Why Politically Incorrect UChicago Confessions Sucks

There is a new UChicago-related facebook page created expressly for the purpose of sharing “UChicago-related, politically incorrect thoughts and feelings.” As any rational person might expect, the page sucks. It asked (in its original description) for racism, homophobia and sexism, and it got them. I learned, through perusing this page, that as a woman I’m bad at math and as a Jew I have taken over the University and advocated murdering palestinians. As a liberal Jewish math major often critical of Israel, I was pretty surprised to learn these things. And those comments were far from the worst. As also might be expected, the vast majority of the disgusting comments were about people of color. People of color not being quiet enough, smart enough, English-speaking enough. But I don’t need to explain the precise fashion in which all these comments are offensive. The people who wrote them wrote them because they were offensive, and the people reading them are largely rightfully horrified. What I do feel the need to explain is why the page is terrible, causes harm and should be taken down by any entity with the right and power to do so.

To demonstrate this, let’s ask ourselves why this page should exist. What good does it do? By and large, the answers given are: free speech is important, it’s good for people to have a place to express these emotions so there can be discussion and education, and that it’s good that people express offensive opinions openly so that they don’t go underground and get worse.

First, the ever present free speech argument. Everyone has a right to free speech, at least as far as the federal government is concerned. We do not have a right to the existence of a facebook page, if it is against their policies, nor do we have a right to our university not taking action against such a page, if that is in their policies. So far, my hope is that University of Chicago students are sophisticated enough in their thinking to be on board. The question that follows, then, is, do we want facebook to be a place where such pages exist? My answer is assuredly not, though others’ may differ. Similarly, do we want this page to be part of and affect the University community? Again, in my opinion, no. I will defend both of these opinions later. All that matters here is that everyone agree that these are the relevant questions, and if the answer to them is no, it is entirely reasonable for either facebook or the University of Chicago to take the page down, and if the answer is yes, it is wrong of them to do so. But none of this really has to do with free speech, so much as the question of what the reasonable bounds of discourse in a university community are. That is a much more interesting question, though as far as I’m concerned this page still clearly falls outside of it.

Second, that it’s good for people to have a place to express these sentiments, so that we know who the racists and sexists are, or so that we can shoot down their arguments together as a community, or so they don’t repress their opinions and become more racist and sexist.

Ok, this is where is gets interesting. If anyone said most of the things on the Facebook page in person, most of us would, at the very least, give them a shocked, irritated or disgusted look. We might say something critical or negative about their remark. We might get into an argument with them. All of these actions are ways of indicating the moral paucity that such a comment suffers from. They express social and moral disapproval of the comment. They make use of shame and condemnation to change the behavior and belief of the person making the comment. This is to the good. This is how morality works. We teach and enforce morality through social means. It starts when our parents tell us that hitting is wrong, and it continues every. single. time. we give someone a dirty look for saying something racist, sexist, bigoted or otherwise awful. Because we want people not to say or think such things. This is the way we stop people from saying or thinking such things. And all of us do this entirely naturally, without giving it a second thought. This is how social disapproval makes the world less bigoted.

This social disapproval is what people are referring to when they talk about political correctness and the lack of free speech. What they mean is that they can’t express morally bereft opinions without someone pointing out how morally bereft it is. That, I’m afraid, is what it is to live in a social community with moral standards. What’s the point of moral standards, after all, if we don’t make them known? No one is exempt from disapproval by dint of being part of a community. In fact, it is by dint of being part of a community that you make yourself subject to the moral standards of that community. And in this way, we have already made it clear (so we don’t need to do so again on a Facebook group) that the community does not approve.

Of course, there are other tools, like education and other social pressures, to fight bigotry, and I am in favor of using them, but I think social disapproval is the one with the widest-ranging effects, since everyone is immersed in it their whole lives. I also think that social disapproval does not merely stop people from saying things they believe, but also affects their thinking and attitude towards the world. Community standards have a huge effect on how we are taught to think, and so good community standards can improve a community through changing how it, for instance, sees people of color and women, in addition to removing the harm from people saying or doing sexist and racist things.

But I do care that people have a chance to give opinions that might add something new to the community, even if they are wildly unpopular. Even if they are racist or sexist or awful. But a public facebook page that presents itself as representative of the University of Chicago is 100% not the place.

  1. Firstly, it hurts the people of the community. It hurt me, and all the other women here in math, to learn that some calculus TA doesn’t think women are good at math. And I don’t mean just that it offended us, though it certainly offended me. Stereotype threat is real, and it definitely hurts women in mathematics to learn that they’re not considered good at math. That’s why it’s great that saying that women are bad at math is socially unacceptable. And I really cannot begin to imagine the harm done to the people of color at UChicago to be hearing these opinions, for these opinions to be given a soapbox, so they can hear all of the ways their community doesn’t want them or like them or appreciate them. That is real, tangible, harm, and the creator of this page, as well as the commenters, is responsible for that harm.
  2. Second, public pages like this normalize bigoted opinions. Even with all the critique in the responses to them. We know that having opinions like this publicly and shamelessly expressed makes it seem to others who hold these opinions that they are acceptable and reasonable. That’s not ok. We don’t want people to think that the opinions are acceptable or reasonable. That’s why we have such a thing as social disapproval. I, Chana Messinger, hold bigoted opinions. I have racist thoughts, and sexist thoughts, and all kinds of other thoughts. It is a good thing that I don’t feel comfortable saying them in public. That means that (re: #1) I’m not going to go around hurting people as if it doesn’t matter and doesn’t have an effect, and it also means that I’m going to learn that those opinions are unacceptable.

