The Straw-Arrow Tragedy

“Only emotion endures.” — Ezra Pound

Have you heard of the “straw arrow”? I hope not, because I just made it up to describe a pretty lousy situation I ran into with my podcast.

I named it after the straw man fallacy — when a person can’t argue your main point so instead they pick a tangentially related argument they can win, and attack it instead, with the idea that your main idea will then be proven invalid by association.

The straw arrow situation is similar, except that instead of a tangential argument, it is a tangential offense.

It would be like someone coming up to me, a cishetwhitemale, to talk about privilege and systemic racism, and saying that I have no experience of black culture or the welfare system. Since I was raised in a predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood and spent several years on the public welfare rolls after the USMC, I might choose to take offense — a straw arrow — at their lack of understanding of my personal history. That straw arrow would let me ignore that I am an outlier (as well as the fact that the experience of a white male in a Black neighborhood or on welfare is not representative of many others). Instead I could seize on that offense, point out how they had completely discounted my personal experience and made stereotypical assumptions (all true). I would be completely justified in describing how those were hurtful things, because they are.

But then I could use that to similarly dismiss any concept of systemic racism. That’s not so justifiable.

In fact, it’s pretty much about as logical as the person huddling in the sub-zero winter, saying “Global warming? Can’t be.” Yeah, it’s cold. But that has nothing to do with the bigger issue.

I misfired a straw arrow when I made a critical error on my podcast, betraying anonymity and turning the safe environment that I try to create at a GRUE event into an embarrassing situation for some friends of mine. Maybe I should say “former” friends, because they certainly aren’t very happy about it.

It makes no difference that I didn’t mean to hurt them. It doesn’t change the fact that it was done, and done by my hand. I have apologized, I have done what I can to remedy it, but when it comes to feelings of betrayal and hurt things aren’t easily fixed . I have to simply live with the fact that I hurt friends of mine severely enough that they no longer want to associate with me. That’s how life is, sometimes — you don’t always get forgiveness.

But that’s not the tragedy.

The tragedy is that the pain caused by my negligence masked the more important message of the podcast interview. It is a classic example of how “intention is not magic”.

I won’t go into the details of my podcast error — fool me once, eh? — but it’s all-too-easy to draw a parallel from an experience at a Leather event.

At the time I was with a relatively new partner, someone who was not part of the Leather scene — and more importantly, our relationship was not a power exchange. No collars, no protocol, nothing to indicate that she was submissive to me…

…except that she was with me at a Leather kink event. Those who knew me there were naturally inclined to assume that whoever I was with was in service to me.

As we mingled I was excited to run into a friend that I’d not seen in years. She was — and is — a powerful sex educator and leather woman, who has taught me much about kink and relationships and life in general. We walked up to each other, exchanged greetings…and she totally ignored my partner. Even when I introduced her. No conversation, no offer of a drink (which was offered to me), no goodbye when our brief exchange ended.

Now, in a high-protocol Leather space? That’s totally acceptable (and for some, including my Old Guard leather woman friend, it’s expected). You don’t talk to someone’s submissive in the same way you don’t take their drink or you don’t touch their vest. It is a way of showing respect for both the dominant and submissive partner — within that subculture.

For my partner, though, it was not only a breach of etiquette. It fed into the experience of being a woman, of being Black, of fighting against being marginalized her whole life. It was insulting, and the fact that this was in a public interaction with me made it even worse.

That bad feeling from the initial meeting — which, mind you, was intended as respect by the leather woman — carried over for years. I don’t know that my partner ever really got to know how amazing the leather woman was — because that first interaction went so horribly and unintentionally wrong. Intentions are not magic.

When I made the mistake on my podcastthat hurt my friends I was discussing a similar situation, and the principles behind it:

  • The fact that we can’t know or control how another person’s past experience will color the way they interpret our actions.
  • The fact that sometimes those actions will cause pain,
  • and the fact that even though we didn’t mean for that to happen, it still hurts.

Straw arrows hurt too — and can keep otherwise rational people from doing the only constructive thing in that situation: listening to the experiences of others to better understand the factors leading up to the miscommunication.

Instead, the straw arrow fuels indignation (how dare they accuse me of being racist/sexist/domist/hetnorm/etc) or worse, leads to an insincere apology (I’m sorry if… or I’m sorry that your….). It does nothing to reduce the odds of a similar situation happening in the future.

When we are wounded by a straw arrow, it’s a precious kind of pain, because it protects us from much bigger and scarier problems like consent and racism and privilege. We can focus on our pain and the story it allows us to tell about ourselves — Look! I’m hurt too!.

We can totally miss the bigger issue.

Be careful with your straw arrows. And if you feel yourself pricked by one, it’s ok to be hurt — but don’t let it blind you to what’s really going on.