Dave’s Mailbag: Accommodation vs. Confrontation; Avoiding activism burnout; The internet as a source
Hello all! Dave Muscato here. It’s time again for one of my favorite types of posts: Reader mail!
I received the following about my previous post about the Vatican and youth culture. Hang on tight, folks; this is gonna be a long one!
Dylan C. writes:
Hey Dave, hope you had a pleasant day at the courthouse. [NB: I had jury duty the other day]
I’m curious about something. It seems to me from a great number of your recent postings that you have grown increasingly paranoid and irrational in your analysis of information and subsequent conclusions. I assume that as a self-identified activist, you have taken the time to search out and discover things that are important to keep in mind as an activist. In other words, what are some of the key principles that an activist ought to follow in order not to allow their identity as an activist to become all-consuming and deterministic? I ask this because I am concerned for you, for your health, for your sanity, and for your reputation.
“It becomes very difficult for a pastor to get away with lying for Jesus, when anyone—especially young people—can whip out a smartphone and find real answers on Wikipedia faster than you can say the Lord’s Prayer.”
I’ve noticed that you enjoy coming up with and using catchy one-liners such as this to add humor and emotionally-charged content to your posts. But I’m going to have to challenge you on this practice. You of all people should know the significant dangers and limitations inherent to the use of Wikipedia and Google for discovering the “truth”. And young people especially tend to be completely ignorant of how to avoid these dangerous pitfalls. Anyone can post information on the internet, and for just a little bit of financial investment, they can also utilize search engine optimization to make their information more highly visible. A lot of this information is of course from activist groups, some much more biased than others, but all significantly biased nonetheless. The fact that we have labeled this the “Information Age” is a horrible joke to me at best. In fact, from the internet, equally as much as from the “pulpit”, young people are told what to believe. This is REALITY, and I dare you to disagree with me.
Here’s my response:
Hey Dylan! I really appreciate your feedback. It is true that I have shifted more toward a “confrontationist” approach to religion, as opposed to an “accommodationist” approach. There is actually a division within the secular movement about this: There was a debate/panel discussing the topic at the Skepticon 3 conference that’s worth watching if you’re interested.
Many atheists believe, although we disagree about the existence of gods, that churches have a lot to offer and the best course of action is to work together on “interfaith” activities to make the world a better place. Confrontationists, on the other hand, see religion as dangerous, and see religious moderates as enablers for fundamentalists. The accommodationists dislike that confrontationists add to the stereotype of “angry atheists,” and the confrontationists dislike that the accommodationists give irrationality a free pass.
I’m reminded of the conflict between hellfire & brimstone preachers versus welcoming congregations. The hellfire & brimstone preachers dislike that the welcoming congregations permit gay people, etc, while the welcoming congregations see the hellfire preachers as turning people away from religion and not teaching the “loving” aspects of Christianity.
I feel I must stress that my natural inclination is to be an accommodationist. It feels right to me, and it’s difficult for me to criticize religion as a whole, when I have personally enjoyed so many positive experiences as a formerly religious person, and considering I have many friends whom I love and who are religious.
However, the more I research religion, the more I come to realize that religion is the root of virtually all of the things I consider wrong. The Biblical theme that some God “gave” humankind dominion over the the whole of the Earth and all the animals on it, along with the idea that this God is “in control” of the environment and would not allow us to perish before Jesus returns, is directly at odds with the urgency of the global environmental crisis, and with vegetarianism/veganism. The Biblical theme that woman are subservient to men is directly at odds with feminism. The Biblical theme that souls exist and life begins at conception is directly at odds with reproductive rights, abortion access, and stem cell research. The Biblical theme that there is an afterlife is directly at odds with the secular humanist priority of making this life count for everything it’s worth because you only live once. The Biblical creation mythology is directly at odds with the science education and the teaching the scientific fact of evolution by means of natural selection. The Biblical theme that a man should not lie with another man is directly at odds with LGBTQ rights. Etc, etc.
In fact I am hard-pressed to come up with a cause I care about that DOESN’T have its root conflict in religion. I care about a lot of things and wish I could be an activist for them all, but I understand the prudence in picking one’s battles. Fortunately, it’s not a hard choice: By choosing to focus on atheism activism, I am in effect also fighting for LGBTQ rights, women’s right to choose, birth control access, stem-cell research, science education, vegetarianism, secular humanism, and critical thinking.
