Interesting thing happened to me on twitter.
There was a discussion going on about the “Big Three” in science fiction. At first it was generally acknowledged that those were Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Ray Bradbury, and then people would go on to talk about more diverse authors from the same time period (Ursula LeGuin, Samuel R. Delaney, “James Tiptree”).
That led into even more discussion of the current crop of much more diverse authors writing much more diverse books. Kameron Hurley, Daniel J. Older, Malka Older, Wes Chu, N.K. Jemisin, Annalee Newitz, Anne Leckie. Or the not-so-diverse-but-writing-diverse-fiction like John Scalzi or Ferrett Steinmetz. It was basically turning into a very long list of “Hey, I like these authors; who do you like?”
Then I saw a tweet by someone I didn’t know who said “My “big three” are Le Guin, Delaney, and Butler, but I guess folks who only read special interest fiction for white men don’t get widely exposed to the classics.”
I got a little peeved at that. It was the “folks who only read” bit; I felt it was a privileged statement to say that people who read the “fiction for white men” had any other fiction available to them, as my own reading at an early age was very supervised by my parents, and they would not have approved of Imago.
I made the classic mistake:
I replied to someone who I felt was wrong on the internet.
I did so cleverly, saying that I felt the big three were Mary Shelley, Mark Twain, and Jules Verne, but “…I guess people who think SFF was invented in the 20th Century don’t have a very broad selection.” I also referred to the person’s original tweet as “carping”.
That’s when it hit the fan.
You see, the person I’d replied to – the one who talked about the “fiction for white men– is a science fiction author. With a pretty broad following, as well as a couple of interesting blogs (I recommend this article especially). More to the point, she is an author, and as such gets more than a little condescension and harassment on the internet.
I didn’t know that when I composed my oh-so-clever tweet. But it was quickly noticed by another cis white male on twitter, who immediately attacked me.
He did the call to authority with a How dare you correct a Real Author? kind of tone. He mocked my intent, told me I had no business speaking in a public conversation. He called me condescending in a condescending way. He was pretty much as obnoxious as you can get with a complete stranger in a span of two tweets.
Of course, as a cis het white male challenged by another cis white male, I responded to the challenge! My heart raced. Variations of Who the FUCK does he think he is? went through my brain. I composed a biting response, which was of course met with an equally biting retort from him, and the game was on!
Except for one thing.
He was right.
I’m Looking at the Troll in the Mirror
As I was in the midst of writing another rebuttal that surely would convince everyone of the virility of my wit, a thought occurred to me: maybe I should look at what I wrote in that original tweet.
Maybe I should look at it while imagining the perspective of someone who works in a misogynistic field in a systemically sexist society.
Maybe…maybe I was coming across as condescending.
Maybe there was no maybe about it.
Instead of finishing the Ultimate Comeback, I went back to her original tweet and said “Something I had intended on being a part of a discussion was poorly written…” and apologized.
Then I did something even harder. I went to the guy who had been her stalwart defender…and I told him he was right. And that I’d apologized to her.
Then I deleted my offending tweet.
I wish I could tell you that it fixed everything. It didn’t; the author, if she was offended at all, probably still feels that sting like she does from all the other jerks who harass her, whether intentionally or not. Apologizing doesn’t guarantee forgiveness; that’s not how it works.
The guy simply responded with a haughty “I’m glad to hear it.” and we didn’t end up being friends or following each other or anything like that. Frankly, even if he was right, I still think he’s kind of a jerk, and that’s ok, too. Being right doesn’t make you likable.
And even now, as I write this, my heart is still pounding and my chest feels hollow and there’s still this feeling that I was right, that it was unfair that they took my words that way, that I was the wronged party. Even though my rational brain knows better, my physical body is in fight mode.
And that’s ok, too.
Here’s the Thing:
Sometimes you have to accept that, in spite of your best intentions, you are the bad guy.
When that happens, there’s really only one choice to make.
Are you going to keep being the bad guy? Or are you going to stop?
Sometimes it’s an easy choice, sometimes hard, and either way sometimes it won’t feel good.
That’s ok, too.
In my last post I talked about how I was surprised that my friend had apologized to me. It's possible you might get the impression that I follow that silly idea that "love means never having to say you're sorry.
Far from it. Love means that you absolutely say you're sorry – but you have to mean it. Like the word "love" or "fiscal conservative", throwing it around too much without backing it up can cause a loss of meaning. It's a good idea to think about what you actually mean when you say "I'm sorry".
Let's review that, ok?
The Steps of Sorrow
- Acknowledge what you did. This is probably the most important part, because it's how you avoid following "I'm sorry" with words like "if" and "but" and "you." We're not talking about hypothetical here, we're not making excuses, and we're talking about you, not the person you're apologizing. The only words that should follow "I'm sorry" are "that I…" Then say what it is you did, in as simple and plain a way as possible. Because you might be wrong, and you may have to talk more before you find out what you actually need to be sorry for.
- Acknowledge the damage. This can be as simple as "now the car has a dent in the fender" or as complex as "You don't trust me any more". But especially if this is someone you care about, they need to know that you can see the consequences of your actions.
- Explain how you're going to try not to do it again. This is also pretty vital; if you don't plan on doing something different than what you're already doing to prevent this from happening again, there's no reason for your love to believe that you're sorry or to feel safe. It's also important for everyone involved that the word "try" is in there; saying "I'm going to make sure…" sounds all romantic and stuff, but it's pretending you have a lot more control over life than anyone actually does. You're human.