But I might never know why, right? I might not learn, or get the chance to be educated about my prejudices, right? That’s possible, so here’s where we get back to the part where I do care that people have a place to learn.

  1. Now, firstly, people can always learn on their own. I typed into google “why is it bad to say” and the first thing that popped up was “why is it bad to say you look tired to a girl” and the first result was this yahoo answer with some excellent responses! Hooray, self-education!
  2. Secondly, yes, I am in favor of spaces where people can go and ask “offensive” questions and get charitable, thoughtful, educated responses. Some do exist. They are very clearly very different from this page. Spaces like that have moderators (because speech causes harm!), they have educated people giving educated answers and lots of links to valuable resources. They are places to talk, to discuss, to be educated. They are again, not this page. They are places where the harm from the speech is minimized so that the benefit from educated discourse can outweigh it.

Not only are there online spaces of this kind, but many social spaces as well. Parents, teachers, friends, advisors, people who might think differently but are willing to talk. What’s the difference? The difference is that the person with offensive questions doesn’t end up hurting a whole university community, the atmosphere is much more conducive to productive discussion and most importantly, the person is forced to ask questions in a thoughtful and useful way. They would have to say,

“Look, I’m a calculus TA, and I notice the women don’t do as well in the class. What should I be taking from that?”

instead of

“After TAing for calc 130s for years I can safely say that women, gays, and premeds are terrible at math.”

And then someone could say, “Well, historically women are told that they’re not as good at math, they are pushed away from the field, you’re tutoring the lowest level math which might give a selection bias, it’s bad to say this to others because it will perpetuate stereotype threat etc. etc. etc” and then everyone would learn something. Or they’d have to say,

“Look, I notice that people of color in the library tend to be louder. Is that just my perception? Is there a cultural explanation? What’s going on there?”

instead of

“Not limited to just this subset, but if I direct this at the black girls in the MacLab: shut the fuck up. It’s not a place to socialize, watch american idol, and be loud as fuck. Go back to your dorm/apartment/whatever. Of course if I tell you in person, I’m a ‘racist white bitch.'”

And then an educated person can explain what’s going on. Think that’s a weakened form? Well, I’m happy to have people kowtowing to empathy and accuracy.

And thirdly, anyone is always welcome to express their opinions, even anonymously, on facebook or twitter or elsewhere. The difference is, when there’s not a page encouraging you to express whatever comes to mind in the edgiest, most attention-getting way possible, and especially when your name is attached, you actually have to make an argument. You have to present data and ideas. You have to show humility. You have to admit you don’t know the answer. All of that is good for everyone, and anyone who expressed their opinion that way should be afforded all the charitable and thoughtful responses we can muster.

That’s simply not what’s going on on this page. This page is causing harm, and limiting, rather than expanding, discourse. It’s making our community worse. That’s why the page is terrible, and should be taken down as soon as possible, preferably by the creator themselves.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

UPDATE: The creator of the page posted on it, saying, 

Hello everyone,

It has come to our attention that this page has come under attack from numerous parties for “promoting hate speech.” This was surely not the original intent of this page, and we regret that there are many bigoted people out there who chose to abuse the service. We are currently conducting a review of all posts, previous and future, and will remove any that do not comply with the following rule:

“Any content that is considered hate speech or otherwise violates the Facebook Community standards will NOT be tolerated.”

Much appreciated, creator!

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Emotions, Emotional Training and the Right Way to Feel

Some emotions are better than others.

Is that controversial? I’m not sure. I think as a culture, we’re pretty confused about it. On the one hand, we tell ourselves and others that emotions are always legitimate, that we have a right to feel how we do, and that it’s wrong for others to tell us to feel differently. This is how we feel when others tell us to be less angry, or that it’s wrong to be upset or sad about something that makes us feel that way. On the other hand, we know that we shouldn’t be happy if something bad happens to a friend, and that there are things we shouldn’t be upset about. So how do we reconcile these?

I’m sticking to the claim that some emotions are better than others, which is to say that for a given situation, with a given set of facts known, some emotional responses are better to have. Some emotions may be more reasonable than others, an idea expressed, for instance, in accusing someone of overreacting. Some emotional responses may be more comfortable for everyone involved, as anyone who’s been in the same room as a screaming toddler knows. And sometimes certain emotional reactions are more appropriate, such as disgust for immorality or gratitude for favors done.

