How to Answer the Offense

There you are, giving a lecture. Perhaps you are talking about the difference between wages and earnings so as to explain why there is no such thing as a "wage gap" affecting women in the United States. Or perhaps you are talking about the Christian West as the source of ideals such as freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Or perhaps you are talking about the legal situation of gays in countries that are governed by strict adherence to sharia.

And then it happens. Someone starts screaming: "I find that really offensive!" "This is hate speech!"

Your mind boggles. (Okay, it boggles if you aren't Milo. He's used to this kind of response.)

You thought you were stating facts. How is it hateful, you think to yourself, to say that women in the freest countries in the world, when given the choice, choose certain kinds of careers over others and sometimes even prefer to stay home with their children when they are growing up? How can it be offensive to suggest that the ideals of our American culture have particular historical and religious roots? Why is it hurtful to note that, according to Islamic law, homosexuality is punishable by death, and in many Islamic countries, is?

"Lies lies lies!" you hear someone in the audience scream when you try to point these things out. "Take your hate speech off this campus! Take your hate speech off this campus!"

Your pulse racing, you try to think how best to respond. What should you do?

1. Fuck your feelings. More precisely, watch your feelings carefully, as the first thing you are likely to feel is alarmed, followed by a desire to go on the offensive. Breathe. Relax. You are not in danger from someone else's speech. They can yell and scream all they want, and it will not hurt you. More to the point, their yelling and screaming is not, in fact, about you. It is about them, their feelings, their emotions.

This is the most important rule in learning how to listen empathetically: paying attention to the way in which your own feelings interfere with your ability to hear what the other person is saying. Your first impulse will be to try to defend yourself against what you are feeling: that you have been unjustly attacked (which you have), that the other person is trying to shame you (which he or she is). It is critical at this point that you do not take the bait.

The person who is yelling at you is already in distress, for reasons that almost certainly have nothing to do with you. If you are giving a public lecture and the person is yelling at you, this is above all a failure of manners, which means the screamer is behaving like a child who wants attention. The whole reason for screaming is to get your attention, which for some reason or other, the screamer feels he or she must have.

This rule applies in less public conversations as well, when someone challenges you on something you have said and his or her voice (or written affect) takes on an aggrieved or hurt tone. He or she is hurting and wants you to hurt, too. The whole point of the attack is to make you respond, to go on the offensive yourself, so as to make the feelings of hurt seem justified. Again, you did not cause these feelings, they were already there. It is not your job to take them away.

Pro tip: It helps to keep yourself on a relatively low-carb diet. Attacks like these trigger our "fight or flight" response, which relies greatly on the availability of glucose. There is a reason the Desert Fathers fasted in order to be better able to control their emotions: it works. Plus, it keeps you fabulous and beautiful.

2. Be like water. As Bruce Lee put it: "Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless--like water." Keep yourself fluid, not rigid, and don't get stuck in knee-jerk responses.

First, do not apologize. You are under an emotional attack, not a logical one. You have been talking about facts, but the person screaming at you does not care about facts, only emotions--the emotions he or she is feeling on hearing things that do not accord with his or her previous understanding of the world. Do not apologize, do not let them make it about you.

Second, be gentle, stay cheerful. The whole purpose of the attack is to justify the screamer's feelings of anxiety and hurt. He or she may have the body of an adult, but the child inside is terrified and wants to lash out at the world for being so hateful and cruel. "Darling!" you might say. "Pumpkin! You need to settle down."

Third, find something in what has been said that you can agree with, ideally something you can make a joke about. My favorite: "Milo sucks!" which the protestors at West Virginia wrote on one of their signs. As Milo said, "I do!" Alternately, give them a gift, a selfie, some form of attention. Their whole narrative for why they are hurting depends on believing that you are the source of their feelings of being hated. The more you resist, the more they are confirmed in their need to attack. The more you can be like water, giving way just enough, the less they have a reaction to build off of.

Fourth, be firm. You might make a joke about yourself or acknowledge in some other way that you have heard them, but do not apologize for what you have been saying or allow them to change the terms of the argument. If they persist in their accusations, simply say, gently but firmly, "No." Repeat as necessary without further elaboration. Remember Arlo Guthrie, sitting there on the Group W bench, not proud...or tired, just singing his song.

"You hate women!" "No, I hate people who lie to them about things like the wage gap and campus rape culture."

"You hate minorities!" "No, I hate people who lie to them about the problems that they face in American society."

"You hate Islam!" "As an ideology that oppresses women and gays, yes."

