I vaguely understand some things about feminism, I get a little bit of where it’s coming from. That the perception is that it’s a slippery slope to “she shouldn’t have worn that miniskirt” or “she was asking for it”. Only it isn’t, really. It’s… how can I put this? It’s getting the logic backwards.

    Like, “oh, damn, I forgot to close my car windows and someone stole my CD player”. It’s sane to say, as a response to that, “Oh, don’t blame yourself, that thief would’ve probably just broken in.” But it’s also sane to say, in general, “Make sure to roll up your car windows to reduce the risk of someone stealing your shit.” But when you’re talking about rape, people jump all over that last thing as if you’re the devil incarnate and have just said the victim “deserved it” or something.

    This is long enough… hopefully it makes some sort of sense.

    • k says:

      Also, due to the personal confession herein, I would like to maintain some semblance of anonymity. Thus the not linking to my Twitter etc. So do a favor and don’t make it obvious who I am in the replies. 🙂

      • shit, i did this without thinking, and I don’t see a way to edit or delete my comment? D:

      • I deleted it. Feel free to fix and repost, I guess?

      • k says:

        … comment threading limit? Odd.

        Anyway, thanks 🙂 (I saw it for a second but don’t have it set to email me, so I can’t just repost for ya.)

        Honestly I don’t really mind talking about it, but (a) it was a long time ago and doesn’t define me as a person, and (b) it was not on the whole actually that traumatic. Bringing it up kind of feels like “playing a card”, so I tend not to. I don’t feel comfortable calling out that I have some kind of weird “rape survivor cred” or something… maybe specifically because I don’t feel especially scarred by the experience, and the narrative is that I “should”. It is “supposed to be” something that changes you, that makes you afraid, that makes these kind of discussions triggery forever.

        For a long time, I asserted that I was “not really” raped. Because everyone around me overreacted at the time. And still, because of the situation (someone I knew, more psychological coercion than physical violence, teenagers not really understanding consent, etc.), I feel somehow that my experience was not a “genuine” rape experience in the sense of allowing me to fully understand why this victim-blaming thing gets so weird. Or maybe the fact I don’t understand makes me tempted to retcon my own history, because obviously if I had “really” been raped I would be more … something.

        It seems relevant that at the time, I actually did get shamed, repeatedly, for trying to take some responsibility for the situation. And it was that shaming that made me not really tell many people about it at the time, and hesitant to talk about it afterwards. People are, on the whole, not really interested in knowing how you-as-an-individual-person experienced and reacted to a situation if it doesn’t fit their narrative of how “victims” should react.

        I think… people were upset that I wasn’t more upset. I mean. I *was* upset by it and felt violated, but the consequences weren’t lasting and I felt I learned a valuable lesson about the world. I was grateful that the universe had chosen to teach me that lesson in a way that left me alive to make other, different mistakes.

        I dunno. I picked myself up and moved on. I’m not interested in defining myself as a rape victim, or a victim of anything, really.

      • Yeah, the threading limit sucks >.< I should really see about getting a better theme, but :effort:.

        "It is “supposed to be” something that changes you, that makes you afraid, that makes these kind of discussions triggery forever."

        Yeah, I think part of the problem is that things get to be a bit too normative in one direction. There's so much emphasis on listening to survivors that we often forget that the point of listening is to *give back control*, and if we're imposing one (broad, but) specific narrative on how survivors are allowed to react, then that's still bad.

        Honestly, I'm not sure what the lesson here should be. I want you to be free to respond however you want, including laying some of the blame on yourself, but I also don't want to impose this on other people. If the same thing happened to someone else and they responded differently (this isn't purely academic; I'm pretty sure this happens depressingly often), I would not want any of the blame to rest on them.

        So, you made some decisions. Bad shit happened, and you chose to take away a certain lesson from it. Just try not to generalize that to saying "*everyone* should learn this lesson from this situation", I guess. Does that make sense/sound legit?

    • I had a similar conversation with someone on this topic the other day, so I do have some thoughts on the matter that are slightly better-formed than they used to be.

