"So Why Didn't You Do Anything?"

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

The other day, I wrote about an incident with my goddaughter, wherein we were at a restaurant when a strange dude asked “Aren’t you the cutest girl?”, patted her belly, and moved on.  And a fair number of people asked:
“Why didn’t you yell at the dude for touching the kid?”
Good question.
The strict answer is, “I totally should have” – and before anyone attempts to frame this essay otherwise, let me be crystal clear: going, “Hey, dude, don’t touch her without asking first!” would have been the right thing to do.  It’s a failure on my part that I didn’t.  I screwed up by not setting a good example of how to police appropriate boundaries.
Yet the question I’m going to field here is, “Why did I screw up?”  And the answer is simple:
Because I was shocked, and the incident was quick.
Had I been braced for incoming belly-patters, I would have absolutely done the right thing here.  But like a lot of incidents of harassment, this arrived when I was waiting in line to get breakfast, prepping for a nice day with a kid I loved, having a nice conversation.  If you’d asked me, “So is a random person going to invade your private space?” I probably would have been so surprised by the question that I would have asked you to repeat yourself.
So when this happened, I acted suboptimally.  By the time my brain had processed Wait a minute, this is pretty crazy, this shouldn’t be happening, dude was already out the door.
And so it was that I fucked up.
Problem is, “Fucking up when presented with surprising new situations” is actually a chronic human behavior.  It’s why purse snatchers are so effective – by the time someone registers Wait, did somebody just yank my purse off my shoulder?, the snatcher is long gone.  It’s why you don’t have a good retort when a stranger says something nasty to you in public.  It’s why, despite machismo gun-owners telling everyone how they’d drop a gunman if they saw one, in fact most people (gun-owners included) don’t react heroically to a public shooting; they’re still shocked by all of this new and horrifying input.
We’re all awesome quarterbacks come Monday morning.  But when you experience something weird for the first time, your brain is often locked up trying to figure out what’s happening – and by the time the brain gets around to determining how you should react, the moment has passed.
Now, there are people who are really good at handling purse snatchers, and really excellent at snarking back to mean strangers.  Sadly, most of them are good at it because of  experience.  They’re not gifted with natural instincts; they have, instead, been abused enough times that a) this is not new to them, and b) they have developed coping mechanisms.  This is why we train soldiers – you can get a guy to be a very good shot at a gun range, but that’s very different from maintaining accuracy when the target is shooting back.  We put people through combat training because we need them to have that adrenaline rush not be a surprise.
And again, I’ll repeat: I should have called the dude out.  I had good excuses, but my goal in life is not to provide good excuses – it’s to emulate the kind of change I wanna see in the world.  In that, I failed.
Yet there are people – mostly women – who would have called this dude out instantly.  This is likely because they have lots of experience in handling creeper dudes, and are continually braced for moments like this, never relaxing no matter how joyous the day.  In other words, they’ve developed a healthy defense mechanism because they’re continually being assaulted.  Which is, you know, not awesome.
The danger is wandering into the trap of “should have done.”
In a lot of cases, “Should have done” provides a healthy way of modelling future behavior.  People saying, “You should have called the dude out!” helps me to create a mental model for the next time this happens, so if I encounter Creeper 2: Electric Boogaloo, I’ll have societal expectations backing me to go “Yeah, this what you should do in response to an abnormal situation, get ready to mix it up.”  Which means that next time, I’ll (hopefully) be prepared with a more helpful reaction.
Yet the danger is in conflating a substandard response with substandard intent.
I’m hip-deep in science-fiction conventions, where harassment charges are sadly routine.  And one of the most common reactions when someone says “This person harassed me at a party” is “Well, they didn’t say anything at the time – so they weren’t really offended!  They’re just making a fuss in retrospect!”
The problem is that when you are presented with a shocking situation, you often don’t do what you “should”.  You react in weird ways – and the more shocking the situation, the more time it may take you to figure out emotionally how to process this.
(This is why I tell people “There’s no right way to grieve for a death” – you’ve just run into a situation that few people encounter often enough to get used to, and you may react in super-odd ways.  All those people telling you how you should be sad is not helpful when you’re numb, or angry, or needing to get out and party.)
If someone ruins a party for you with some unexpected sexual pressure that comes out of nowhere, you might deal with that in ways that you’re unhappy with in retrospect – ways that seem bizarre to others, who “know” how they’d react if they were in that situation.
Except they don’t know how they’d react.  They know how they think they’d react when presented with a situation they read about in an essay, but that’s often very different from how they do react if and when it happens.  How they’d react when presented with Surprise Harassment is often very different from how they’d react if they had time to contemplate it in advance.  (Which is why harassers often use a lot of pressure to get what they want – they know that sometimes, the Surprise Harassment response that springs from politeness and not wanting to offend is much more positive than the studied negative reaction they’d get later.)
Now, in my case, I’ll state for the third time that there was a clear best-case scenario here, and I failed to achieve it.  I don’t excuse that failure.  Best I can do is take that lesson and be braced for future impact.  That’s the way I process failure, and I don’t claim that’s the best way for everyone, just me.
But all too often I see people conflating reaction with intent: “Well, they didn’t reject it violently at the time, so they clearly were okay with X happening!”  And no.  My point here is that people often react weirdly to weird situations.  How they react in that moment doesn’t necessarily reflect who they are or what they really believe, but rather reflects a brain that’s rapidly trying to piece together a big batch of WTF.
And by the time they are really good at handling the exceptional cases, they often forget that they live in a world that’s different from what other people experience.  I’m lucky enough not to live in a world where people routinely invade the personal space of people I love.  Others don’t get that.  That’s a thing we call “privilege.”
One downside of privilege is being potentially blind to the hazards that others routinely encounter.  Another is that we’re shocked when we step outside the bubble.
I stepped outside.  I got surprised.  And I’m not overly shamed by my reaction, because I wasn’t prepped for it – to be shamed by that is to agree that I did something shameful, when in reality it’s belly-rubbin’ dude who did the shameful thing.  I feel pretty thoroughly that the shame falls upon the shoulders of the jerks.
But the responsibility for fixing it?  That’s something I feel personally.  I can recognize I did something suboptimal that allowed that shameful behavior to continue, and vow to try to do better next time.  I don’t blame myself – but I do recognize an opportunity to model better behavior in the future, so that shameful jerks like that don’t walk away from other stunned people, thinking what they did was fine.
That’s not necessarily what everyone wants to do.  Nor would I expect it of them.
But I expect it of me.

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