Locker room dystopias
Recently, presidential candidate Donald Trump made the news because he was caught on tape bragging about how women let him get away with sexually assaulting them because he is a star. He and his supporters have defended him on the basis of this being ordinary locker room banter. Part of what I think is important to me about this is that I perceive Trump and his supporters are making a threat-of-isolation power play. The implied threat is:
If you complain about this sort of behavior, you will be alone. There are no allies to be found. Any group of men you appeal to will back up your abuser. Every woman you know has already accepted her place in this game.
This helps explain why there has been such strong pushback against Trump's comments (e.g. professional athletes saying they've never heard anything like this in their locker rooms), and why this is important. In an interview with Trump supporter Rudy Giuliani, journalist Jake Tapper responds with incredulity at Giuliani's claim that this is a normal way for a man to talk:
JAKE TAPPER (HOST): Right, but I guess the question is he's talking about actions that are sexual assault. And he was 59 or 60 years old when he said it. This wasn't something that he said when he was 18 years old. He is talking about a feeling of entitlement because he's a star. He can go up to women and grab them by the vagina and it's OK, he won't get in trouble for it. It's really offensive on just a basic human level. Who did he do that to?
RUDY GIULIANI: Yes. Well, first of all, I don't know that he did it to anyone. This is talk. Gosh all mighty, he who hasn't sin throw the first stone here. I know some of these people dropping their support --
TAPPER: I will gladly tell you -- Mr. Mayor, I have never said that. I have never done that. I'm happy to throw a stone. I don't know any man, I've been in locker rooms, I've been a member of a fraternity, I have never heard any man ever brag about being able to maul women because they get away with it, never.
GIULIANI: We've taken it to an extra degree of what he said. But the fact is that men at times talk like that, not all men, but men do.
TAPPER: You’ve talked like that?
GIULIANI: He was wrong for doing it. I am not justifying it. I believe it’s wrong. I know he believes it's wrong. I believe that this is not the man that we're talking about today.
Some of the incredulity has extended to claiming that Trump's behavior is an extreme outlier. That no one talks this way. This seems not obviously true to me, given how frequently women report such experiences.
Of course, Giuliani could be lying to provide cover for Trump. Or Tapper could be overstating his experience to make a point. But I want us to seriously consider the hypothesis that, in the exchange I quoted, both men are honestly reporting their experience of the world, and each is surprised that the other one's experience exists.
My current model is something like this: Some people are living in a Trumpian dystopia, but every such dystopia is local. It's very hard to see their boundaries, and very easy when you're in one to think it's the whole world, especially if you've been in one since you were a kid. These dystopias coexist side-by-side with non-dystopian worlds, so that if you don't have first-hand experience of what life is like inside a dystopia, you may be interacting with people living in one, without being aware of it.1 And if they're having a problem, they might not ask you for help, because they expect people to circle the wagons around their abuser. They may have no idea that you're different, either because you're not giving strong credible signals to this effect, or simply because they do not believe that it's ever different. Or they may have the idea that in principle you might be good - but that in practice it's never worth the risk of finding out.2
The converse is true as well. I think it's really, really important to communicate that the world is not entirely composed of the dystopia they'd have you believe. You are not utterly devoid of potential allies. Many subcultures will circle the wagons around men who sexually assault women (or more broadly, central people abusing less central ones). But many others will not, at least sometimes. Parts of the world are already better than that, and other parts would be better if you took the risk of giving them a chance. It is still a risk, and I'm not judging victims of abuse, assault, and harassment who don't choose to take that risk.
It's also really important to communicate, to people who are fortunate enough not to have to deal with this stuff, to whom it is invisible, that these things happen, that in many places this behavior seems so normal that those men sincerely believe that it is universally accepted, so that if someone accuses your very decent seeming friend of something that sounds pretty bad in this vein, you should not necessarily dismiss it as absurd, as a thing only monsters, and extreme outliers, and gross violators of social norms do. Saying "this sort of thing never happens" can read as gaslighting (because sometimes it is), rather than genuine naivete. When someone who thinks that their dystopia is the world hears you say that, they won't even generate the hypothesis that you could sincerely believe it because in your experience it's true.
