I’ve been thinking lately about a lesson I saw taught in a martial arts class over a decade ago.
A young student was misbehaving. I knew this kid from field trips and other school activities, and he was doing typical things for him – not paying attention, calling out funny responses from the back row, making faces and showing off, that sort of thing. He was always a little difficult to manage but this particular day he was worse than usual. One of the instructors stopped the class and took the boy aside from the group. He picked up a lightweight rattan sword. They use these for practice – they’re very light, and they are made of several light sticks bundled together. They make a loud clattery noise when they hit, and use up most of the energy doing that, so they don’t hurt. They weigh very little.
The instructor got the student to sit or kneel, and hold his hands out straight in front of him at shoulder height. Then he held out the sword and asked the student to take it with both hands, holding the sword and his arms all parallel to the floor. Simple. You could do the same thing yourself right now with a ruler or a pencil or anything else rigid and lightweight. It’s trivial to hold your arms extended, elbows locked, hands a fixed distance apart (because they’re holding something that doesn’t bend or stretch.) Easy, right? By now everyone was watching to see what the actual punishment was going to be. Would the instructor now hit the student, or demand they do something difficult? (It was common in that class to assign pushups for misbehaviour, and I adopted the habit myself, giving my kids pushups in the grocery store if they were driving me crazy.) But no, the instructor just stepped back and said “just hold that as long as you can.” The kid grinned. Everyone else looked puzzled. It was trivially easy to do.
But if you try this yourself, you’ll soon discover that very quickly it gets harder. It starts to really hurt after just a few minutes. If you’re stubborn and you grit your teeth, you can keep going. This student was very stubborn. After a while though, his arms would occasionally droop down. “Either put it down or keep it up! Shoulder height! Arms straight!” the instructor would call and the student would try again and manage to get back into position. Eventually he was clearly in distress. The instructor told him “you can put it down whenever you want” but it was quite a while before he did. His muscles were clearly very sore.
On that day, the instructor didn’t explicitly close the loop. He seemed content to have found a way to get through to this student that classes were not his to disrupt and there were things the instructors could do that the student didn’t like. But years later, I saw a larger lesson in the choice of that particular exercise. Lifting that light sword (or the pencil or ruler you tried this with) is nothing. It’s really nothing at all. No effort. Anyone can do it. And at first, holding it is nothing also. If you had never lifted a pencil before, and you met someone who was struggling after holding one for many minutes, and you tried lifting a pencil yourself, you would be really puzzled. “Why are you complaining? This is super easy. There’s nothing to it! Anyone can do it!” The student’s misbehaviour was like this. Each little thing – the funny comment, the silly face, doing the move backwards – was in itself nothing. Easy to deal with or ignore. Not a problem. But enough of them add up. Just like the time holding the light weight. It becomes hard. It becomes painful. It becomes unbearable.
I really urge you to try this. How long can you hold the pencil or ruler out before you start to feel an effort? Before it hurts? Before you physically cannot do it any longer? Try predicting these times and then doing it.
The world is full of things that are trivial and nothing if you only experience them once, or once a decade, for a few minutes. It can be nearly impossible to imagine that these trivial things could ever add up to something painful. In 1970 (yes! 50 years ago!) a university professor coined the term microaggression for tiny moments of “you don’t belong” aimed at racial minorities, disabled people, women in male-dominated industries, gay people, and so on. People who haven’t experienced a steady diet of “you don’t belong”, however mild, often literally cannot imagine how it could add up to something painful. Sure, maybe you wince for a moment when someone assumes a group of developers are all male, or all straight, but it’s no big deal, right, and I’m sure the women know that when we say “men” we mean everyone, and the gay people know that when we say “wife” we mean wife, husband, partner, whatever. On its own, one tiny moment of “the only people I have to consider are X” is a little needle for people who aren’t X, but it’s such a tiny needle, who would complain, who would object, there was no nasty intent. Think about holding your arms out for 10 or 15 minutes and then think again about exclusionary language, policies that assume only married people have children, asking people “where are you from”, telling someone “you don’t look like a software developer”, making jokes about people’s weight or appearance, and all those tiny tiny little things that are nothing once, but that truly genuinely add up over time to real pain.
And then ask yourself: if it really doesn’t matter whether you say “men” or “people”, then why is it so important you keep saying “men”? That sounds like it actually does matter after all. If it’s no big deal and of course we all know that there are people who differ from you in some way, why are you not prepared to do the work of talking as though such people exist, instead asking them to do all the work of translating your literal words into what you probably meant, or would have meant if you had thought about it? How can you lessen some of the pain and effort other people have to put in all day, every day, day after day? It will be no big deal to you, right?