      First of all, the “drunk person assaulted in a back alley” thing is an outlier—I think it’s over 3/4 of sexual assaults that are perpetrated by an acquaintance. In face, in one of the posts about sexual assault in the BDSM community over at Yes Means Yes, I think Thomas pointed out that when a rape *does* match nicely with the societal narrative of stranger rape, the survivor gets support and the rapist gets convicted. But I guess this is somewhat of a tangent.

      So, what steps can be taken to avoid acquaintance rape? You can take martial arts/self defense classes, but are you really going to be willing to beat up someone you know? Some people are, but not everyone. And besides, serial rapists know to target people that they can physically overpower, so even that’s not guaranteed to help.

      What about avoiding sketchy people? Well, yeah, great. If someone’s a known rapist, it might be a good idea to avoid them. But if you don’t, and something still happens? Well, at the time, you made the best decision you could with the information you had, and it turned out to be the wrong decision. It still doesn’t make it your fault. I know people who’ve interacted with people with bad reputations and had them live up to their reputations. I also know people who’ve hung out with known rapists and been fine. So even here, it’s not clear what the “right” decision is.

      Of course, not all rapists give off a “sketchy” vibe, or have a reputation, so you can’t just avoid the people who seem dangerous. People think feminists believe that all men are rapists; as far as I can tell, for third-wave feminism, this is just not true. What *is* true, however, is that it is impossible to tell if someone is a rapist until it’s too late. So if you’re being perfectly logical (as you want to be, to minimize the chance of being raped in this world where it’s the victim’s job to prevent it), the only choice is to live alone, only interacting with people in ways where you know it’s impossible for them to assault you.

      But nobody wants to do that. And very few (if any) people do. So people weigh the options and make a decision. If there is anything to be done, it’s teaching people how to make the best possible decisions with limited information, but even this needs to be done with care. Any training can and will be used as an excuse to discredit the survivor and let the rapist off the hook—“well, if you didn’t want to be raped, you should have ________ like we told you!”

      Also, the “she shouldn’t have worn that miniskirt” thing is empirically bullshit. I’m pretty sure it’s been shown that serial rapists (a la use these kinds of cultural narratives specifically to target people. So if you create a set of things that shouldn’t be done? Then the people doing those things are going to be targeted. Telling people not to dress certain ways is getting the causation the wrong way around.

      So anyway, where does that leave us? We can only control our own actions; we can’t affect what other people do. As a society, we can empower each other and be respectful of other people’s decisions. As individuals, we can make our own decisions instead of having others make them for us. You can take self-defense classes and avoid drinking at parties and only hang out when some of your (relatively) trusted friends are around. Some of these things might help you be safer, but they should not be necessary conditions for sympathy and support. Also, remember that anything you do to prevent your own rape can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion if your precautions fail. Presumably you are lucky enough to have friends who won’t do that, but not everyone is.

      One more thing and then I’ll stop writing. A friend of mine pointed out a while ago on a G+ comment what they called the “blame/responsibility fallacy”. There is a difference between being responsible for bringing events about and being to blame for them. If you sneak out to meet someone from the internet, or go to a party and get wasted and pass out on some dude’s bed, you have caused events to transpire that make you vulnerable. But you still do not deserve to be raped, you were not “asking for it”, and you are not to blame; the blame rests solely on the shoulders of the person who decided to violate your trust and rape you. Maybe over time your heuristics get better, but having “bad” heuristics for this kind of thing (or placing different amounts of value on different outcomes) should not be punished or shamed.

      • k says:

        I agree completely. I don’t understand where the punishing or shaming comes from. Apparently I’m just sheltered and it’s a rape culture thing. It’s the leap from “you have made yourself vulnerable” to “you deserved it” that I just do NOT understand. In my head I would never do that and would never assume anyone meant the latter when they said the former. But, if you ever have the temerity to say the former you get a bunch of people jumping down your throat as if you said the latter. It makes NO sense to me.

        “…they should not be necessary conditions for sympathy and support.”

