So frequently when social media gets involved in solving/addressing/recognizing racial or gender aggression (like the ‘me too’ trend) I see (or get) the attitude that its somehow not appropriate or bad for cis-white men (or some subset thereof) to offer their opinion on whether the effort is effective, morally justified, etc.. Not only does this attitude seem to lack any semblance of justification but it pretty clearly places the holder’s concern over their moral righteousness or social standing above the welfare of the group they claims to care about helping. Furthermore, by abandoning the hard won cultural consensus that it is the value of an individuals ideas, character and contributions that matter not their gender or skin color it risks less obvious, but more extensive, harm to the philosophical foundation on which we’ve built our turn away from bigotry and intolerance.
I recognize that this last point is only convincing once you accept that there isn’t a systematic reason that cis-white-mens’ views on these issues are almost categorically1 certain not to be worth hearing so I’ll start there and focus on the ability of men to contribute to conversations about harassment.
I’ll first argue that not only is there no particularly unique experience that living as a woman (even almost) ensures that one has nor is there any reason to think that gender, rather than Myers-Briggs type or socioeconomic status, would be the way to identify conversational participants most likely to understand the experience of being a victim of harassment. Then I’ll point out that it’s not even important for participants in the conversation to have a good idea of how or why harassment is bad much less what it feels like to experience it. All that’s really important is that people in the conversation agree that it is bad and work to eliminate it. Finally, I’ll point out that its primarily men’s beliefs and behaviors that need to be changed to make progress against harassment and, as such, the life experiences that offer the most value to conversation or planning are those that offer insight into men’s psychology and can identify what will and won’t be persuasive to men. Then, having demolished any claims this attitude has to epistemic virtue I consider why so many people seem to find it intuitively attractive despite the fact that it represents an abandonment of core principles in the struggle against hatred, bigotry and intolerance. In particular, I’ll suggest that we need to be careful not to conflate group membership with moral guilt nor confuse what feels just with what will be most likely to produce a more just society.
Before I continue, however, I should address two important points. First, I’m not talking about interactions where victims are seeking out a compassionate, understanding ear and may feel more comfortable with one gender. I’m talking about public discussion of matters of societal concern. Secondly, I’m aware of those little verbal catchphrases used by the social justice community to respond to criticisms of this attitude but disparaging the speaker isn’t a compelling argument. Simply acting like this question has already been decided isn’t sufficient. If you don’t agree with my criticisms you need to offer an actual argumentative defense.
Of course, I could be missing something so if you think I am please let me know.
Does Gender Offer A Unique Experiential Understanding of Harassment?
Now, obviously there are certain feelings or gestalt impressions which are difficult to fully appreciate without first hand experience. Just as I will never fully appreciate what it feels like to be engrossed in an Olympic bobsled run I won’t ever fully experience the exact way in which sexual harassment (or the concern that one will be harassed) are hurtful. Of course, different women and minorities also experience these events in different ways. Indeed, variation here is sufficiently large that I’m quite confident that I have a much better grip on the emotional experience my wife has when she gets catcalled or is otherwise hurt/slighted based on her gender than a random women pulled off a US street would have based merely on their status as women in the states. This already pokes some serious holes in the usual argument that, lacking the experience of living as a woman, there is some epistemicly critical aspect information about how female victims feel which is somehow denied to men but available to other women. In short, being female neither ensures you agree about the frequency or emotional impact of harassment2 nor does being male mean you aren’t constantly perceiving this behavior to be going on around you or that the empathetic distance from you to any particular female victim is greater than it is for other women.
Of course, it will be true that other women will be more likely to both be aware of when, how and with what frequency harassment occurs then the average man but that is no more an argument for discouraging men’s contributions than the fact that blacks in the US are less likely to have a college degree is a good reason to throw out applications from blacks for a professorial position. In both cases its absurd to use the individuals racial or gender identity instead of simply checking if they know what they are talking about. Even if we had to adopt the (repugnant) policy of picking some feature with which to screen potential contributors to the discussion we could almost certainly do better by instead selecting for culturally liberal men and women who have been the victim of bullying or other sustained emotional cruelty. While being bullied isn’t the same as being sexually harassed this criteria at least ensures that the selected population understands how many small slights or disguised verbal assaults can amount to an unbearable psychological assault for the victim even while, viewed in isolation by colleagues and authority figures, each incident appears trivial and clearly not worth reacting to. In contrast, there are no shortage of female religious nutjobs who not only don’t believe sexual harassment happens but think it would be a woman’s place to quietly endure it if it did.
Is First Person Experiential Understanding Important?
For the sake of argument suppose that it was true that almost all women and almost no men have a first person experiential understanding of what it feels like to be a victim or likely potential victim. What conclusions should we draw from that? Well, perhaps in certain discussions that turn on details of the experience and aftermath its plausible that women would be systematically better able to contribute than men. For instance, I think its probably true that people with first person understanding are better equipped to contribute to a discussion about how best to manage/alleviate the emotional aftereffects of such experiences. However, even in cases where the specifics of the experience are relevant, its not always true they help reach better conclusions or productively contribute.