I’m curious as to what you mean by “increasingly paranoid and irrational in your analysis of information and subsequent conclusions.” Correct me if this isn’t what you meant, but I assume in effect you mean my increasing willingness to blame religion for social ills. As I stated, it is true that it’s becoming easier for me to criticize religion as a whole. I assert that this is because I am learning more about the pervasiveness of religion in society as the source of many twisted beliefs. These beliefs cause people to do many terrible things out of ignorance and just plain indoctrination.
I am intolerant of bigotry and make no apology for this. If that makes me a confrontationist, so be it. Because I have a conscience, I cannot stand by idly when I see violence, whether physical or structural. I cannot stand by idly when I see irrationality guiding moral decision-making and public policy. These things are just too important.
…What are some of the key principles that an activist ought to follow in order not to allow their identity as an activist to become all-consuming and deterministic?
This is an important question and I’m glad you asked. This applies to activists of all stripes, not just within the secular movement. Here are what I consider key principles to avoiding burnout:
- Make a conscious effort to separate your work and your life. For most professional activists I know, their activism began as a volunteer passion. Sometimes, it is difficult for them to turn that “off” when they go home at night. If you are accustomed to spending your free time doing activism, and you then find yourself doing it professionally, you have to make the decision to spend your free time NOT doing activism. This means having hobbies, and making time for them. For me, this is photography, playing music, and taking road-trips. I always make sure to practice my guitar or bass at least a half-hour a day, to keep up my chops but also to take a break from the computer.
- Have some friends who are not part of your cause. I make a conscious effort to make sure my relationships with my religious friends stay strong. It’s also good to have friends who share your values but simply aren’t activists about it. It gives you some perspective.
- Read/watch fiction. This is very difficult for me personally but I think it’s good advice. It’s important to have an escape. I tend to read only non-fiction, and I like to watch documentaries, but I make an effort to watch funny TV shows and occasionally read a novel.
- Regularly study the opposing point of view. Understand that other people do not share your perspective for a reason, sometimes even good reasons. I make every effort to read apologists’ books when they are recommended to me, if for no other reason than to critique them and practice the name-the-fallacy game.
Now on to our third and final point: the internet as a source.
Of course, I do not recommend that anyone interested in atheism or secular history use Wikipedia as their sole source. Wikipedia is very good for certain subjects and less good for others. But what I love about Wikipedia is that hard sources are provided at the bottom of every article, and information without solid citations is flagged and removed.
It is equally important, if not more so, to read proper history books from credible historians. But I disagree with you about using Google to find sources. Google indexes not only blogs and interest-group websites, etc, which may be heavily biased and contain factual errors and logical fallacies. Google also indexes accredited university websites, peer-reviewed academic journals, and fact-checked magazines and so on.
These are legitimate sources for correct information and I completely disagree that people searching on Google are being told what to believe equally with what comes from the pulpit. Not believing what comes from the pulpit brings with it the threat of “Hell,” for one thing. Not believing what comes from the pulpit, for many young people, comes with the threat of losing internet privileges, games, toys, etc, and sometimes even food. In extreme cases, though unfortunately not all-too-rare, not believing what comes from the pulpit comes with the threat of being disowned and being homeless.
It is simply not true that people are being told what to believe equally on Google and at church.
With regard to Internet sources, the information is simply there. People choose to read it or not, and choose to accept it or not. They can choose to explore opposing points of view with just a few clicks, and just as readily access training on how to think critically and examples of various logical fallacies.
So-called “Internet literacy” is a skill that must be learned—fact-checking information from one site against other sites, using logic and critical thinking to see if the information is coherent with what you already know, and making sure what you’re reading is internally consistent and contains no fallacies. There is a very famous example of teaching Internet literacy regarding a fictional “tree octopus” that’s worth a read if you have time.
I think the most important thing, when it comes to claims of any kind, is to be skeptical. I consider myself a skeptic—SASHA stands for Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics—and skepticism is an important part of my worldview. Skepticism is, in my experience, NOT taught or encouraged in religious settings. In fact in my experience, I have seen it actively discouraged, painted as the work of Satan, trying to trick people into losing their faith in Jesus. Frankly, I find this ridiculous, although I more-or-less believed that myself at one time in my life.
As I mentioned above in #4, it’s important to regularly study opposing points of view. It expands your mind and forces you to think critically, which I think is never a bad thing. As Sam Harris wrote in Letter to a Christian Nation, “I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs.”
