[Content warning for brief discussion of abuse.]

Most of the most obnoxious social justice people have really awful lives.

You see a lot of anti-social-justice people going “oh, those privileged twits on Tumblr without any REAL problems”, but in my experience that’s usually not the case. Instead, you get– say– a trans girl who grows up with crippling dysphoria. Her childhood is pretty awful: her parents are abusive, she’s regularly bullied in school for being ‘gay’, and her church makes it very clear that transness and homosexuality (much less both) mean you need to be tortured for eternity. Eventually, she finds her way into the queer community, where she hopes that she’ll be able to find a home. But even her closest friends laugh at the idea that it would be possible to find cock attractive. She starts dating a trans guy who hits her, and no one believes her, because he’s a trans man, and that’s something cis men do, and didn’t you see his great speech about ending domestic violence? Her friends convince her not to take hormones because it’ll make her body all gross and anyway not transitioning is more radical, which means that she spends three or four unnecessary years dissociating from gender dysphoria. And then she comes on Tumblr, and she sees a trans guy spewing some goddamn male-privileged bullshit, and…

…well, what happens is that she is cruel to some suicidal teenage trans boy who might have kind of silly opinions about “cisphobia” but really didn’t do anything wrong.

A lot of people talk about this like it’s revenge for the wrongs she’s suffered, and I don’t think it usually is. It’s fear. When she reads that trans guy’s post about cisphobia, she thinks, “oh god, it’s here too. I thought I was safe here, but I’m not, not anywhere. I have to protect myself.” Because what happens when you’re in environments where you’re not safe is that you get sensitized to not being safe. You look at things that other people would shrug off and you think “that’s an attack, that person is trying to hurt me”, because in the environments you’re used to they are attacks and people are trying to hurt you.

And once it’s gotten started, it winds up in a self-perpetuating cycle a couple of different ways. Most obviously, even if that trans boy didn’t mean any harm, he’s likely to respond angrily once she tells him to die in a fire, and then that gets added as one more instance of Fucking Trans Dudes Trying To Hurt Me. But there’s also subtler things.

When you feel attacked, it’s really emotionally salient. It sticks around. Conversely, all the things that don’t read as attacks to you fade into memory. I can’t remember how many times I’ve been called awful things by the manosphere, because I don’t care. The manosphere has no ability to hurt me, which makes them calling me a slut funny. On the other hand, I can still get myself worked up in these fits of defensive rage about things some feminist said to me four years ago, how dare she, doesn’t she know that I have always been motivated by the purest and clearest of motives, et cetera et cetera. So of course it’s very easy for me to come to the conclusion that feminists say cruel things all the time, and the manosphere doesn’t– the former I remember much more than the latter.

Another problem is that fear has a way of justifying itself. Take it from your friendly neighborhood phobic: it is truly extraordinary the contortions my brain has managed to get itself into to justify fears that, frankly, don’t make much sense. And so the abuse survivor who found safety, comfort, and validation in the feminist movement says: “the patriarchy teaches men to be entitled, misogynist, and violent– and some of them, tragically, become abusers.” The abuse survivor who found that the feminist movement erased his suffering at best and acted like he abused his abuser at worst says: “the feminists are pushing lies and trying to take over institutions like universities to put into practice their misandrist agenda.”

I’m not saying that either of them is wrong, mind you. Both perspectives have kernels of truth. What I am saying is that as long as she sees him as an entitled misogynist like her abuser, and he sees her as an abuse-denialist misandrist like the women who hurt him when he was trying to get help, they are not exactly going to have a productive conversation.

This sort of fear– the tight defensive angry fear– is destructive of good argument and of empathy. Arguments become soldiers when you’re fighting a war. And you fight a war when you’re being attacked.

In my experience, the most useful conversations have come when I feel like both I and the other person are on Team Truth. I know it’s a useful conversation when I say “hey, I found this study that seems to justify your position, what do you think?” and they respond with “hm, the sample size is shit.” That sort of fluid switching of positions is, in my experience, essential for truth-seeking. Of course, there are multiple problems that make this difficult– for instance, if the person crows about how they won if you say “I thought of an argument in favor of your position”– but an important one is the sense that you’re being attacked.

So are there strategies for reducing one’s amount of defensiveness?

A big one, I think, is just choosing not to engage in conversations with people who make you defensive. This is really hard– all your instincts are screaming ATTACK ATTACK THERE IS AN ENEMY ATTACK– but in practice I think it’s the absolute foundation. Most people are not capable of truth-seeking conversation when they’re in the defensive crouch. You are more likely to say something you’ll regret or behave in a way that goes against your moral standards. Even if you want to convince the person to stop having beliefs that harm you, you’d probably be better at it when you’re calmer (and it is neither necessary nor wise to try to convince every dumbass on the Internet). And, frankly, being defensive isn’t all that fun.

Ranting about the situation to other people is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can allow you to get your feelings out in a safe way; you can indulge the urge to respond without actually responding. On the other hand, in my experience, sometimes it can strengthen your desire to respond to the person (especially if you think of a really cutting response)– and I’m troubled by the evidence that venting increases anger.

If you decide you want to engage, there’s a skill I used to be much better at than I am right now, which you could call ‘weaponized kindness’. (Unfortunately, developing my ability to feel anger seems to have impaired my ability to use this skill. A decent tradeoff, but still annoying.) Weaponized kindness is being deliberately, flagrantly nice. Make an effort to find the valid points in the other person’s position and concede them. Admit ignorance: be willing to say “but this isn’t my field, so I might be wrong”. Rephrase your sentences until they’re more politic: don’t say “citation?” or– God help me– “[citation needed]”, say “what makes you think that?”

What happens about seventy-five percent of the time when you use weaponized kindness is that the other person backs down, the situation deescalates, and you get to have a conversation like normal people. Whenever this happened to me, I was kind of upset, because I wanted to humiliate them. (Never let it be said I’m a good person.) But I can work off my dislike of the other person privately and return to the conversation when I’m ready.

The other twenty-five percent of the time, they continue to be jerks, and everyone reading the conversation goes “wow, this really nice person is talking to this complete asshole. The nice person must be right.” In which case you win. (You can use this to convince your defensive self to adopt the weaponized kindness strategy.)