Badger Beginnings - We can't always all get along if we wanna git 'er done | HBR Talk 39

One of the things I hate the most about dealing with political debate is the problem squatter, a debater with a terrible handicap. This individual suffers from a crippling obsession with positions their debate opponent did not take. Rather than attempting to discuss existing issues and the positions people have taken on them, they will pick a position they want to counter and fixate on that. They’ll take over the discussion and strive to maneuver their opponent into defending the position they want to counter, stubbornly occupying the discussion and refusing to deal with the fact that the conversation you are having is not the one to which they are responding. This is, essentially, a type of bully… and as I had to learn the hard way in life that you cannot negotiate with bullies.

I was about 8 years old, playing alone at the park down the street from my house, which was unusually empty when she showed up. She was at least two grades ahead of me, and stood a good head and shoulders taller than I did. She outweighed me by... well, at least another half of me.

She spent a minute looking around, then fixated on me, and the name-calling started. I was confused, having done nothing for her to be mad about. 

Her accusation that I’d stolen “her” swing, one of 7 on the swingset, 6 of which were empty, including that didn’t super-special unpaired swing at the end, was my first clue as to what was really going on. She didn’t want that swing. She wanted to fight. It didn’t matter that I’d done nothing to her. I was the designated victim, as there was no one else to pick on.

Whatever. I hate fighting. I hate hurting people. I don’t want to get hurt. You can’t fight without risking having to deal with one or the other unless you’re far more skilled than I was. “Ok, have it,” I said, and went to play on the slide. 

Big mistake.

Having failed to start a fight over the swing, my would-be opponent became even more confrontational, following me there, and climbing up the the front of the slide so that I couldn’t go down from the top. Unable to make it more than halfway, she sat on her perch and dared me with her eyes to make fun of her predicament.

Great. Now she was grouchy and embarrassed. I didn’t have to do or say anything. I was doomed, regardless.

I gave peace one more try. Ignoring the impending beating glaring at me over the side of the slide, I wandered off to ride the horsey-on-a-giant-spring, the dumbest and least fun toy in the park. It took the most work, jarred the body, and often gave the rider a mild case of whiplash. What idiot designed these things, anyway? Only a die-hard fight starter would have the nerve to pretend to want to take this toy away from anyone.

And yep - you guessed it. Blondie slid back down and stormed across the park after me. Grabbing the horse by the head, she gave it a mighty pull that drew its nose nearly all the way to the ground, then let go. I jumped off as she did, landed about a yard away, then jumped up and headed for the monkey bars, leaving my furious tormenter behind.

I still thought I could avoid the problem. I was going to climb up high, because she didn't seem like a good climber. There, I could just look down and watch her fume... a practical behavior I'd learned from my cat. I wouldn't feel bad about watching her fume. That was her choice, not mine. But she wasn’t going to let that happen.

Somehow, I missed the sound of pounding feet coming up behind me in the grass. Blondzilla grabbed a good-sized handful of my hair and yanked me to a stop.

That was it. I'd done everything I could to avoid a conflict, and yet there it was. I slammed the outside of my wrist into her forearm, making her let go, and asked her what her problem was.

The reply was another swift grab at my hair. She was going to make this a chick fight.

No way was I doing that, yet I was still trying to get out of hitting back. Grabbing her swinging fist, I pulled, turned, and sidestepped. My execution was clumsy, and she only tripped instead of falling to the ground, but I’d never tried that before. I'd only seen it on TV. Of course, it didn’t work, and there I was faced with The Big Bad Blond, intent on beating me to a pulp whether my position was “I’m gonna kick your ass” or not. I quickly realized, when she got in a few good hits, that refusing to defend myself wasn’t even an option. 

Next time she swung at me I grabbed her wrist and pulled again, this time with largely accidental success, and she fell, hard. Now I was standing over an enraged bully who was so out of shape she had to roll over before she could get off the ground, growling the whole time about how she was gonna kill me when she got up

My options were lousy, and I had little time to think about them. I could run away and get called a chicken by the fifteen or so kids who had come out of nowhere to watch the fight, and I’d probably have to deal with this bully again later... or I could stand there and let Blonderella get up and kick my skinny little butt... or I could find a way to stop her. 

I instinctively took that last path. As the Beached Bulldozer rolled toward me, I kicked her in the ribs with as much force as my spindly little wimpodite legs could create… which was much more than I had expected. Due to our combined motion, I missed and hit the side of her gut. I felt my foot go further into her body than I expected, and then I watched in horror as she flopped back to grass and floundered, choking and gasping for air.

And that thing I hate about fighting happened. I’d actually hurt the girl, and I immediately felt like a horrible person as my overactive imagination kicked in, replaying a scene I'd seen on TV... some character's rib had broken and punctured his lung, and he was going to suffocate if the ER doctor didn't do something right away. I was sure that was what I'd done to Old Blondie down there, and images of short caskets and mini-jail cells floating through my head. I did what any red-blooded, half-panicked eight-year-old girl would do: 

I ran home to get my Mommy.

Of course, it turned out that I’d only knocked the wind out of her, a fact we found out from the other kids upon returning to the park, as Blondie had run home to her mother to avoid getting into trouble. 

I wasn’t a murderer. I’d just won a fight. Sure, the other kids teased me about running off afterward, but that bully never confronted me again, and some others who had been pushing my buttons kinda quit. 

That was my lesson in not negotiating with bullies, not letting them set the rules, and not expecting them to be reasonable or honest. I learned that there are times when diplomacy is not an option, and you either stand your ground, or you lose it. 

Years later, I ran into the verbal version in political debate, the crybully, and at first, I made the mistake of attempting a diplomatic solution. As with the playground bully, diplomacy does not work on this kind of troll. She’s not interested in an honest debate. Your position doesn’t matter; she’s looking for a designated bad guy, and you’re it. As with the playground bully, you either stand your ground, or you lose it. She cannot fight effectively on your ground, so she will try to drag or con you into her territory.

She will use every tactic we’ve gone over during our past discussions on gender issues debate; logic fallacies, shaming language, false allegations of aggression and malice as a means of surreptitiously engaging in aggression and malice of her own… all as a way of manipulating you onto ground that’s easier for her to attack.

It isn’t the bully’s prerogative to control both sides of the discussion. You don’t have to watch your tone. You don’t have to be defined by the bully’s sensibilities and the reactions to which they lead. You’re not wrong for refusing to take that. Your opponent’s attribution of malice, transgression, suppositions to you doesn’t make you responsible for them. You’re only responsible for your actual position… and it’s on you to hold her responsible for what hers is under all of her embellishments. Tear down every scrap of false framing. Cut off every tangent. When you see bullshit, you call it what it is, and don’t let yourself be painted with it. Want to win? Kick her right in the rhetoric, and you’ll knock the wind out of her the same as with the playground bully, because that’s really is she’s got. And sometimes, just sometimes, it’s perfectly reasonable to tell your opponent where she can go, and what she can do when she gets there.