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"I wish the war was on,
I know this sounds strange to you.
I miss the war-time life,
anything could happen then:
around a corner, behind a door."
-- John Vanderslice, "I Miss the War"

This is the long-form version of a series of tweets that I wrote about resistance to emotional safety. Everything here has been said before by people other than me, but I'm presenting it in the hopes that it may be useful in this form, without attempting to cite sources exhaustively. I probably wouldn't have thought to write it down, though, had I not read this series of tweets from [twitter.com profile] inthesedeserts.

CW: discussion of trauma, emotional abuse, gaslighting, self-harm

There's a thing that can happen when you've spent a lot of time at war. For some of us, it's hard to feel comfortable in safe situations. It's paradoxical, right? I've done my share of writing about codes of conduct and about content warnings (or trigger warnings). I've argued that creating an atmosphere of emotional safety is important, especially for trauma survivors. Because people in marginalized groups are disproportionately likely to be trauma survivors, diversity and inclusion are inextricable from treating survivors like first-class citizens. If safety is so important to me, why would I say that safety also often makes me feel uncomfortable?

It may not make sense, but it's true: safety is both something I seek out and something I often avoid when it's offered to me. In the abstract, it's desirable. But when it starts to seem like a real possibility, it can be super threatening.

It does make sense if you think about it a little more. If you grew up fighting to survive -- maybe not even knowing that's what you were doing, thinking that this was how life was like for all kids -- how would you ever learn how to function in situations where your basic safety wasn't being threatened?

When I use the word "war" I'm referring to something that it's impossible to address directly. Growing up in circumstances of domestic violence, in families affected by intergenerational trauma, unaddressed mental illness, raised by adults who are narcissistic, controlling, dictator-like -- the terms for these, "abuse" and "neglect" are so heavily gatekept as to be of limited use. If I call it war you might correctly say that the experiences of people who go to war as adults aren't the same as the experiences of people who were raised in abuse and neglect. But if I call it abuse and neglect, you may well assume I'm not talking about you, when maybe I am talking about you. Every word to describe abuse names a concept with heavily armed guards at its borders, because collectively a lot of people would feel more comfortable if you just didn't talk about abuse.

So maybe you can suspend disbelief for now and see if what I'm talking about seems familiar to you, without, for now, cataloging your experiences to see whether they fit a set of criteria.

I'm talking about abuse and neglect that occur in childhood, so if you're reading this, and you're an adult, you've probably escaped the original conditions you were in. Even so, you might still seek out situations that resemble the circumstances you were raised in, even if putting yourself in those situations is harmful to you. You survived them before, right? How bad can it be? What's more, you know how to function in those situations; you have a sense of what the social codes might be.

If anybody asked, you would probably deny that you are doing this, but it's a process that doesn't require your awareness or intention in order to occur.

So maybe you play violent video games, or maybe you move in with somebody who treats you a little bit better than your parents did but still badly and in some of the same ways, or maybe -- if you were raised by a caregiver who's narcissistic -- you seek out the company of narcissistic people, or at least people who are acting like narcissists in certain ways that tend to get rewarded. You can find a lot of corners of the Internet like this, where people value being right (which is to say, value their own displays of intellectual prowess and rhetorical game-playing) ahead of being kind to each other.

So you dwell there, in whatever places you can find where expressing some sort of physically -- but much more likely, psychologically and emotionally -- violent and self-destructive behavior is the norm.

It's not safe there, and you know it's not, but it feels comfortable, for now, and maybe you could stop, but it would be easier not to stop today.

Now suppose violent video games are your refuge, and you hear that someone is coming to take away your games, or to make them less violent. That is, to take away the specific things you like about games. That might make you angry.

Or suppose you're like me and you like to argue, and you hear that someone wants to impose speech codes that would limit the freewheeling nature of the debates you like having. Maybe you like to have those debates with like-minded people who write open-source software, on project mailing lists where people consider invective to be valuable feedback on their work. Whatever. If you feel that someone is threatening the space where you feel safe, you'll feel threatened.

You might feel better if you went someplace that isn't so much like a war zone, but you don't know if people in a more nurturing place would accept you, or what you would do there. Maybe you feel like a monster because your habits are those of a person who's had to survive monstrosities. You know that other people are scared of monsters.

So you don't have someplace else to go, really. When someone comes along to suggest treating other people as if we're people with feelings, you're going to react like you're under attack, because you're in one of the places where you thought no one was going to treat you as if you're a person with feelings or expect the same from you. If the rules change, what will you do? Where will you go?

If you're nodding your head so far, if you're identifying with the "you" here, then it's possible that you didn't grow up being treated like somebody with their own feelings, likes, and dislikes. Maybe other people told you how you should feel, or maybe they just never gave you any indication of caring how you felt, or any indication that it would have any effect on anything or anyone if you said how you felt. Probably everybody got told, at some point, "I know you want another cookie, but I won't give you one," and that's fine. What I'm talking about is parents who say things like, "You don't want another cookie," when you want one. If you were never allowed to be a reliable narrator of how you felt and thought, then when someone says they're going to listen to you and respect you is going to seem threatening.

You might assume they're lying to you in order to gain your trust under false pretenses. Maybe in your experience, anyone who claimed to care what you really thought and felt was lying. Why would it be different this time?

