Why Are You So Defensive?
These are my experiences, I am owning my feelings about them, though I may sometimes write in the second person, because it's easier for me to address some pretty upsetting stuff that way. If you were there and you saw it differently, please remember, this is about how it *felt* to me, not about how it might have *looked* to you.
This is a blog post about defensiveness.
About the kind of defensiveness which is so deep-level and so engrained that it can actually come across as paranoia or even aggressiveness.
I was talking in my last post about bullying, well, take a step further to abuse. Not just the sexual kind that many people assume when they hear the words "physical abuse" but the brutalisation kind. (Hell, I was once told by the person who beat my brother and me, regularly, through childhood, "you and your brother were not molested repeatedly by a relative, like I was, therefore, you were never abused!" Eventually, after a fuckload of counseling, they admitted that maybe we had.)
You can often tell when someone has been regularly beaten, because if you raise your hand unexpectedly, they will flinch and pull back, on a reflexive level. I actually noticed it in my brother - my 6'6" cornfed slab of American male - before I noticed it in myself. And the flinch reflex becomes psychological as well as physical. If you have become used to receiving blows, you come to expect blows.
When you have been conditioned to expect violence, you may start to anticipate it, all the time, at an unconscious level. Gestures which appear ambiguous or even friendly to others are interpreted as threatening to a person who has internalised what I'll call the Conditioned Expectation of Violence Reflex. (I'm sure there is a genuine psychological term for this, but I don't know it.) Gestures which seem unambiguously joking to a person without that reflex, but which *resemble* the violence a person has experienced, will not be read as jokes, but as ambiguous at best or, more likely, threatening by a person who has this conditioning.
Think about it. You may greet a close friend with horseplay - a friendly punch on the arm or a hearty backslap - and think nothing of it. Do this without warning, to a person with this "CEV Reflex" and they will recoil, perhaps even think that they have been attacked, even though you, and your non-conditioned friend observe nothing threatening, and react with only the pleasure of greeting a friend.
This behaviour, this conditioning and response, happens in the online world, as well.
I've spoken before about experiences I've had where people, with whom I had relationships IRL, used the internet to stalk and harass me. (And no, I don't want to go into lurid details, because I don't want to re-inhabit that mental space yet again, trust me, their behaviour met the legal definitions of those words.) The internet was not the sole cause or exercise of this behaviour; these people were perfectly capable of using phones, cars, mutual friends to accomplish the same goals of intimidation and control.
But what I want to talk about are the examples that were purely internet based, people who I never met, and had no other experience of, except online. These experiences mirrored and were reinforced by what I describe above, but they were a new thing to me. These experiences didn't *create* who I am, but they certainly *changed* my experiences of "online" and and reinforced my already existent CEV Reflex. This was the line, I think, that tipped me over from adventurous, ignore-the-haters cybernaut to angry, automatically defensive freak.
(Why do I attract so many hateful, awful people? The answer lies in the mirror, somewhere, but I'm clearly trying not to see it.)
I probably should have left ILX over the bullying that I received from a user I'll call "ex machina" and the moderator response to that bullying. It was a sustained, escalating campaign over several years, that even people who did not like me described as "ugly and excessive." I'm not entirely blameless. I was, at the time, going through the breakup of what is still my longest serious adult relationship. My defenses, energy, patience, and self esteem were all at rock bottom and stretched to breaking - in short, the perfect victim for a bully. If I ignored it, it got worse; if I protested, officially or unofficially, it escalated to a whole nother level. The official admin response was "we recognise that this is over the line, but we cannot or will not do anything about it" - mainly because he was a programmer who had already shown himself capable of dismantling the messageboard's server code at will.
Any time that I tried to take matters into mine own hands and return in any kind, certain moderators viewed this as my condoning or even *inviting* the bullying. When I finally lost my patience and fought back, one moderator changed the name of the thread to "watch ex machina and Masonic Boom masturbate over one another." (Except using our actual IRL names, something which was against ILX policy and itself a moderation-inducing offense.)
This felt, to be honest, as if someone was attempting to sexually assault me on a dancefloor, with me kicking and punching to try and get the guy off me, while my friends and even the bouncers stood around going "ha ha, isn't their foreplay cute?"
Yes, I went there, but actually, I *am* entitled to make the rape analogy at this point, because this exact scenario *has* actually happened to me. Although the violence involved was not comparable (my thumb was not dislocated from its socket by my attacker's "foreplay" online) the sense of *powerlessness* and the feeling of *betrayal* by the people who were supposed to stop this, those feelings are the same. I still remember these incidents, a decade after one, and over five years after the other.
The moderator is, amazingly, still a moderator, though funnily enough, ex machina got permanently banned a few years later, when he started going after mods instead of just weird girls.
