Generics, insults, and the power of stories

This post was initially inspired by this thread where we debated whether generic comments like “men are trash” are ever okay on social media and, if so, under what circumstances. That conversation gave me a lot of food for thought, and I realised it was a great chance to practice something I talked about in an earlier blog post: radical perspective taking. I wanted to see if I could make some progress by doing my best to put myself fully in the shoes of people on both sides.

If you read the thread, you’ll see that I started off with one opinion, and I fully expected that I’d end up with the same one after this little exercise, albeit maybe a bit more nuanced. As you’ll see below, that’s … not really what happened. But I don’t entirely disagree with Past Me either.

Instead, somewhat disconcertingly, I now don’t really think this is an argument we should be having at all. I don’t think arguing (even when everybody does so civilly and in good faith) is the way to approach questions like this. As a result of my little perspective-taking exercise, I now think that both “sides” are right. I think generics are unavoidably hurtful – understandably so – but it’s also totally understandable why people resort to using them, and it can be just as hurtful to be told not to use them. And I think the only “solution” to the problem isn’t more argumentation, but for people to habitually do the kind of thing I do below – this radical perspective taking – or, lacking that, to just share their experiences and listen with an open mind when other people share theirs. That’s all. No abstract principles, no academic discussions, just experiences and feelings and people.

I kind of wonder if you'll agree with me after you go through the same journey I did. This post is an effort to take you there.


Before I get into it, though, a point of clarification: when I talk about generic insults I mean things like “men are trash” or “straight people suck” where assertions are made about properties of categories of people. I’m kind of interested in generics and as a scientist interested in language, I’ve studied them a bit. People, pretty uniformly, interpret generics in a certain way: as making claims about definitional or essential aspects of a category. Exceptions to generics are possible – a generic statement like “birds lay eggs” is considered true even though half of all birds (the male ones) don’t. The thing that makes it a generic is that the property “laying eggs” is considered one of the essential or fundamental aspects of being a bird (as opposed to, say, a mammal). So people will interpret a statement like “mosquitos are annoying” as communicating an important property of what it means to be a mosquito; and if you find a mosquito that’s not annoying, it’s contrary to its mosquito-ness, not because of it.

The reason I’m going into this is because it is this property of generics that I think causes the harm (and also makes them so tempting and desirable to state). It’s not unreasonable that people who are in a category that is being insulted by a generic interpret it as being about them, because that’s how generics are used in everyday life: even if there are exceptions, they are exceptions in defiance of their category membership. It is hard to feel like you can be a “good” or “prototypical” member of a category while also feeling like a generic does not apply to you. So if you want it to not apply, it can feel like being asked to give up category membership, which can be very painful as well as inaccurate.

I’ll ask you to keep this in mind, as background. For now, though, I don’t want to give an argument about generic insults at all. Instead, I want to tell you two stories – the two stories I invented for myself as part of my exercise in radical perspective taking. They are the stories of two people who I’ve imagined on different sides of a classic “men are trash” interaction on twitter.

They’re fiction, but I found the exercise pretty useful. I’m curious if it has the same effects on you. You might find at least one of these people (at least initially) fairly unsympathetic and not want to empathise with them. Please do your best to put that aside, put yourself wholly in their shoes, and go with it. The stories are each kind of long, but that’s sort of the point: who we are is informed by so much, a tiny vignette doesn’t capture the real emotional landscape that people are coming from.

CW: Sexual harassment / consent issues

#1. Imagine you are Jennifer

You grew up in New York City, the only daughter of parents who met at the law firm where they both worked. When you were born your mom took the minimum amount of leave and hired a nanny, Sofia, to take care of you. One of your earliest memories is of standing at the window watching your mom go to work in the rain, and Sofia saying, “Hush, niña, hush, we’ll have fun together.” Sofia called you niña a lot. It felt nice, comforting. Once you asked Sofia why she didn’t have kids of her own, and she smiled sadly and said she did, but they lived in Guatemala, and she could only see them once a year. You felt so sad and could only hug her. It felt so wrong and big and you could do nothing about it at all.

You loved your parents, but only in a fairly abstract way, because you barely saw them. They mostly seemed always busy, always rushing somewhere, always stressed. Mom (she insisted you call her mom, not mommy) wore starched suits and never wanted to be hugged because her clothes would get wrinkled. She called you “dearest” and worried about whether you ate enough and were hitting your milestones and were happy when you did so you learned to be quiet for her and you worked hard so she’d grace you with one of her rare and real smiles. Papa was around even less, but he was jovial and loud and said “that’s my girl” whenever you showed off your reading and writing. Very occasionally they would both be home and you would wake up early and sit between them as you read your book and they read the paper and talked about torts or taxes or policies and you didn’t know what those words meant but they washed over you and you never felt more content or happy.

Then when you were seven you came upon your mom crying in the kitchen, and your world went askew: you’d never seen her cry before, ever. Mom told you your father had cheated on her and she was leaving him, and you’d come with her. You asked whether Sofia would come too and she snapped and asked is the nanny all you care about at a time like this? You felt weirdly ashamed but didn’t know why, because Sofia was your life. And it turned out that, no, Sofia wasn’t coming because they now couldn’t afford her, especially since you were attending school full-time, and Sofia left without you ever even being able to say goodbye.