Now, it’s clear that enforcing this understanding of emotional reactions can be harmful and itself totally inappropriate. Watching people on the internet or in real life criticize the emotional responses of others, telling them they’re too angry about an issue or too sympathetic to an institution, is as cringe-worthy as anything I can think of. For one, emotions are utterly personal; they almost are our person, so criticizing them is a recipe for causing a lot of hurt and frustration. Second, telling people their emotions are wrong is probably one of the least productive ways to get them to change them, not only because you’re almost guaranteed a bad reaction, but also because emotional responses, if they can change at all, take a good long time to do so. And third, of course, these arguments are often incorrect; they criticize emotional engagement when it is neither morally incorrect nor inappropriate, but simply uncomfortable since it brings up difficult issues.

But if we maintain that for a variety of reasons, some emotions are better than others, then it must be the case that there are obligations in certain circumstances to change our emotional responses if they aren’t optimal, and also to change the emotional responses of others, as hard as both of those processes are. What does that look like? I don’t know, but I have a few examples and not totally coherent thoughts.

Becoming a skeptic or rationalist comes to mind as a good example of this. Sure, transitioning from believing things that aren’t true to things that are true is in part about the change of beliefs, but as most everyone would agree with, it’s in larger part about a change of approach. It’s learning to question instead of accept, to notice rhetorical tricks and logical fallacies and to think of the world as naturalistic and comprehensible. And a huge part of that is emotional training. We have to train ourselves to not feel defensive when offered evidence against our position. We have to notice the kinds of ideas to cause us to flinch away, and learn to lean into them. We have to cultivate the desire to investigate further and ask more questions when we notice something’s awry. We have to learn to be happy to be proven wrong. These are not strictly necessary to being a skeptic or rationalist, I suppose, but they make it a great deal easier. Furthermore, anyone who became offended and frustrated upon learning they might be wrong would likely be seen as a very poor kind of rationalist. Affect is part of the intellectual approach.

So it’s reasonable to expend effort on making ourselves better at having the emotional responses that help us become better rationalists. (It’s one of those bizarre habits of self-proclaimed rationalists that they deride the emotional life that might help them become better rationalists). We should work at being less emotionally attached to our beliefs and more happy to change our mind. And furthermore, we should be encouraging others to do the same. We can do this not by telling people that their emotions are wrong, but by modeling the emotional reactions we would like others to have, by extolling the virtue of those emotional reactions and by praising those who have them. This may sound manipulative, but it is no different than the way we encourage people to not get offended by reasonable accusations or to be disgusted by horrific crimes.

This approach makes sense for any ideological or epistemological framework, or really, any opinion at all. Democrats are best served when people are happy about tax increases and sad about gay marriage bans. Being a good Democrat might very well mean getting emotionally on board with that if you aren’t already, and it’s reasonable for Democrats to cultivate those feelings in others through emotionally laden advertising and rhetoric. And if you’re bothered by that, it’s your job to get in the game and convince people to have better emotions.

As an atheist, the community I inhabit tends to have not only strong opinions on the ill effects of religion, but strong feelings, too, feelings that they would prefer I share. As most who know me know, I don’t happen to share all of those sentiments (I like ritual and ceremony and holidays and practice). Now, I think I’m a perfectly good atheist anyway, but other atheists don’t like my approach at all. I think their emotions are wrongheaded and unhelpful, but since they’re trying to dismantle religion as a system, it’s pretty damn reasonable for them to want everyone to be disgusted and incensed by it. Moderate sentiments, like mine, do them no good. Hence the public shaming and the pope song, to get people to have different emotions than they do now. And maybe they’re right, not only on questions of facts but also of feelings.

Is it so wrong that this is the only bread I’m eating this week?

Sort of similarly, there was a recent debate about emotional attitudes towards the verdict in the Steubenville rape case. How should we feel about the victim, Jane Doe? Certainly not the way these people did, with dismissive, disgusting callousness. But then, how are we to feel towards the rapists? With sympathy, like this CNN reporter seemed to? Well, that got a lot of criticism, for exactly the reasons I’m explaining here. People who want to make rape as infrequent as possible (like me, and hopefully all of you), want everyone to be really, thoroughly disgusted with the kind of people who violate the boundaries, agency and autonomy of other people (see what I just did there?). No one gets a free pass on just “feeling how they feel.” Of course, people will feel how they feel, and it’s not their fault, per se, but emotions aren’t morally neutral here. They have an effect on people’s thinking and actions. It is therefore not only reasonable but morally required to try to shift the emotional responses of others. Of course, there are other goals at play, which is why some have tried to cultivate sympathy both for the victim, who obviously deserves our sympathy, but also the rapists, who are still teenage boys going to prison. This tangled question of how to feel is not purely subjective nor unimportant. How people feel matters in terms of their own moral standing, it matters to all of the people who know of their emotional state, and it utterly shapes the public discussion.