It's important to be able to believe all these things at once.
Think about Beszel and Ul Qoma, from China Mieville's excellent The City & the City:
The cities occupy the same physical grid of streets with borders and "shared" areas crisscrossing the literal topographical ("grosstopic") area. Only some unfathomed and possibly unfathomable force prevents the citizens of each city from perceiving and interacting with each other.
Imagine that half of your city is the gender-dystopic Trumptown, and half the world is egalitarian Clintonville. It's interspersed block-by-block, with no simple contiguous border - so in principle, a Trumptown citizen could easily run across the street to escape their dystopia, but they have no way of knowing this. People from Trumptown don't talk to people from Clintonville. They don't know Clintontown is a thing. And if they're sure not going to ask some random passerby for help if they're being abused, because all their experience is that such behavior, towards anyone they know, doesn't give them recourse to justice - it just leads to a lecture about how you have to put up with the current social order because "all men are like that."
There are more dystopias than the gendered ones, and different risk of rape or sexual assault without recourse. There are people - people in the developed world - who don't perceive the police as a plausible source of protection from any crime, who don't perceive themselves have any recourse if anyone hurts them. Who, if they try and defend their property, perceive themselves as more likely to be shot by a police officer than helped by one. This is part of what Black Lives Matter is about. And there are probably others, that I still don't know about.
Someone can legitimately perceive no means of escape, and therefore have no accessible means of escape - but maybe this trap is fragile. Maybe we can do something about it. Maybe we're near a tipping point. Maybe if we just share the information we have, honestly, we can do better. The world's not always this convenient - but sometimes it is. It would be very good if we could figure out how to find this out, without imposing undue risks on people who don't know how big their dystopia really is.
I don't know what to do next here, except to try to take this moment to point out that it can be better. That not all parts of the world are equally dystopic, that some of us do care about justice.
My current favorite poem is W.H. Auden's The Shield of Achilles. It is a description of a very particular sort of dystopia, one that cuts to the core of everything I am against, everything that makes my soul burn with moral outrage. Part of it is especially relevant here:
A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.
I think that some people, and I suspect even some people I've met - though I don't know who - live in that world. I don't know what to do to repair this. I don't know what promises I can honestly make to help. I don't know what sort of help is needed. But I do know where to start: by telling the truth.
If you weep, I weep with you. If I am hurting you, I want to know, so that I have a chance to stop it. If my friend is hurting you, I want to know, so that I have a chance to tell them to stop.
I want you to hold me to my word. If I seem to be breaking or forgetting a promise, please remind me. I will try to make you glad you did. It's possible that we will honestly fail to resolve a misunderstanding - but I will honestly try.
There's a second sort of threat that I think Trump and his supporters are making: That any woman who wants to work to build a better world has to condemn all the men in her life, every man she's ever loved, cared for, or respected, as a moral monster. That if you're not willing to do that, then this "locker room banter" stays - because those men can't change. He's trying to hold all men hostage.
It's important to communicate that men can manage not to do this sort of thing. Some, I think most, already do. If you work to make a better world, you do not necessarily have to pay the price of condemning all the men you know as monsters. You will likely have to pay the price of making some of them uncomfortable from time to time. This seems very bearable.
This is why I think the headlines describing Trump's comments as merely lewd were actively harmful here, harmful in the same way that categorizing them with other "locker room banter" is. Mixing the language used to describe common and somewhat bad behavior with the language used to describe uncommon and very bad behavior makes it harder to clearly identify the former or punish the latter.
Broken stairs and the flow of information
Cliff Pervocracy talks about acting on shared information to fix long-run problems with bad actors, and calls it fixing the broken stair:
Have you ever been in a house that had something just egregiously wrong with it? Something massively unsafe and uncomfortable and against code, but everyone in the house had been there a long time and was used to it? "Oh yeah, I almost forgot to tell you, there's a missing step on the unlit staircase with no railings. But it's okay because we all just remember to jump over it."
Some people are like that missing stair.