        Of COURSE not, Jesus. And who ever said they should? Where does that even come from? So confused. Why can’t we empower people to take care of themselves (as well as possible, given the information they have, and within reason) without this implied threat of withholding sympathy and support if something awful happens anyway?

        I really like the “blame/responsibility fallacy”.

    • Yeah, I think the answer to a lot of the stuff here is “rape culture sucks”. We need to get to a place where we can accept differences in people’s goals and reactions without imposing some kind of worthless normativity on them, but we’re a long way away from that.

      In the same vein as what I said above, you made some decisions, bad things happened, and chose to learn the lesson “don’t meet strangers on the internet” (or some such thing). Someone else could have had the same thing happen, but still decide to keep meeting strangers on the internet, because in their worldview, the possible benefits outweigh the possible detriments. Both are legitimate outcomes, and neither of you has the right to impose your lesson on the other.

      Unfortunately, rape culture comes in and dictates people’s responses. Not only does this impose restrictions on survivors, it also creates a social license to operate for (serial) rapists. It’s bad all around, and desperately needs to be fixed.

      • Rob Simmons says:

        A metaphor that responds to most of the above thread. Lawrence Lessig, you may or may not know, basically had a long-term experience of horrific abuse – along with many others at his school – as a young man ( if you have some time and want to be weirdly horrified, or you can take my word for it, which I suggest).

        I point it out only for its influential-to-me and relevant metaphor that sexual abuse is like a car crash: “Some are killed, some are scarred, some are crippled. Others walk out untouched. It all depends where you were sitting in the car.” This is relevant to the article, which centers around Lessig, who basically has gone on to be awesome, and another man whose life has been totally destroyed by the abuse he experienced.

        I present this metaphor to suggest that victim blaming is like saying your role in your story was like not wearing a seatbelt in this metaphorical car. But that’s not right. It’s more like you were like driving around stone-cold-sober at 1am on New Year’s Day and got hit by a drunk driver. Sure, there is some real risk to driving around at 1am on New Year’s Day, maybe you shouldn’t do this, make your own decisions about risk. But it’s clear who did something wrong here, the drunk driver. Don’t drive drunk.

        And I’m really glad you ended up mostly uninjured.

    • I’m glad you made the distinction between promoting risk-awareness and victim-blaming. But although I think discussing risk-management is a worthy cause, I can definitely see why people would react badly.

      Here’s how I see it:
      (disclaimer: I’m speaking from second-hand knowledge, not first-hand experience. Male privilege, etc.)

      Everyone has a different threshold for what they consider a reasonable level of risk. So while there are cases of rape where the victim chose to do something that I (or maybe even most people?) would consider high risk–there are also cases where the victim did nothing that they/I would consider particularly risky. So, for many cases the analogy isn’t so much “If you don’t want your car CD player stolen, roll up your windows”, it’s “If you don’t want your car CD player stolen, don’t own a car”.

      There’s also the definite possibility that talking about minimizing risk is being perceived as patronizing. That a simple statement like “Hey, just a thought–I know you can’t control rapists, but you might decide to do less risky things” could be evoking a response like:

      “I KNOW. It’s not like I’m already painfully aware of that every day. It’s not like I have to think about the potential outcomes every time I go out without friends–every time I go out WITH friends–every time someone offers me a drink, or a ride home, or a place to sleep. Thanks for reminding me that the reason I haven’t been raped yet isn’t because I’ve been CAREFUL, it’s because I’ve been LUCKY”.

      So yeah, all that is to say, I really like your point that saying “well, if someone’s going to rape me, they’re going to rape me and there’s nothing I can do about it.” is counterproductive…. but still I’d wager that for most people, “It’s not your fault” is a better message than “try to be more careful next time”.

      • it’s “If you don’t want your car CD player stolen, don’t own a car”.

        Yes – aka “if you don’t want to get raped, don’t have a woman’s body.”

        While advice of the form “avoid doing careless things that it would be trivial to prevent”, like “lock up your bike”, makes sense, less-trivial advice like “don’t dress that way” or “don’t look at him that way” or even “don’t walk home alone” can start to make you wonder whether the sacrifice of autonomy is worth the “risk-awareness”.