The debate about proper emotions is not so different than the debate about proper opinions, and not just because they inform each other so heavily. It’s a debate that is had in public and in private, through argument and through custom and through praise and condemnation, just as with matters of opinion. It also goes without saying that those who win the debate of emotions tend to win the debate of opinion as well. And just as we each individually seek to have opinions that best line up with reality, so too ought we to be cultivating the emotions that are best suited to the circumstances in which we find ourselves and the kind of people we want to be. Our emotions are not incidental to our actions and our opinions. They affect them tremendously. They are matters of ideological consistency, intellectual commitment and moral standing. They matter.

Worth Talking To

Keith Lowell Jensen, an atheist comedian, has a bit in a talk he gives, where he addresses the question of whether atheists should even bother to engage religious people, or whether it’s not worth it. After all, it never works, right? He responds by asking those in the audience who were once religious to raise their hands. Then he says, “I think we were worth it.”

The same idea, I think, can be applied to the question of engaging with people who don’t understand issues of social justice, of privilege, power, marginalization, rape culture, shaming, oppression and intersectionality. For people who are on the bad end of any of these societal problems and their allies, it can seem like a never-ending and pointless battle to fight with those who don’t get it. The same arguments come up over and over again, the same facts must be rehashed, the same exchanges get repeated. It’s basically like arguing with creationists.

But everyone who agrees with the extensive and intricate understanding of the ways that power is socially organized and allocated that falls under the Social Justice position came to that position somehow. Unlike atheism, it’s not really the kind of thing you can get born into. That means that they all started out not understanding it, possibly not agreeing with it. Most of us, probably started out that way.

So I ask you now: weren’t they worth it? weren’t we worth it?

And so, aren’t many other people? Aren’t they worth talking to?

Now, no one is obligated to engage and educate about social justice (or any other) issues. It’s hard and painful and frustrating and annoying. There are trolls and people arguing in bad faith. Some people are stubborn and ignorant and cruel. But it is worth doing; people are worth talking to.

Previous Posts About Better Arguing 
Hopefully, working on making our arguments more effective will make the process of discussion and education a less frustrating endeavor.

Don’t Make it About Identity

The day I started calling myself an atheist, I was reading The God Delusion during Rosh Hashanah services (sorry Rabbi Goldberg!) when I was about 14 years old. At the time I was calling myself a pantheist, but when Dawkins dismissed the notion as “sexed-up atheism”, I felt I could no longer bother with it either. But there was a final hurdle. I shuffled through the seats over to my father, sitting in a different row, and tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. When he looked up, I whispered fearfully, “Babbo, am I allowed to be Jewish if I’m an atheist?” With a smile he said something like, “Well, my reconstructionist synagogue never cared.” (Point of reference: He’d never told me he was an atheist before this).

What a relief! I could breathe easy again, knowing that a crucial identity was salvageable even as another crumbled. It was this which allowed me to immediately start identifying as an atheist. It would have been much harder, and perhaps harder even just to allow myself not to believe in God, had I been told otherwise.

Identity is very hard and uncomfortable to change, so we avoid that change whenever possible, even if it means maintaining a position that another part of us might know is wrong. This is where we get phenomena like cognitive dissonance and denial and confirmation bias; we’ll do seemingly anything to not have to totally reconfigure ourselves. Arguments about identity, then, become very unproductive very quickly. So if we want someone to change their mind,  we shouldn’t make the argument about identity at all, if we don’t have to. If you’re arguing about tax rates, don’t make it about Democrat vs. Republican. If you’re arguing about the Affordable Care Act’s exemptions for churches, don’t frame it as religious vs. nonreligious. All you’re asking for is their brain’s Identity Protection Racket to kick into high gear and end the conversation.

This goes double when you’re “on the same side”, both vying for the title of True Type, like True Christian or True Rationalist. When that happens, the conversation has stopped being about the issue at hand and started to be about the ability of the people involved to protect their emotional investment and their sense of self. That’s terribly unproductive and also overly harsh, for everyone. Stick to the argument at hand, and don’t let it become  the Battle of the Identities.

(And by the way, this all goes triple when the title you’re fighting for is Good Person. That’s the kind of identity we’ll protect at all costs. Threatening that (by trying to get someone to admit that they’re racist or sexist, for instance) usually gets you a lot of trouble. Whenever possible, stick to the facts and the specific argument.)

In fact, what this very cool study suggests is that, far from challenging an identity, we should affirm the relevant identity of the person we’re arguing with. In a sense, try to see them as they see themselves. Make sure they know you see them as what they identify with, and make sure that they know that the debate is not about whether they have a right to that identity. How?

  • You could emphasize the importance of their identity to the debate: “As a Christian, don’t you think you should support helping to universalize healthcare?”
  • You could separate the issue in question from their identity: “Just because you’re a liberal doesn’t mean you can’t like the fiscal cliff deal.”
  • You could even bring in salient figures that match their identity that agreed with you on a position: “Freidrich Hayek, a libertarian (classical liberal) thinker, supported a minimum wage for everyone, possibly paid for by the government.”

He also supported cool mustaches and hair gel, apparently.