For example, while my experience of being bullied in junior high certainly left me with a profound sympathy for the victims and concern about the issue it also compromises my judgement. I know intellectually that many bullies aren’t bad people (I even befriended some eventually) and the worst ones are often victims of some kind themselves but when the topic comes up in discussion I can feel my vision go red and I find myself advocating extreme solutions and dismissing promising compassionate interventions with bullies. Worse, when it comes to offering advice to prospective victims or parents I find myself assuming that every situation resembles a suburban catholic school in the Midwest during the early 90s and baselessly assuming that just because authority figures could do nothing for me they have nothing to offer (except disciplining the victim under zero-tolerance policies).
Yes, the fact that I’ve thought about the issue a bunch and feel strongly about fixing it means I probably have more opinions on the problem than the average man on the street but those are more than balanced by my impaired judgement about the issue and the reluctance I feel to consider certain possibilities3. Indeed, I’m quite certain that if I’d found myself talking only to other victims of bullying while everyone else felt it was inappropriate to chime in I would be making the situation much worse and be blind to potential solutions.
Moreover, even setting aside the downsides of first-person emotional experience it’s not even clear that understanding the exact nature of the victim’s experience is helpful at all. Returning to the analogy with bullying, it’s certainly true that there are aspects of how it made me feel, ways its affected me and details of how it happened that are hard to convey to those who haven’t had similar experiences. However, appreciating the precisce way I or others were hurt offers no particular advantage in combating the problem. Anyone who believes the experience is very painful (so worth addressing) , is capable of evaluating the evidence and can usually recognize the harmful behavior when they observe it is just as capable of contributing to the discussion about what can be done to make things better. The same reasoning tells us that discussing the best way to combat harassment doesn’t require any kind of first person experience or understanding merely the genuine belief that it can cause substantial suffering.
Benefits of Male Lived Experience
The attitude that men shouldn’t participate in these conversations is obviously motivated by the idea that women are particularly vulnerable to being harassed and harassers are particularly likely to be men. While we shouldn’t pretend there aren’t also male victims (especially given the greater stigma for reporting) and female offenders I’m sure that the vast majority of cases are male offenders and female victims. While many people seem to have the intuition this is good reason for men to keep quite when women talk about harassment, exactly the opposite is true.
Given this breakdown of victims and perpetrators there isn’t any reason to suspect that the experience of being a woman could offer any particular insight into improving the situation. After all, we don’t want women to change their behavior and feel obligated to avoid `tempting’ men into harassment. Rather, we want to figure out how to change the way men behave so they don’t harass.
In contrast, the experience of being a man and interacting with other men (in the absence of women) offers a great deal of useful information to improve the situation. For instance, despite being about as far from a bro as its possible to be even my experience immediately suggests some useful facts. While I can’t be sure that the little just-so stories I offer in this footnote4 are completely accurate they are the sense I get of some of the ways men end up harassing women. Obviously, by inviting more men into the conversation, especially those who have engaged in various kinds of harassment in the past, one could gain a great deal of useful information about the factors that cause harassment to happen and potential mitigation strategies.
However, despite the fact that in this case men’s life experiences offer more value to the discussion than women’s, that’s certainly no reason to discourage women for participating. Rather, both sides should simply share the relevant experiences they’ve had so everyone can evaluate a single larger pool of evidence and come to a more accurate conclusion.
Dangers Of Gender Based Evaluation
Alright, so discouraging contributions based on the contributors gender risks keeping important information and perspectives out of these discussions not to mention reinforcing potentially counterproductive (if totally human and understandable) emotional responses to the state of affairs with respect to risks like harassment. Obviously, the mere fact that this attitude impedes us from reducing the problem of harassment that we supposedly care so much about fixing is enough to reject it but slightly slower progress is the least of the dangers.
Least importantly, in the eyes of anyone even slightly critical of the social justice community and millennial leftists, this kind of attitude confirms all their most absurd stereotypes. Presenting this attitude makes life substantially more difficult for all those women struggling to be believed or convince someone to take action about the fact they are being sexually harassed (or even assaulted). Each time some cop in the Midwest or mine owner in the West runs across someone saying guys should but out because only women have something useful to say they think, “Huh, I guess it is all absurd BS just like Fox news says,” and the next time someone tries to report a crime or workplace violation they will be just that much more skeptical.
Moreover, as women should know there is an especially strong reaction when one is rejected from something on the basis of an irrelevant, but psychologically salient, property like gender. For some reason making categorical judgements based on certain attributes is something people find especially infuriating even if other judgements (e.g. being treated worse because you aren’t as attractive or aren’t a morning person) are no less unfair. You may not think men should have this kind of reaction when it is the privileged gender that is getting the short end of the stick but they do and it will push men away from the causes you care about.
Now maybe you think this is all silly. Of course its not a big deal if men don’t get to contribute to this particular discussion or you deviate from the principle of supposed gender blindness in this understandable way. And if you could control everyone else who would might use a similar justification to exclude men from some contributing to some conversation or issue that might be a good argument. However, remember that not only are there always extremists out there but there are a thousand different opinions about exactly which conversations men should or shouldn’t be excluded from and once you open deviate from the principle that each person’s contribution should be evaluated solely on its merit not the gender (or race or etc..) of the contributor someone else will take it too far or try to apply a similar rule somewhere it isn’t appropriate and eventually you risk undermining the broad consensus for the idea that incidental features like gender, race, sexual orientation etc.. shouldn’t be relevant to most decisions.