    • thanks for posting this, btw. it gave me a lot to think about.

  5. I want to say something like “we should strive for our reactions to match the situation appropriately;” as in, if you hurt because someone hurt you, it’s *correct* to get mad and demand better.

    But then I hesitate to apply any sort of prescriptivism to emotional reactions. They’re so personal, complicated, and hard to control.

    “Don’t make other people’s lives shity” is excellent prevention advice. I absolutely 100% believe in that message (and even spend an awful lot of time attempting to spread it, these days).

    But it isn’t treatment advice. If something happened to you, hearing, “well, you sure got the short end, huh?” isn’t going to help. Hearing “you did nothing to deserve this, and holy shit this would be hard for anyone to process, so take your time, but I fully believe in your ability to heal because you are a force to be reckoned with”… might? (IANA therapist, disclaim disclaim etc)

    • k says:

      Yeah, exactly. I know too many people who have taken the “it’s not your fault, shit just happens to you and there’s nothing you can do about it” lesson to heart, and they feel like they are victims of the universe, life just shits on them and they can’t do anything to make their lives better.

      If nothing’s your fault you have no power. If the external events aren’t your fault but you allow them to break you down instead of making you stronger, I would say that’s your fault. Which means you can fix it.

      I guess I think something being your fault is good because it means you can do something about it.

      The danger, of course, is when people use it as a protective measure to deny toxic culture or absolve the perpetrator. Because we want to think *we* have control, it’s very tempting to do that. So then you can say to yourself, “I am safe from ever getting raped because I would never walk home alone.” It’s scary to really understand you never have 100% control.

      • Rob Simmons says:

        k, that was another response that I had but didn’t say – I’m sorry that it’s a Bush-speechwriter-coined phrase, but I do believe in the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

        There was a metaphor that came with this other thought and everything:

        It should be obvious the racism inherent in the stranger *not* victim blaming those other people, the ones that “live in the projects just down the street from us.” Sure, the stranger is misguided in both directions! But food stamps are not (at least not entirely or optimally) for the purpose of society indefinitely supporting its permanent victims, they’re for people who need help now (perhaps because they’re just having bad luck, perhaps because they made bad choices, and often at least in part because other people made life shitty for them at some point), and who we earnestly, as a society, hope will be back on their feet and not needing food stamps later. Whether they are white and overeducated or members of a (this is only heavily implied in the article) minority group and living in the projects.

      • I think it’s possible to have power without control. I’ve heard people’s words and stories, been affected by them, and become a better person as a result of it. Working to change the culture is a giant task, yes, but it’s well worth doing. Back to my original point, I think a big part of the harm in the SMAM (or whatever the acronym was) is that it attempts to silence people and prevent them from speaking out about what happened. If someone doesn’t want their story to get out, they should be supported. If they do want their story to get out, they should be supported, and the latter can be a good way to regain some semblance of control.

        Keep in mind that a lack of ability to control others is not a complete lack of control. There is some power in making one’s own decisions: saying “I’m going to go out tonight and party instead of staying home alone, even though I know it’s more likely that something bad could happen to me” can be empowering to some people, I imagine. There is sufficient variation in how people view things to create tons of possible ways for people to feel in-control; you just have to find one that works for you.

        Being 100% in control of everything is, of course, not going to happen. It’s no use lying to people and telling them they can control everything; it’s far more useful to be very clear about what little can be controlled, so that people can learn to take as much advantage of that control as possible.

  6. Katie says:

    I think there are a few ideas that a SMAM or a less-awful revision might want to convey: (1) shitty things happen to everyone, (2) shitty things often feel shitty, and (3) you are not obligated to be destroyed when something shitty happens to you.

    I think these are all important, in order to help remove the veneer of “unfamiliar = extra scary”, remove some of the activation energy of asking for help (I don’t know about other people, but I’m more comfortable asking for expected-help than special-help), and introduce a coping strategy that kids might not have tried yet. It’s elementary school. Kids are smart, but they by definition have less practice / fewer years’ experience than adults* at having and responding to emotions. You don’t really know whether something works for you or not until you try it, and if you don’t know about a technique, you can’t try it. So I’m okay with those. [*consider kids’ future selves]

    Given the other comments I think we’d probably like to be able to add (4) we’re here to help when something shitty happens to you, no matter how you choose to react.