These approaches make the argument not about whether or not their identity is correct, but only about whether their position is correct. That’s not only important to the productiveness of the argument, but also to how we’re treating our opponent. After all, our identities are very important to us. Challenging them makes a discussion personal and tense in a way they often don’t need to be. Asking people to think of themselves differently is a tall and difficult order, and it should be treated as such. It isn’t the kind of thing to do thoughtlessly, in the context of a debate that’s about something else.

When we remove the debate from the identity question, we get a much easier and less emotionally fraught issue, which is much more likely to result in a changed mind. That’s what my father accidentally did for me by assuring me that I could remain a Jew. He made me feel like my core was remaining strong and the god issue was just tinkering, which made it easier to change my mind on that question. And even if no minds are changed, the discussion is much more likely to be a productive one, since no one is forced to feel like they have to defend their own identities.

Previous Posts About Better Arguing 

Previous Posts About Identity

Just Because They’re Wrong Doesn’t Mean They’re Obviously Wrong

In a previous post in this series on Better Arguing, I argued that it was important to be charitable when arguing with others, and in particular, to take the arguments against one’s position seriously. But sometimes, people don’t even seem to acknowledge that there are any counterarguments in the first place, and that’s a problem all on its own. I see this all the time in my running of the University of Chicago Secular Alliance. People throw things like the Problem of Evil and Euthyphro’s Dilemma at theists and expect them to repent on the spot. Yes, those are interesting and important. No, they are not the death-knell to all theistic arguments. Jews, Christians and others have had thousands of years to come up with counterarguments, and any debater should know at least some of them.

So when people say things like:

“My problem with this idea is that I can’t think of any arguments for believing in God that have any credibility at all.” (In the comments section)

I get a little concerned. As my friend Doni, who wants it to be known that he is a theist, says, “smart people have done a lot of stupid things, and they all thought they had good reasons for doing them.” For the vast majority of arguments, smart people can and have disagreed, which means there are at least fairly good arguments on both sides. It’s pretty unlikely that you won’t be able to find or think of any compelling objection to your own position. The UNC Writing Center delightfully points out that,

“It may seem to you that no one could possibly disagree with the position you are arguing, but someone probably has. For example, some people argue that the American Civil War never ended. If you are making an argument concerning, for example, the outcomes of the Civil War, you might wish to see what some of these people have to say.” (Bolding mine)

When you ignore counterarguments, it makes your argument much weaker, since it’s assumed, especially if these counterarguments are common, that you don’t have any response to them. It also shows that you haven’t done your research, which also makes you a less compelling debater. Finally, since people likely do in fact disagree with you, it’s uncharitable and off-putting to presume in your discussion that their arguments are obviously wrong.

But let me be charitable and assume that the commenter (and all the people they stand for) has in fact done their research. It’s possible that they’ve really done the work to make sure there’s not a single compelling scrap in any of the arguments for god. If you find yourself in this position, the next step is to steelman. By Voltaire and Bayes’ Theorem, there is a nonzero probability that you are wrong. So what would the world look like if you were wrong? What evidence would you use to prove your new position? How would you argue for the other position, if you had to?

Now let’s say that you’ve done all that, and every argument you’ve considered has been found totally lacking. It’s still important that even if you don’t buy any of the arguments, you understand why your opponent does. How can you convince someone if you have no idea why they believe what they believe? And even more to the point, how can you convince someone if you make it clear you think they’re ridiculous or stupid for believing what is “obviously” wrong? (P.S. If this happens to you a lot, it might be worth reexamining what you mean by “obvious”). The most compelling arguments are empathetic. They involve seeking to understand why the people you’re arguing with find a position intuitive or believable or compelling and working within that belief system to arrive step by step at your own.

If I was arguing about why Ron isn’t good enough for Hermione, for instance, and I somehow, shockingly, couldn’t count on my audience to agree with me, I might write something like the following:

“I think it’s true that Ron shows a lot of care and love for Hermione that you don’t see him show elsewhere. He also matures immensely throughout the books, culminating in his support for the saving of the house elves, something obviously quite dear to Hermione’s heart. He’s a rock for her, in some sense, a familiar and much loved presence through so much turmoil in both their lives. There’s a lot of room to say that Ron develops as a character throughout the series and presumably beyond so that his relationship with Hermione becomes less childish and more mutually fulfilling, which is why they end up together. While all of that is admirable, though, Hermione, being brilliant, generous and all around awesome really deserves someone who is as badass as she is (the chess game and destroying the locket horcrux are great, even crucial, but they don’t hold a candle to Hermione’s list of accomplishments) and more importantly, who cares about school and learning and nerdiness as she does. Nerd girls deserve partners who can keep up with them, challenge them, and take joy in their intelligence, not demean it (she says without a shred of bias). So clearly Hermione should have ended up with a *spoiler* non-dead Cedric Diggory or something.”

And I would say that even if what I really wanted to say was

“Are you freaking serious Ron is so mopey and annoying to her for so much of the books even though she is pure awesome, basically fixes everything that goes wrong and is the predominant force allowing Ron and Harry to stay alive and relevant for seven years.”