I hope this article has been helpful to you. Thank you again for your message, and please let me know if there is anything you would like me to clarify.
Until next time,
Dave Muscato is the Kansas/Missouri-Area Volunteer Network Coordinator for the Secular Student Alliance. He is also a board member of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A non-traditional junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com
and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!
This post is in response to Dave’s Dear Secular Community: Lest we forget, we’re on the same side.
Lately in the atheist blogosphere (I can not believe I am using that word non-ironically now; I think I just threw up a little) there has been much conversation about instituting harassment policies at conferences. That is actually only tangential to what I want to discuss in this post. What I actually want to discuss is the idea proposed in Dave’s blog post, including the tweet. The tweet (by Florida State Director of American Atheists, and Vice President of Outreach for Secular Woman, Bridgette Gaudette) read:
“Dear Secular Community: We agree on 95% of the same stuff, can we focus on that and not the 5% that we disagree on?!”
There are a few issues I have with this idea, as well as the suggestions that come of the application of this idea. Firstly, on the most basic level, let me grant the arbitrarily decided on percentages and even then most of that 95% that we agree on is going to be things like gravity, that humans require oxygen, that 2+2=4. There is nothing to discuss with these issues.
I am not setting up a straw-man argument. I realize that what was meant by the original comment were issue about church-state separation, science education, LGBTQ rights, etc. However, I think it is important to point out that that would not make up this full 95%. Most of what we agree on we have no need to discuss because everyone else agrees with it as well. Then there are the “movement issues” that most of us agree on within the movement, but that a large part of the rest of society does not. These get a lot of discussion, as we want to convince those that disagree of our viewpoint in an attempt to mold society into one that shares our values. This is precisely why these things need to be discussed in the movement. The only way to promote positive change in society is by discussing the issues with the rest of society. The only way to promote positive change within the movement is by discussing the issues with the rest of the movement.
I understand the sentiment behind the idea; the whole “let’s be friends” mentality. And I completely agree with it. However, I think we need to tread carefully lest we enable the silencing of complaints and discussion. We can, and should, discuss these ideas respectfully. There should not be long-standing feuds and resentment due to discussion of these issues and we should certainly not have different camps forming. For Thor’s sake people, we have escaped this herd mentality once, lets not jump into it again. So I certainly sympathize with the desire to get along, but I think that can still be done while discussing important issues that people within the movement disagree upon, and I do think it is necessary. The complaints about not wanting to read about it on the blogs anymore are not at all helpful. For one, you have the ability not to read them if you do not care about the issue being discussed. There are titles and tags that can help you with this endeavor if skimming the article first to too time consuming for you. Secondly, and more importantly, these comments seem to me to be showing quite a bit of privilege. ”This does not affect me personally, and I don’t want to feel like I am doing anything wrong, so I don’t want to read about it anymore.” This may all be true, but it does affect other people within the movement, and they just as much of a right as anyone else does to try to keep people safe and treated equally. If you disagree with arguments being made in favor of some of these issues, then engage in the discussion, but to say that we should all stop talking about it is edging towards censorship and is not at all productive.
Tony Lakey is the President of MU SASHA. He is currently interning with the Center for Inquiry On Campus in Amherst, NY. He will be starting his fourth year at the University of Missouri – Columbia in August 2012, majoring in Philosophy and Sociology.
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This isn’t the sort of thing I usually blog about — I’m a believer in the idea of picking one’s battles, which is why you also rarely see posts on here by me about animal welfare, poverty alleviation, vegetarianism, etc, even though those are also things I care about aside from atheism activism.
Today I’m writing about an incident that occurred today at the Skepticamp Ohio 2012 event. Please note that I am hearing about this second-hand, as I’m in Columbia this weekend and not at the conference. Here’s a copy-and-pasted summary of what happened, confirmed through a few different sources on Twitter and Facebook, as stated by my friend S:
A female presenter made a joking comment about how skeptics should have more children, and a guy in the crowd shouts “Are you volunteering?”
My question to our readers is, is it wrong to laugh at this? Is it even funny at all? Now, I want to make it clear that I’m talking about his statement, NOT the act of interruption during the speaker’s talk. Clearly it is inappropriate to interrupt a speaker, regardless of sex, even when they make a joke, if you ask me. Interrupting a speaker is permissible when 1) there is a technical problem, like a dead microphone or 2) there is a safety problem, like a fire in the building, or a bomb threat. Otherwise, it’s fine to laugh, but don’t shout stuff out. I think we can all more-or-less agree on that part.
