Sunday, October 30, 2011

Dear Julia: From a Fat Guy in Canada

A few days ago, in the comment section, Julia asked a question She had (and I hope you don't mind me paraphrasing here, Julia) been on public transit, a large woman had been sitting taking up nearly two seats. When she got off, an older man sat down, calling her a 'fat pig' and suggested that if he had his way he'd send her to a boot camp (though the word could have been translated to mean 'concentration camp') Julia spoke up, out of real anger for what he had said, and told him that he wasn't so good looking either. There followed a war of words. In the comment I'm asked about how to best deal with these situations. It has taken me several days to come to this because I'm not sure I know the best solutions and its taken me days and days to formulate an answer of any kind.

Dear Julia,

First off, thank you for trying to do anything at all! I am always impressed when someone, in a world that prefers to greet cruelty with silent acceptance, has to courage to go against the grain and rise in protest. I think that single act is noteworthy itself. I'm betting you are spending more time worried about what you said, than he will ever spend considering the impact of his words on others around him.

In this situation, she had left the scene, this is different than if she had been there and it had been directed at her. I've been in situations when this kind of thing happens. Where racist remarks or gestures are made when someone of colour has come and gone. Where a woman's breasts or body is remarked upon after she has left the company of men. Where someone, noticeably gay, leaves and and the presumption of heterosexuality is made of the remaining few. Into those situation hateful or hurtful things are said, sometimes masked by a humourous tone. It always goes off like a bombshell in my heart and mind. I don't like the assumption that I too am a hateful hurtful person. The problem, I've always found, is that the speaker is usually someone who is used to the ways that bullies have of expecting and demanding the complicity of others.

It took me a long time to reach where you are now. It took me a long time to realize that I had a responsibility to break silence. When I did so, expecting that the silence of other good people would also be broken which would lead to their rallying around me - I found that this didn't always happen. That, instead, they most often joined the bully in protesting that I didn't have a sense of humour, that of course it wasn't meant that way, that I'm over sensitive and politically correct. Much like what happens on the Internet when bullies get called on their behaviour. Oh well. But, now knowing that perhaps, mine will be the only voice in opposition (even if others agree but act contrary to their agreement out of fear) makes it more, not less, important that I speak at all.

I had to learn to speak, out of protest, not anger. Like you, I began by using the fuel that anger gave me, to ignite my courage, and like you I always left the situation wondering how to have done it differently, said it differently, reacted more carefully. When I discovered the difference between protest and anger, I got a little better at it. I follow these three rules.

1) Never respond to insult with insult. This is the only point which I'd ask you to think about how the response might have been different. To talk about his looks after he comment about her looks leaves a kind of agreement that looks are fair game for judgement and comment on another. The issue isn't the old guy's looks, it's his behaviour and it's his assumption that all around agree. Those to me are the issues at the core of what needs to be addressed.

2) Speak about 'self' in 'I statements', not about 'them' in 'you statements'. The temptation is to go on attack. To respond by personalizing the discussion so that, suddenly, you aren't talking about what happened but, instead about the interaction which is happening presently. People leave these situations saying things like 'and out of the blue she attacked him' - you become the story, the issue is forgotten.

3) Speak as much, if not more, to others around rather than to the person specifically. You've got to bet that there are others who agree with you but are afraid, for many reasons, to speak up. Engage them, make their silence an agreement with you rather than an accord with the bully.

So, some responses that might have been useful in a situation like this:

Look around at others and say some things like:

I don't know about the rest of you, but I like the fact that others are different.

Look who thinks we are all bigots.

All I know is that I could never behave so hatefully to another.

My mother brought me up to behave with kindness, I guess this is why.

Or, if addressing him directly, and these need to be used more cautiously assessing your own personal danger. Call me a coward but I'd never use these when alone with the person in a closed environment:

Don't assume that I agree with you - I like differences in people.

I don't like hearing hateful talk about others, I believe in kindness.

Whoa, what happened to civility?