When I posted about a rapist in a community I belonged to, although I gave almost no details about the guy except "he's a rapist," I immediately got several emails from other members of that community saying "oh, you must mean X." Everyone knew who he was! Tons of people, including several in the leadership, instantly knew who I meant. The reaction wasn't "there's a rapist among us!?!" but "oh hey, I bet you're talking about our local rapist." Several of them expressed regret that I hadn't been warned about him beforehand, because they tried to discreetly tell new people about this guy. Others talked about how they tried to make sure there was someone keeping an eye on him at parties, because he was fine so long as someone remembered to assign him a Rape Babysitter.
People had gotten so used to working around this guy, to accommodating his "special requirements," that they didn't feel like there was an urgent problem in their community. They did eventually expel him, but it was after months of it being widely shared knowledge that he was a rapist and had done other unethical sexual things as well.
I think there were some people in the community who were intentionally protecting him, but there were more who were de facto protecting him by treating him like a missing stair. Like something you're so used to working around, you never stop to ask "what if we actually fixed this?" Eventually you take it for granted that working around this guy is just a fact of life, and if he hurts someone, that's the fault of whoever didn't apply the workarounds correctly.
"Fixing" doesn't always mean throwing someone out. (Although in the case of sex groups I think people are way too timid about that. Being invited to sex parties should be a positive show of confidence in your character, not some sort of default human right.) Sometimes a person can be "fixed" by talking with them bluntly about their behavior, giving them specific rules to follow, or putting them on notice that they have one strike left. You don't always have to get rid of "missing stair" people, but you do have to work with the person, not around them.
This isn't just about individuals, either. Everyone who says "I don't want to be a victim-blamer, but girls should know frat parties aren't safe places" is treating rape culture like a missing stair. Everyone who says "it's an ugly fact, but only women who don't make trouble make it in this business" is treating sexual harassment like a missing stair. Everyone who says "I don't like it either, but that's the way things are," and makes no move to question the way things are, is jumping over a missing stair somewhere.
Fixing "broken stairs" once they've been clearly identified is important. But understanding the reasons why this hasn't already happened is important.
A friend of mine recently caused a community I'm a part of to fix a "broken stair" situation, and their first step was to get people openly talking to each other about the problems. As soon as that happened, someone else stepped forward and fixed things. But why was talking about problems the bottleneck? Why weren't people already doing it?
I talked with a few friends about this, and and one thing we realized was that if we had ambiguous information about someone, we didn't trust others in our community to receive this information without automatically acting on it. I observed that I was worried that if I passed along adverse information about someone, those who heard it would do one of two things:
- Assume I had a vendetta against the person, and try to punish me for disturbing the peace.
- Assume I had a vendetta against the person, and try to help me by joining the vendetta.
This resonated with the other people in the conversation.
Describing problem behavior in plain, precise, nonmoralizing language is helpful for a couple of reasons. It helps make it possible to blame someone for an action without permanently characterizing them as a monster in every way. This means that others don't have to choose between deciding that the person is bad, and deciding that the accusation is false - they can, at least potentially, think seriously about mitigating harms and risks. This also helps good actors verify that they haven't accidentally violated some important local norm. But in the case of habitual boundary-pushers who in each case manage to hold onto some sort of plausible deniability, no one person may have enough info to justify any action at all - often the story itself may not be obviously bad at all, except that the person ended up with a bad feeling about the whole thing. It would be nice to be able to share this sort of information, and trust that it won't cause people to be unfairly punished - and that it won't be unfairly slapped down as an unfair criticism - but instead, actually processed as information.
What I want people to do is receive the information, and then, if it's not enough to act, just sit on it, and use it or pass it along if and when it becomes relevant. What I want is for people to process the information as information about the facts of the situation, and take responsibility for judging on the basis of the facts, judging what harm has actually occurred and taking responsibility for acting if and only if they can make it better, instead of parsing it as nothing but an interpersonal conflict where you have to take sides. What I want is justice, and the ability to rightly presume that others want justice.
I'm not sure what to do next on this, but the first step is to tell the truth.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||This is what people in the social justice world sometimes but not always mean by "privilege."|
|2.||↑||That attitude of learned helplessness - that asking for justice is never worth the risk - could be called savviness, or "getting it."|