As far as the content of what the crowd-guy said, is it actually wrong? Let’s look at a few possibilities.
The presenter set the tone for the exchange by making a joking comment (according to an eyewitness from the conference from whom I got the statement above). Setting aside for the moment that this was probably not directed at any single individual and it was inappropriate for a single audience member to respond to it, I would say that the appropriate response to this part of the exchange is laughter. Like I said, I wasn’t there, but I’m guessing that the audience laughed at this part.
Then, the guy from the audience said, “Are you volunteering?” Now’s where it gets tricky: Did the presenter genuinely think this response was funny? Did she feel harassed, but laugh anyway as a defense mechanism? Did she find it a bit funny and a bit harassing, and laugh partially because it was funny and partially as a defense mechanism? Or did she not find it funny at all and feel only harassed (as the eyewitness felt, both vicariously for the speaker, and as a passive participant as part of the crowd)? I would be interested in hearing the speaker’s thoughts on it, if anyone can tell me who exactly it was, so I might be able to contact her about it.
I understand that there is a harassment policy in place at the conference, and that the matter was attended to. I don’t know what that means, but it’s a start.
So, the title of this post is, “Is it wrong to laugh?” When phrased this way, the topic is more clearly one of ethics. I agree with my friend C.M. that if others in the room are also affected by this exchange and so we need to take them into account in our utility calculation, or whatever system we want to use. But what if everyone in the room thought it was genuinely funny and not at all harassing, including the speaker? Would it still be harassment then?
Now we’re looking at a question more like, “If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?” Or take the example of, “If someone disrobes in a forest with no one around, is it still flashing?” If it’s a public park, I suppose it is, even though there’s little chance of a charge without a complainant. The same, I would argue, applies with this incident: If truly no one was offended, then laughing is totally fine. If even one person is offended, whether it’s the speaker or not, then we start edging toward unethical behavior.
The question is, how do we establish what’s offensive or not until it happens? We can speculate based on previous experience and knowledge of our audience — comedians can get away with saying all sorts of things that we commoners could never permissibly say in a public place — but ultimately, it’s a risk/reward gamble.
Speaking of risk/reward, C.M. also said that “It would have been inappropriate, but not as bad, if the genders were reversed.” I think now we are getting to the meat of it: Is this an ethical problem with harassment, or with sexism?
When asked to clarify, she said, in so many words, that it would do less harm, because women are historically on the receiving end of objectification & harassment. Ah, so we are talking about how much harm we’re causing, not whether or not we’re causing harm. If that’s the case, it’s back to risk/reward: If one person is offended at a “5″ on a 1-10 scale, but the other 99 people in the audience think it’s funny at a “5″ on a “1-10″ scale, is it wrong? Again, it depends on your ethical system. Some people would say that it’s wrong to laugh if anyone is offended, perhaps especially in the case of the speaker. But if we’re talking about less bad, then at what point does it become permissible? Or if it’s never permissible, then why split it into degrees?
Jokes make conferences fun. They make all social interactions fun. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to attend a conference where jokes are prohibited on the basis of the possibility of offense. Even academic conferences (usually!) have some humor. Jokes are all about testing boundaries and sometimes tiptoeing past them. That’s the point. And sometimes the best humor does come from audience interaction, especially from mocking. It’s a tool in the humor toolchest — just look up “heckler” + the name of your favorite comedian on YouTube, or consider this interaction from the late, great Sydney Morgenbesser, the famous Columbia philosophy professor and jokester:
During a lecture the Oxford linguistic philosopher J.L. Austin made the claim that although a double negative in English implies a positive meaning, there is no language in which a double positive implies a negative. To which Morgenbesser responded in a dismissive tone, “Yeah, yeah.”
Consider another Morgenbesser great:
Morgenbesser was leaving a subway station in New York City and put his pipe in his mouth as he was ascending the steps. A police officer told him that there was no smoking on the subway. Morgenbesser pointed out that he was leaving the subway, not entering it, and hadn’t lit up yet anyway. The cop again said that smoking was not allowed in the subway, and Morgenbesser repeated his comment. The cop said, “If I let you do it, I’d have to let everyone do it.” Morgenbesser replied, “Who do you think you are, Kant?” The word “Kant” was mistaken for a vulgar epithet and Morgenbesser had to explain the situation at the police station.
