Thin-Skinned

“You’re very thin-skinned.”

She said it matter-of-factly, an interjection into a pause created after I had concluded a riveting complaint about the pressures of work.

I’m not thin-skinned! I protested inside my head. The crap I have to deal with is real!

Instead, I said, “Perhaps you’re right.” After all, she may have a point. I didn’t think I was thin-skinned, but if I was, how would I actually know?

I started thinking about what she said, and about what she meant. I know a lot of people who are extremely thin-skinned, and then there are those who aren’t bothered by anything that happens to them. Generally, I’d like to be more like the latter than the former (as I think many people would).

So what bothers me? That is, what are the things that I never seem to let roll off me? And does it happen so frequently that it caused my friend to not only notice, but also comment?

The Achilles Heel

The question came up again as I wrote my response to the general criticisms about my work (well, me, really) laid out recently by a random Internet forum. My work wasn’t actually discussed as much as it was a general flurry of ad hominem, metacommunicative attacks.

In writing up that article, I was forced to address many of the criticisms levied at me, and I was actually quite surprised at how well I was taking it. I wasn’t defensive, and I didn’t lash out in response. In fact, very little about what was written about me, bothered me at all. Sure, there were a few comments that were over the top, but…

It was then that it dawned on me that I actually am thin-skinned about something in particular. I get extremely thin-skinned when two conditions, in particular, occur:

  • When someone accuses me of doing something I didn’t do, and
  • When someone accuses me of not doing something when I did it

This goes back to something that I wrote earlier about “not doing guilt,” because guilt is what happens when people try to manipulate you by doing one of these two things:

Guilt is the feeling that happens when you do something you weren’t supposed to do, or don’t do something you were supposed to do.

Breaking it down even further, I began to realize that there is a “being-put-on-the-defensive” element, and a “manipulation” element. The “manipulation” element is what people try to do when they try to ‘guilt’ you into some behavior or another.

My thin-skinned responses, however, come from the former, the “being put on the defensive” element.

False Accusations

I think one of the worst things that people can do to each other is to falsely accuse them of a crime. The second worst thing that you can do to someone is minimize the consequences of such an accusation.

Right now in academia, there is a terrible trend of Star Chamber-like behavior on the part of university administrations to expel students who have been accused of crimes that were given no opportunity to defend themselves. La Sierra University, Yale, Wesley College, and Purdue are only a few of the universities who are doing this (I’ve been keeping track of many of these affronts to civil liberties in a curated list of insane university behavior).

In an article I read recently (that I cannot find for the life of me, so forgive if any specifics or details are erroneous), when a white student told a black student that he could not support the violence of BLM or Antifa by voting to promote their causes, she went on a campaign to destroy his reputation as a racist around campus and on Facebook, forcing him to take a ‘hiatus’ from school. While such behavior is bad enough (and egregious), the reaction to fellow students to his self-exile was equally as horrific (I’m paraphrasing):

Yeah, it’s terrible what’s happened to him, but not as bad as what’s happened to people of color throughout history.

This is the kind of attitude that sends me into a tailspin. There are so many things wrong with that sentiment that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Here we have actual injustice, actual false allegations that have direct consequences, but it’s insignificant compared to hypothetical examples. The act is not worth reacting to, just because someone, somewhere, had it worse.

Perhaps no example illustrates this more than the issue of false rape accusations. We live in a world now where not only are we instantly perceived guilty until proven innocent (and even that won’t help you), but even when you are proven innocent people won’t care. The Emma Sulkowicz fiasco illustrates this perhaps better than any other story I can think of.

The key here is not to discuss the merits (or lack thereof) of the controversy, just that – to me – the fact that the innocent can be falsely accused, labeled, incarcerated, or even worse goes to the heart of where my most knee-jerk reactions lie.