There’s probably room for both, in different contexts, at different times. Certainly there are cases in which one must limit the number and degree of counterarguments one tackles. But it’s clear to me that when arguing, we should all be looking to develop the habit of assuming that people will disagree with us, acknowledging that they might just have some halfway decent reason for doing so, and addressing those objections thoughtfully. It makes us more credible, empathetic and well-informed, and hopefully more persuasive. To good arguing!

On a more serious note, Natalie Reed does what I’m talking about here excellently in her post Sophistry and Semantics about language and terminology around trans issues, especially in the second paragraph. There are several other good examples sprinkled throughout the links in this post.

Previous Posts about Better Arguing:

Basic but also hilarious resources on counterarguments:

How Not to Respond to a Publicly Shared Story about Harassment, Assault or Rape

Two days ago, I wrote about how to appropriately respond when a friend publicly shares her story about harassment, assault or rape. But, in the natural way of things, appropriate, loving, sympathetic responses have their nasty counterparts: inappropriate, hurtful, mean responses.

It’s unfortunate that so often it’s well-meaning people who give these responses. They may use tropes from popular culture as a guide to how to respond, and popular culture doesn’t deal with sexual violence well. They sometimes overgeneralize from their own experiences. They may simply have just not considered how their comment will come across. I want to make it easier for these well-meaning people of the world to respond helpfully to their friends.

Here, then, is a list of what responses not to give when someone you know has been brave enough to share her story, along with explanations. If you recognize your own past comments in this post, I ask you not to react defensively. I am not attacking you; I know you were doing your best. I am sharing my understanding of how you can do even better.

If curious, see my note from last time on my use of feminine pronouns.

How Not to Respond to a Publicly Shared Story about Harassment, Assault or Rape

1. Don’t Apologize for or Defend the Perpetrator: Your friend has just invited the entire internet to peer into an incredibly private and hurtful event in her life, something awful that someone did to her. Please, please, please do not respond to her by defending what was done to her. You may think she has a bad read on the situation. You may know the person she’s talking about. But if you are trying to be a friend, know that there is essentially nothing more harmful you could do. You are defending harm that was done to her, an unwanted sexual experience of some kind. You are placing yourself on the side of someone who did her wrong. That’s not what friends do.

2. Don’t Question the Experience, or Her Interpretation of Events: Let me be careful about this one. I do not mean that your friend could not be wrong about how certain events transpired. I do not mean that she could not have interpreted an action or behavior in a way different than was meant. What I mean is, the fact that your friend is hurting should be enough to warrant sympathy, not interrogation. This holds even if you know that the thing that made your friend uncomfortable is something you do sometimes and you don’t mean anything by it. Even you know the person in question and you know he or she didn’t mean to make anyone uncomfortable. Even if you think your friend is being kind of sensitive.

Because none of that erases the fact that she was made to feel uncomfortable, or violated, or hurt. When you question that, you make it seem like you don’t particularly care that she’s hurting, or worse, that it’s her fault she’s hurt. Even simple factual corrections take the focus away from what happened to her and how she felt and put it on whether she got the order of events right. It’s not the point, and it’s not the time.

If you really feel that you must give a correction (and really, do so with care), here’s how to frame it:

Original comment: “Michael always puts his arms around people. It’s not a big deal”

Better comment: “This doesn’t make it ok, but just for the record, I happen know Michael, and I know he doesn’t mean harm when he puts his arm around girls. But he should have asked you before he did it, so it really sucks that you were made to feel uncomfortable.” [Addition in italics credit to Ami]

2b. Corollary: Don’t argue that the experience was actually a good one: If your friend doesn’t feel like the harassment, assault or rape was a compliment (hint: usually not), then it’s not. It’s not good that “at least [she] can get a date,” as Ami points out. If your friend tells a story about something unpleasant that happened to them, and you play it like it was some blessing in disguise, it comes across like you’re not really listening, and also that you don’t really care about how your friend says she feels. Please, listen to your friend. Trust her. Credit: Ami

3. Don’t ask about irrelevant details: What your friend was wearing, how drunk she was, whether she was alone and anything else she has chosen not to share with the world, don’t matter. Just as in #2, whatever the answers are, your friend has still experienced discomfort, violation and/or pain at the hands of someone else. That’s the most important thing. Focusing on the details again makes it seem like you don’t much care about the event itself, or how your friend feels. And when you specifically focus on details like the ones I used as an example, you come perilously close to implying that if she were wearing a short skirt, drunk, or alone, that it is her fault. That’s not fair to your friend, and it’s extremely hurtful. Just don’t.

