To help celebrate our twenty-fifth year of being on the information superhighway, we have reached out to some of our former columnists for check-ins and updates. Today’s featured columnist, Susan Schorn, is a former Column Contest winner. She wrote sixty-one essays of Bitchslap, her column about women’s rights and self-defense, from 2009 to 2015. We’re pleased to have her back on our pages with her sixty-second installment.
Bitchslap debuted in 2009 as “a column about women and fighting,” because they say write what you know, and what I knew was that I always seemed to be fighting—for safety, or autonomy, or simply to not be pushed around—and most of those fights were related to my identity as a woman. The column’s premise was apparently novel enough to sustain an audience: that fighting is not without its costs, but it works surprisingly well against bullies, and even when it doesn’t work, it’s preferable to helplessness. Sometimes it’s even fun.
These days, most of us are in some kind of fight. Well, welcome aboard, everybody. It feels like every point Bitchslap ever made about power and violence has become self-evident: death threats are a daily occurrence for poll workers, librarians, pizza parlor owners, and pediatricians. Virtually any identity can get you targeted by an expanded cast of bullies. Now, transgender people are attacked not only by overcompensating, hyper-masculinist weirdos but by self-styled feminists. People of color are still murdered with impunity while institutions roll back the few feeble attempts they’ve made to address structural racism. Women, of course, are fighting to control our own lives and bodies. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably had at least a few fights since Bitchslap concluded.
Have you had any fun?
It might not have felt like fun at the time. Fighting existential threats is typically not amusing until you’re sure you’ve survived them. They make good stories, though. So here’s one about what might be the best fight of my life (so far). It didn’t involve any punches. Just a single, sublime moment of triumph, born of years of training.
In November 2016—when, you’ll recall, things really went to shit—a bunch of weedy-looking Nazis came to my town. I went to have a look at them, along with a lot of other people, who were vocal in expressing their disapproval. There were cops on horses, concrete barriers, helicopters, DPS troopers, automatic weapons, and a general air of bedlam. Everyone there knew this kind of thing would be happening again, and often, for at least the next four years. And I realized that someone needed to consider how to minimize risks for the non-Nazis. The type of self-defense I’m trained in, grounded in the politics of gender, was well-suited to that need. So I started researching, connecting with Civil Rights-era protesters, marshaling at protests, teaching workshops, and finally producing an entire (Creative Commons-licensed) training manual for protest safety.
By 2018, I had worked on dozens of actions where I used all my self-defense skills, old and new. That spring, I volunteered as a marshal at the March For Our Lives gun control rally at the Texas State Capitol. We were doing the usual: de-escalating conflicts and asking attendees not to engage with counter-protesters (many of them armed). One of the provocateurs was a certain “reporter,” for lack of a better term. I won’t name him, because while I’m pretty sure he’s not a regular McSweeney’s reader, I am 100 percent certain he has a Google Alert set for his own name. This estimable gentleman was trying to engage gun-control advocates in on-camera “interviews” that he could selectively edit to encourage doxxing and harassment. But each time he approached someone, I’d sidle up to his intended mark and explain that he worked for a right-wing propaganda shop, and any footage he shot would be used to discredit the cause we were rallying for. Then I’d remind the target that they could simply say, “I’m not going to talk to you."
Every time I gave my little pep talk, people reacted gratefully, told the troll to leave them alone, and went about their business. And this was the magical part: As more and more people made informed decisions to not talk to him, the ersatz journalist got angrier and angrier. He’d flip from friendly-fake-reporter mode to cranky-guy-who-wants-your-parking-spot mode, spewing abuse at his escaping victims, and at me for aiding their getaway. The more I intervened—quietly, discreetly, just trundling about with my little toolkit of “How to tell people to leave you alone” and “Why you should feel good about setting a boundary,” the louder and more enraged he became. Over the course of about twenty minutes, these repeated, tiny jabs caused this notorious troll to go apeshit on the lawn of the Texas Capitol. Eventually, he was standing in the middle of a circle of gaping, laughing onlookers, ranting that everyone was “joining a death cult” because they wouldn’t talk to him. Finally, he threw out his arms like a ruined heroine in a nineteenth-century melodrama, pointed at me, and shrieked, “She’s the leader of a Nazi death cult!”
It was a mesmerizing tableau, illustrating everything I’ve ever learned, practiced, or taught about power and resistance. This nationally known bully, who had the ear of the then-president, was apoplectic—and all I’d done was remind people that they could tell him to go away. When he was denied access to victims, he couldn’t regulate his own emotions. It was like the moment in The Screwtape Letters when the demon Screwtape becomes so angry he inadvertently transforms into a centipede. Even his own cameramen were at a loss; “Man, you promised me you weren’t going to do this,” one of them said accusingly. He shut up only when some DPS troopers, alerted by the yelling and laughing, started to amble closer. It turned out he could regulate his emotions, if the alternative was to let the cops do it.
It was a very small victory, strategically. But of all the fights I’ve had with bullies, this was by far the most fun. I fought the way I’d been trained: with reason, persistence, and compassion, and my opponent counterattacked by punching himself repeatedly in the face in front of a large and appreciative audience.
While not every fight is so gratifying, that one has kept me going for a long time.
So, how about you? What victories have you tallied? Did you intervene when you saw someone bullied or set a boundary with someone in your life? Did you find new allies? Create new paths to safety? Maybe you moved your family cross-country to protect their health care. Maybe you documented police brutality. Maybe you’re helping to keep abortion accessible. Maybe you battled some demons during lockdown. Those are all wins.
I ask because I still want to celebrate the joy I find in fighting. That’s why I wrote Bitchslap in the first place. I hope some of that joy has inspired others and will continue to inspire them when they wonder if they can stomach another fight. Because whoever you talk to these days, there’s a question always hanging in the air: What will we do if he comes back? And the answer is, naturally: We’ll fight.
Because even if victory is imperfect, temporary, or costly, there’s room for triumph. Even if the very worst comes to pass, we can take satisfaction in knowing that someday, centuries from now, someone will dig up our enemies’ corpses and find our teeth embedded in their ankle bones.
But the evidence shows that if we fight, we win. How could we fail when our opponents are so vulnerable? When they come unglued at the mildest repudiation of their authority? When their defeat is so morally satisfying, and entertaining to boot? When they are so pitifully easy to transfigure into enraged centipedes?
So catch your breath, and count your victories. But stay loose; the fun’s just getting started.