The etiquette of respecting boundaries

There is a shitstorm going on, and it might be sort of winding down, but there’s no time like the present. The sheer willful ignorance and hostility is so pervasive, and so repetitive that I almost don’t have the energy to wade in. Since pretty much every possible angle of the matter has already been discussed and explained, at length, hundreds of times, and some people still don’t see what the problem is, I can’t very well expect them to listen to me. If they didn’t hear it the first 3000 times, I’d be frankly the most arrogant piece of work on the Internet to think they’ll finally get it the 3001st time if it happens to be coming from my keyboard.

In truth, though, I do have something to add to the discussion, which I’m not sure has already been addressed in the extant arguments. It has to do with a general point of good manners which has been sorely neglected on more than one level.

Since the purpose of good manners is essentially to make everyone feel comfortable to the greatest extent possible, personal boundaries should be respected in terms of unnecessary, consciously decided behavior towards other individuals. This sounds awfully generalized and unhelpful, does it? I’ll be more specific.

If you’re unsure of how to act towards a person, and that person establishes a boundary, the polite thing to do—in fact, the only decent thing to do—is to respect that boundary, and not make decisions on that individual that would violate the stated boundary. See what I’m getting at? You want to know how a given person likes to be treated, and that person gives you an example of a boundary which she holds, by telling you about a recent experience in which that boundary was violated, and concludes with the advice of, “and it made me really uncomfortable, so please don’t do that”?

Then you need to take this advice seriously. You need to listen. If you’re not quite sure what about the criticized behavior was offensive to her, then put yourself in her shoes. Picture the scenario from her perspective. Maybe you could ask her to discuss the matter further, but do exactly that: ASK her.

It is definitely NOT polite to go right ahead and do what she just asked you not to do. It is not cool to tell her that she has no right to be annoyed at the recent breach of her personal boundaries. It is not good manners to tell her she’s being ridiculous, that she has no right to complain.

By now you may be wondering: what in the fresh Hell is she on about this time? For the benefit of my non-heathen readers, my heathen readers who live under a rock, and my heathen readers who know what’s going on but demand that I spell it out, the shit-storm started with this. It expanded into some meta-argument which is frankly irrelevant for my post but which I will acknowledge for the sake of completeness. It got worse when someone who tends to be taken seriously in this community decided to be part of the problem. Thousands of comments later, and certain folks were still not taking the complaints seriously, so another elder statesmen offered some helpful positive advice. Apparently that just wasn’t good enough, and while the shitstorm may be winding down, the fallout is far from over.

Finished reading all that? Neither am I.

Anyway. The initial event itself was essentially a failure, arguably a refusal, to respect a stated boundary. When it’s the wee hours of the morning, and someone who has been talking all night says she’s tired and is going to bed, that should be a clear statement that any further requests of her personal space and time are unwelcome. That is a boundary. When you hear her make that statement, and you respond by asking her to stay awake longer, in your room, then you’ve already shown yourself as someone who doesn’t respect boundaries. Once that much is established, it’s only a question of how much else you won’t respect. If you make this already-unwelcome request of her only after you follow her alone into a tightly enclosed space, then she has no one else to back her up while she figures out whether you are merely obnoxious or actually dangerous. (This much really shouldn’t need to be said, but just to make it clear: the person with the initial complaint is not a mind-reader. None of us are mind-readers. We can’t predict the future. We don’t all have the best social skills, and occasionally we misread a situation and hurt someone’s feelings. Since we have to protect ourselves from both violence and victim-blaming, perhaps you could cut us a bit of slack and show us some understanding if we tend to err on the side of excessive caution.)

So, there’s that, first. That was just one person who committed that primary offense, though. If you later hear someone relate this experience as an example of something she prefers not to happen to her, then the polite way to respond is by taking her complaint seriously. It is not appropriate to tell her that she’s treating the offender unfairly, that he wasn’t doing anything wrong, that people like you just can’t get a break, that she’s ridiculous for having boundaries at all, etc. You might not quite understand why the incident bothered her, but after she has already told you, “this is what happened, and it made me really uncomfortable, so please don’t do that,” it is a nonsensical statement to tell her there was “zero bad” in what happened to her. It is not appropriate to tell her that other people have to deal with much worse, so she has no right to complain. It is not okay to tell her that since her experience didn’t turn out a lot worse, that there was “zero bad” involved. That’s the secondary offense.

Then, after hundreds of other people come in and basically establish the same boundary and share similar experiences of having that boundary violated, some of which ended up much worse, and issue basically the same advice of, “that’s not cool, so don’t do it,” and you respond by telling them they’re being paranoid, they’re being unfair to the other half, they should cut you some slack because your rights are being violated if you don’t get to do what you want…that is the tertiary offense.

The argument could be made that the first individual’s boundaries are arbitrary, or unreasonable, or at least idiosyncratic. When the discussion grows to hundreds of other people coming in to say pretty much the same thing, and asking for the same type of consideration, then the “she’s being unreasonable” defense is no longer on the table. The topic is bigger than that initial individual with the primary complaint. When those hundreds of people explain, repeatedly and in increasingly complex and impassioned language, why the behavior in question is offensive, and you continue to insist that they just need to stop being paranoid, then you are showing yourself as someone who really does not respect boundaries.

Now, just because there’s an elephant in the room and it needs a name: you might notice that I’m using an awful lot of female pronouns here. So, you might ask, if the person with the complaint is a woman, and the person under criticism is a man, and the behavior in question involves propositioning for sex (or “coffee”), then isn’t that a different matter? Doesn’t that call for more leeway? All’s fair in love and war, and all that?

About that? Here’s the thing: 1) that woman is just as human as you, so 2) her boundaries deserve just as much respect, and 3) you are not entitled to sex, with any particular individual, at any time, and furthermore 4) there is no guaranteed strategy for obtaining sexual consent, because 5) when women have sex, we do it when, where, with whom and because we expect to enjoy it. I’m not going to show you the magic button to push that guarantees you’ll get laid, because the magic button doesn’t exist, for you or for me. If anything, sexuality is where respect for boundaries is of the most importance.

I’m going to repeat a couple of points, because they rest square on top of a theme I see running through the not-getting-it in this debate.



This is the world in which we all have to live.

Ultimately, this comes down to a matter of if/then behavior. I can’t realistically expect anyone who, after all those thousands of comments on other sites, still thinks the primary offense was “zero bad”, to listen to me, but those of us who don’t want to be harassed and trivialized can vote with our feet. When the behavior in question is directed almost without exception at people of a certain demographic description who are underrepresented at certain non-compulsory events which the other, more privileged demographic wants them to attend in greater numbers, and the debate reveals that there are Certain People who would rather die than look at a situation from the Other’s perspective, then the result will be that the Other people will simply become even more underrepresented at those events. There are certain activities in all our lives that aren’t optional. For example, I have to go to work in order to pay for food and housing, and I have to get on a bus and train to get to and from work. I have to occupy those spaces to get on with my life…but I don’t have to attend a conference. Some People can refuse to listen to Others, but those Others can avoid events where they’re likely to come into contact with those Some People.

For another example, you might not like some of the language I use here on my blog. If so, you can choose not to read my blog. If I refuse to clean up my language, then I can do without your page hits. If I don’t like the way people talk to me in discussions on certain websites, I can choose not to engage in those discussions on those sites. I don’t have to go where I’m not welcome, and if you cannot abide the idea of respecting my wishes, then you can do without my attendance at your events. I will save myself the airfare and stay home to leave comments on websites. At least there, no one can cut me off mid-sentence.

That is ultimately the result, here. If you do not listen, then we will not show up.

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