I wrote recently about one of the most empowering things I’ve learned recently: that it’s okay to not be okay.
Today, I’m going to touch on a related topic that has been equally empowering (and very confusing): I don’t have to pretend that it’s okay for people to do bad things.
This mostly comes up in small ways for me. When an apology is uttered, it’s my instinct to reply, “Oh, it’s okay,” with a dismissive wave of my hand and smile on my face to prove Just How Okay it is, all the while my inner monologue mutters, “No, it’s not okay, but I don’t know what else to say here and I don’t want to make it even more awkward and it shouldn’t matter so much anyway.” Then, of course, there’s the bigger and harder times that it comes up, like when shortly after my assault I was challenged that I hadn’t forgiven my attacker yet.
You know, the word “forgiveness” gets thrown around a lot in Christian circles. Particularly at women. Particularly at women when they notice injustice and dare to speak up about it (or even, like in my case, just confiding hurt in a friend). Ephesians 4:32 or the Lord’s Prayer is whipped out before anyone can do any critical thinking, and the mantra “forgive one another as Christ has forgiven you” is recited as a tool to silence, to shame, to force those with no power into submission.
There’s quite a lot problematic with that approach, and I’m a bit hesitant to get into the problems here. Suffice it to say that this definition of forgiveness that I was taught implicitly and explicitly over the years told me that forgiveness meant that I had to act like the offending party hadn’t offended, that I had to be willing to reconcile with them, just as Christ reconciled us to God. It taught me that my emotional, mental, and sometimes even physical well-being were disposable for the sake of keeping the peace, keeping appearances.
Working from that definition — that forgiveness equals reconciliation — I no longer believe that forgiveness is a blanket mandate. I no longer believe that I have to forgive everyone. Given that definition, I must agree with my friend when she says that forgiveness is bullshit.
For the record, I am aware that some people define forgiveness in a different way, but for me the act of forgiveness cannot be separated from reconciliation (or a willingness to reconcile) so in this post, I will be talking about reconciliation a lot because to me, it’s pretty much the same thing.
There’s so much that’s tricky in figuring out boundaries, relationships, and not-okay situations. For the first time in my life, I’m faced with the question of when to be open to reconciling with someone instead of operating from the default that I’ll absorb all badness with a smile. This gets even further convoluted when I consider that I interact daily with a host of people that I’ve never actually met and with whom I have no substantial relationship. For one thing, it’s easy for an apology to be part of the cycle of abuse or manipulation. It’s easy for it to be the trump card pulled to make sure that the person who was hurt now has the obligation to stop hurting and reconcile with the abuser. It can be really difficult for me to know when to say, “No, I’m not okay. This situation is not okay. And our relationship is not okay,” particularly since I’m naturally inclined to think the best of people (let alone the fact that I grew up feeling morally obligated to immediately forgive when an apology is issued).
As an analytical intuitive introvert, I rely quite heavily on my gut feelings about situations. This is something I’ve had to learn to trust myself about recently, but it has served me well. (Hännah has an excellent piece related to trusting your instincts. I highly recommend reading it.) I naturally tend to stand back and observe my surroundings and the social interactions of those around me, both in physical and digital settings. I spend a lot of time gauging attitudes, noting patterns, considering rhetoric and whether the pattern of behaviour matches how the person wants to be perceived. I do this mostly subconsciously. And I’ve come to figure out what my process for setting boundaries and interacting with people is:
It all depends on patterns of behaviour, the extent of the damage, and the level of relationship.
Pattern of wrong behaviour with disregard to criticism + widespread or deep offense = no reconciliation for me. No forgiveness. We are not okay. It’s the relationship aspect that often throws a wrench in this formula for me.
A year ago, when there was an online uprising about Hugo Schwyzer and what his place within the feminist community should be, I was a bit taken aback. I had read a couple of his articles and been encouraged by them, so when I heard various survivors speak up about their great discomfort with his involvement and advocacy, I sat and watched quietly to see what would take place. Grace from Are Women Human? wrote a fantastic overview of the situation that highlights clear patterns of abusive behaviour resulting in extensive damage. This pattern of abusive behaviour and his disregard and even sometimes delight in the pain he has caused (and thus continues to cause) made me feel secure in my decision to not be okay with him. However, I have no relationship with the man beyond reading his work. Therefore, my course of action has been to steer clear from spheres in which he is present.
That’s my usual pattern with various media in situations where I have no relationship with the person. It’s easy, really. If I have no relationship to a public figure, reconciliation isn’t an option and it’s not hard to set and enforce a boundary in my life in which I will not encounter them or have to pretend to be okay with them.
It gets trickier once a situation occurs within relationship.* (Please see update at the bottom of this piece.)
Last week, there was quite an uproar among my peer group on Twitter. A woman that I admire used a slur casually in a tweet. When confronted, she reacted extremely defensively in a way that said to me that she was no longer a safe person for me to follow. Frankly, I was shocked. This seemed extremely out of character. The occurrence prompted some discussion about privilege and the language of oppression in situations where there is still a power play, but I ended up quietly unfollowing her on all of my social media and went about my day. While it didn’t appear to me to be in pattern with behaviour that I had observed in our acquaintanceship, the deeply felt damage of both the slur and her reaction to critique tipped the scale for me into non-reconciliation territory.
Until she posted an apology and made sure that the people she offended the most saw it.
I’ll be honest — I really don’t know Stephanie at all. I know her better than I know Hugo Schwyzer, but not as well as I know my best friends, or even as well as I know some of my other blog friends. I honestly wrestled with whether or not to respond, and if I did, how I would respond. I couldn’t help but think of how kind she has been to me specifically in the past, despite the fact that we are strangers on the internet. And in the end, I opted to give her another chance — because I’m not convinced that she is habitually abusive, because the relationship I’ve had with her in the past has been positive, and because I know what it’s like to say something deeply offensive without knowing. I know how hard it is to swallow my pride and say, “I was so wrong, there is no excuse for this, and I’m sorry.”
I want to be clear here: I don’t think my decision is for everyone. I think we are each individually the experts on what we are comfortable with in our lives, and I don’t share this as a way to pressure anyone into agreeing with me or even as a way to show off what a wonderful loving person I am. I share it to demonstrate how relationship affected my usual formula for creating boundaries in relationships and media.
I’m still processing how to interact with people. I’m still figuring out that it’s actually healthy for me to be able to tell people, “What you did isn’t okay, but I appreciate that you see that and we are okay.” I’m still parsing my surroundings and interactions and learning to discern a person’s character before I make conclusions about their behaviour. This is still a work in progress for me. But I’m making progress, I think. And I think it’s worth it to learn both when to say, “No more of this” and “let’s move on together.”
What do you think? What sorts of boundaries and guidelines help you when media or social interactions get messy?
Updated December 2013: I just want to say that while I still stand behind the spirit of this post and the formula I outlined, I now wish I had used a different example than I did. The decision I made to give Stephanie another chance and continue to follow Stuff Christian Culture Likes is a decision I came to bitterly regret, and this is definitely an instance where I wish I had trusted my gut. Live and learn.