Is the language of oppression being weaponized against me?

A troubled reader fears they are unfairly being accused of gaslighting, manipulation and abuse by their friends. Agony Uncle advises.
Agony uncle
Illustration by Emma Peer

Q: D and I became close friends at university, where we both discovered indispensable concepts around social justice, oppression, violence and trauma. This helped us offer meaningful solidarity to friends in need. But recently I’ve been accused of manipulation, abuse and gaslighting. I’d asked a mutual friend to spoon: when he said no, I laughed it off.

Then after not hearing from D for several months, I received a text saying I was manipulative and had made our mutual friend uncomfortable. Other mutuals then blocked me on social media. I would never want to breach anyone’s boundaries, and profusely apologized to our mutual friend, but I’m still troubled as to why D - and our wider friendship group - afforded me so little faith. I always believed asking explicit questions was the foundational pillar of consent? D also didn’t even consider my own values and experience of assault. I’m increasingly uncomfortable with how the language of social justice, violence and oppression is being weaponized to the point of meaninglessness. But do I simply need to accept this was an unforgivable act?

Troubled of Cardiff

‘The personal is political.’ It’s a powerful slogan – popularized by second wave feminists from the United States whose insight should remain undimmed. What happens in our relationships, what we do in the ‘private’ sphere of the home, is imbricated in a web of social, political and economic power. From who we desire to sleep with (often what the media tells us to consider beautiful) to how housework is split between parenting couples (women bearing the burden of domestic labour), it’s all connected to politics and power.

But it is common to hear murmurs of dissent – that people these days have taken this insight too far in terms of politicizing everything in their personal lives: as if amorous fissures between friends is necessarily a political injustice that requires swift retribution.

It’s important for me to state that I only have one person’s account of what happened. I’m aware that this limits what I know, but all good Agony Uncles start from a position of generosity to their correspondents – so I will say that it sounds like you have been treated unfairly throughout this sorry episode. In fact, I wonder about the extent to which these people really are your friends at all.

You made a real-world offer of intimacy. You articulated a desire out loud, something that it is often healthy and proper to do but also daunting. They said no. That’s awkward, embarrassing, a fillip to all kinds of bottled-up emotions. But it’s not a moral outrage. I can’t see any evidence of ‘manipulation’ in what you’ve told me. That said, there might well be very good reasons why this mutual friend felt uncomfortable, and they shouldn’t be discounted. I’m glad to hear you apologized.

Part of the problem here is technological. You didn’t used to be able to ‘block’ neighbours, colleagues and friends. You had to live with them – a process that can allow you to deepen your empathy for people that you might have otherwise disliked, slowly see them as more fully human, as fallible as yourself. But the particular form of sociality on social media that we have been flung into – and which we had no say in designing – encourages us to think of everyone as one-dimensional avatars who can be disappeared if necessary. People act rashly, based on hearsay that travels at the speed of light. Isn’t the Left supposed to believe in rehabilitation over punishment? Don’t we fundamentally believe that people can change?

We like to think of friendships as the ‘easy’ relationships in our life, but they can be as demanding as anything else. It sounds like speaking to D will be necessary. This may be hard, and I can see the impulse to move on, but grudges and resentments never really leave us, so I would deal with it sooner than later. Perhaps you should tell them what you’ve told me. How it’s made you feel. What you’ve been through. And don’t forget to listen sincerely and openly to what they say in response. But if they still can’t see how they could have gone about things differently, then this will at least have been a deeply instructive experience for you.