Doing the bare minimum to stop toxic behavior

I recently saw on Twitter some abusive behavior, and I know that Twitter and trolls go together like peanut butter and jelly, but for whatever reason I’m angry. Maybe because I know the person who was abused, maybe because the abuser is a part of our community. I don’t know. But I’m feeling angry.

I want to do something, but there’s not much I can really do at this point. The abuser has deleted his account and I’ve already said my piece online. So, I thought I’d write a blog post about doing the bare minimum. For you, this post is likely to be utterly banal (“Well duh”), somehow offensive (“You are being too politically correct”), or both (“That’s your minimum? You can do better Eugene.”).

Well, damn it all and fire the cannons. I’m angryblogging.

Step 1. Be a safe person

The person you have the most control over is yourself. The person you have the least control over are abusive people, especially narcissists, psychopaths and anyone else who doesn’t feel a healthy sense of shame. So the most effective thing you can do is be a safer person.

Safe people apologize. Learn to apologize, practice apologizing, and understand that apologies are more than saying I’m sorry. In the book Apology Languages, the author breaks and apology down into 5 different parts.

    1. Expressing regret. “I’m sorry.”
    2. Accepting responsibility. “What I did was wrong.”
    3. Making restitution. “How can I make amends?”
    4. Genuinely repenting. “I won’t let this happen again.”
    5. Requesting forgiveness. “Will you forgive me?”

We all know how to say I’m sorry. It’s a cliché of mothers forcing small children to apologize, but often what’s more effective is putting your money where your mouth is. It’s taken a lot of practice for me to be able to say, “What I did was wrong, full stop.”, without needing to explain my motivation. Being safe takes practice.

Safe people listen, without always trying to solve the problem. Sometimes the other person just needs to be heard. Sometimes by trying to fix a problem you can accidently take away someone’s agency. I often ask my wife, “Do you want to vent or do you want advice?”. Her response is 50/50 each way.

Sometimes it’s not about the nail:

Safe people empathize and validate. I was in a really bad relationship once, and one of the things I understood later was the other person never said, “I can see why you’d feel that way.” They never said, “That’s understandable.” They never said, “I would feel the same way, in your shoes.” Validate the person’s feelings.

Toxic people are often unwilling or unable to empathize. For narcissists in particular, it presents a threat to their sense of self. Even worse, many do something called gaslighting, where you make the person question their own senses. Validation is a antidote to gaslighting. Let people know they aren’t crazy.

Step 2. Be aware of different experiences

I’ve written bad emails, angry emails. I’ve gotten in a feud with a co-worker. I’ve been stressed and blown up on people. And never once has someone told me I’m “too emotional”.

I’ve presented dozens of times and never once has some given the feedback that I should “smile more” or “present in lingerie”.

I’ve walked down many streets and I’ve never been catcalled or sexually harassed. I’ve never had to worry if someone was following me around. I’ve never had to run up to someone and say “help me, I’m being harassed.”

And all of this presents a challenge for me, because it makes it harder for me to empathize with women and their lived experiences. Because some experiences are so incongruous with my entire life that there is this cognitive dissonance. This dissonance can be quite uncomfortable.

It’s means that by default, certain experiences feel less credible because I’m never lived them. I don’t want to believe the crap people endure. Some of it seems too horrible to be true.

So that means I have work at it. I have to listen to the stories of other people and have a willingness to feel uncomfortable. The default is me minimizing and invalidating the experiences of others because they don’t match up with mine. So I have to do better than the default.

Step 3. Be alert

An embarrassing story: in the last year, I had the opportunity to stop some harassment in person and I didn’t. It wasn’t because I was scared or unwilling. No, it’s because I wasn’t paying attention.

I take martial arts and if someone was beating another person, I’d like to think I’d intervene. I haven’t been tested on that and hopefully never will, but I’m pretty confidant I’d jump in. But harassment can be subtle, almost invisible. And so I didn’t jump in.

In this case, nothing in the conversation was harassing. Nothing offensive was said. But something felt off. The non-verbals were screaming at me. And I didn’t hear them because I wasn’t listening.

You know when you cook some food and it’s 2 days expired and it smells off? Not moldy or anything, it looks perfectly fine, but you eat it and feel sick an hour later? Harassment and abuse can be like that. Nothing blatantly wrong but in your gut you know that something isn’t right.

Being able to stop harassment requires being alert and being aware. If you are someone like me who doesn’t worry about getting harassed personally, doesn’t get harassed regularly, this can take work. I never want to miss the signs ever again.

Step 4. Speak up. Step in. Intervene.

I hate conflict. I am a people pleaser. I have poor boundaries. So the idea of stepping in the middle of something gives me shivers.

I don’t like getting involved in Twitter fights, I don’t think they accomplish much. I don’t like the mob mentality on Twitter and online. When I think about the dog-pile culture on Twitter, I worry someday I’m going to say something tone deaf and lose my job over it. I say stupid things a lot.

But you know what? Say something. Do something. Step in.

I’m not encouraging people to put themselves in danger or incur abuse themselves. But for many of us that’s not a serious risk. I’m 6’ 2’’ and practice self-defense. I can afford to intervene in a conversation. My safety is not at risk.

Stepping in might mean just being physically present and making knowing eye contact. It might involve saying “Sir, that behavior is inappropriate.” It might involve entering the conversation and asking pointed questions that belies the true intentions of the abuser.

Online it might mean calling out bad behavior. Saying, “This is unacceptable.” or “This is harassment.” It doesn’t require being some internet crusader or dog-piling. You have a line personally, and you know in your gut if something crosses that line. You know in your gut something is wrong. If something is wrong, then say something.

I’ll say it again. I hate conflict. I’m a people pleaser. I have poor boundaries. But I’m working on speaking up more when I see something that I feel is harassment or abuse.

And remember, calling out bad behavior is not just about shaming the abuser. They aren’t likely to listen to you anyway. It’s about letting the victim know that they are seen, they are heard and they are not crazy. It’s about setting a standard for everyone else. There is a saying that “locks keep honest people honest”. Healthy accountability keeps everyone honest.

On doing more than the bare minimum

I’m not saying that we should all aim for just minimum. If your bare minimum is more than this, awesome. I’m not trying to encourage doing less. But for people like myself, the minimum is not the default. The minimum is a destination, not the starting point. Let’s change that.

What I’m trying to say is there are small, simple things we can all do without making a big leap out of our comfort zone. And that minimum bar is getting higher every year and we should all be aware of that. Times, they are a changin’.

Angryblogging, out.

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