Some people will find this second one offensive. That’s the point. The police officer certainly did, and took Morgenbesser into custody over it. But is it wrong to laugh at this on the basis that someone finds it offensive?
I would say, no. You have to weigh the good with the bad. If our rule is, “If someone finds it offensive, or might find it offensive, don’t say it,” we are losing out on a lot of good stuff. Consider George Carlin’s “Words You Can’t Say On TV” stand-up bit without anything potentially offensive, or Ricky Gervais, or Aziz Ansari, or my favorite, Jim Jeffries. Whoever uploaded that Jim Jeffries clip linked in the last sentence even provides us with a nice little disclaimer in the description, reading “Warning: Highly likely to offend die-hard religious types.”
Or alternatively, is our rule that we shouldn’t laugh at something that has the capacity to offend someone, or a group of people, who have a personal or demographic history of oppression against the subject of the joke? Especially if the person laughing has a historical association with the oppressors, whether personal or ancestral?
I think the most anyone can ask is that we do the best we can. We should do our best to be patient and understanding when someone offends us, and explain why we are offended and what a less offensive alternative might be. But keep in mind, if your only reason for disliking some statement is that it offends you, then what you are really saying is you lack good reasons for intending others to change their behavior. In the words of Richard Dawkins:
You will not say, ‘It’s offensive, it’s offensive.” You will say, ‘No, you are wrong here, and you are wrong here, and you are wrong here,’ and that’s what you should do.
I don’t remember who said this, but I once heard a statement that has stuck in my memory. When you say you are offended, what you are really saying is that you cannot control your emotions, and instead, you want to control other people’s behavior. I’m not sure I entirely agree with it, but I wanted to share it with you, and get your feedback on it.
I think it’s important that we keep in mind that “feminism” means “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men,” not turning the tables so that it’s the reverse of the 1950s’. Similarly, we must keep in mind the different between sexual objectification and sexism. Anyone can be the subject of objectification, and anyone can be the subject of sexism. Women are much more commonly the subject of both of these than men. Although there is a historical element, and privilege plays a role in audience reaction etc, I think it’s important that we remember that, if we really want to call ourselves feminists, we ought to be just as bothered by this statement:
A male presenter made a joking comment about how skeptics should have more children, and a woman in the crowd shouts “Are you volunteering?”
as we are about this one:
A female presenter made a joking comment about how skeptics should have more children, and a guy in the crowd shouts “Are you volunteering?”
In fact, as I mentioned to the eyewitness previously mentioned, I would have just phrased it as: “A presenter made a joking comment about how skeptics should have more children, and someone in the crowd shouts ‘Are you volunteering?’
In an ideal world, it really says the same thing, and that’s what we should be striving for, right? If we achieve social equality, and reproduction has nothing to do with the story, then why even mention what sex the speaker or audience member is?
Very curious for your thoughts on all of this, folks! Thanks for reading. If you comment below, I will respond!
P.S. I do think skeptics should consider having more children, or alternatively, adopting. This is something the religious folks have quite a monopoly on. I also recommend this clip, for laughs and for illustrative purposes
Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.
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Hello all; Dave here.
You knew this was coming eventually. I held off as long as I could, figuring that, even though I was at the conference and was the one who coined the term Watsongate (because of its aural similarity to Watergate, which eventually morphed into the more-fitting Elevatorgate), too much had been said on this already and I had nothing new to add. Well, I have something to add now, so here ’tis:
From a Facebook thread, regarding the aftermath of Elevatorgate:
“…I’m hoping more guys will come forward and say “Look, I realize now that I may have made some women uncomfortable through various social faux pas, and I’d like to explain what I was thinking at the time and clarify that I didn’t mean to cause any harm.” I think it’ll make it much easier for those of us who’ve been on the receiving end of both awkward social advances and legitimately predatory targeting to better communicate our needs without sounding like we have some kind of blanket hatred for people who’ve put us in uncomfortable or frightening positions.”
“I realize now that I may have made some women uncomfortable through various social faux pas, and I’d like to explain what I was thinking at the time and clarify that I didn’t mean to cause any harm. I was born male, I identify as a man, and I will never be able to understand other vantage points firsthand. The best I can do is listen, respond, and adjust my thinking and behavior to the best of my ability.
