By ange Embuldeniya from Somewhere… (Stop Cyber Bullying Day Uploaded by Doktory), via Wikimedia Commons
Warning: This post may be triggering for people who have grown up in abusive homes or churches, particularly when there were unclear expectations, or for those who have been harassed/bullied (online or off). Also, it’s long and kind of ranty.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to write today. I’m feeling a little burned out. I still love writing, and I still love talking about things that need to change in American evangelical Christianity. But right now, being part of the blogging community doesn’t feel like a hopeful pursuit. I’m not going to leave, as I believe I still own my words and have things to say. But it’s hard to put my feelings into words these days, especially when I’m seeing online friends experience bullying by other bloggers.
I’ve been complicit in this because I haven’t wanted to be victimized myself. This is probably understandable, given my long history with bullying. When one has the appearance of having made it to the cool kids’ table, who wants to go back to being the outcast? I was horrified when I realized that I was doing the very thing I’d experienced for years. I stopped, and the repercussions were immediate; I lamented that blogging can feel like middle school all over again. Some of my fellow writers, who happen to have encouraging online blogging personalities, really helped me feel better, and I started thinking about the power dynamics.
Have you ever been in a relationship where the rules keep changing? Years ago, I was in a friendship like that. The other person–I’ll call her Lulu–had a long list of expectations. Disagreeing with her was never a simple matter of saying, “I disagree.” She wanted me (and others) to use specific words and phrases. If we made a mistake in our language, she would refuse to respond to our concerns until we rephrased things “properly.” It could even result in weeks (or, in one situation, years) of being ignored or complained about. This would have been annoying on its own, but what made it worse was that the line kept moving. She would change her mind about what she wanted or how she wanted it on a regular basis, or she would add rules on top of rules.
It took me a long time to extract myself from that friendship. I kept telling myself that it was me–I wasn’t a good enough friend; I was overreacting; her abuse wasn’t that bad; I would have the same issues in any relationship. When I finally left, I discovered that there are people out there who like me for me, not for what I can do for them. Friendship means being allowed to receive as well as give.
I experienced similar situations at home and at school growing up. I never actually considered my home abusive, but my mother was highly unpredictable and could be volatile under certain circumstances. When it came to peer relationships, the ones that always left me devastated weren’t the kids nasty from day one but the friends-turned-bullies. The worst part was the inconsistency–the unpredictable nature of the abusers. Which version would I have that day? The kind, gentle loving person or the monster? The friend who invited me to sleep over or the one who turned around the next day and told everyone that she made me eat candy she’d put down her underpants? The mom who baked ten kinds of Christmas cookies or the one who spent the entire holiday raging and crying, holed up in her room?
That is how I feel about the online world. Sometimes I feel like I’ve hit the bulls-eye. I receive praise and encouragement from fellow writers. Other times, I feel like I can’t keep up with the shifting expectations. Every time I turn around, there’s a new thing I’m supposed to say differently in order to demonstrate that I’ve properly heard and understood something. Just when I think I’ve gotten it, the target moves again. For example, I thought I was doing pretty well as a parent, particularly in how I speak of my children on my blog. Then along came some new rules: Don’t say you’re proud of your kids because it takes away their autonomy. Don’t talk about your kids’ issues because you’re speaking for them. Actually, don’t write about them at all without their express permission, which of course you can’t get in writing because they’re not of legal age. Also, don’t have any feelings about their needs at all because it’s not about you, despite the fact that you’re the one who has spent years learning to care for kids who have challenges or don’t fit in with societal expectations.
You know what? I am proud of my kids, dammit. And I do have feelings about raising kids with learning and behavioral needs–it can be emotionally and physically draining. I will write about them because other than my husband, they are the two people I love most in this world. The most common complaint I’ve heard is that if I think it’s hard to parent a neurodiverse child, I should try being one. Know what I say to that? Up yours. Why the hell do you think it’s so hard to parent a child whose needs exceed his or her peers? One reason is that we do know how hard it is for them, and all we do all day long is try to help it be less hard. My kids tell me they feel loved, so I’m pretty sure I’m not screwing them up for life.
Writing about my kids is just one example. There are rules for everything, including what words we should use (I’m not talking about proper terms for things or not using slurs or insulting phrases). Today, one thing will be considered appropriate phraseology; tomorrow, another. And through it all, the real problem isn’t so much the changing expectations but the fact that there are segments of the blogging world that have unpredictable reactions to the use of yesterday’s terminology–often on behalf of others rather than themselves.
That’s the thing I can’t do anymore. I can’t follow all the rules, and I’m not going to try. If someone wants to be pissy that I talk about what it’s like to parent a kid with ADHD (or even that I mentioned having one with ADHD), so what? Be pissy, then. Don’t like how I apologize when someone has told me I’ve hurt them? Fine–go make amends your own way. Think I’m not the perfect [whatever kind of] ally? Then what you want is a robot, not another human being (and honestly, I’ve never heard this from people I’m being an ally to–only from other allies).
I know why I’ve spent so much time trying to fit in. I desperately want to be accepted, and part of that is trying to offend as few people as possible–or at least those who seem like the cool, popular ones or the influential ones. Today, I realized that I view everyone I meet in these terms–when will they stop liking me and start behaving erratically? I’m done. I refuse to try to contort myself for the sake of someone else’s unpredictability. I can’t live like that. I wasn’t able to maintain a friendship like that long-term, and I can’t maintain online relationships that way either.
None of this means that I will stop working for change or pointing out where we can improve. But I don’t want to be part of an unhealthy system. I did that growing up, I did that in my former friendship, and I did that at church. At this point, I need to protect myself from further harm, and that includes not allowing myself to be influenced by my need to fit in. This thing called life is hard enough without feeling like if I so much as twitch it might be taken the wrong way and I’ll get an earful of how I’m defending some terrible injustice even when that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Maybe one day, I won’t feel the need to be on the inside anymore.