Let’s do a two-part exercise:
Imagine, in your mind’s eye, a photograph. The image on it is of a person who, based on colour, creed, gender or other status, is routinely placed in a position of being considered insignificant or “less than.” Perhaps even someone who
is marginalized in numerous ways. For ten seconds, and only in your mind, come up with as many negative words you can call this person. If you are a member of the marginalized group, that’s fine – you can use words you have heard hurled at you. I know you would never do this in real life, and I would never want you to, but this is an exercise. First imagine the person, and then words used against them. Ready? Go.
How many words did you come up with?
In a moment, you are going to flip that photo over and do the opposite exercise. This time you’re going to come up with as many positive things you can say about the person whose image is on the other side. Ready? Ten seconds of positives about… YOU.
Now, remove anything that cannot be substantiated or is purely subjective – “good looking” doesn’t count, nor does “smart,” and neither does “nice.” These are states we tend to transition through, as they don’t really have a definition everyone can agree on – and let’s face it, some days we wake up, look in the mirror, and say, “You got it going on!” Some days we look in the mirror and say, “Go back to bed.” Similarly, we sometimes “feel” smart and other times as dumb as a bag of hammers. “Hard working” counts, but only if it’s true. Once you’ve trimmed the really generic, subjective, and privilege-based (being Irish isn’t an accomplishment but an accident of birth) words away, how many are you left with?
Results may vary:
Generally speaking, it is easier to “other” someone than it is to positively appraise one’s self. Even for progressive-minded folks like us who recognize all of our privilege, that positive self-assessment can be difficult; we can typically (when we attack the exercise honestly) come up with many more ways to other someone than we can to recognize our own value. Othering is also easier to do with more obvious differences and with distance (think race/nationality, politics, gender, or religion). This, by the way, is a real battle tactic; othering is a tool that has been used for centuries by the military, police organizations, religious groups, governments and other institutions, as well as predatory criminals. A willingness and ability to use this tactic is one of the things that makes violence such an effective tool for them. It’s even used in sports, both amateur and professional.
As discussed in Nine Tips, the first step toward being able to properly defend ourselves is to recognize our value; an honest, positive self-assessment is necessary in order to recognize we are worthy of defence on even the most basic level. As you likely discovered, it can be very difficult to carry out a positive self-assessment. Tackling this exercise a second time, most of us will start to see a trend in the things that make us valuable – our relationships, whether they be with family or friends. Even “hard working” tends to be something that’s reflected back to us in our relationships with co-workers/classmates/team-members, employer/teachers/coaches, employees/students/teams, clients/patients/customers, or others who rely on our hard work. Our strongest and most prized relationships tend to come with a certain measure of healthy obligation – not to be confused with the sense of obligation that consistently feels like a burden. For some of us, though, those relationships are hard to pin down, are transient in nature, or are non-existent… In each of these cases, it behooves us to build that relationship with ourselves, and to instil a similar sense of healthy obligation. One of the most effective ways to do this is to set a goal you want to keep, make a plan, act on it, realize the goal, and repeat. Goals worth pursuing can be small or large, short-term or long-term, and each of these types of goals should be set. Visual reminders or daily exercises toward our goals, whether they are based on internal or external relationships, are important aspects of such plans. I call this the mirror of healthy obligation, as we see our value reflected in the healthy obligations we not only have, but fulfill. An attack on you is an attack on your relationships, plans, and obligations and such an attack will be met with a ferocious defence.
If we must build a healthy self-image in order to see ourselves deserving of employing counter-violence, we must also other someone in order to visit violence upon them; it is virtually impossible for good people worthy of good things to envision striking someone for whom they have empathy. Heck, even saying, “No” to someone with whom we empathize is difficult! Don’t worry, I’m not asking you to quietly harbour xenophobic tendencies – in fact, a conflict between our ability to other someone and recognition of our positive attributes can result in a sense of imbalance, psychologically and emotionally. It’s important to other someone both effectively and properly; if your personal method of othering relies on bigotry, it could become very difficult to see yourself as a fair, accepting person worthy of defence. Conversely, “jerk,” “creep,” and so on speak more to another person’s interactions with you than to any aspect of their person not inherently offensive. And, by identifying and fostering healthy, respectful interaction and knowing the opposite is “creepy” or the territory of the jerk, we are better prepared to other someone based on their treatment of us (for instance, those who seek to exploit the social contract) and take the appropriate action early. In most cases, action would mean refusing to interact with someone, addressing their treatment directly, or otherwise enforcing boundaries. In rare cases, this can mean employing counter-violence or other defensive tactics.
When you look in your mirror of healthy obligation, what do you see worth defending?