It doesn’t matter that you may have defined discrimination in such a way that it can only apply to policies that hurt the underprivileged. There is a large segment of the population who won’t see the difference between rules which treat people differently based on gender in what you see as a good way and what you see as a discriminatory way.
Intuitions In Opposition
Ok, so what accounts for the widespread intuition that men should be excluded from such conversations?
Well part of this is simply a response to the fact that, given a norm in circles sympathetic to harassment claims against male participation of course the men who nevertheless participate are overwhelmingly likely to be saying something stupid and offensive. However, that’s hardly a justification for having the rule in the first place. Sure, even in the absence of such a rule its almost certainly true that men will be over-represented among the dismissive and mocking responses but since such respondents won’t be inclined to obey such a rule in the first its not really a good reason for having such a rule. Moreover, there are any number of subjects where either men or women are particularly likely to be mean and insensitive but we don’t favor general gender based contribution bans.
Another part of the explanation is the ambiguity, in some circumstances, as to whether the conversation is truly about discussing useful fixes or taking actions as opposed to simply venting/bitching. I suspect that often people like to adopt the pretense they are interested in finding solutions or fixing a problem but really just want to vent and bitch. As such, almost any contribution from a man will be unwelcome as, even if they are offering helpful insight into how one might make the situation better, it will force those participating in the conversation to switch gears from simple venting to seriously considering proposals and useful actions. I can understand why people find this annoying but I think there are serious social harms in allowing mere venting to masquerade as serious consideration of social problems. When we vent we are liable to say a great many things (e.g. how about we have a curfew on men on college campuses) we don’t really mean. If we don’t clearly delineate what is mere venting from serious suggestions in online conversations people will get the wrong idea (at the very least detractors will use such ambiguous discussions against us). So, while I appreciate the need for such venting we already have good reasons to clearly distinguish it from genuine discussions about how one should make the world better.
Finally, I think many people have the idea that since harassment is a harm that is predominantly (though not exceptionlessly) inflicted on women by men somehow it seems unjust or unfair for men to also take a significant role in discussing how to combat the problem. This is problematic for two reasons. First, it implicitly assigns blame to all members of an identity group for actions taken by some members. Just as it would be unreasonable to say that a black homeowner shouldn’t be able to speak at a town meeting because it was black teenagers vandalizing homes largely owned by whites so too its unreasonable to act as if men as a group are guilty for the bad behavior by some members. This sends the message to young men that they should be ashamed of being men and that male sexuality is inherently somehow bad and harmful. But, even if we put this aside, this attitude places symbolism over actual progress. As I’ve argued above excluding men from such discussions reduces our ability to actually make the situation better and thats what should matter not the symbolism along the way.
- While I will argue that men’s voices are, if anything, particularly valuable in these discussions all that is necessary to indict this policy is that men aren’t so obviously less able to contribute that it makes sense to screen them based on their gender rather than simply evaluating their individual contributions. We normally think that it is inappropriate, and often irrational, to use statistical differences in rates of criminal behavior, workplace productivity or even upper body strength based on race or gender to deny members of those groups the opportunity for an individual evaluation even when, as in the case of upper body strength, there are clear biological differences giving rise to a large performance gap. ↩
- There are always women, despite the social pressure, who are willing to admit (or even speak up and say) that they experience harassment so rarely and find it so unimportant when they do that its a less pressing concern than more mundane concerns, e.g., whether people at their work get to annoy them by eating at their desks. ↩
- For instance, emotionally I don’t want to believe it was primarily a midwestern catholic school thing and if I’d just switched schools things would have been orders of magnitude better. Though its obviously a good thing if most kids don’t have to endure quite that level of unpleasentness the idea that if I’d just be born a few years latter in California the same traits which I was mercilessly mocked for would have been accepted if not popular. My wife claims this was what things were like growing up in Berkeley but I’m still not sure I believe her. ↩
- For example, the temptation to catcall, make a show of continued (unwanted) sexual advances and other kinds of ‘strutting’ are most acute when men are in a pack together. Despite the fact that the comments and behavior are putatively directed at the woman they are really a show put on to advertise masculinity/dominance to the other men in the group. As such, we ought to be careful before suggesting women should give as good as they get and shout back or otherwise retaliate against the catcaller as, by increasing the perceived risk (up to a point) of showing off that way, may also increase its apparent value. The crude sexualization talk, e.g., Trump and Billy Bush, is also largely a performative behavior for other men but in a very different sense. Here it is about making friends and being seen as a good guy. Shared transgressions, e.g., unflattering remarks about the boss, shared gossip, sexual exploits, are normal and unproblematic for both genders but things can go poorly if someone starts pushing things in the direction of harassing remarks as everyone else is reluctant to be the one who pulls back and offers criticism. Of course, in other cases the guys really are assholes and think harassment is an acceptable form of transgressive male bonding. ↩