Saturday, May 09, 2009

Lessons for Girls, Number Two: Opting Out

Historiann wrote a great post a while ago about the ways in which anger can be positive, particularly for women. She begins:

If I wish I had learned one lesson earlier in life, it’s this: it’s okay to be angry, it’s okay to make other people angry, and anger can work for you. (Well, that might be three lessons, but I find it hard to disentangle them, so bear with me.)

I'd been thinking that the whole "lessons for girls" meme would be a great one to pick up when I read it, but then I couldn't think of what my lesson would be. Anger was such a good one to start the ball rolling, right? Well, I think I've got my lesson.

If I wish I had learned one lesson earlier in life, it's this: it's okay to opt out of toxic situations and conversations. Opting out doesn't mean that you're weak, nor does it make you a bad person. Sometimes, the most advantageous position is, in fact, one in which you don't resist, in which you don't explain, in which you don't try to justify your position, in which you don't bother trying to help others see your point of view. Or, conversely, in which you don't try to be inclusive, to give antagonists a forum, or to apologize to diffuse a situation.

In some ways, this lesson number two may appear to contradict lesson number one about anger. Opting out can seem, once one has embraced the power of anger, like stupid passivity. Like letting people or situations steamroll you. It can seem like you're not standing up for yourself. And if we are "good feminists," opting out can feel like giving in, giving up, or complicity.

This, in fact, may account for why this lesson has been so hard for me to learn (and why it's a lesson I have to continually work at). Anger makes sense to me. Channeling anger in positive ways makes me feel strong and powerful. Opting out? Well, the benefits aren't so immediate, and they are often much more subtle, though I would argue that they are no less concrete.

Because here's the thing: anger is an emotion that is built on energy. As Historiann notes, that can be a very good thing: we can use our anger propel us out of situations that aren't good for us or to effect necessary change in our workplaces, our communities, or the world. But sometimes, the expense of energy that anger requires actually takes us away from our goals, away from feeling centered, away from what we really value. Sometimes, it's seriously not worth it to invest the angry energy required to "opt in."

And also, just because we are women, and in particular women who are intellectuals with academic credentials, it is not our responsibility to opt in and to engage in toxic situations or conversations. While it is true that we may value the free exchange of ideas, spirited debate, a diversity of opinions, etc., that does not mean that we individually are obligated to engage with all ideas, to enter into all debates, or to entertain all opinions. We are not required to get angry and to respond with anger to any and all comers. Particularly if there is no positive way to channel our anger toward a concrete outcome.

This lesson is a valuable one in a lot of areas.

First, it's been valuable to me professionally. Imagine, for example, that you're chairing a committee charged to give a major a complete overhaul, a major that has not changed dramatically since the 1970s. As everything begins, you're all about including as many viewpoints as possible. You're transparent in what the committee's up to with the whole department, and you invite the free exchange of ideas. This is as it should be. Somewhere in the middle of the process, it becomes clear that certain individuals (a small minority) aren't about productive compromise, but rather that they want to obstruct the process altogether. Now, you can continue to court these individuals, and you can continue to try to appease them. Except they won't be appeased, because they have no intention of compromising. They have no intention of considering the majority viewpoint. Are you, as chair of that committee, obligated to spin your wheels seeking unanimity that will never happen? Ultimately generating a report that gets filed away somewhere, and failing in your committee's charge? Or is it the better course of action to opt out of entertaining the outliers, refusing to give them the energy of your anger or your time, and instead to try to complete the charge successfully, if not with unanimous agreement? I chose the latter.

Second, "opting out" can be a very valuable course of action in one's personal life. Let's think about the drama of a breakup. When the break-up happens, you both go through the trauma of figuring out that you can't be together, talking about the whys and hows of that, and (often, though not always) giving one another a lot of angry energy. How do you move beyond that in a way that is positive? For me, that means opting out. Not opting out of the person's life altogether, necessarily - but rather opting out of the trauma and the drama of the breakup narrative. At a certain point, both parties know what each other think and feel about the whole sordid mess, right? In order to move forward, you've got to move through that to the other side and then decide that you're not going to engage in conflict anymore. No, it's not easy, but opting out actually can open the door to a peaceful resolution in friendship. Similarly, let's say a friend does something, or is thinking of doing something, with which you don't agree or of which you disapprove. At a certain point, it becomes clear that the friend is on that path however you feel about it or whatever you say. You've got a choice: continue to expend energy trying to make the friend see your point of view, or opt out. Either opt out of the friendship, or opt out of the argument. Either way, once there's no change possible, the best course of action can be to just let it go.