- Ask if there's anything more you can do. Related to that "humans aren't omniscient" idea, you may think you know what you need to do, but you also may be wrong. Ask the person what they need, and make sure that "nothing" is an ok answer. It's not their job to figure out your atonement! It's also possible they will ask you to do something that you can't do – and in that situation, it's fine to say "I'm sorry, I can't do that. Is there anything else?" Apologizing doesn't mean you don't still get to have your boundaries.
- Keep your promises, both to yourself and to your loved one who you've wronged. That's the difference between an apology to an acquaintance and a loved one: the acquaintance may never know how good you are at changing your behavior, but for your partner, it's going to be pretty obvious if you're making an effort to actually do the things you said.
What's Not in an Apology
Notice there is no "Yeah, but…" counter-arguments. No "But I didn't mean to…" as if that's an excuse. No "If only you would…" or "Maybe if you didn't…" or things like this. Not even a "Let me explain why…" That is not the purpose of an apology. An apology is about sorrow, and restitution, and changing your own behavior so that you never have to apologize for that same thing again.
There's a side benefit to taking apologies this seriously, by the way. You can improve your empathy skills if you stop saying "I'm sorry to hear that" or "I'm sorry that happened" when you had nothing to do with what happened. In that kind of situation, you're making it worse for your love because suddenly, on top of everything else, they know that they made someone they care about sorry.
Instead, try saying something like "Wow, that sounds like it really sucks." Or "That must be really hard to deal with. How are you holding up?" It keeps the situation centered where it should be – instead of you being sorry for things you didn't do.
Trust me. There'll be enough of those to get lots of practice apologizing. And when you do it right, it can turn an unfortunate situation into a way to grow closer in love and trust and intimacy.
Not sorry about that one bit.
The Art of Sucking It Up
“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” – The most fallacious movie line in history.
My parents worked really hard to create a happy home for us kids. Part of that was that I can’t remember any times that I ever saw them get into fights. A few disagreements, sure, and I’ve spent enough time with my own temper to recognize now the times when my Dad was probably boiling mad – but he never actually let it show. Neither of them did; they presented a united front to us kids.
In a way, I wish they hadn’t.
When, in the course of my own relationships, my partner and I would get into an argument – or worse, a fight (non-physical) – it seemed like the end of the world. This is not the way good relationships work, I would think, and either decide I was doing something wrong, my partner was, or the relationship itself was to blame.
It took a long time and a veritable wasteland of broken hearts and abandoned love before I started to understand that people can love each other but still disagree. That you can have an argument and it doesn’t mean the relationship was over. That it was worth working through things, and that my roaring adrenaline and shining self-righteousness was just a symptom that would pass, and it was worth riding it out and coming back to whatever the isssue was when I was done.
One of the biggest parts of this was learning how to actually apologize.
The Elements of Apology
There are many articles and essays on apologizing. This is what I’ve learned from them, with a few of my own lessons-learned-hard thrown in:
- Acknowledge that something went wrong, and your contribution to it. Note that this is not about “blame”; it’s about contribution. Something happened; accept that, and figure out what your part in that was. It’s important, because you only…
- Apologize if necessary. Just saying “I’m sorry isn’t worth much if you don’t really understand or feel that you have anything to be sorry about. Heck, maybe you don’t need to apologize; perhaps this was an accident, a twist of fate. In that case, you can be empathetic or sympathetic, but don’t apologize unless you actually know that you did something that you wish you’d done differently. Then apologize, which is basically two words: I’m sorry. But step 3 is the most important:
- Do not follow “I’m sorry” with “if” or “but” or “that you”. This is about you. If you qualify it with “if” then you’re actually not admitting anything happened. “But” simply justifies your action, nullifying the apology. “That you” shifts the cause to the person you’re talking to. Keep it first-person. If you have to say something after “I’m sorry” then make sure it’s ”…that I…” and state your contribution clearly.
- Ask how you can make amends. Note that is different than telling them what you would like to do to make up for it. Listen to what they want first. If you can’t do what they want, be honest and say so with regret. It’s entirely possible you can’t do it; you are entitled to your boundaries. Offer what you can, and if it’s not enough (you can’t, after all, unbreak a plate) then simply go on with the last few steps:
- Explain how you plan to avoid the situation in the future. This may be to the other person (in loving situations, it almost always needs to be). But you also need to be aware that the person may not want to hear about you any more. You may have to simply explain it to yourself, as part of being able to…
- Let it go. Grudges and love don’t mix. At all. If you’re holding one, then there’s some work beyond the apology that really needs to be done. Something like…
- Look for Patterns Why did this happen? Is it part of a bigger picture, a behavior, a habit, a past trauma? Is it part of some personal quality you can develop or change? Figuring this out can turn this unfortunate incident into a simple stepping stone towards further growth.
Not that I recommend getting into fights, but this is a learned skill. It’s something that you get better at over time. It’s also important to remember that not everyone apologizes this way. You can lead by example, but you can’t automatically assume that your partner knows anything about these kinds of steps. This is important: Teaching it to them in the middle of an argument won’t help. It’s something to delicately bring up at a calmer time, in a kind of “You know, I’ve been working on getting better at owning my own crap. What do you think makes a good apology?”
At least, that’s how it’s worked for me. How about you? How have you learned to get through those rough patches?