Thursday, November 17, 2016

Suggestion for Bystanders: Equip Yourself

Since the election of Donald Trump a week and a half ago, our national conversation has been abuzz with different reactions. Attention is turning to the obvious question: what next? What impact will this election result have, and is it already having, on our country? And what can I do to steer things in a better direction?

There are lots of things to look at here, but the one that has caught my attention is the rise in incidents of harassment, intimidation, and violence against a range of minorities and vulnerable groups both during and after the election. That rise has been extensively documented, including here and here. Near and dear to my heart, far too many of these are taking place on university campuses.

Earlier this week I wrote an Open Letter to supporters of President-Elect Donald Trump, inviting them to help make America great again by reducing incidents of harassment, intimidation, and assault against racial, ethnic, and other minorities. As of this writing, that piece has been read over 2600 times. I hope that it has an impact in empowering people on all sides of the political spectrum - but especially Republicans and conservatives - to stand up to the ugliness noted above.

At the end of that letter I wrote this:
In the end, there are only two futures for our country. We either all succeed together in building a society free of fear, a society that can prosper and grow and realize its fullest potential. Or we turn on each other in fear and hatred and loathing and tear each other apart. I know which future I want to build. I hope you will join me.
I believe this in the depths of my heart: of all of the sins humanity is capable of, the sin of hatred and violence is the one most likely to destroy us all. It is also the one that should be most easily fixed, because hatred is a choice that can be made or unmade largely at will. There is no "tragedy of the commons" here, where otherwise-reasonable individuals generate bad outcomes. Unprovoked violence (verbal or physical) is simply bad.

As Clinton supporters and others on the political Left have struggled with how to respond to the election, there have been many suggestions and pieces of advice. From wearing safety pins to adopting anti-harassment bystander tactics, these ideas have been extensively circulated and discussed. I've no doubt that people will try many of these, that some will work, and that the discussion will go on.

A friend of mine recently wrote a blog post collecting general principles which such "resistance" efforts can be shaped by. In that collection she included two important reminders:

• We must face the world as it actually is.
• No one is going to save us. It is up to us.

Along these lines, I would like to offer a suggestion to many of my friends and fellow-travelers who, like me, are alarmed by the rise in harassment, intimidation, and violence directed against vulnerable individuals. I make this suggestion because, of all of the ideas I've seen batted around so far, I'm pretty sure no one else has made this one and no one else will.

Put simply, my suggestion is this: If you want to be an active bystander protecting victims of harassment, or if you are concerned about becoming a victim yourself, learn to defend yourself. Equip yourself, in other words, to fight.

This is rare advice, especially in liberal circles. Most folks in the tribe on the left eschew violence in all of its forms. There are good moral reasons for doing so, and I am not one to argue that violence solves problems. I have made my own position clear: I am a self-defense pacifist. I believe in the use of force only when one is under attack, and only with just enough force to successfully escape the attack.

But the need to train is not primarily about fighting. It's about dealing with fear. If you are in a situation in which you need to defend yourself or someone else, you are much less likely to have to actually fight if you are prepared to.

There's been a lot of discussion online about bystander tactics and how sympathetic people can help stand up to harassment and bullying. A lot of this is driven by the fact that most of the time, bystanders remain bystanders. People don't intervene. And the reason for that is fear.

People don't intervene in harassment situations, or especially during a physical attack, because they are worried about becoming a victim themselves. They're worried that the aggressor will turn on them. When someone is screaming angrily at someone else, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that the screaming could turn to violence, and that the screamer might direct his anger and hatred at anyone who gets in the way.

Fear paralyzes. For bystanders, it prevents them from getting involved. For victims, it keeps them from effectively standing up for themselves or repelling the attack - even when the attack is only verbal. In situations of harassment and intimidation driven by hatred, the fear is physical and visceral. The big guy yelling epithets looks scary, in part because the back of our brain is screaming he could hurt me.

The only effective counter to fear is confidence, built on learned and practiced ability. The first time we learn to drive a car, it's really frightening - a mistake could get us seriously hurt, and we've never done it before. Once you've been driving for a while, it's no big deal. The fear goes away. The situation didn't change - you did, through experience and practice.

Dealing with physical threats is no different. If you have no training and no experience, it's scary as heck. With training and practice, it becomes less so. And you will make better decisions.

Bullies and harassers are used to frightened people - they know how to push them around and get what they want, which is generally to assert dominance. They aren't nearly so good at dealing with people who aren't frightened, who are assertive. Many of them will give up, because they don't know how to handle resistance. Some will try to escalate the situation, hoping to reestablish their dominance. If you're prepared to deal with that escalation, you can usually prevail there as well.

None of this is to say that you have to actually physically attack an abuser. Most harassment is verbal, with only the threat of violence behind it. You may not engage the harasser at all - see the video linked above for strategies that are victim-centric rather than aggressor-centric. You will be more confident and capable in those strategies if you know you can handle a physical escalation by the attacker.

I've written lots previously on this blog about self-defense, its relationship to fear, and ways and means of developing yourself. If I've kept your attention this long, I encourage you to go read those posts. Read my friend Dan Djurdjevic's stuff at The Way of Least Resistance. Find training opportunities near you - workshops, classes, clubs. Treat it like a skill to be developed over time, rather than an inoculation you can check off your list once. Practice, practice, practice.

If we are going to be effective in standing up to the bullies among us who are now emboldened by this past week's events, we have to be prepared. We need a full set of tools in our toolkit, and we need to be confident in our ability to use them. Do you want to be an effective bystander, to stand up for vulnerable people when they come under attack? Then be prepared to fight. Chances are you won't have to - but you'll be glad you're ready.

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