I recently came home to find that the person I had rented out my room to had left the flat in such an unclean state that maggots had started to populate every room.
After the first two groups were discovered I (rightly) assumed that they would be found in the rest of the flat as well. Not only did my tenant not apologize and get to work cleaning the flat, but he used a variety of coping mechanisms to avoid blame:
- He made fun of me for “exaggerating” how many groups there were.
- He pointed out how the maggots were actually pretty cute.
- He argued that the maggot flies were actually coming in from the outside, not from his trash can that was full of maggots.
- He mentioned how he had heroically squashed a bunch of flies a few weeks ago, unlike his friend who had just shrugged at them.
- He pretended he hadn’t noticed a single maggot before we got there.
Since he would be staying in the flat for another week and we were forced to coexist and I needed to get him to see that there was a problem and to do some work towards managing that problem (e.g. vacuum his room). What I was asking for was the bare minimum, but he kept putting it off in a way that compromised the effort that I had already made towards getting rid of the problem. He was clearly in some kind of denial.
So, my task was to talk to him in such a way that got around his defence mechanisms, no doubt grounded in a fear of failure and a desire to see himself in a good light, to make him see and do the bare minimum to deal with the problem. And it occurred to me that I face these defence mechanisms, and the issue of how to get around them a lot when talking to people about oppression:
- They gaslight you, acting like you are being extreme or unreliable in some way, e.g. paint you as an “angry feminists”.
- They belittle the problem, e.g. “who doesn’t like being complimented?” in response to catcalling.
- They argue that the problem is coming from elsewhere, e.g. from “those immigrants with their patriarchal cultures who come here and rape our women”.
- They mention all that they have done to deal with the problem as they see it, e.g. “I voted for harsher punishments for rape so don’t tell me about rape culture”.
- They act like dealing with a small subset of the problem was dealing with the problem.
And here I am, trying to make them see that the house is still full of maggots, that they are part of the cause and that they need to make a change to manage the problem.
(On top of that, having been doubted on these issues my whole life, I have to fight against my own instinct to doubt myself, am I overreacting? Are maggots really a big deal? I ask some friends and they assure me that it is. It is harder when you are in the minority and don’t have people around you to ask.)
Who is being coddled?
Why am I pointing out the difficulties in dealing with people who have a vested interest in not seeing a problem? Because all too often I read texts by people who think that traumatised or marginalized people are asking to be coddled – whether they are asking for trigger warnings, accessible spaces or for their correct pronouns to be used.
And yet in their reply marginalized people are putting in enormous effort to coddle those same writers.
When it comes to worm guy I adjust to his defence mechanisms: I don’t ask for more than the bare minimum. I don’t tell him he is being unreasonable. I make sure to keep my tone as unemotional as possible. I point out how good he is being when he takes steps to deal with the problem and how we’re on the same team.
All the while he is feeling mighty inconvenienced by the fact that I am still pointing at a problem that he can’t see. Eventually my insistence visibly angers him. And then I live with the threat of his anger. Because we still share a flat and he is stronger than I am. And he may not be “one of those guys”, but how would I know? So, I take precautions and make sure I’m never alone in my own flat when he’s around.
And still, after all of my adjustments to deal with his insecurity, his anger, and his biases, some people say that it is people like me who are demanding to be coddled.
I guess they don’t want to feel guilty about the maggots.
Recommended reading like this
On this blog: Rejected needs and societal structures
Elsewhere: The hidden brain – how ocean currents explain our unconcious social biases