I’ve considered myself a feminist for about 3 years now (since I started dating a Bryn Mawr alumna) and I’ve learned a lot. I learned not to refer to women as “girls” and, coming from an economics- and anthropology-student’s perspective, I’ve begun to appreciate just how much misogyny (including religious-based misogyny) has harmed society here and worldwide. I would recommend Betty Friedan as well as this book:
to anyone interested in this topic.
Overall I think Elevatorgate is a good thing. We need to be talking about how to talk to someone you find attractive. That is how progress is made. Communication clarifies misunderstandings and it’s only by engaging each other in this way that ignorance can be addressed and give yield to more enlightened thinking and action.”
“If you would just admit to the equal horrors women put guys through, which guys on the whole are usually to tough to talk about or confess for that matter, then maybe your pain, which you’ve dissimulated in abstract blame, will be better used to polemicize against men and women, which would then provide grounds enough for you to channel your volcanic non-verbal, into a more healthy political exercise in ideology, eh? It will be like you cutting the cake, with the small rule that you take the last portion.”
I hope, too, that more women will come forward and say, “Look, I realize that I may have made some men uncomfortable through various social faux pas, and I’d like to explain what I was thinking at the time and clarify that I didn’t mean to cause any harm.”
Women are also capable (and some do) cause harm through their ignorance and in some extreme cases, some do so intentionally. For example, most men will never understand what it’s like to be scared of being raped if you are caught in a compromising situation with someone bigger than you. (I say “most men” because this happens to tens of thousands of men every single day in our prisons, and also, there are plenty of men out there who did not always identify as men).
But please also recognize that (most) women will never understand the fear – yes, fear – that accompanies consensual sex in the minds of many men. The reasons for this fear are layered: Men can be accused, arrested for, and even convicted of sexual assault if a woman changes her mind about consensual sex mid-coitus or even completely ex post facto, especially if alcohol or other intoxicants were involved. Even a not-guilty verdict or a dismissal on the whole can ruin someone’s reputation, ability to date, ability to get a job, etc for life.
Some unscrupulous women even abuse this aspect of our legal system intentionally. (Most) women will never know what it’s like to be afraid of being accused of rape for having what they thought at the time was consensual sex. (Most) women will never know what it’s like to be afraid to say anything at all to a woman because you might not use the right feminist language and risk offending her. (Most) women will never understand the fear that accompanies genuine attempts by men to indicate to women they find attractive that they’re interested in getting to know them better. (Most) women will never understand the heartache that comes from developing feelings for someone, only to find out later that she was “flirting for fun.”
Don’t get me wrong; flirting can be fun, but I protest to the use of the term “harmless flirting.” Flirting if you’re not sincere can really hurt people, and I think it’s important that (especially) women keep this in mind if they choose to flirt for fun.
Unlike many other animal species, humans don’t have abundantly obvious physical signals that the feeling is mutual. Sure, our cheeks and lips redden, our pupils dilate, we get “dreamy eyed,” etc, but these are not only subtle, but unreliable, too. One advantage we have over (all?) other animals is our language ability. If we’re interested in someone, we can signal this with words instead of with some physical sign, and with much better clarity, too, if we decide to be clear.
There is a double standard here that I think we should address. Women can indicate that they think a guy (or gal) is attractive and they don’t have to worry, the way men do, about being thought of as creepy or dangerous. For many men, it’s to the point where we just simply don’t ever hit on women, not for fear of rejection in the classic sense, but for fear that we will be thought of as creeps, especially if there is alcohol around.
I have seen advice in online forums about how a woman should indicate to a man that she is interested in him. Some examples I’ve seen include touching his arm, touching his hand, licking your lips, playing with his hair, etc. Can you imagine if the roles were reversed? If a man (that is, a man you weren’t interested in) touched your arm playfully, it would be reasonable for a woman to feel violated. In many cases he will instantly be written off as a creep or worse. I’m not even going to mention what would happen if a guy, during a conversation, just started touching your hair.
Now, a lot of women may say, “We’re not saying you can’t hit on us.” Well, for many men, please understand that, de facto, that’s what we’re hearing. It’s simply not worth the risk of being thought of as a creep. This is especially problematic because traditionally, the guy is supposed to make the first move. It’s a catch-22.
