This is our truth, tell us yours
No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Eleanor Roosevelt
There is a problem of social philosophy that you are usually introduced to in your first few weeks of studying the subject, it goes something like this;
It is 19th century Mexico and you ride into a small town on fiesta day. The Mayor of the town is a huge anglophile, based on his love of the novels of Charles Dickens. He makes you the guest of honour, sitting next to him as food and beer is served to all. He announces that he has an even greater honour, they were going to execute 10 revolutionaries as part of the proceedings, however he is in a generous mood, 9 will be pardoned, and the 10th you will execute.
He hands you the gun, smiling, if you do not shoot the one, all ten will die, if you do shoot the one, you will be responsible personally for killing a total stranger? the rules are unalterable, the point of the exercise is not to discuss Mexican history or legalities, but your feelings and thoughts around choice and moral responsibility. Do you agree with Mill that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or do you believe as Nietzsche did that the only thing we can ever really know is ourselves, and our own minds.*
One of the interesting things about this puzzle is how many people refuse to make the choice, shoot the mayor is a common response, killing someone OK in the narrative they write, a choice they are willing to make if they can hedge it with caveats, ifs and buts. The discussion around how we make choices gets even harder though when people see the word choice as a non neutral term, as something that shows complicity or guilt.
An area where this is often problematic is in the idea of choosing to feel x or y. People get angry, misunderstand and say of course I would not feel x if I were able. (Outside of this discussion are medical conditions, you are for example no more responsible for clinical depression than you are for being left handed). In the course of my studies one of the things my tutor has repeated a number of times is that you cannot make another person cry (obviously she didn’t mean you cannot bop them on the head, this is in the context of counselling.) If you are with someone and they cry that is their choice. People struggle because from very young not only are we taught that feelings are uncontrollable but that somehow we are magic and responsible for the feelings of others. How often as children are we told that our grades or behaviour will please mummy, or make daddy happy? Building a magical belief in our minds that somehow we can make others feel things by our actions.
Or a more personal example, it is a feature of Carter and mines relationship that I will sometimes poke him when I feel abandoned. Over the time we have been together he has always refused to rise to the bait. He understands that if I am feeling something that is my experience, he is not responsible for it, but he is for how he feels and acts. How often in a relationship do we accuse our partner when really what we are saying is, why can’t you mind read and perform magic?
It is so important as counsellors, and as decent human beings that we lose this belief in magical powers, for it challenges the core idea that every human has agency and autonomy. Sitting in the other chair it is also just as vital to understand that we are in control both of what we feel and what we do. A problem comes here as conventional support for victims, especially victims of rape and child abuse, has been to say “You had no choice.” This comes from the real rape, fate worse than death school of thinking, and perpetuates a sense of victimhood in the survivour. Coming to terms with abuse is about coming to terms with the what ifs and if onlys, the choices. Even with a knife to your throat you have a choice, submit or die. Only by accepting the power of choosing to live can you accept you are not a victim, someone may have chosen to victimize you, but in living you made a choice.
Conventional wisdom does not like this idea, for one thing many seem to think death would be a preferable option, thus the life ruined narratives of purity culture. When you see young men talk about rape this often comes out, the idea they would fight back no matter what, and of course in feckwitted demands for self-defence courses, all reinforcing the idea that the choice to fight is the only valid one. This pervasive cultural attitude is absorbed by survivors, and leads to the guilt, the belief that they should have done something. Only by understanding that the choice they made was a valid, and the right one for them can we move towards healing and wholeness.
I touched on this previously when writing about those sex workers who unite with antis, who claim they had no choice, could not consent, even when they were not trafficked or coerced. They fear looking at and accepting their own choices so much they refuse to accept the choices even exist. It reminds of a substance using sex worker who pointed out she could sell sex, or knock old grannies on the head and mug them to pay for her fix. She understood there is always a choice, and was willing to take responsibility for hers.
* for what its worth, I refuse, I am not responsible for the mayor, or anyone else’s choices, but I will not kill the prisoner, all I can do is be responsible for my own actions.