‘If someone tells you you’ve hurt them, or done them wrong, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.’
The essence of this tiny proverb is that, no matter the grievance, and no matter the provenance of that grievance, there is always a reason for its existence. Even if, to an observer it is the most unreasonable or trivial, piddly little thing to be upset about, there is always a reason. Especially spoken in the defence of the aggrieved, this statement calls for the taking of responsibility; a person cannot simply step away from the suffering he has caused, even if, to him, it is no suffering worth bothering about. This statement demands, on behalf of those who feel unjustly treated, that their concerns be taken seriously.
This does not mean, however, that all grievances are acknowledged as fully ‘the fault’ of the sufferer’s accused interlocutor. Just because there is a reason for a grievance, it does not therefore follow that causality is established. It is too easy, to my mind, to take this statement as an unchallengeable defence of the wronged, which leaves those who feel they’re been unjustly accused with plenty of ill content of their own. When certain quarters suggest that it is increasingly the case that younger generations believe that their feelings are more important than anything else, it plays into the hands of such parties to misinterpret a statement like this as a catch-all irrevocable justification of indignation and outcry. Yes, this statement speaks against such parties: ‘you cannot claim that the hurt of another does not exist and that you have no part in that hurt if you stand accused’. It does not, however implicate the accused necessarily in the wrongdoing: ‘you are guilty!’. As already highlighted above, there is always a reason for grievance, the grievance cannot be invalidated. At no point does this establish what that reason is, who should take responsibility for its causation, and what qualifies as a justification for that chain of causality.
The easy, naïve, and perhaps even intended use of the above proverb is to claim that every human has the inalienable right to feel unhappy when wronged and noone can diminish that right, or claim that there was no wrong done. This amounts to little more than ‘I am hurt and you must pay attention!’. This is not incorrect, but to stop at this point is to take the proverb literally to the point of reducing it to trite, which in turn divorces it from both its usefulness, and its emotional elegance. At the very least in terms of writing style, five of eight (don’t, get, decide, that, didn’t) of the words of the proverb’s punch line are ferociously spiky and barbed, a delivery which carries the weight of the demand the statement calls for. That demand, as mentioned above, is for responsibility, but this is no one-sided demand, this is no aimless petulant rage. Yes, the proverb has a tinge of anger to it, but that anger is not, to my mind, aimed only at those who claim to have done no wrong: It is aimed just as much at those who claim to be wronged. The call to responsibility here is for the wronged and the wrong-doer, for the hurt and the hurtful. Those who have a part in causing grievance are summoned to be accountable for their acts, to take unhappiness seriously, no matter the occasion. Those who claim to be hurt are equally called to take unhappiness seriously; you can’t claim someone has hurt you and not be willing to defend that claim and justify the consequences it may have on another person. Nor can you claim to be hurt and not be prepared to be responsible about that claim. If you’re going to declare yourself unhappy and demand to be taken seriously, it is your duty to take yourself seriously to begin with, to be prepared to explain, support, and substantiate, why exactly you feel this is a wrong which should be justified by the offending parties.
This proverbial witticism demands that grievances of any order be taken seriously by all concerned parties, which, for me, suggests that not only is the accused obliged to stand and justify her hand in the acts of wrongdoing, but the accuser also has the obligation to detail, in sincere and confident terms, the nature of the grievance itself. If someone claims to be hurt by me, it is not my place to decide that that is not the case, it is true. However, if I claim to be hurt by someone, it is an imperative that I, myself, am able to ratify that claim to some extent if I am to be taken seriously at all. In this way, my choice of title is aimed at both the one who says ‘you deserve what you got’, and also at the one who says ‘I am suffering and I deserve the right to suffer’ – the call to take responsibility for grievance belongs to them both.
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This little statement appeared in the realm of my social media-sphere a few weeks ago from one or another of the innumerable ‘inspirational messages’ pages that exist in the wide web. Many like them appear continuously, in fact, from all kinds of sources. This form, this kind of ‘soundbite’ informational nugget, has become more or less ubiquitous, what with the full acknowledgement of the force of ‘virulent’ media from all quarters (marketing departments can spend all four seasons of every year trying to make their product ads ‘go viral’ if that’s anything to go by). A small chunk of text which strikes the reader with the a sense of truth, or even if it doesn’t strike him with truth, it’ll strike him with defiance in its own certainty, sometimes accompanied by an image or gif – twitter, tumblr, imgur, these platforms epitomise this style of delivery. The power of this mode lies in its proverbial nature; it makes its statement in absolute terms, as if it has been true and will be true for all time and for all people, in short, it appeals to universalism. This type of proverbialised statement offers no explanation for itself, it declares its truth as self-evident, and it appeals to an unalterable (yet unknown) body of knowledge as its only necessary support; common sense (and there are plenty of scathing things to say about the idea of ‘common sense’).
However, I’m not writing now to explain how this type of language works in the most gritty details (if you want to read that, please try the wonderful book Mythologies published by Vintage, the most recent edition being in 2009. The original articles were written by Roland Barthes in French and he is a marvellous writer even in translation. The sections at the end of the book, Myth Today, Myth as Stolen Language, and Myth on the Right, detail what I discuss above). I am writing about this (apart from my own enjoyment of the process) rather, because I feel that statements of this type always contain an exposed sliver of truth amongst the assorted truisms. I think for these truths to stand, or at least to be properly engaged with, proverbial sayings of this type should be given some due scrutiny, attention, and be given some of the contextuality they lack in order to gain something more fruitful than an idle reblog or share. It is my experience that it is all too easy for a person to disseminate these proverbs, more often than not, because he feels the proverb has a resonance with something in himself. However, when challenged it becomes increasingly difficult to defend the statement itself because of its own rhetorical method, leading to the torrid comment-section arguments which spread despair far and wide across the online sphere. In order to go beyond this depressingly familiar routine, I’d like to take a more rigorous look at this type of speech.
Some readers may note that I have used the tag Deconstruction in this piece. While I do not pretend to be carrying out any true deconstruction here in the lineage of the post-structural thinkers and deconstructionists of 1970s Europe, I do consider my writing to be heavily influenced by such thought and thus, see fit to use the tag here.