Thomas Wictor

Discomfort is not assault

Discomfort is not assault

I just read an op-ed about artist Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker,” currently installed in the open at Wellesley College.

Many of the students want the sculpture placed indoors because they say it makes them feel unsafe.

Rather than comment on this particular contretemps, I’d like to talk about a quote from Robert Shibley, senior vice president at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

It’s the idea that any kind of discomfort is a form of assault.

I can’t say if that applies to this particular case, since the complaint is that the sculpture may trigger flashbacks in women who’ve been raped. As someone afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder with secondary psychotic features (PTSD-SP), I can tell you that sights, sounds, smells, and situations do indeed trigger flashbacks in me.

Tim and I were nearly murdered by this guy on December 28, 1995.

He came out of the darkness, began bobbing and weaving like a boxer, shoved a TEC-9 semiautomatic pistol in my face, and squealed, “Don’t fuck with me, man!

I could see from his eyes that he smiled as he did this. Without thinking, I turned and ran, my brains utterly scrambled. Tim said the guy pointed his gun at my head as he chased me. For those of you not familiar with firearms, the TEC-9 is notorious for jamming unless you keep it scrupulously clean. I’m certain who the gunman was. He was a fabulist who had at most a room-temperature IQ.

What he did was buy the scariest looking gun he could, fired it at a range so he could feel the bucking machismo in his hand, and then never cleaned it. This weapon will jam after just one firing, as deposits are left in the chamber. Here’s a man having trouble with his TEC-9.

Tim and I think the bookstore owner where we worked tried to have us murdered by his nearly retarded accomplice as part of an insurance scam. (I’ve been the victim of several scams, haven’t I?) Tim and I would be killed, the store owner’s worthless stock would be stolen, and then he could claim it was a truckload of rare first editions. The plan failed because the gun jammed.

For years after that night, I had PTSD episodes in which I lost my mind. All it took was seeing a young man with a certain bouncy walk or a jolly, high-pitched voice. Once I dove headfirst into bushes. Another time I ran blindly out into the street. I also floored it and sped away from a drive-up ATM, almost cutting Noreen in half as she hung out the window.

Ten years after the night Tim and I were almost murdered, I was chosen to sit on a jury that would decide the fate of a young man accused of breaking into a house, raping the woman who lived there, and then holding her hostage for hours before surrendering to the cops. As soon as we were seated, he began staring at me, and I had a PTSD attack. Though I was in no physical danger whatsoever, I couldn’t function. I asked to be excused, and the judge agreed.

Women who were raped could easily suffer PTSD episodes if they saw Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” at night. What I want to talk about instead is the notion that being offended is an assault.

Discomfort is not assault. However, I’ve met lots of people who think that it is. That’s why Internet flame wars get so out of control. I used to fight a lot with strangers online, but I was never offended by their viewpoints. I thought these people were arrogant, bigoted, ignorant, condescending, and too used to dominating the room, so I did my best to humiliate them.

This was completely destructive and vicious. I have no excuses. It was just a nasty, negative indulgence that I rationalized by telling myself that those with whom I fought deserved to be taken down a notch or two. Well, by doing to them what they did to others, I showed that I was no better than they were. They always picked on people who couldn’t defend themselves; I’m not bragging when I say that nobody can defend themselves against me.

There’s no mystery. I read and write every day. The more you do something, the more skilled you become at it. The fights were always about geopolitics, something I’ve studied for thirty years. I’ve got millions of facts at my fingertips. But so what? It’s only because the topic fascinates me. I don’t know anything about sports. If I got into a fight with a sports aficionado, I’d make a complete ass of myself. The only sport I like is hurling.

The Irish national sport, it’s three thousand years old and played on a gigantic field by two teams of Liam Neesons. I love it.

But back when I was indulging in my lust for worthless, pernicious, idiotic online bickering, I was never offended by the opposing opinions. I didn’t want to make these people shut up and go away.

Once or twice I went on sites that were perfect echo chambers. Everybody had exactly the same opinions. When I dissented, the commenters came right out and told me to go away. My dissent was offensive to them. They hated me for thinking differently.

I never hated the people with whom I fought, because I didn’t know them. I hated the way they picked on people who couldn’t defend themselves, but then I became the same sort of person myself. I was able to argue rings around my targets until they blocked me, an admission of total defeat.

Here’s a confession: I always felt awful after these fights.

So I no longer take part in flame wars. Every day I read opinions that are diametrically opposed to mine. But they don’t offend me, and they don’t make me think any less of the person. All it means is that we disagree. And we don’t have to inform each other that we disagree. We can talk about the things we agree on. That’s my method of navigating social media. I get links that endorse sites, articles, or video clips that I find utterly without value.

To me. They’re obviously of value to others. Who am I to tell them that they have to think like me? If everyone thought like me, we’d be in one of those echo-chamber sites, where the people hated me for thinking differently. Imagine how tenuous your beliefs must be if you actually hate someone for not sharing them.

Some opinions make me feel discomfort, but that’s my problem. Nobody is assaulting me by expressing their opinion.

In my opinion this moon-shadow of the aloe in my garden looks like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

You’re perfectly free to disagree with me. I won’t be offended.

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