On juxtaposition

This post made me realize why people who were the adults in my life when I was a kid don’t understand why I feel they blamed me for being bullied, for being sexually harrassed on the school bus, and for myriad other things that happened to me as a kid.

“We never said it was your fault,” they say. “We’re just trying to help. If that’s the message you take from it, that’s your problem, not ours.”

What they fail to realize is the effect of juxtaposition. When you put two different abstract things close together, that creates an implied compare and contrast. It’s used everywhere: In literature, in news articles, in scientific papers, and in daily conversation. If you’ve ever seen someone say, “If you do that like this, it works.” after you’ve tried and failed at something, you’ve experienced the effect of juxtaposition. Your way doesn’t work. This way does. Implied is that you’re doing it the wrong way.

Likewise, when they chose to talk about boundaries after I’d been sexually harrassed, or to talk about social interactions and how not to be so damn weird after I’d been bullied, the juxtaposition of the two things creates the implication that the bad thing was my fault.
Even if it wasn’t. Their protests that they were trying to help only further this implication because in a dispute, you in principle should try to resolve it by getting the person in the wrong to change their behavior, not by trying to get the innocent party to change theirs.*

Because of that, when they were trying to get me to change my behavior and refusing to even try to get the bullies to change theirs (“kids will be kids,” after all), I got the message that it’s okay to bully, and that I deserved the bullying for being so damn weird. And, by extension, I got the message that adults’ condemnations of bullying were just so much bullshit, and that adults were liars and untrustworthy, however nice they might seem.**

So, parents and mentoring adults of bullied kids: I’m not saying you can’t work social skills, but for the love of all that is good in this world, consider what you’re juxtaposing your advice with and the implications that creates. Working social skills after a kid makes a faux pas that hurts someone’s feelings? Fine. Working social skills after they were jumped and beaten up at school, came home in tears over teasing, or were rejected from a group of kids playing? Not fine.

Think about juxtaposition. Think about the message you’re sending.

*I get that this is not always the case – victim blaming is often a thing. But this is how adults teach conflict resolution to kids, and this is the social rule I had back then regarding conflict resolution – if the adults are yelling at/lecturing/coaching me over it, it’s my fault. A modified version of this rule still exists for me: If I’m the one getting yelled at/lectured at/coached, the person doing the yelling/lecturing/coaching thinks I’m at fault. Difference is that now my social rule makes allowance for the fact that they might be wrong.

**This was a common theme for me. When adults said one thing and then did another, I felt they were dishonest. As a kid, my view was very black-and-white on the issue. They say Y. They do X. X and Y are mutually exclusive. Therefore, they were lying about Y, was how my reasoning went. Now, I see that there are shades of grey – maybe they have no idea where to start with tackling bullying and think it’s easier to teach me to pass. Maybe they think they’re protecting me. Maybe they had no idea just how bad it was because everyone else was minimizing it. Who knows? I’ll say this: The pain, fear, and distrust these actions by the adults in my life instilled are very real, and lasting.

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