Yesterday, I got into it a little with the friend of a FaceBook friend who made a fat-hating comment. I don't usually do this sort of thing, and as fat hate goes, it was pretty run-of-the-mill. A fat guy sat next to my friend on the train, and was rude to her; so her pal felt it was necessary to make fun not of the guy's rudeness, but his fatness, and to comfort her with the thought that Rude Fat Guy would probably be dead soon from his terrible eating habits. Har har har! So funny!
Why bother speaking up? Fat Hate Friend was not going to change. His response to me was juvenile (big surprise): He didn't start it, and besides he's free to hate whoever he likes. SO THERE. Nanny nanny boo boo. Equally unsurprising, there were more fat-hating comments in his follow-up.
And who knows. Maybe Fat Hate Friend is really a decent guy, and didn't mean anything by it, just shooting off his mouth.What did it gain me to confront him about it on FaceBook? What good did it really do? Why did I bother?
Well, here's why. Gaslighting.
I once worked for a very nice man, a good, generous, kind person, who came from a culture where women's roles are strictly defined. He was genteely sexist, old-fashioned, and a bit formal. He insisted that his female employees wear pantyhose and skirts to work, even though there were only two female employees and him (he always wore a suit and tie) and clients never came to the office. And it was his right to do so. We women were referred to by our first names, but he was always Mr. B. He was a good boss, but interestingly, when he got flustered, he would tell me to "take a deep breath" and "calm down". And he often perceived me as being excited when, in fact, I was not; I was usually deep in problem-solving mode and not speaking more quickly, in a louder voice, or, in fact, needing more breath.
He was, rather mildly and not even intentionally, gaslighting me. Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse in which the victim is given false information, presented by the abuser as absolute truth, and is led to doubt their own thoughts, memories, and even sanity. The term comes from a 1938 stage play and its subsequent film adaptations, most famously the 1944 Ingrid Bergman/Charles Boyer film Gaslight, in which a greedy husband after his wife's fortune attempts to convince her that she's crazy by doing little things such making the lights flicker and then telling her she's seeing things. Other examples of gaslighting are when someone responds to a perfectly calm and logical statement by saying something like, You're crazy! You're too emotional. You're over-reacting. Geez, can't you take a joke? In other words, they overreact to you and cast you as somehow unstable, humorless, or stupid.
Not all gaslighting is that nefarious. There's quite a lot of it that goes on in everyday life, and it's certainly not just men doing it to women. But it is an ingrained part of sexism, and a powerful weapon, a way of invalidating people you disagree with or want to have power over, but can't defeat through fair play and logic. And it happens a lot in our culture.
How does this relate to Fat Hate Friend above? Well, there is an epidemic in our society right now, an epidemic of bullying and shouting down and invalidating anyone on the wrong side of your preferred politics, race, religion or lack thereof, gender, lifestyle, appearance, or sexual orientation. There's been a great deal of this in the media lately, and I've personally been feeling terribly discouraged by it.
In my own home state of Texas, the Lt. Governor repeatedly gaslighted his own constiuents, the vocal protesters against the highly restrictive abortion law the Republicans were trying to (and eventually succeeded in) passing, by referring to them as an "unruly mob". Only the people who disagreed with him were a mob or unruly. The large, vocal crowd of supporters were not characterized in this way. He then proceeded to order the security at the State Capital to confiscate feminine products, for fear that angry constituents might throw them at legislators. (Concealed handguns were, however, just fine).
Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli was viciously attacked for not meeting the standards of attractiveness deemed appropriate for a woman in the public eye, according to a bunch of random guys on Twitter, and we all know what a heinous sin this is.
And even if you do pass the Mouthbreathing Onehanded Internet Moron F*ability Test and are thus validated to have a career and life, as talented and funny singer/songwriter Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls found out, your tits are ALWAYS going to be the big story.
But then, even if you are certifiably cute, you'd better not be TOO cute, because you could legally be fired because your employer is so turned on by your very presence that he's afraid he can't keep it in his pants. (Whether you'd consent to an affair with him is immaterial).
Also, if you are anything other than 100% white beef-fed red-blooded Amurcun, don't even THINK about singing the National Anthem at a sports game. It doesn't matter if you were born in New York or San Antonio, if you don't look like you were born here, according to the White Internet. Funny how nobody ever gives my naturalized American, French-born, lily-white husband crap about all his Old Glory-emblazoned t-shirts.
Speaking of patriotic t-shirts, bandannas, and other attire, if you're going to wear it, make sure you're lily-white, because if you're, say, an American Muslim woman and you incorporate the flag of your country into your hijab, people are going to threaten to urinate on you, beat you, shoot you, and burn you alive.
I'm not even going to start with the whole Trayvon Martin thing. I just can't go there. For that matter, I'm not going to start with the gay-hate incidences, because then we'd be here all century.
The point is, despite or maybe even because of the progress we've made on racism, GLBTQ rights, women's rights, and yes, even in bringing fat hate and shaming into the light where it can be battled, the bigots and haters are more vociferous than ever. And if you don't think it's right for people --- even people who are basically decent and just not thinking too deeply about what's coming out of their mouths or how it relates to how they really think --- to use alienating, invalidating, derogatory language to describe other human beings, then you HAVE to say something when it happens. You HAVE to call your friends, relatives, and people you meet on the street on it.We can't let people get away with it.
If you don't think it's all that important, then let me point you to the example of the famous "n" word. When I was a kid, this word was used with impunity, though "nice" white people like my grandmother said "colored" or "Nigra". Now, unless you are proudly white supremicist or the worst kind of uneducated backwoods redneck cracker, you cannot use the "n" word in public. People get fired for it. Heck, as recently as 2007 a White house staffer was fired for using a word that sounds too much like the "n" word, even though it's a legitimate term with no racist connotations whatsoever.
While political correctness can certainly run wild (see above), it's up to the thinking and feeling people of the world to help change the climate of intolerance and the idea that some forms of bullying are acceptable. We can do that by calling people out on gaslighting, on invalidating and marginalizing language, on shaming.
I wrote it on my timeline, and think it's worth repeating here: If you are so intellectually impoverished that your best argument against someone you don't like is "nanny nanny boo boo, you're fat/gay/ugly/ different-looking", then you really need to go back to grade school and learn 1. some manners and 2. how to think.
Also, you need to acquire a soul.