    Something I’ve struggled with lately is that I’m discovering this is not actually true for me. “Don’t make other people’s lives shitty” has a huge impact on how much support I can offer someone when something shitty happens to them, lest it make my own life shitty. It feels like someone has to “win” at the emotional needs game, which isn’t right, isn’t fun, and doesn’t have an easy answer, but is a real consequence of sufficiently-permissive policies of acceptable coping mechanisms. How do you deal with competing triggers? How can I communicate effectively to someone that I think whatever they’re feeling is okay and they should deal with it in a way that works best for them, but if a shouting match is involved they should please deal with it somewhere away from me? is that functionally any better than discouraging some methods of dealing with anger?

    What happens when someone needs a rage buddy, and everyone they know is okay with them needing a rage buddy, but no one is actually willing to *be* that rage buddy?

    Corollary: can we tell kids what to expect (“people are likely to think better of you if you can bounce back from shitty situations…”) while subverting the judgmental foundations of those expectations? (“…but anyone who thinks poorly of you when you don’t is a jerk”)

    • William says:

      This hits on a lot of what I’ve been wanting to say. All the discussion above on risk managent vs. victim-blaming has been really great and productive, but another important tack is disaster recovery — when something bad happens, you have some choice in how you respond. It’s not always easy to tweak one’s response, emotions being subtle and complex, but sometimes just knowing that it is possible is empowering enough.

      • Rob Simmons says:

        Where this gets practically tricky is that as you dial up the “it is possible to change one’s responses” you both increase the possibility of improvement and the feelings of failure and unworthiness if improvement is absent/insufficient, which will inevitably happen sometimes.

        Where this gets ethically tricky is the high likelihood that the most productive set of beliefs to have/instill about one’s own agency are, well, false. (See

      • Katie says:

        @Rob ++that RadioLab episode, which also reminds me of some of the things Dan Gilbert says about how human happiness works.

        On practical trickiness: We are not functionally deterministic, linear systems; there are no guarantees. A lot of the things I’m learning studying creativity techniques highlight the importance of failure and comfort with failure; that every problem is different and it’s far more important to just try stuff than it is to succeed. I even have some sources that claim that the faster you can fail, and the faster you can get to a point where you’ve purged all the ideas you can think of, the more creative and successful you will ultimately be.

        Technically they’re talking about design here, but I imagine that treating life and the problem of Shitty Things Happening as if there’s some sort of magic bullet of positive thinking that will get you through it every time is probably as damaging as treating a design problem as if all you need to do is hold a brainstorm and draw up a couple of scenarios and you’ll have the next Macintosh. Magic bullets are really depressing when they don’t work. Performas sucked.

        Toy examples aside, creativity is really hard for people who are used to a formulaic model of problem solving, but engineering programs all over the world are starting to incorporate design into their curriculums; people are learning that failure is okay, if not necessary, for success.

        It would be awesome if we could transfer this effect to how people think about emotional and interpersonal problems. Not just “If you do X then everything will be great yay!!!” but “Here is a toolbox; the struggle is the point; try to help each other along the way”.

  7. Alex says:

    Late, never posted here before, felt compelled, sorry….

    “Because there *are* things you can do that will help keep you out of situations where it becomes easy for bad people to do you harm, and we should all DO THOSE THINGS.”

    I get where you’re coming from, but, of course, it’s not “all” of us. It’s women who shouldn’t dress too provacatively or walk in the dark or be alone with men or smile at strange guys or get drunk or (as people above have said) have a woman’s body at all or any number of things. Frankly, I resent that my society is so completely f*cked up and the proposed answer to that is limiting and controlling women’s behavior, when it is not our godd@amned fault. Maybe I should do this stuff, but I shouldn’t have to, and advocating these kinds of measures as a form of rape prevention rather than addressing the real problem really misses the point, I think.

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