Or maybe you just don't know how to process somebody else treating you like a person rather than an instrument to use for fulfilling their needs. Either way, if you grew up without anyone being nice to you, later on you probably aren't going to welcome nice people as liberators. You may treat them with suspicion. You might even think they're part of a malevolent SJW conspiracy, because the simpler explanation is too hard to reconcile with your lived reality. You are going to have a hard time processing the simpler explanation: that some people are kind to others because they genuinely like treating people that way and being treated that way.

So back to those words "abuse" and "neglect". If you try using those words to describe your experience, people are likely to demand a lot of evidence from you. Call yourself an abuse survivor and you will never be free from worry that you'll be asked, "What happened to you? And was it really so bad?" That's why I hope you can suspend disbelief about whether abuse and neglect were actually part of your experience -- if you find that something rings true for you, in this moment, about safety and kindness feeling threatening.

If that does ring true for you, it's possible that in the past, you did legitimately experience abuse and/or neglect. Or it's possible that you were raised by people who were survivors of abuse and/or neglect themselves, who didn't talk about it, who tried to do their best while also reproducing some of the patterns they were raised with. Or it's possible that you grew up in a country like the United States where many people consider it normal for parents to assault children physically and to dismiss or belittle their children's emotions. In other words, in an abuse culture. In any case, it matters to be able to name your experiences for what they are, because it matters to be able to recognize that what happened to you wasn't fair or right. That you didn't deserve it. That no one could deserve what happened to you.

The idea of facing your past is hard to write about without sounding glib. I'm talking about grieving for things you lost that you didn't even know that you were losing, or things you never had that you never knew other people took for granted. I'm also talking about loving your past at the same time as recognizing what was horrible and unfair about it, because it made you who you are. That means loving who you were before, because while that person isn't the same as the person you are now, that person did make it possible to survive to be who you are now. I'm talking about doing things I don't know how to do myself.

But I know that people who don't even try to do those things, people who work as hard as they can do construct lives where nothing will disrupt their belief that what happened to them before was normal and just, are people who make life harder and less safe. I mostly mean their own lives, but as a side effect, sometimes they make life harder and less safe for other people.

When you don't or won't admit to yourself that you were deprived of safety, part of maintaining the fiction is by keeping yourself in unsafe situations, so that you never find out what it's like to be safe. Sometimes that involves making other people unsafe as well. That might extend to physically harming other people, though you're far more likely to physically harm yourself than anybody else. You might verbally abuse and emotionally manipulate other people, though more likely, you will participate in communities that normalize verbal abuse and subject yourself to it from others. By doing these things, you can keep reassuring yourself that what some call "abuse" is actually just how people are and that what you experienced wasn't aberrant.

If you're someone who is working to maintain this fiction, then you will read anti-abuse work as a threat to you.

So if you're a person who gets defensive about efforts to encourage empathy and awareness of others -- about codes of conduct, or about content warnings and trigger warnings, or about the mere idea of "safe spaces" -- think about your early experiences. Were there important people in your life who cared what you had to say? Did they truly listen to you and show you with actions, not just words, that your needs mattered to them? Every child is entitled to be taken care of by people like that, but some of us -- a minority, though a substantial one -- didn't have adults like that in our lives when we were growing up. It's not right or fair that we didn't get to be raised by people like that. The people who raised us may well have done the best they could, may well have been raising us in the ways that they learned from their own parents -- if those ways were harmful, that was all they knew. That doesn't excuse the harm they did to us or mean that we aren't permanently changed by it.

No matter how much I try to explain it, it still seems paradoxical to me that it hurts worse to say "what happened to me wasn't fair" than it does to say "what happened to me was perfectly okay, and what's more, I'll probably try to make sure you get your share of it, too." But if I look at my own life, I have to acknowledge that it does.

So if you resist when someone tries to make your community an emotionally safer place, maybe that's why. Or if you see people resisting, and you don't understand why they get so upset about someone just asking them to be nicer, maybe this is why they do.

People like me who have survived interpersonal violence -- the kind that gets inflicted on you by somebody who you cannot escape from -- we're a minority. But people who have survived structural violence -- systematic racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other oppressions -- are a majority. It's more accurate to say "people who are living under ongoing structural violence", since childhood ends but being in another oppressed class is permanent. What's more, specific instances of structural violence look like interpersonal violence, and in turn, interpersonal violence is what reconstructs structural violence every day and gives oppressive patterns their continued existence. So to a greater or lesser extent, we're all at risk of treating emotional safety as a threat, because we all grew up in a culture that normalizes abuse (or at least if you're reading this, you probably did).

So everybody is at some risk of trying to cope with their own adverse experiences by re-enacting and repeating those experiences on themselves and others. But not everybody had the experience of feeling chronically emotionally unsafe because of how people acted who you also depended upon for your safety. That's called "complex trauma", and it's outside most people's experience. (Which I'm bothering to say because it's fashionable to say "everybody is a little bit traumatized", which isn't true if "traumatized" means anything.)

But if you pride yourself on being "thick-skinned", it may be within yours.

So I don't have a snappy punchline to leave you with, just a set of questions:

If you pride yourself on not being easily offended or hurt, why?

If not caring what other people think is a big part of who you are, why?

If it's important to you to do what's objectively right, or what's right according to an abstract moral code, unmitigated by how that would affect others, why?

I think that the intensity of the reaction that some people have to codes of conduct and to content/trigger warnings is rooted in internal conflict. Usually, people don't get that upset about something unless they're feeling torn between wanting something, and being afraid of it. I would argue that that "something" is safety.

I don't have an answer to offer, and it's easy enough to set the questions aside. But if they come back once set aside, don't say I didn't warn you.

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Tim Chevalier

September 2017

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