The Bargain, and Its Alternative

A funny thing happened on the way across the blogosphere.

Somewhere along its way through time and space and the series of tubes, the "Terrible Bargain" started being referenced as an agreement to be silent to allow people their prejudices.

I have seen variations on, "I'm having a hard time keeping the terrible bargain," meaning "a hard time keeping my mouth shut about something that's annoying me," at other blogs, in comments here, and in two guest posts that have been submitted. Some commenters have criticized the post on the basis that they interpreted it as an exhortation to silence in exchange for peace.

I suspect the misunderstanding arises from the resonance of this line: Swallow shit, or ruin the entire afternoon? A lot of people relate to that line, to that dreadful feeling of loneliness as one stands in the reverberating echo of a slur or some other indignity, knowing that a reasonable discussion of the offense is not possible because of the person who offended, because that person will not respond reasonably to being forced to address hir privilege; knowing no matter how cautiously or carefully or calmly or reasonably or angrily or aggressively or contemptuously one approaches the issue, only drama will ensue; knowing that the only realistic choice is swallowing shit to maintain a public serenity or ruining the entire afternoon to maintain one's principles and dignity.

Sometimes, silence—swallowing shit—is the better option (of two shitty options) because one just doesn't have the energy that day, or because a confrontation could put one's job at risk, or because one is at a breaking point and isn't yet prepared to say to a partner or parent or mentor or friend: I just can't be around you anymore.

But silence as a strategy is just a consequence of the Terrible Bargain. It is not the bargain itself.
This, then, is the terrible bargain we have regretfully struck: Men are allowed the easy comfort of their unexamined privilege, but my regard will always be shot through with a steely, anxious bolt of caution.
The Terrible Bargain is this: If you make a ruined afternoon the only possible outcome of my refusal to swallow shit, I will never be able to wholly trust you.

I was not exhorting silence, and I was not confessing to it.

Iain and I have had house-shaking rows that began with his expressing internalized sexism, followed in quick succession by my pointing it out, his getting defensive, my getting frustrated, his getting more defensive, my getting aggravated, his getting exasperated, my getting angry, and the whole thing escalating into an enormous shitstorm of invective and recriminations.

[Note: Because I want to be totally fair to Iain (who, btw, gave his enthusiastic consent to be included in this piece), I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not claiming the only arguments we've ever had are because he's been defensive about expressing internalized sexism. It's just that those are the only arguments relevant to this post. I fuck up, too. I've hurt him, and I've had cause to apologize. We are almost always good to one another—and very occasionally shitty to each other.]

Now, the truth is, that particular trajectory toward enormous shitstorm is largely because we are Liss and Iain, not woman and man: Liss, who comes from a home of Not Speaking About Unpleasant Things, is fiercely averse to under-rugging, insistent on just getting shit out in the open, like, now, and Iain, who comes from a home of OMFG WE'RE FIGHTING!!!, is mulishly conflict-avoidant. We are a poor match in terms of natural communication styles about contentious subjects, and we've worked hard at sorting that shit out—I can back the fuck off, he can step the fuck up, and, when all else fails, we scream absurdities at each other to diffuse: "ENGELBERT HUMPERDINCK! ENGELBERT HUMPERDINCK!" (It works. But I digress.)

There is also, however, a part of it that's about Liss being a feminist woman and Iain being a straight, white, cisgender, educated, middle-class man whose many privileges are rarely challenged. Even though, intellectually, he knows I'm not accusing him of deliberate maliciousness, and knows I understand he doesn't intend to hurt me, and knows I'm telling him because I want to be able to trust him, and because I already do, and knows down to his very bones that I wouldn't even bother if I didn't already believe and know him to be decent and good and capable of even more, despite all that, being challenged on his male privilege, when it's such a rare occurrence, makes him viscerally defensive.

And it's taken a good long time for him to wrap his head around the fact that another part of that privilege is having control over which direction we go when he says/does something sexist and I point it out to him.

There are infinite possibilities of how to react: He could be defensive. He could refuse to hear me. He could try to insist I judge him on his intent, rather than the actual effect of his words/actions. He could accuse me of imagining things. He could imply that I'm crazy. He could turn it around on me. He could behave belligerently, childishly, furiously. He could storm out. He could stand in one place and stomp his feet. He could shout. He could demand a divorce. He could buy a one-way ticket to Rio. He could throw spaghetti. He could challenge me to a duel.

Or he can listen. Take on board what I'm saying and acknowledge how I feel. And then we can get on with the day.

It is a privilege that he gets to decide. And it is a privilege I recognize, because it is also operative for me, when my privilege is challenged—my white privilege, my straight privilege, my cis privilege. I have the same privilege, just in different situations.

Listen, or ruin the entire afternoon?

My speaking up, even before we learned how to better manage those conversations, is a challenge to the privilege of being in receipt of criticism—a privilege which Iain now recognizes he has, and understands that to wield it irresponsibly is a silencing mechanism.

Ruin enough afternoons for someone, and zie'll never bother challenging your privilege again.

The imperceptible slamming of an door to close off access to part of one's self is masked by the quickening footfalls of walking away, or by the gnashing of gritted teeth which accompanies a self-imposed silence; either way, the door closes with a heave of resignation, after one too many ruined afternoons, when the balance of trust has shifted from hopefulness to despair: I've got no traction here; I mustn't bother, and instead endeavor to protect myself.

That is the Terrible Bargain, and it is struck in either the silence obliged by or the loud conveyance of an obdurate refusal to examine one's privilege, and the sloppy buckshot of its careless expression.

Iain's taken a long look at the Terrible Bargain from its other side, and doesn't want the easy comfort of unexamined privilege at the cost of my trust. And so he does his best to quell that reflexive defensiveness and listen.

And in those moments of listening, we forge a new bargain, lovingly struck: He looks inside himself for the hardened bits of internalized misogyny that yet linger, unexamined; I hand him in exchange the crumbling bricks of a protective wall built long before we met.

The rubble collects at our feet, and we kick it away.

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