Third, by trial and error I've learned, the hard way, that the best thing to do when people object to "Dr. Crazy" (and really, it does come across that way - that people just object to this online identity and to the content and tone of this blog) is to opt out. As I've said, I learned this the hard way. I used to engage. I used to try to explain this space, to justify my perspective, to include these people in the conversation, no matter how awful they were. I felt like if I didn't engage that I was somehow failing. But after trying, and failing, to engage people who had no interest in engaging with me - or with a conversation on this blog - about actual posts, go figure! - I have realized that opting out is the only appropriate response. Not because I couldn't work up a hell of a lot of anger about the drive-by comments filled with sarcastic vitriol or about the blog posts that refer to me in derogatory ways (because a lot of people read the blog and so it's a way for them to generate traffic? This is the only reason I can imagine that a lot of people in this vein link to me, even though, of course, it only brings me more traffic, and so if I'm so reprehensible, why would you want to bring me a wider audience?) - but because it's not my responsibility to engage with people who aren't really engaging with me. It's not my obligation to provide a forum for people who treat "Dr. Crazy" or the blog in general like shit. It's not "feminist" to award this sort of shit with my anger, because if I were to do so, I'd be taking the energy of that anger away from things that might actually be served by it.

With posts on other blogs about the blog, this is somewhat easier to handle. I just don't acknowledge those anymore. With the commenters? It's somewhat more trying. See, if I allow them to spew their nonsense here, then you all have to read it, too. I could just delete such comments when I see them, but that's annoying as I'm not by my computer 24/7, and my readers might still have to encounter them. That would change this space, even if I did ultimately delete those comments. What to do? At this time, I've chosen comment moderation.

The haters typically claim that I just want a fanclub with the blog when I do opt out, that I'm not giving opposing viewpoints a "voice," and that I'm in some way reprehensible because I don't allow this blog to become a forum in which people are explicitly derogatory, in which they impugn my character, and in which I'm some stupid little girl who has no business being a professor. But you know, here's the thing: I like this blog to be a place where conversations - not conflicts - happen. That doesn't mean that there won't be disagreements, but it does mean that everybody basically agrees that everybody else is coming from a place that is genuine and generous. I don't have an explicit comments policy on this blog, mainly because I've never felt that one was necessary: at the end of the day, I think that the people who read and comment here "get it." It's only on rare occasions that people decide that they're going to put me in my place, tell me that I'm a self-involved ninny (dude - I'm writing in the first person - how could I not be? This blog doesn't claim to be an objective viewpoint on anything), question my integrity or ethics, or just generally insult me. I used to think that I had to respond directly to such charges. Now? Nah. I'll just refer those people to those posts to which I linked earlier. And I'll keep comment moderation on until those people go away, and if they come back, I'll put it back on.

The brilliant thing about comment moderation is that I don't actually have to read the entire comment, by the by. In other words, neither I nor my readers are infected with the toxicity. That's pretty sweet.

So, to sum up, sometimes the best thing is to just refuse to deal with the bullshit. To opt out. It's really liberating, actually. See, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter if people like me. It doesn't matter if people think I'm "inclusive" or "welcoming" or whatever. It's not my job to give a voice to assholes. It's not my obligation to include all people. It's not my responsibility to justify myself to people, to give those people my anger and energy, who will never accept any justification that I might offer. At the end of the day, people who believe in their own position don't bend over backwards to please those who disagree with them or who dislike them. They don't expend energy on making those who disagree with them or who dislike them feel good.

Anger can be a source of power, but so, too, can realizing that it's not on you to listen to people or to engage with people who are full of shit.


Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I learned this last year -- and I'd have been much happier and more productive if I'd learned it about 15 years earlier.

I've decided that there are some folks whose worldviews are so skewed as to be incomprehensible to me. I can only decide this after I've tried to engage them and found a profoundly different point of view. At this point I realize that further engagement won't be productive, so I stop.

