On “Not Harassment Per Se”
EDIT: If you are here to talk specifically about Justin Vacula and WiS2, I have created a follow up post that addresses many of the issues hashed out between myself, John C. Welch, Pitchguest, and others. See my new post “On ‘Not Harassment Per Se’ Part 2” to join the discussion there.
This is going to be one of those harder posts for me to write. I’m going to be talking about things I’m not that proud of; I’m going to be recounting a time when I wasn’t at my best.
I had a pretty steady girlfriend in High School. We started dating when I was in Grade 11 and she was in Grade 9. We were together for 5 1/2 years over the span of about eight years. We had, as you can imagine, many of the same friends- being together as long as we were means nurturing many common friendships. As with most relationships, there are several sub-groupings of our common friends- there are those much closer to her, those much closer to me, and a large swath in the middle that hold no immediate allegiance to one of us more than the other.
My girlfriend and I once broke up around the end of May in my Grade 13 year. The whole thing was rather anti-climactic as far as break-ups between us usually went; there was no yelling or fighting or schisms within our group of friends. It was really just her telling me that things were done, and me not really liking it but trying my best to be mature about the whole thing.
There was an end of school party planned by several of our friends- we were all going to camp out in tents and toast the end of another school year. My ex didn’t want me to go to the party. She made that pretty clear to must of our common friends, perhaps hoping that I would get the hint. At the time I thought it was pretty childish of her to try and prevent me from going to this party, after all these were our mutual friends and I knew and had good relationships with many of them. Why should I have to stay home while she has a good time? In her defence, this party was going to be overwhelmingly occupied by people who were closer to her than to me- and I knew this. In my mind though, these were my friends too, and I was not about to sacrifice my social life for the increased comfort of my ex girlfriend.
Just to make sure my bases were covered, I took special care to let as many people as possible know that I was going to be coming to the party. Most were very supportive of my coming, though some indicated some trepidation at the prospect of having to be put in the middle of things. Those who were closest to me were of course excited that I would be coming and considered my ex’s protestations to be petty and unfair. The friends who were closer to her tended to suggest that maybe my going was not necessarily wrong per se, but that it might significantly impact the enjoyment of everyone there and that I might want to avoid her as much as possible if I did decide to go.
Once it became apparent that I was most definitely going and that I wasn’t about to change my mind on this- my ex made a very public decree that if I were to show up that I was not to speak to her at all. She told everyone that if I was in the same circle of conversation- that she would leave, if I attempted to speak to her- she would not respond, and that several people she knew who were very close to her would be avoiding me as well. Lines were drawn- and the ball was in my court.
So the day of the party I did what any reasonable person would do…. I showed up and made it my mission to make her look bad.
I didn’t go up to her and speak to her directly because I knew that she explicitly had said that would be wrong. No, instead I told everyone that I thought it was just so childish that the two of us couldn’t exchange cold pleasantries- that I understood how hurt she was, I understood her decision, but that perhaps- just maybe– it was a little immature and petty and cheap. I took special care to join into conversations in which she was one of many participants- surely she could not tell me when and with whom I could have conversations, right? I made a concerted effort to involve myself as much as possible with her close friends, thus forcing them to choose between being being dicks to me or anger her. If she was in a certain area- I was happily found within earshot, but never speaking to her or hanging out with her specifically. I made a conspicuous show of just how much fun I was having with everyone, laughing a little louder and drinking a little more and hamming it up in general.
What I never did was talk to her. What I never did was break the rules that she had set for that party. I never tried to turn people against her, or take friends away from her or confront her in any way. Not at all.
What I did instead was just have a good time with my friends. Sure, maybe I really needed to speak with that person who she was presently engaged with. Maybe I spent an inordinate amount of time within 10 yards of her present location. Maybe I was having an absolutely wonderful conversation with her two best friends that night. Perhaps I was really genuinely enjoying a wonderful party.
So how do you think she reacted?
She got mad.
She had to be consoled by several other guests, she made a scene, and then she left.
“It’s not my fault” I said, “I never spoke to her or confronted her at all!”
Some of the people on Team George said it too….
She was being unreasonable. She couldn’t expect me to not go to the party- even if most of the people there were more closely aligned with her. We were still all friends, right? George didn’t confront her. He didn’t speak to her against her wishes. He didn’t do anything that was harassing her in any real way. She was the one with the problem.
See? I was not harassing her.
Well, not per se.
Did I purposely do things in an attempt to force her hand? Yes. Did I do things with the intention of making her look silly? Yep. Was I enacting a calculated and methodical plan to ruin her experience and try to get her to do something irrational and blameworthy? You bet I was. Not just that, but I was manipulating friendships and social conventions to make other people complicit in my passive-aggressive vendetta.
Yet I really didn’t do anything that I couldn’t explain away as normal party behaviour. I was just having fun at a party, right? I knew those people I engaged with when she was talking to them. I wasn’t ever in her personal space. I was never threatening. I was just conspicuously there.
Could a case be made that my ex was being unreasonable and petty by asking me to be uninvited? Certainly. Someone could make the case that people need to be aware that when you have a relationship long enough you are going to have many of the same friends and likely find yourself at many of the same gatherings. Perhaps it is immature to ask someone to not speak to you at all at a group function or to foster the kind of tribal loyalties that are a reality in and group of feuding people. Some people might see what I did as a reasonable punishment for being unreasonable.
I just look back and feel like an ass.
What I accomplished felt very satisfying at the time. I was cheered on by a bunch of my friends who felt she deserved to be shown as a fool. My ex was hurt by the whole thing- as were some of her closer friends who had to deal with the fallout. In the meantime- though they wouldn’t necessarily say it- I managed to alienate several of the “fence-sitters”, those friends who really didn’t want to take sides. Most of them were smart enough to see through the “just a guy having fun at a party” act. They knew I was punishing her- and whether they called it harassment or not- they knew that it was genuinely wrong and just as petty as anything she had done to that moment.
I’m not proud of any of this. I just read something today that reminded me of what a complete jerk I was and the sharp pangs of guilt and remorse came bubbling up to the surface. What felt like requital now feels like hollow contempt. Some people might not call that harassment.
I guess it isn’t harassment per se, but I don’t particularly want my actions to be thought of as “not harassment per se“.
This is one of those moments that I wish I could have back. What if I had have passed on a party that I was destined to sour? What if I had have gone and just made an effort to live and let live- to consciously avoid putting either of us in an unnecessarily compromising position? What if I had have been the bigger person and tried to build solid bridges and fences instead of charging around with a battering ram?
What I’m saying is that victory never tasted so sour or left me so wanting.
With all that said enjoy Women In Secularism 2. I’m sure nobody is planning to follow around certain speakers in a totally non threatening manner. I’m sure no one is planning to ask questions of speakers who have asked that person not to speak to them, or conspicuously “just need” to speak to that person who is currently engaged with certain speakers, or find themselves always in the next conversation over in the room, or otherwise try to “do absolutely nothing wrong” in an effort to make others misbehave. I’m sure it will be an absolute blast…..