Flashbacks

When I was 17 years old in the week before the start of my Senior year, I nearly succumbed to the “worse” kind of false accusations. I was in the marching band (yes, I was a “band geek”) and I was asked to train the freshmen in some of the basics of marching cadence. One of these was a girl who didn’t say much, and we never interacted outside of band practice, except for one day when she asked me to take her home because she missed the last bus.

Thinking nothing of it, I dropped her off and went home. What happened next, well, you probably may already guess where this is going.

The next practice there was a huge guy hanging around the practice field. As usual, the director asked me to take the freshmen and work on some of the cadence (they were percussionists, so we were asked to go around the side of the school where the noise wouldn’t be distracting to the rest of the band). The big guy followed. The girl excused herself to go into the bathroom, and never returned.

After our practice session was over, we were heading back to rejoin the band when the guy said, “Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure,” I said, as the other students disappeared around the corner of the building.

“Do you have a problem touching people?” he asked.

I was confused. I hadn’t touched any of the students, even to help hold their drum sticks the right way. “No,” I said, not understanding what was happening. “I just didn’t need to touch them to teach them how to hold their sticks.”

This made him angry, and I had no idea why. “That’s not what I’m talking about, and you know it.”

I was genuinely surprised. I had no idea what he was talking about. I’d never seen him before, and had no clue what was going on. I had no idea he was connected to the girl.

He then told me that the girl, who had known he was coming all along (which was the reason she was hiding in the bathroom), had told him that I had “touched her sexually.”

“I’ve never touched her, ever,” I protested calmly, trying not to enrage him. He outweighed me by more than 100lbs, all of it muscle. I didn’t want to get into a altercation with this guy.

It didn’t work. “Are you calling my girl a liar?” he growled.

“No, I -” I began, and he took a swing at me. By some miracle, I saw what he was about to do, and ducked. He swung and missed, which only made him angrier. I bolted to his flank, but he grabbed the collar of my jacket as I tried to slip by, swung me around, and grabbed me with both hands.

Now, at the time I weighed about 160lbs. I was 5’10” tall. He picked me up over his head – horizontally – and body slammed me to the ground, my left shoulder taking the brunt of the force. It’s one of the reasons why I had to have rotator cuff surgery this past January, in fact.

Stunned, I couldn’t move away as he dropped his knee onto my neck. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move. Then he hit me, three times in rapid succession.

The rings on his fingers didn’t cause the most damage, believe it or not. I remember feeling the coolness of the metal mixed in with the hot fire of the impact as the first blow broke my nose. Then came a liquid sensation of frozen pain spreading across my entire face. So this is what real pain feels like, I remember thinking. It was a strange sensation of dualism – the agonizing suffering of the pain mixed in with a cool, detached analysis of the situation, experienced simultaneously and yet in isolation.

The second blow hit my teeth, and knocked my front tooth backwards. “You have amazingly straight teeth,” my dentists would say. A crazy thought hit me: they’ll never say that again.

In the split second before the third punch came, I struggled to avoid it. Twice was enough, thank you. His 275lb frame on my neck was vice-like, and there was no way to move out of the way. I was pinned, trapped. This time I felt the rings as he connected with my right eye; as he pulled his fist back one of them caught under my eyebrow in the socket and stretched the skin outwards before snapping back.

“Don’t you ever touch another girl again, ya hear me?” he snarled, and stood up. How he didn’t crush my windpipe, I’ll never know. How I didn’t suffocate, I have no idea. The beatdown was over, and I still had no idea what had happened, or why.

I lay on the ground, unable to move, barely able to breathe, made worse by the crying. I didn’t do anything, I found myself saying over and over. I didn’t do anything!

I was found by a trio of secretaries who were taking their daily walk around the building about a minute later. They screamed for help, an ambulance came. I couldn’t answer any question except with a hoarse whisper, “I didn’t do anything!” 