I would add one point to your advice -- namely that it isn't necessary to explain why you are opting out of the exchange. In fact, being able to opt out without even telling the other person is the best alternative. This is because informing them will only continue the interactions you are seeking to stop.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I so, so, so agree with this (and, funnily, blogging/being online has really helped me to learn this, too). I remember being on a listserv once (years ago) when the topic of misogyny came up, and I piped up with a definition of misogyny (taken from the work of a very eminent, male scholar, which I cited). Well, at least one and maybe two male scholars (who don't study women's/gender history/misogyny) decided they had to take issue with this definition, and started picking it to pieces based on their own assumptions and not really on what I'd said. And I wasted much time gnashing my teeth and pulling my hair and crafting incredibly carefully written, precise responses (which, again, these people didn't really engage). And after I'd wasted a ton of energy on this, a very eminent woman scholar (of women's history) and basically said, "The definition is fine, don't let them suck you in to thinking you need to reinvent the wheel." She was really saying, Don't engage.

I really wish I'd remembered to apply this lesson much more than I have!

It did used to feel like I was failing in some obligation, but no more.

(I often think I should just keep this cartoon taped to my computer AT ALL TIMES.)

Digger said...

Opting out can be a great option. The only caveat is that sometimes those being opted-out-on... they get pissed off when you won't play anymore.

Energy Vampires require energy. When you take it away, they get mad. Which is a good sign that your opt-out has worked!

Virginia S. Wood, Psy.D., Instructor said...

Wow. This has been immensely helpful. I have just stepped in it with a comment on my blog about disability rights, and have attracted two really vicious trolls who apparently have nothing else to do but surf the net and look for people to fight with on this subject. Their comments were so bizarre that I just deleted them, but I felt funny about it. So thanks for clarifying for me.

Also, I love the meme. I'm thinking hard what I'd like to post on this!

And finally, I can't imagine on what topic anyone thought to engage you in ugliness: I've been reading you for months and haven't found anything objectionable. So what's up with that?

Susan said...

I think this is really a very important lesson. There are times when anger can't be channeled productively, and opting out is a way of controlling your engagement in a situation. And it can save an enormous amount of energy.

CFox said...

Yes! Although we are educated women with advanced degrees, we are also often appeasers. There is simply no reason to appease every wacked-out nut job out there, no matter how long he's bee in this department, or in charge of this committee, or whatever. Learning that it's simply not necessary to deal with every obstructionist blowhard is a very important lesson.

Anonymous said...

Empowering post--very much enjoyed it. The very existence of comment moderation reinforces that blogs are and should be the space of the individual blogger, first and foremost.

Nope said...

THIS is why I keep coming back. This is why I come back, even though I dropped out of graduate school in 2007 and probably have no business coming back to academic blogs. I love me the Crazy.

Historiann said...

But Dr. Crazy, you're not being inclusive or intellectually honest if you have a party at your house and only invite the people who are entertaining, are good conversationalists, and have good manners! If you're going to invite anyone over, you have to invite everyone. You really should open your home to complete strangers who track mud in the house, bring their smelly dogs, put their feet on the furniture, demean your ideas and your life's work, and demand that you serve them beer and sandwiches while they school you! Otherwise, how can we take you seriously as an intellectual?

Also--who do you think you are to decide who is permitted access to your body? Really, you're some kind of fascist dictator if you won't do everyone who wants to do you. If you're going to screw someone, then it's intellectually dishonest for you not to screw everyone. I mean, if a complete stranger wants to come into your house and pee all over you and your bed, who do you think you are to refuse his natural right to use your body and space as he sees fit?


Outrage at being denied a platform for their asshattery is the last refuge of the troll. (And I love it when they bring up the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution--like our blogs are the government and we're preventing the free exchange of ideas for kicking someone out.) I would suggest that they start their own damn blogs, but as I'm sure you know--some of them have blogs, but they're so boring or strange (or both) that they have no readers, which is why they leave so many comments here (for a few mercy clicks).

Great post. I agree with it, because although anger is useful, you have to pick your battles, and knowing which ones are winnable is an excellent life skill.

Keri said...

Excellent post -- thank you!

Professor Zero said...

