A place to stand

There’s a thing called the Holmes Rahe stress scale. It’s a list of life events – both positive and negative – and associated scores that gives you an idea of how much stress you are currently dealing with, and therefore how likely you are to get sick. Naturally it doesn’t include everything that could possibly be a cause of stress, but it’s an interesting exercise nonetheless. The associated research suggests that a score of over 300 leads to an 80% chance of getting sick in the near future. Last night I  calculated just the big stuff going on in my life at the moment, and found I scored 420.

When you factor in all of the things that aren’t listed on that scale – like lying awake at 4am trying to work out how you will persuade your demented, no-longer coping Mum into residential care when she has spent her entire life determined to avoid such a fate – my score should probably be a lot higher.

All that tension means that my temper is on a hair trigger. It’s easy to blow up over stuff that I know really doesn’t matter, though it drives me over the edge in a heartbeat. It’s important to remember that the reason I am so close to the edge may not be related to the thing – or person – that threatens to tip me over it.

The interesting thing about finding myself in this whirl of incredible stress is that it concentrates my mind wonderfully. I have no choice but to prioritise, and focus on what really matters. I can’t afford to be darting about, so I need to find the right place to stand.

I don’t want to waste time and energy on things that don’t matter.  Reasoned debate, and having my perspective challenged, is more important to me than ever, because when I get stressed I have a tendency towards tunnel vision. I value the friends who will challenge my views immensely.  But I’m finding that more and more debates, especially online, are not reasoned.

It’s hard to put my finger one exactly why, but there are “debates” that make my skin crawl. I find myself pushed into defending things that I did not, in fact, say, and lambasted over positions that other people are hypothesized to have taken. I get setup as the fall guy for whole segments of society with whom I am not actually associated, and who often don’t even exist. My words get twisted, and my ideas ridiculed. The goal is to win – to assert dominance – rather than to honestly debate ideas. We’ve all seen it. And we’ve all stood by and let it happen.

I recently complained privately about this behaviour on a mailing list, saying it was disappointing that the group didn’t call it out and make the mailing list a safer space. And even as I hit send, I realised that the group was merely a collection of individuals, and if I was going to complain about nobody calling it out, I didn’t have a leg to stand on unless I called it out myself. So I did.

It wasn’t easy. I was already under extreme stress, so the idea of picking another fight was literally sickening. After I sent my response I fretted that I was opening myself to more abuse at a time when my resilience was already at rock bottom. What I got, though, was an outpouring of support and measures to make the group less toxic in future. I wasn’t the first person this guy had bullied on this mailing list, but because I found my place to stand, I will be the last. I wish I had called his behaviour out earlier, when he was targeting others. There have been many times, I am ashamed to say, when I have stood by, shifting uncomfortably, unsure how to help without making things worse, while people have been rude, hectoring, aggressive, and unfair, towards others.

It’s hard, because if you challenge this behaviour, you become a target yourself. You get accused of being unable to handle debate, of being unwilling to hear a point of view that’s different to your own. You get called a snowflake, or politically correct, or fragile. And in a particularly brutal twist, you wind up accused of exactly the kind of behaviour you are standing against. You get told you are shutting down debate, overly aggressive, and horribly unfair.

The hard part is that it’s really hard to judge and quantify this stuff, and when your words are twisted you wind up fighting accusations based on things you didn’t even say. So you have to work hard to keep your eye on the ball, and not get distracted by the flying red herrings. You have to take a deep breath, get a sanity check, and make sure that everything you are saying is true to your own values. If you stay true to your values, you may misstep at times, but you need never be ashamed.

The greatest thing that can happen at this point is that someone backs you up, either publicly or privately, and calls bullshit on the slippery, manipulative twisting of your words. That twisting is a form of gaslighting, and can easily make you doubt yourself. So if you’re not keen to engage publicly, lest you become a target, the next best thing you can do is to support someone privately. When you’re being accused of all kinds of nastiness, to have an objective voice go “nope. you’re on the money!” can make all the difference in the world.

Edmund Burke is famously quoted as writing “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” When we ignore, excuse, or dismiss bad behaviour of any kind, we tacitly approve it. Whether privately or publicly, I think we need to take a stand. To draw a line and say “You don’t get to be rude or aggressive here. Debate ideas all you want, but only if you treat everyone with respect.”

I’m trying to be the change I want to see in the world. I fail a lot, but at least I know where I need to stand.