My online life after that got weird. Now I know more about both assault and harassment, and their aftereffects, I know why I got so intense about setting weird boundaries, and only admitting people who were willing to follow them, or freaking out when my seemingly arbitrary boundaries were violated. It's one of the tests that women use to establish whether they are safe with someone or not. A person who violates your little boundaries (don't rudely push in on a conversation I'm having with friends) is much more likely to violate your big boundaries (don't try to rape me in the middle of the Betsey Trotwood.) If I cannot trust you with the silly little rules that don't matter (don't post about football or BB on my threads, only mention jazz if accompanied by a picture of a crush who likes jazz) then I cannot trust you with the big rules that do matter (don't use the internet to stalk, harass, bully and otherwise terrorise me.)
It started to happen again, a few months after I joined the Erol Forum. Up until that point, it hadn't been entirely smooth (there had been the usual yapping tools who get completely outraged that OMG, a fangurl is all in our stuff with her girl cooties!) but it had been... mostly harmless.
I now *know* enough to recognise it in the early stages - that kind of nerd entitlement. It's always the same kind of guy - above average intelligence, below average social skills, who has come, from nerd culture (or hey, from just general, you know... *culture* culture) to believe that Chicks are just things, like bonus hit points or videogame easter eggs, that you just automatically *unlock*, as a reward for performing certain tasks (like DJ-ing! or being-in-a-band!) rather than actual human beings with whom you have to negotiate relationships, like anyone else.
It always starts the same way, with some weird pigtail pulling incident where you think "WTF? is that dude *actually* making a clumsy pass at me, or is he just being, uuuhh, kinda creepy and weird?" It will never be anything as straightforward as a declaration or invitation like "hey, I like you, can we, like, skype or something?" It will be something odd, and ambiguous, so that he leaves himself maneuvering room to go all "WTF? are you KIDDING? Don't flatter yourself, bitch-whore-cunt from hell!" if you do not respond to the compliment, or weird "joke" or whatever it is. That's when the shit really starts. The "Kate is bad, throw rocks at her!" revenge threads are easily dealt with by moderators. The creepy messages on Twitter and MySpace - those you can actually block.
But it's the weird, under-the radar stuff that gets to you in the end. And that's where your CEV Reflex is your worst enemy, because when you stop feeling safe somewhere, you do start acting a bit weird, a bit defensive. And that's when they start trying to turn people against you with the whole "look how weirdly that creepy horrible bitch-whore-cunt girl that I hate is behaving" whispering. OF COURSE SHE IS ACTING ODDLY; YOU ARE SERIOUSLY CREEPING HER OUT. People who feel threatened often act defensively. Is that weird? No, it's human fucking nature.
And this is something I know from bitter experience. That state of defensiveness *does* make you act ostensibly "weird" to the casual observer. It reinforces the bully/abuser's insistence that *she* is the one with the problem, not him. (DJ Munchausen, my abusive ex, he was the king of that game.) Neutral people start doubting you, because they never notice the trigger, they only see the reaction. They see someone pat you on the back, and you freak out - totally bizarrely! - because they don't know that your abuser waited until you turned your back before pulling a Billy Shelf full of CDs over on top of you.
Someone who doesn't get your "edgy" "jokes" on a messageboard might not just be a humourless feminazi, they might actually have experienced those things you joke about, first hand. Someone who freaks out at stuff you just don't even sweat, they might not be acting aggressively, so much as defensively. And that defensiveness might not be quite so paranoid and delusional as it appears to you.
So where do we go from here? What do I do with this amazing insight that it's actually mine own *defensiveness* that drives the vicious circle that makes people hate me so much on messageboards? I wish I could wave a magic wand and make all the Entitled Nerds who make internet fora so unpleasant for women just... GROW UP. But hell, I can't even wave a magic wand and make myself just grow up this time. Even if there were a magic forum with no creepy entitled nerd to antagonise me, is mine own internalised defensiveness so deep it will trip me up every time?
How do I make this defensiveness and this deep-level anger that I'm carrying around - that poisons my experiences just as surely as bullies do - go away? Don't suggest therapy, the first time I was sent to therapy was 1981, the last time was 3 years ago (a cognitive therapist who diagnosed my problem as "abandonment issues" then promptly disappeared off the face of the earth - like, wait, WTF, is this part of the therapy, or are you fucking with my head?) I've done it so much, I know the tricks too well for it to work any more. Drugs are only ever a temporary solution, they treat the symptoms but not the disease. Exercise? Meditation? More and more and more art therapy? (This is how I can write a novel in a month, practically on demand - I have a faucet where I can just turn on the angst like a tap. I don't know if that's relief, or just "rehearsing the negative neural pathways" as a dear friend is fond of saying about rumination.)
This is the ultimate programmer's nightmare. You've identified the problem, you've even located the exact bug - but you find yourself utterly incapable of rewriting the code to fix it.