EXCELLENT post. Me, of course, I am trained not to opt out of anything, ever, so I have to get witheringly angry in order to convince MYSELF that it is OK to do so.

It is strange that the reason I went to psychotherapy was that I had always wanted to have the confidence to just opt out. I thought therapy would help and I started it when I was already doing far better than I had on this than I'd been allowed to as a child.

In psychotherapy I was told you had to engage. You couldn't just walk away from something you knew was toxic -- that would be impulsive. (Very amusing since I am so slow an patient, but that was what I was told.) You had to engage and negotiate, try to fix the situation, and so on. You had to confront even knowing that all that would happen is that you'd get beaten up and people would say it was your fault.

This is why I hate, hate, hate psychotherapy and would never trust it as a way for women to learn that it is all right to leave toxic situations.

Psychotherapy reminded me of my mother's house, learning how to be a girl from her, and of being an assistant professor in departments dominated by patriarchal and abusive old men.

I was so horrified to find out that what I had been originally taught WAS officially "mental health" that I had to start my blog to reassert myself.


Another Damned Medievalist said...

Nice post. If I had learned this a little earlier, I might still be in a relationship I valued incredibly highly. Still working on it, but it's difficult. Weirdly, it was not so much blogging, but a major shitstorm in one of my corners of the blogosphere that made me realise that sometimes, you really just do have to opt out.

Anonymous said...

@ Professor Zero:

In psychotherapy I was told you had to engage. You couldn't just walk away from something you knew was toxic. . .Of course you can (as you well know). I tell my clients that all the time. I think it pays in a committed relationship to try the engagement thing first, but when that doesn't work, then one has done one's best and is free to go.

I wish I could say that your experience in therapy was exceptional, but unfortunately it is not--too many therapists speak for the patriarchy. Too many women therapists have been co-opted by it.

Bavardess said...

Great post, thanks. Especially the reminder that it's not our job to always be the one to apologise and diffuse a tense situation. And that it's good to recognise when we are being deliberately provoked to anger. In those cases, walking away is an intelligent act of self-preservation.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for your comments, everybody!

IPF - You're so right about the not needing to explain it. I'm much better about this in my actual life than I am about it on blog (as this post probably exemplifies).

NK - You know, sometimes I think that blogging/being online *showed* me the lesson, but I don't think I really learned it until the CTTCCFPD this semester. Online, I've known I shouldn't engage, but I've not been able to stop myself (which is why the cartoon to which you linked is so freaking brilliant). In real life, I've had better luck with actually *practicing* the lesson. I think it's easier for me in real life because I don't have the added thing of thinking about people Reading. Things. That. Are. Not. True. About. Me. In real life, opting out isn't quite so public as it is on blog, and I think I worry less about how I'll be perceived if I do.

Digger: You're right about energy vampires needing energy, and thus getting angry if you don't give it. The trick is to KEEP not giving it, even when they try to make you. At a certain point, it does die out :)

VS Wood: Yeah, having had this happen a few times now, I realize it doesn't matter what I actually write about. It's just ME (or, rather, Dr. Crazy) that offends people so terribly. But I'm glad this post made you feel better about deleting your trolls!

Andrea: You're not the only non-academic (or person who's left academia) who reads this blog - don't apologize for having left this silly profession! You're always welcome here! And, thanks :)

Ann: You are awesome, sister. Your comment made me laugh out loud :)

Professor Zero: When I first read your comment, I wanted to say that you got a bum therapist. But what do I know, right? I'm so glad that Virginia said the same, since she's actually qualified to make that judgment.

And again, especially to those who commented to whom I didn't respond directly, thanks for your comments. I'm so glad that this post resonated with you all :)

Ms.PhD said...

Great post.

Not sure if it makes me feel better about feeling forced to opt out (after trying anger for a long time and running out of energy), but it helps to know I'm not alone.

cherizca said...

Thanks for this. I just realized I opted out yesterday rather than engage in a conversation that would humiliate someone else. That makes me feel pretty good.

silentsgirl said...

This is brilliant, and so very timely for me. A friend sent it to me earlier today when I mentioned that I was struggling with trying to get someone to see my point of view, to which she said "why? They're not worth the energy, because they're not interested in YOUR point of view, only their own."