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Talking is Dangerous Which is Why You Should Do It

“What are you STUPID?!” I watched a grown man scream at his daughter. “She’s $%#@(* stupid, You know better! What are you doing???”

I don’t remember much of the scene except to tell you that we were at a lake, visiting friends and the scene happened on the dock. I recall the mother pretending like nothing was happening and the poor girl just standing there absolutely frozen as if in shock.

I was a teenager and did not know what to do.

I was instructed to go inside the house of the people we were there to visit and to “be normal,” which is an instruction I’ve been given my entire life that I appear constitutionally unable to follow.

What I had witnessed was abuse. No one called it that. No one talked to me about it. No one said anything about it again. The next time I saw this man with his daughter, I heard the same rage and verbal abuse fly out of his mouth. I remember being at a restaurant where the young girl was silent and stunned and non-participatory, almost baby-like in dependency. The man screamed at her. She defecated on herself. She was terrified. The man then looked at me and said, “What is WRONG with her?”

It never occurred to me it might be him.

What do you do in these situations? Where you bear witness to cruelty or wrongdoing? Where standing up makes you the target?

A friend asked me recently about my “obsession” with restorative justice. She didn’t ask it trying to discourage me, she asked sincerely wanting to know why I hinged my sense of peace on the behavior of other people.

It was a good question.

I didn’t have an answer.

I am obsessed with accountability and acknowledgment. I do not like bullies, but more than that – I do not like when they “get away with” their behavior. That was what my friend was challenging me on. “You’re not God you don’t get to determine what someone is or isn’t getting away with.”

She wasn’t wrong and I kept wondering where the line is between standing up to bullies and having a God Complex.

I do not have an answer yet, but here is what I can tell you. I was at a beach house maybe 15 years ago with a blend of middle-aged adults and 20-somethings. The culture was one of drinking and what they called “having fun,” which to me appeared extremely boring and slightly juvenile. The conversation was stale, but everyone appeared happy because everyone was drinking.

One man in his 50s, who was jovial and friendly to me, said he was going to head out. I walked up and said, “Are you sure you’re ok to drive” and he looked down at me like I was a self-righteous idiot. “Yeah, It’s 3 blocks.” I knew how far it was. And I knew he might die or kill someone else. No one in the room did anything but mock me. I doubled down, “I do not think you should drive.”

I didn’t have the courage to take his keys. The power dynamics of the place were such that I was a guest and young and making a scene. And getting into other people’s business and “judgy” and “need to let go and have more fun.”

Luckily, nothing happened that night. But I would not have been surprised in the slightest if he’d killed someone or himself.

I can recount to you dozens of stories where I have witnessed cruelty, bullying, wrongdoing, racism, homophobia, and trauma and encouraged to “not engage.”

I will be vulgar for a moment to make a point here, but I’ve watched as someone tried to kill themselves and then was instructed to be polite at a party, or simply go upstairs. I’ve watched as a friend’s sister walked out of the bathroom at her parents’ home during a very fancy holiday party reeking of puke, all of us knowing she was bulimic and continuing with the holiday party. I’ve sat by while people spoke of Black neighbors with comments like, “She speaks so well!” and not called it racism. I’ve watched people be absolutely warm and kind to your face and turn around and say, “You know, she doesn’t work. It’s all her dad’s money.” I’ve watched as I’ve told people someone they love was sexually abused and they reacted with rage and denial and continue to just act like everything is fine.

When I reflect on the question of restorative justice, I’m not thinking about a revenge fantasy or the need to be right. I’m thinking of the silence that permits wrongdoing. The silence that causes harm. The silence that condones the perpetrator and blames the victim.

That does get me righteously indignant, petulant even. And I’m not sure that I’m the one in the wrong here.

One thing you learn in grad school for psych is that shame grows in silence and secrecy. It cannot survive the light. So when I enter a room of enablers, silencers, and bystanders I feel the shame shifting from perpetrator to victim. It is palpable: She’s being difficult, annoying, uncomfortable, let it go, why do you have to make everything a thing, there are two sides, he didn’t mean it that way. You know she’s a mess, why are you defending her? UGH, can’t you just have fun for three seconds??

