The Cornered Cat

Yesterday, I blogged about giving yourself permission to protect your own life. This isn’t really a one-step, one-time thing. It’s an ongoing process, a deliberate series of decisions to set yourself free from the things you didn’t realize were holding you back.

For example, last month one woman told me a story. I might write about that story in detail one of these days, but the short version was that she found herself in a hilariously uncomfortable – and potentially dangerous – place, simply because she didn’t want to be rude to a stranger. She did not have a script for telling a pushy, overly familiar man that she did not want to talk to him, and she had never given herself permission to break the social rule that says you don’t bluntly tell someone to go away and leave you alone. This is a woman who carries a gun, and who has made the mental and ethical decision to shoot somebody if she needs to. But she had never given herself permission to be rude to a stranger.

On one level, you might think that’s strange. I don’t. I think it’s normal. All of us carry cultural expectations around with us, things we learned in childhood, things we were taught in school, things our parents and our teachers and our classmates told us all the years we were growing up. All of us carry scars from times when we did something against the social norm, and caught hell for it. So we tend to grow up protecting and obeying those cultural ideals just as firmly as if breaking one could cause real danger to us – because in a lot of ways, it can. The pain of social rejection hurts, so we’ve trained ourselves to avoid that type of pain, and that’s normal.

Unfortunately, bad guys use those scripts, those expectations, those social rules. Here’s one example, from Debra Anne Davis’ brilliant 2005 article, “Betrayed by the Angel.” In that article, Davis tells her heart-wrenching story of a violent rape. She writes with brutal, compelling honesty about the choices she made, about the way the attacker used those choices against her, and how she came to grips, afterward, with what he had done. Most of all, she writes about the social script that says, Don’t be rude – and how that script betrayed her. She writes:

I’m 25 years old. I’m alone in my apartment. I hear a knock. I open the door and see a face I don’t know. The man scares me, I don’t know why. My first impulse is to shut the door. But I stop myself: You can’t do something like that. It’s rude.

I don’t invite him in, but suddenly he is pushing the door and stepping inside. I don’t want him to come in; he hasn’t waited to be invited. I push the door to close it, but I don’t push very hard; I keep remembering that it’s not polite to slam a door in someone’s face.

He is inside. He slams the door shut himself and pushes me against the wall. My judgment: He is very rude. I make this conscious decision: Since he is being rude, it is okay for me to be rude back. I reach for the doorknob; I want to open the door and shove him outside and then slam the door in his face, rude or not, I don’t care now. But frankly, I don’t push him aside with much determination. I’ve made the mental choice to be rude, but I haven’t been able to muster the physical bluntness the act requires.

Davis gave herself permission to act, but only in a limited way. She gave herself permission to be rude, but only to a point. She gave herself permission to respond, but only within carefully-set limits. She would “be rude” – but only after he was rude. She would physically shove him out the door – but not with too much force, too much suddeness, too much aggression. She held back. Because she didn’t want to be rude.

And here I must tread lightly. Because Davis, like every other survivor of violent crime, did the best she knew at the time. She responded as she had been trained to respond, in patterns she’d learned from her earliest childhood. The polite patterns she followed were not “bad” patterns. After all, those patterns had worked to protect her from emotional pain in almost every social interaction she’d ever had in her whole life. There’s absolutely no blame here, none whatsoever. This is how good people respond to unexpected, unusual encounters with predators who aren’t working from the same script. It is so normal that a great many people actually make a living from this type of social manipulation. Predatory criminals bet their lives, their incomes, and their liberty on good people responding in just this way.

Seeing how the magic trick works is not the same as blaming the audience for not seeing it. People make a living with this kind of sleight of hand.

Lots more to say about this subject, but that’s enough to chew on for today. Are you willing to be rude to protect yourself from needing to use violence to protect yourself?

2 Responses to Rude

  1. Old NFO says:

    Thanks Kathy, I’d never thought of it in THAT particular light, but what you say makes perfect sense. Women ‘are’ nicer than men by and large. Being a grumpy old man, I just ‘assumed’ that everybody, when in condition orange or red, would not worry about being rude. Gotta pass this to the daughters…

  2. mgutterres says:

    Perfect. In the self defense class I teach, I tell women to shout, to sweat, to be rude. Many get really uncomfortable just practicing it, but then get an understanding of how important it can be. I stress that a “good guy” will absolutely back off if a women yells, “get back!” and if he does not, then it’s a serious red flag.

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