Special case: The screamer refuses to stop screaming, claiming that his or her free speech is being violated. At this point, you give a lesson in manners: "Wait your turn." If he or she does not understand this concept, it is time for the adults to intervene and take him or her for a time out.

3. "That's not a question." You think, in giving a lecture or sharing an article on Facebook, that you are giving information or suggesting an argument, but this is not necessarily what you will get in return.

"I find that offensive!" is not an argument. Nor is: "That's really shameful of you, Rachel. I can't believe you would say that." Nor is: "I suppose you support killing everyone who disagrees with you." Nor is: "I'll bet you are happy when people are discriminated against." (I am sure you can give other examples from your own experience.)

Here's the thing: none of these accusations deserves or requires your response. They are not requests for more information; they are emotional attacks designed to put you on the defensive and elicit a counterattack. You cannot counter them with facts because at this stage facts are irrelevant. You need to shift ground.

How you do so depends in large part on the relationship that you have with the person who claims to have been offended.

If you are speaking, like Milo, before a public audience and someone comes to the Q&A with such an accusation, simply be firm (as above), and reiterate: "That's not a question," until your accuser formulates an actual question or it becomes clear that he or she has none, at which point you say, "Next question."

If you are speaking with one of your friends, there is likely something somewhat different, albeit related, at stake: your accuser's sense of self in relation to you. Bluntly, at some level, your friend needs or wants your approval for his or her perspective on the issue--and you are refusing to give it.

In either case, at some point, you may find it works to ask your accuser: "Why is it so important to you what I think?" Turn their personalization of the issue back on them, not as an accusation (which is what they expect), but as a reflection of their own interest in shaming or silencing you.

In a more intimate context, this tactic may enable you to get them to talk about what is actually troubling them, which will help clarify the emotions that they are feeling and projecting onto you (see above, on feelings). In public, it will tend to reinforce your authority, which they themselves are acknowledging through their need to fight you: they are afraid of you because they fear you may be right, which challenges their sense of their own righteousness.

If they respond, "I'm not afraid of you," then you win as long as they continue to attack you--now, by their own account--for no reason.

4. Keep a record. The whole point of such attacks is to silence you as a speaker, preferably by making you censor yourself, thus in your accusers' minds acknowledging the righteousness of their original initial attack. Do the opposite: make everything that they say as public as possible, either by posting videos of the interaction or, if the exchange has been less public, for example on your own Facebook feed, by writing about it on your blog.

Here it is important to take the high ground: name only those who have gone public with their accusations themselves. Otherwise, leave your interlocutors anonymous, generically defined as "friends" or "people at my talk." Expose yourself fully, but protect those who have not named themselves.

They will howl and scream and vow to come after you. (Trust me on this; it is not just Milo who has attracted their attention.) They will insist that you should be denied a platform from which to speak. To which the only appropriate response is, speak louder. Talk more. If you do not have a platform of your own, for example, a news site, create your own, like, for example, this blog.

The only reason Milo has the platform that he does is that he built it by way of hard work and persistence. He thought of the idea of doing a campus tour; he wrote newspaper columns; he wrote a book. It is nonsense to claim that he has taken away someone else's freedom of speech through his speaking. Likewise, it is nonsense for them to claim that your speaking prevents theirs. They are simply jealous that you have attracted an audience--and they haven't.

5. Support others. You know what it is like to be standing alone before the crowd, how frightening it can be even when you know that their only real weapon (as long as they stick with speech) is their ability to turn others against you through their accusations.

There are many reasons that people choose not to get involved when they witness this kind of attack: fear of the crowd turning against them, fear that they will not be able to withstand the attack, sometimes even fear of losing their loved ones or livelihoods.

But you have taken the podium, published that blog post, shared that article on Facebook. You are out there now, taking the heat. Do not let others take it alone. Be there for them, whether by writing blog posts in their defense or commenting on their Facebook shares. Refuse to be silenced by the fear of what others might think.

Morale, as Vox Day has argued, is here key: "Be quick to come running when your allies call... Pay closer attention to them than usual if you know they're under attack and provide them with tactical advice if you've got any and moral support if you don't." (Milo, this blogpost's for you!)

Bear witness. In other words, accept your role as a martyr (Gk: witness). It is your responsibility to stand up for freedom of speech and support others because if you don't, no one else will either.

This is especially true, the dean of my college reminded me this past week, for those of us who are faculty in academia. If the faculty do not stand up for academic freedom, the culture of academic freedom dies.

And if academic freedom and freedom of speech die, we all suffer. Men, women, whites, blacks, straights, gays, Christians, Muslims, atheists, and Jews alike.

No offense, but it's true.

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