The gaslighting physically transports me to the 1930s. I’m at a Gala with friends and they’re lightly discussing politics and making jabs at the Jews. Not thinking much of it. Bullying anyone who deigns to make them uncomfortable at a dinner party. “Why do you have to make it weird?” I hear them saying, “We’re just having a good time, stop being so serious. You know what he meant.”

[reminder here that I am a descendant of those who were murdered] [a fact the silencers would say I am “obsessed with always bringing up, Jesus, let it go we get it.” No, I don’t think you do]

People think Jews are caught up about the Holocaust. We are. That’s because we were systematically murdered, it’s not a thing you “get over” or “learn to live with” or “let go.” “Yes, it’s an atrocity, how horrible,” people say. “But it was a long time ago.”

I am never clear on why that’s a talking point; lots of terrible things were a long time ago that are directly and significantly relevant to the present moment. What I hear is a euphemism for: You’re making me uncomfortable so I will insult YOU instead of feeling MY feelings.

Listen – The systematic and government-sanctioned murders of millions is not even the atrocity. That word is too clean and nice for what it was. Barbaric might be closer.

The atrocity is when we cannot see the connection between the silence we breed now and the hate it perpetuates later.

I have been in too many rooms that condone bad behavior, scorned as the difficult one, the dramatic one, the annoying one, the petulant one, the one who “won’t let it just go – come on have fun” — oh I would love to. But your friend over there assaulted my friend. So until we address that no one here is having fun, what they’re having is denial.

I know I’m not God. I can’t serve justice. But I don’t have to be nice to you if you’re mean to people. I don’t have to pretend I didn’t hear what I heard. And I don’t have to silence myself for your comfort.

When I think of “getting away with,” these crimes I think of (honestly) social discomfort and freedom. I think all too often we make accommodations for difficult unkind, antagonistic, dangerous, abusive, racist, and homophobic people out of fear of rocking the boat or being disrespectful to our elders when they are the ones being disrespectful. When they are the perpetrators.

And we accommodate them, their feelings, and their fragile egos.

I understand being afraid. I’ve spent most of my life being afraid, I get it.

Plus, the advice we receive (especially, women) over and over and over again is: to stay safe, you must stay small. Be quiet. Don’t make a scene. Don’t provoke him. Do not provoke your own abuse, mistreatment, or bullying.

It’s a bullshit position. You are not responsible for your own abuse or mistreatment. Still, that advice has effectively led many of us to safety. Including me. The smaller and quieter I am, the more I assimilate. The more I achieve social approval. The more I absorb the hate with no outlet for it, so instead it eats at my soul instead of theirs. It’s that last piece I have the biggest problem with.

We absorb the hate.

The reality is: You cannot provoke your own mistreatment. That is simply not a thing. Just like you don’t “cause” someone to rape, assault, or berate you. You don’t cause someone’s racism, you don’t provoke their hate or anger.

That is all code for: Your existence might release it.

So, do your best not to exist. That’s the advice. That’s the path to safety. Complete annihilation of yourself.

As I said, I find this to be a bullshit position.

If safety is silence then I want no part in it.

I am interested in accountability. And change.

And that is always, always dangerous.


PS: The subject line is a reference to the movie Encanto which all of you with children have been forced to watch 500x prior to 9 AM for the last few years.

The Bruno storyline is messed up. Spoiler alert: Bruno is the ostracized sibling from the Madrigal family. And he lives inside the walls of the family home, deemed the black sheep of the family because of his power to tell the truth. Specifically, a truth people do not want to hear or receive.

Here’s the rub:

When he’s finally reunited with family – he apologizes to them.

[pause here for effect]

Y’ALLLL when I tell you I cannot sit by that scene. Ooof.

It sets me ablaze. The family owes HIM an apology and yet he absorbs all the blame and shame as if he’s committed a crime against them for being himself.

We need to talk about Bruno y’all.

It’s dangerous. And we should still do it.