The examples I used above are pretty specific to the post-sexual violence questions addressed at women, and especially cis-women. If your friend has a nontraditional sexual violence narrative, all the analysis still holds. Don’t ask about irrelevant details. Don’t pry if your friend doesn’t share. Even if you’re just curious. That last part holds especially when your friend doesn’t have the standard story, because they probably already feel different. So if your friend has a penis, don’t ask if they got hard. If your friend is trans, “don’t ask about their genitals, or …how they could have been raped with the genitals or body that they have.” It’s nosy and blame-y and unsympathetic. Let your friend tell what they are comfortable with. Credit for the ideas in this above paragraph: Ami

4. Probably the most important: Don’t tell your friend how she could have done better, or what she should do in the future: 

Part A: I know you’re trying to help. I know you’re sure it’s good advice, that it’s helped you before.  But remember that to have experienced something frightening or traumatic and then to be told that if only you had done something differently, it wouldn’t have happened, hurts. It hurts a lot, and it comes off as blame, even if you don’t mean it to.

Consider telling a story to your friends about how a boss yelled at you all day for no reason and you were really upset about it, and their response was, “Well, you should always try to have a good relationship with your employer.” Even if it’s true, it’s incredibly unhelpful now. Also, it changes the subject from the mean boss and the awful day to whether your friend is a good employee. That’s mean, and it tends to imply that they deserved what they got.

Now imagine how much harder it hits when you call into question not whether your friend is doing their job correctly but rather whether they are living their life correctly. And because we’re talking about a publicly shared story, other survivors and victims will see what you’ve written, and see that your first thought was to correct the behavior of the victim, and they will know that their story will likely be met the same way. That hurts.

Part B: Further remember that women are constantly told about all the ways that they can avoid sexual violence, which means that the odds that you will say something your friend has not heard before are vanishingly small. Don’t walk alone at night? Heard it. Always watch your drink? Heard it. Don’t engage with strange men? Heard it. So even if your advice is good advice, it’s just not the time.

Remember that the time right after going public with a story of sexual violence is a sensitive and scary one. If your friend hasn’t asked for advice, you are more likely to hurt her than help her by giving it. If you are close friends, and you really think there’s something you can say that will make your friend safer in the future, there might be an exception, but please give your suggestion privately, sympathetically, and in a thoroughly unblaming way so as not to fall into this category.

Part C: Finally, please remember that your friend is not the only person in her story. There is a perpetrator, a harasser, assaulter or rapist. And if your comment, or even a part of your comment, ignores the rapist’s wrongdoing in favor of the victim’s wrongdoing, that hurts immeasurably. I realize that it seems like the perpetrator’s wrong could go without saying, and yet it so often does not. Rape apologetics is everywhere. So by focusing on what your friend could have done better, you are telling her that she has not lived her life rightly enough that people will not correct her behavior before correcting her attacker’s.

I will continue to add to this list based on the ideas of my wonderful commenters, with credit always given. 

5. Don’t say how you would have made it better had you been there: I know this one seems really supportive (“I totally would have beat up that guy”, etc.), but it’s another one to be careful with. It takes the attention from your friend and her story and makes it about you and your (rightful) anger at what happened to her. This makes it harder to tell stories, since it feels like no one is really paying attention. As Ami says, “I’m really tired of guys trying to make me sharing something like this into some heroic fantasy of theirs where I’m the damsel to be saved. :\” Credit: Ami, Ellen

6. Don’t tell your friend she’s doing it wrong: Kind of a corollary to #2, and also #4. These experiences are hard, and people respond to them in all kinds of ways. The only people who are really qualified to decide whether your friend is reacting “correctly” are her and the people she most trusts to talk to about it (including possibly a professional of some kind). This all holds double if you yourself experienced something similar and have reacted differently. That’s great for you, especially if the experience didn’t cause lasting harm. But your experience isn’t universal, and it’s not fair to assume that it should be. Let your friend respond how she needs to. Again, trust her. Credit: Miriam

Too many people experience harassment, assault and rape every day. Some of them manage, through the pain, to tell their stories. It is unconscionable not to respect that brave decision. So if it is your friend who has endured that pain, please consider this list. Please think about not contributing to a culture that blames women for the sexual violence aimed at them. Please think about what has happened to them instead of what they may have done wrong. Please think, first and foremost, about what they need, and what you can give them. Remember that your words have power; be careful with them.

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Anything else you think should be on the list? Any responses you’ve given or would like to give or have seen given that you want my take on? Put it all in comments.

Gay Marriage and Polygamy: Why the Slippery Slope Argument Isn’t as Wrong as you Think

Brian Brown, in his recent post-dinner debate about gay marriage with Dan Savage, used one of those arguments used so commonly that it belongs on this chart: “If we legalize gay marriage, why not polygamy?” To gay marriage proponents, this point seems not only overused and offensive, but also bizarre. As Dan Savage noted in the video, it doesn’t seem like the job of the same-sex marriage activists to weigh in on the question of group or multiple marriage. “Let the polygamists deal with that one!” he says. Why is it relevant at all what will or won’t happen with polygamous marriage? The question of gay marriage is about why two consenting adults of the same gender shouldn’t be able to enter a legal pact with rights and responsibilities, just like couples of different genders. It’s a civil rights issue! Discussing polygamy in a marriage equality discussion is obviously an example of the Slippery Slope Fallacy.