I am NOT saying this is true objectively, but for the sake of women reading this, here is what goes through many men’s minds after observing something like Elevatorgate unfold: As if we weren’t already scared enough from fear of rejection before, we are now scared to make the first move, ever, because we might get vituperated on the internet if we hit on someone at the wrong place or the wrong time. This is especially true for socially-awkward men, and there, frankly, is an overlap between skepticism/atheism & social awkwardness among men. To reiterate I am not saying that that’s really true. But that is how I’m sure many men feel after hearing all of this. The elevator guy will almost certainly never come forward for fear of being eaten alive by feminists (of all genders), even if it’s just to apologize and say that he meant no harm.
The problem here, I think, is that there is no instruction manual for men about how to ask someone out respectfully or show her/him you’re interested. And there really can’t be, because everybody responds in different ways to different come-ons, some positive, some negative, and it can reasonably be argued that it also depends on the suitor’s level of attractiveness (or even the relative attractiveness of between suitor & “suitee”). This is a problem. I think it’s fair to say that people, generally speaking, want to be hit on, when it’s socially appropriate and not creepy. It can be flattering when someone (attractive) thinks you’re attractive – frankly that is how all relationships get off the ground! It’s a necessary step in the process of beginning a relationship.
But if traditionally, women expect men to make the first move, how are we to know what’s socially appropriate and not creepy when the conditions are in a constant state of flux, depending on
- how attractive you are
- how attractive the other person is
- how much alcohol you have had
- how much alcohol the other person has had
- how many other people are around
- WHO is around
- what time it is
- when you last slept
- when the other person last slept
- whether the other person is in an exclusive relationship or not, which you can only reasonably be expected to know if the information is promulgated, the other person is wearing a wedding ring, or you ask directly
- etc, etc, etc?
I have had more than one woman tell me that she likes it when her suitor “takes charge” as far as asking someone out. For example, saying to someone: “I’m taking you to dinner on Saturday.” I know some people who would consider this the ultimate in flattery. I know others who would consider this the height of misogynistic bullying and anti-feminism. I know some women who would be offended at the very suggestion of splitting the check, and others who don’t bat an eye alternating who picks up the tab, sometimes even planning & paying, starting with the very first date.
There are so many hidden rules, rules that contradict each other, and situation-dependent rules that it’s enough to make a one’s head spin. In addition, a different set of rules apply to overweight, older, or otherwise less-attractive men than those which apply to young, fit, rich, or otherwise more-attractive men.
Folks, men are dense. This is not news. We don’t read between the lines as well as women do. Our brains are not wired that way and it’s not a personality flaw or anybody’s fault. We just work much better with very clear instructions. There is a spectrum of ability in this area and men are simply not as good at it on average.
We don’t want to insult you. We don’t want to scare you. We don’t want to creep you out. We want to be attractive to you, and we want to make you feel good about yourself and good about us. We want to make you feel special and important. But we need help. Your help. If you insist or prefer that we make the first move (I recognize that not all of you do, and I applaud that), you have to understand that sometimes we are going to screw it up. That doesn’t mean we are misogynistic. It doesn’t mean we aren’t feminists. It just means that we’re human.
If we are using language that offends you, don’t stop talking to us. Correct us. (If you actually feel threatened as opposed to just offended, obviously, that’s different). On the whole, we desire to not offend you. This goes for LGBTQ language as well as feminist language as well as any other type of language where the wrong wording may cause offense. If someone doesn’t know to say “a gay man” instead of “a gay,” correct her/him. If someone doesn’t know to say “woman” instead of “girl,” correct her/him. If someone you’re talking to touches your hand, and you’d rather them not do that, just say, “I’d rather you not do that. We can still talk; I just prefer not to be touched. Thank you,” etc, then just continue the conversation. Men need more verbal feedback because we’re just not as good as you are with nonverbal cues. It really is that simple. We want to learn, and we can’t learn if we’re shunned instead of instructed.
If you think I’m saying this because of privilege, I’m asking you not to get pissed at me, but instead tell me so in the comment section below, and tell me what you would suggest instead. I ask that you not tell me I’m obviously not really a feminist – I identify as a feminist, and if you acknowledged me as one when I said so at the very beginning of this post but you don’t now, recognize that you are committing both the logical fallacy of moving the goalpost and the No True Scotsman fallacy. It is not true that only women can have legitimate views on feminist topics. If you think I’m wrong, tell me why, and tell me what to say instead.
Remember, as I said above, communication clarifies misunderstandings and it’s only by engaging each other in this way that ignorance can be addressed and give yield to more enlightened thinking and action.
I look forward to your responses.
Until next time,
Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, and posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.
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