Hello, Cap and friends! I have a couple of questions about boundary-setting with people who don’t believe in boundaries.
The Awkward team’s advice and scripts on setting boundaries have been so wonderfully helpful in my life, but what (if anything) can you say to people who believe that setting boundaries in a family is controlling?
For an example, there are wonderful scripts you linked from the SPLC center, on how to set boundaries with family members being bigoted:
>”Your ‘jokes’ are putting unnecessary distance between us; I worry they’ll end up doing irreparable harm. I want to make sure those ‘jokes’ don’t damage our relationship.” “You know that respect and tolerance are important values in my life, and, while I understand that you have a right to say what you want, I’m asking you to show a little more respect for me by not telling these ‘jokes’ when I’m around.” “I don’t want this rift to get worse, and I want us to have a good relationship. What should we do?””
In my family (parents + siblings, I’m 30), the responses are simply, “There wouldn’t be a problem if you just laughed” and “You’re trying to control what I do by saying that. It’s manipulative to say that I’m disrespecting you if I keep saying [awful insults about minority groups, or about me personally].” I mean, in a way they are kind of right? I am literally attempting to control discourse to a degree, but somehow that feels like they are missing the forest for the trees in a way I can’t articulate. Especially since they get offended if you don’t laugh at their ‘jokes!’
Is there any way to rationally respond to people that think that attempting to set boundaries (or tears at being insulted) is “childish and manipulative”? They see that as a truly deeply harmful thing, and it would be really wonderful if it was possible to get them to understand the idea of **mutual** respect.
Thank you so very much for ANY ideas.
– A Weary Woman
Dear Weary Woman,
Here are your 4 new best friends:
- CHILLY AWKWARD SILENCE
Them: [Bigoted remark]
You: Wow. [+ maybe one of the SPLC scripts to unpack it]
Them: “It’s manipulative if you say my bigoted remarks are not okay!”
You: “Okay.” + CHILLY AWKWARD SILENCE
Them: “There would be no problem if you just laughed.”
You: “No.” + CHILLY AWKWARD SILENCE
Them: “Your problem is that you have no sense of humor.”
You: “Okay.” + CHILLY AWKWARD SILENCE
Be a broken record. Let them be offended. Let them think you’re being manipulative. Don’t engage in detail or give them reasons. If they won’t stop or escalate, say “Welp, good to see you, time to go!” & get out of there. You don’t owe them continued access to your attention. Leave the conversation and try again another day.
Whatever you do, don’t smooth it over. Let it get super awkward. Be the party pooper at the bigot party. Get a reputation for being uptight and humorless and no fun.
People have a right to their opinions, speech, and votes. You have a right to think those opinions are crap and to think less of people when they spout them. Bigots think that “everyone” thinks as they do and that their views are “simple common sense.” What bigots are looking for when they say bigoted stuff to people who (as far as they know) share their race/class/orientation/disability status/etc. is solidarity and reassurance. Deny them this reassurance and solidarity. Deny them evidence that “everyone” thinks that way. That is your power here, and it’s a pretty big one, given the way your family throws a tantrum whenever you try to use it. You’re already doing the right stuff, now it’s just about holding the line and letting be as awkward as they are making it.
If they care about your good opinion, they’ll stop saying that stuff around you. If they don’t, they won’t, and as a result, you’ll drift away from them and spend less time with them. If that happens, it’s a choice they are making. I guarantee that your folks can and do control themselves in countless other social situations, they just thought they could take their metaphorical hoods off around you and relax. Teach them that they can’t relax and that they need to behave themselves all the time.
Maybe because you spoke up a moment of self-awareness will come to them, and they will have a change of heart, but I think we should all keep our expectations about that very, very low right now and not get too invested in redemption narratives. Whenever I set a boundary here in moderation & dealing with (thankfully rare) trolling, I get pushback along the lines of “Well, with that attitude how do you expect to convert someone like me to your way of thinking?” The answer to that is: I don’t know, I’m not necessarily doing to convince you. I’m doing it for myself and for the other people who hang out here, so that we can feel safe and have the discussions we need to have. When you push back against someone’s bigoted remarks, this Thanksgiving (for one looming example) or at any other time, you’re not necessarily doing it to change that person’s heart or mind right in that minute. You’re doing it for yourself, so you can live with yourself and know that you did your best. And you’re doing it for the other people in your family, especially kids who are watching, to say, hey, I am a safe, kind person who doesn’t put up with this crap and you can be one, too.
True story: In undergrad, a professor invited Antonin Scalia (that Scalia) to our class to talk about hate crimes legislation and civil rights legislation in general. He made essentially the argument that many bigots make about this stuff – “Well, you can’t legislate people’s hearts, so why bother?” This was in 1993/1994 and I don’t have my notes anymore, so it’s not quite a direct quote that you can attribute, but he definitely said something along the lines of “If someone murders you because you’re gay or black, why can’t we just punish it like murder? Murder is already wrong enough, why do we have to saddle it with this extra burden of figuring out intent?”
What he was ignoring is the way that oppression is about systems, not personal intent. Hate crimes are terrorism, meant to send a message to people in the targeted group that the same thing will happen to them. It’s not just violence against one person, it’s a threat and should be treated as one. While it would be nice if every hate group had a change of heart, what we can control is making it harder for them to do violence to people.
You can’t legislate people’s hearts, but you can hack away the culture that normalizes their behavior one plate of mashed potatoes and awkward conversation at a time. The world needs you to be awkward and make it weird.