Over time, life works out its own epilogues, and the pieces of the story began to fall into place. The girl – whose name I genuinely do not remember – had suspected her boyfriend (the mugger) of cheating, and so she had fabricated an elaborate story to make him jealous. It worked. He had a history of violent crimes since about the time he could walk, had already been in (adult) prison twice by the time he was 19, so it wasn’t any surprise that he was going to not take such accusations calmly. She recanted her entire story, but he didn’t learn that until he stood before the judge during his trial.

She admitted to making up the entire story, and her boyfriend went to prison for a third time for violating his parole. She never apologized, and if I recall correctly transferred out of the school a couple of months later.

This happened just before the beginning of the school year, in “band camp” (and not the fun, American Pie kind). That meant that I had to live with the consequences of not just being falsely accused of something, being beaten up for it, but also the ongoing suspicion that I actually had done something wrong and deserved what I got.

“What happened to J?”

“He got beaten up by some guy for touching his girlfriend.”

“Got what he deserved, then.”

My senior year of high school was hell, as you can imagine. Even now, I’m sure there are people reading this who have a kernel of doubt, wondering is he telling us everything? It doesn’t matter that yes, yes I am – the initial assumption is that there must be some truth to the accusation, because “people just don’t attack other people for no reason.”

Right.

Am I Thin-Skinned?

I haven’t thought about this incident in years. It’s only been through self-examination and asking myself these questions about why I react the way I do did it come back to me. In fact, when people ask me how I hurt my shoulder, I honestly forgot that this is where it all began. I hadn’t blocked it out completely, it was simply a matter of my past that I had come to grips with.

Or so I thought.

As I go through the process of examining what “gets to me” versus what I can confidently allow to bounce off, I start to realize this theme. I find my moral indignation constantly resolving to this fundamental precept of individualism, espoused by Richard J. Maybury’s Juris Naturalis:

  • Do all you have agreed to do
  • Do not encroach on other persons or their property

What Maybury doesn’t cover is what happens when you are falsely accused of not following those precepts (though, to be fair, I have not read every book he has written, so this may simply be an error of ignorance).

As I look back over the topics and events that cause the greatest degree of ire, it seems to fall into this general theme. The issues in academic research that play on identify politics, the violence and accusations against others because of their immutable characteristics (like race or sex), the reliance on bad science regarding “implicit bias that is forced upon thousands of workers, the plagiarism and fabricated narratives used to sell stories (or elections) – all stems from the same general source: the vigilance necessary to avoid such allegations.

Answering the Question

The question I come up with now is, well, can there be a way not to be thin-skinned when you are accused of something you didn’t do, or that you didn’t do something that you did do?

When I was talking about my friend, nothing so dramatic was under discussion. We were talking about something far more mundane.1

Now that I know, though, what can I do about it? Can I stop reacting in an emotional way when something like this happens? After all, I’ve seen first hand (and second hand, and third hand) how these things can snowball and people get hurt. Lives get destroyed. When I was a senior in high school there was no Facebook, but had someone started spreading this girl’s accusations would I have been able to do anything about it? The very thought scares the hell out of me.

What do you do if you’re not Harvey Weinstein, but everyone treats you as if you were? In 2016 we saw Brexit and the US Elections, which saw way too many people (on both sides) resigning from the human race. Allegations of racism, white supremacy, sexism have been stuck to people to whom the terms don’t apply. Is it not appropriate, then, to react to this?

We have devolved to the point where “if you support free speech, then you support hate speech,” a metacommunication conflation in the highest order. Standing against violence committed by those who attempt to silence dissent (e.g., Antifa, BLM) now rates criticism for being, of all things, advocating violence (wait, what?).

So, I simply don’t know what to do with this revelation. I genuinely don’t know how to become “thick skinned” when someone falsely accuses me of some activity, or some identify. I’m sorry that I don’t have some profound answer to those attempting to answer the same question, but it is certainly a conundrum that warrants attention.

 

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  1. We were talking about my reputation as a vendor-neutral advocate in the tech industry, and I was getting upset at the accusations that I was highly biased in my selection of webinar topics and speakers

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