So those are some ideas. To  me I found, after I'd thought about it that I was bothered as much by the assumption that I'm part of a mob who find hateful remarks acceptable as I was about the hateful remark itself. I didn't like the absolute trust that bullies had in the complicity of others, me included. I didn't like being made meek in the face of another's outrageous courage. Those are what I felt I had the power to respond to. The other thing that I realized is that kindness is seen as synonymous with passivity - it's not - kindness is powerful, is motivating, is revolutionary. The power of kindness is the ability it gives the speaker to speak from a different point of view. Love may not rage as much as hate does - but love is an unstoppable force, if only because of the constancy of the fuel supply. So, I believe that acts of public kindness go beyond picking up a lost teddy for a crying child - I think acts of public kindness are most powerfully done in a voice raised in protest at the treatment of another.

I believe Julia, you acted on an impulse to love and care for another, in the face of a brutal attack. Your action, even if you might want to do it differently, made a difference. Trust that. Thank your heart for beating strongly within your breast. Because, I thank you ... because as a fat guy at a computer in Canada, I know that in Germany, I have a friend.



Readers, I'd love to hear what you have to say ... so say it!!


Mark Brown said...

Well said Dave and well done Julia

Anonymous said...

wise words, thank you.
'There’s so much strength in kindness’ Labi Siffre, listen to the voices.

Susan, Mum to Molly said...

Can I say that the blue lines make it really hard to read your blog...

Great post tho!

Susan in Sydney

Tamara said...

I think you nailed it. Speaking up is powerful.

Bubbles said...

Maybe there should be a "words" card for kindness in general or the pleasantly plump????

Bubbles said...

I say this because for the more introverted individuals speaking out loud in front of one unknown person let alone a bus full could be too much!

liZa said...


I'm new to this blog. I discovered it only a short while ago. I've worked through almost all the articles. Dave says, elsewhere in a previous article, that he changes the format every month as whatever he uses causes problems for some of his readers. By changing formats he hopes to make it accessible most of the time to most of his readers. I thought this remarkable and responsible. I didn't like the blue lines at first either, but I found by using the slider on the side, I could pick a spot comfortable to read and just move text by. I know that in a few weeks, there will be another format so I'm OK with waiting. For your information Dave, I'm one of the readers who prefer white text on a dark background. No pressure though!

liZa said...

oh, I should have said, I really liked this post. I feel better prepared for times when I need something to say. I just need Julia's courage.

Belinda said...

Dave's "Cues for the Correction of Cruelty." I loved them and appreciated the great thought you put into them. I think I need to carry them on a card in my purse so that I can refer to them quickly should the need arise.

Anonymous said...

All of the blogs backgrounds so far in my reading have been fine for me to read... but these blue lines are very challenging!! I will be patient as they too will pass...

Karyn said...

I am a teacher and mother of 4 kids. I can raise my eyebrows and say "excuse me?" or "really?" with a glance in their direction, and a shake of my head than any argument could ever say.
Ideally I like to walk away at that point but not generally possible when on mass transit.

Dave Hingsburger said...

I've changed the format to eliminate the lines.

Elasti-Girl said...

Just the fact that all of this conversation is happening to positively react to such a negative situation makes my heart happy. I am glad for these points you brought up Dave, I am adding them into what has been swirling around in my head regarding comments that have been made to me about me personally. Well meaning people almost every where I go often bring up my shape in what they think is a positive light; saying I am very thin, either I am "better" than they are for having such will power or saying how nice it must be that I don't have to 'worry' about getting 'fat'. The just the fact that it is brought up so often makes me sad (as if being thin makes me a better person), but the other side to this that I cannot see is that my syndrome makes it impossible for me to digest many different types of food, I am almost always feelings sick and eating is a very painful experience to me. I have been trying to come up with a way to positively (not to bring anyone down- or talk about my own syndrome as I don't think it's everyone's business) say something that will bring attention to the importance of who I am (and who THEY are) on the inside and not the outside. I don't have the answer yet, but this conversation has been helpful. :)

Elasti-Girl said...

p.s. thank you for changing the lines, and sorry for all my typos.

Nan said...

I can relate to Karyn's raised eyebrow and and "Excuse me?" (with an upward inflection on the "me." I do that really well, and it works well! Short, sweet, a world of meaning, and most other people get it and are glad that a 'mom' voice is there to remind everyone that we need to treat each other with dignity and respect.

Belly (Liz McLennan) said...

I too, have perfected the artfully raised eyebrow, followed by a sarcasm-filled, "Seriously?"

