by Steve Cuno
Like a befuddled Great Dane that backs off when it could just as well swallow whole an annoying terrier, I continually turned the other cheek to a diminutive eighth grade classmate who enjoyed brandishing bravado in my direction. But one day I’d had enough and hit him back.
Everyone in the class was aghast. Rather than acknowledge my right not to be clobbered, my classmates deemed me a troublemaker. To them, my taking an occasional whack on the head was a fair price for an otherwise incident-free classroom. All was well, they felt, until I had to go and upset the balance.
Their reaction was not unusual. Abuse that is part of the landscape is difficult to identify as abuse. Moreover, halting it changes the landscape, which leaves all who have adapted to it suddenly unsure of boundaries and rules.
So it is that, in an ironic twist, those who assert their right not to be abused are often seen, not as seeking to end a problem, but as causing one.
I have had plenty of chances to observe the phenomenon. I grew up sitting at a dinner table where the accepted routine was to fling unkind comments at me. On the rare occasion I became sufficiently fed up to retort, I was disciplined for
Years later, I joined a large company where a senior vice president ordered subordinates to run his oft-unsavory personal errands. When I intimated that I wouldn’t cooperate, my manager warned me that my “rebellion” would not be seen as an act of courage, but would engender his wrath, and that of my peers who had chosen to knuckle under.
History brims with larger-scale examples. Those who spoke up for the right not to be enslaved were accused of infringing upon the rights of slaveholders. Those who spoke up for the right of due process were accused of infringing upon the rights of lynchers. Those who spoke up for the right to be free from discrimination were accused of infringing upon the rights of those who discriminated. Those who spoke up for the right of spouses not to be battered were accused of infringing upon the rights of batterers.
Today, those who speak up for the right of consenting adults to marry whom they choose are accused of infringing upon the rights of those who find certain unions repugnant. Those who speak up for the right of freedom from government-imposed religion are accused of infringing upon the rights of those who want government to erect monuments with religious texts, lead students in prayer, present a creation myth as science, use a Bible and the phrase
so help you God to swear in witnesses and public officials, sponsor prayer days, and more.
Being human, we skeptics are not immune. Sometimes those who speak up for the right to challenge the views of a notable skeptic are accused of myopia, insurrection, sexism, hate and more. Sometimes those who speak up for the right of non-skeptics to be treated with common courtesy are accused of being wimps or traitors. To be fair, there are times when the accused are guilty as charged. And, just to complicate matters, there often exists a vast continuum in-between.
What a mess.
Anyone can cry
foul. But to discern the foul-er from the foul-ee — and, when appropriate, to discern and root out the bit of both that may exist in oneself — requires vigilance, detachment, an overriding sense of fairness, and a continuing willingness to reconsider. Good luck to us all.
Steve Cuno, who readily admits to being a frequent foul-er and foul-ee, is the founder of the RESPONSE Agency, an evidence-based marketing firm in Salt Lake City. You can read his marketing blog by clicking here and his quasi-skeptical blog by clicking here.