But as Yvain reminds us, having a silly or low-status name for something doesn’t make it wrong. And I think the Slippery Slope “fallacy”, since it amplifies our positions in a certain direction, is an excellent tool for figuring out exactly what we’re arguing for, and on what grounds. Gay marriage proponents tend to argue that the traditional definition of marriage is inadequate. We say that marriage should be based on the loving commitment people are ready and willing to make to each other, and further, that the law ought not to discriminate between straight and gay people. Given that understanding of marriage, the traditionalists are right to ask why we don’t then approve of all marriage that fits that definition, including group marriages or polygamy. Might seem ridiculous, but bear with me.

Skeptical Jesse is skeptical of my argument.

It’s as if I told a friend, say, Jesse (who gets a major shoutout for all the help he gave me on this post), that I thought taxes should be lowered on the poor and raised on the rich, because the immense income inequality in our country isn’t fair. Based on my argument, that fairness is the goal, he would be right to ask why I wasn’t in favor of a tax code that makes everyone’s income equal. That’s because I haven’t told him that I think fairness is a goal that must be tempered with economic productivity, or the kind of fairness in which people get to keep what they make, or something else. So even though it sounds like he’s making a reductio ad absurdum/slippery slope fallacy to mess with me, he’s totally right.

Similarly, if all traditionalists know is that gay marriage proponents think that nondiscrimination and the desire to have the state recognize a life-time loving commitment are the basis of marriage equality, then there really isn’t a reason why multiple people who love each other shouldn’t be able to get married. Replacing ‘everyone can get married to the opposite sex person of their choice’ with ‘everyone can get married to one other person of their choice’ doesn’t seem like much of an improvement in some hypothetical society where polygamy is really on the table. Gay marriage activists have a political and intellectual obligation to answer the damn question.

In fact, to be really rigorous, we have to answer a few questions. (Gay marriage opponents should, ideally, be able to answer them, too).

1. What is marriage, in our current society?
2. Broadly speaking, how did it come to be that way? (Marriage as a chestertonian fence)
3. What state or societal functions does or should it serve? (What interests does it serve?)

Then, and only then, can we ask, 4. “How does polygamy factor in?”

Luckily, there are plenty of useful, reasonable answers, which will not only placate the Defenders of Marriage, but clarify your own stance and give you a rational grounding for your policy proposals. Which shall it be? (NB: I won’t always address #2 in these responses, because that takes much longer)

1. Marriage is a social recognition of lifelong bonding combined with a structure that allows for a stable environment for children. It comes with rights and benefits. There’s nothing in that that requires only two people, so I do support polygamy. That’s the next step.
Pros: consistent. Cons: Probably won’t win so many points with the traditional marriage crowd.

2. Marriage is an institution that (comes out of a patriarchal and oppressive tradition/used to be important for property issues/other) but serves no use now except to (increase government power/privilege some forms of sexual or romantic relationships) so there should be no marriage at all.
Pros: Also consistent. Cons: Really? What about kids? Also, what are you doing advocating for marriage equality at all?

2, edited. Marriage is an institution that (comes out of a patriarchal and oppressive tradition/used to be important for property issues/other) but serves no use now except to (increase government power/privilege some forms of sexual or romantic relationship) so there should be no marriage at all, but given that it exists, gay people should have it, too.
Pros: Practical. Cons: A pretty cynical way to look at politics.

3. The state has a compelling interest in producing stable family structures. The best way we know of to do that is with two people legally becoming kin, but the gender doesn’t appear to matter.
Pros: Practical, and based on state interest, which is always a plus. Cons: Depends on a piece of evidence (what the most stable structure is) that could change in either direction. That’s fine, just a little unstable.

4. Marriage is a social recognition of stable lifelong bonding combined with a structure that allows for a stable environment for children, but polygamy comes at too high a cost because we would have to totally restructure our (tax system/custody system/etc.).
Pros: Convenient for political argumentation. Cons: Pretty weak argument, if you ask me.

5. The state has a compelling interest in producing stable family structures, and polygamy isn’t one of them. It comes with the potential for a society in which high-status men have tons of wives and low-status men don’t have any. Too problematic. (There might be other similar reasons why a polygamous society would be a bad idea).
Pros: Probably the most forceful argument against polygamy. Cons: Dependent on a potentially irrelevant historical fact about polygamy, not clear at all that such a society would come to pass.

There are likely many more potential responses, and these have plenty of problems, but they are a start. They help us understand, not just what we do or don’t like about polygamy, but why we believe what we believe about the legalization of same-sex marriage.

So next time gay marriage opponents trot out the ‘polygamy’ card, what are we going to do?  Are we going to sputter unconvincingly that it’s not the issue?  Or are we going to face it head-on and show why marriage equality should be the policy on its own merits?

Note: This applies to tons and tons of other issues, from abortion to foreign intervention. Slide down that slippery slope and let me know in comments where you end up!