Sometimes this has the desired effect. But lately, I've noticed my eldest son doing the same thing. I try hard, in those moments, not to burst with pride. His Libra sensibilities are often set aflame by injustice and "mean people."

It both makes me proud and a little bit worried for him - the world is not always kind to those with sensitive hearts, even though the world would be a better place with more sensitivity.

Well done, both of you, for allowing your heart to guide your actions and your words.

Kristine said...

These are excellent ideas! Thanks for sharing them. I'm one of those people who often gets caught in the moment, wanting to say something, but my mind goes blank, and then I spend the next week reviewing all the things I SHOULD have said.

Somebody taught me a trick that comes in handy, especially when the "offender" is somebody you're actually conversing with, not just someone you overheard. The trick is just cringing and interjecting an "ouch." It seems to stop people in their tracks. I find that it buys me a moment to gather my thoughts, as well as their concern about how they hurt me.

Noisyworld said...

I too am a user of sarcasm to try to make people realise how much what they say hurts. I find I have to be careful what I say though as not everybody 'gets' the sarcasm so a basic "excuse me?" or "really?" are probably the best. Plus they're not as difficult to remember/think up :)

Moose said...

There is no discrimination that is "worse" than any other, but fat people frequently get discrimination based on "But I'm only thinking of *you*, along with my good old favorite, 'Everyone Knows".

"Everyone Knows" that you can avoid being fat by what you eat (despite studies that show that one diet does not fit all), if you're stupid enough to get fat you can just weight-loss diet it right off (although the statistics show only 10% of weight-loss dieters keep it off for 10+ yrs, we worship those 10% as the example we all should meet), and if you fail you're just lazy and/or stupid (because apparently we don't teach basic statistics in school anymore).

Even if someone eats junk food and doesn't exercise, this is shown as a clear example that they are doing what all fat people do [because, again, the minority is the rule, not the exception] and because of that they are not deserving of being treated like human beings. That's right, society seems to believe -- and the mass media reinforces it -- that fat people are not entitled to the basics of human dignity, to be treated like everyone else.

When's the last time you used the phrase "big fat {bad word}"?

Fat is not a bad word, but it's used to mean something bad every day. This is (part of) how we dehumanize fat people.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dave,

sorry I did not respond to your post right away. I was on holiday in Berlin for five days with a very very good friend. It felt both wonderful an shattering to be at a place where people have been killed and a land had been broken apart by a wall. A wall in the land and a wall in the hearts of people...

Thats why I just respond today. And yes I talked about this experience with many people. Because it made me feel sad how rude people can be. It made me feel sad and very unconfortable that I reacted to hateful words in the same hateful way.

And I asked my psychotherapist who is a very kind guy (and lives with his male partner since 30years) what I could have done different. And he came up with very similar ideas you wrote.

He told me next time something like this happens just to say what I feel. I felt that the man acted soooooo mean. And I could not stand it...

Thank you. Through reading your blog I got kinder with myself and with others. I am not as hard in judging differnces as I have done before.

And yes for being how you are and giving the ideas that I can follow on the internet too,
I am very glad to have a friend in Canada now.


Anonymous said...

P.S. I have to add something to my comment about Daves post. Something I think is necessary to know about my "outbreak" towards the mean man.
I have a "half-invisible" congenital defect. Only if someone looks close at my fingers or at my face he sees that I have cyanosis. Only if somenone is listening to my breathing or looks at me struggeling with doing daily chores he notices that I am different. And if someone wants to attack me about it I am kind of "defenceless". So I have learned over a long time how to deal with situations if I am the one looked at, commented over or being attacked. With those situations I can deal. I can help myself. I can talk up for myself. I am not defenseless. Most time (if not to tired) I am even able to educate people about my life.
Because I live in Germany I am very very sensible if people talk about concentration camps, about the cruel things that happened to human beings. About the mean and very very bad things people did to people. Something in my head always goes "snap".
It is not okay to hurt someone in this way. Not even with words.
And it is really not okay if someone simply doesnt fit the shape in the heads of others.

Those are people who can not look with love at everything.

They make me get up and talk up. It is impossible to let somebody be hurt in this kind of history-reapeting way. We can never stop fighting such "wrong" ideas.

And next time I will try to say something different to such a hurtful person. And maybe I can remind him that he is a human being amongst others.