Life got a lot harder. You never saw Papa anymore, ever, and sometimes wondered if he had loved you at all or if he’d just had a kid because Mom had wanted one. But you also wondered why Mom wanted one at all, because you and she hardly interacted either. She seemed desperately unhappy, constantly working, and the only thing that brought a smile to her face was when you brought home good grades or aced a test.

You felt so lonely and hollow but put your focus on something that you know you could do: get good grades, ace tests, make your mom happy that way. The schoolwork was easy but school was hard, because you were little and pretty and it seemed like everyone was constantly noticing only that about you. You felt a burning envy of your seatmate, Brad, who was confident and friendly and smart. Everyone loved him and he seemed to suck up all of the oxygen in the room: the teachers were always saying “Brad, that’s a great thought” or “Brad has the right answer again” when half the time you said the thought first (but too quietly? Or too tentatively? You weren’t sure, but it never seems to get recognised like his thoughts did) or he got the answer from you. You talked to a few of your teachers about this, hoping for help, but they just told you to show more confidence, speak a little louder, be less afraid.

You practiced doing this. When you did, you were told that you need to be less strident and dominate the conversation less, that other students need to learn too. You thought there must have been something you were doing wrong, some balance that Brad was achieving but you couldn’t, but you had no idea what it was. You worked harder.

You found yourself increasingly interested in the hard sciences, in physics and math, and you took a bunch of these classes even though they were incredibly intimidating. The guys – and it was almost all guys – in them seemed to converse in an alien, kind of competitive and mocking way, as if learning was a battle and their goal was to win. You became best friends with one of the only other girls in the class, Sara, and you made a pact to get each other through. Sara was your lifeline: you told her not only about your dreams (to be a physicist, to find new habitable planets, to work to geoengineer them) but also about your mom and Sofia and the hollow, aching feeling you sometimes had. Sara told you about her life, her three younger siblings, her parents working hard to be able to pay for the tuition to your magnet school even though most of it was on scholarship. You were jealous of her loving family and she was jealous of your money.

You’re pretty sure that if Sara weren’t there you would have given up on physics entirely, but that – and your love of the subject itself – saw you through. Much to your surprise, you got accepted to MIT and she was accepted to Stanford. Your mom smiled at you then, one of the most real smiles she’d ever given, but it was bittersweet because you realised that you didn’t even know who she was anymore. You wondered if she’d love you if you weren’t going to MIT.

But going to MIT you did, and it was both wonderful and terrible. The culture was intense, beyond intense, and you soon learned to wear an armor of confidence and arrogance even when inside you felt like the dumbest person in the entire place. You were sure you were only accepted because you were a female in STEM, and any day people would realise that you didn’t belong, that you were an imposter. As you had always done, you covered your anxieties with work, but found yourself on the edge of burnout. You spent a semester flailing, wondering who you were, wondering if you had what it took. You missed Sara like you missed your right arm, but she seemed to be doing well at Stanford and you lost touch.

You got a crush on one of the boys in your Mechanics class, Mark, and before long you started studying together. He was unlike anyone you’d ever known, whip-smart but not overbearing about it. He loved to go on long rants about physics, and math, and ideas and society and his life. You loved listening to them but sometimes wished he’d ask you more about yourself. Still, you supposed he was much more interesting than you, and you were so glad he was dating you at all. A few times you got drunk with him, and that is where you had your first experience of sex. It didn’t make you feel great. You hadn’t really felt ready for it, and had kind of said so, but he’d said he’d show you a good time and you didn’t know how to say no again and anyway he was already going for it and you thought it would just be easier to let him go ahead and get it over with.

Before long you felt kind of gross and bad whenever you were around him, on edge and always worried you might have to have sex again. You broke it off with him and he said you were frigid and a tease and you’d been lucky to be with him.

You decided that boys weren’t worth it and something was wrong with you. You still had crushes, but whenever you got too close to anyone you got a crawling, uneasy feeling under your skin and started seeing flashes of Mark on you, Mark moving over you, Mark doing things with your body that you didn’t want him to do. You told people that you were just very focused on your studies, that’s why you didn’t date.

You changed majors. Physics was a constant battle and you increasingly didn’t think you had the chops for it. You got decent good grades, sure, but only by working very hard. You thought that the great physicists had a spark of genius that you didn’t; you saw nothing of yourself in them. And physics was lonely. You grew tired of the constant battle, of feeling like you had to prove yourself every day. You took a few classes in biosciences and they felt much more welcoming, much more like your kind of place. Your depression lifted.

When you graduated you were not sure exactly what you wanted to do, but one of your professors encouraged you to go for a PhD, and you thought, why not? You found a researcher across the city, at Harvard, doing work in biosciences and sustainable engineering and thought that your quantitative background might be a positive there. To your surprise, she accepted you and you entered grad school.

Grad school was brutal. You constantly felt like you didn’t belong. You tried to show your willingness to contribute, and found yourself overburdened – you were on the graduate student union, the welcoming committee, TA for several classes, as well as putting the in time in lab and taking classes yourself. You made good friends with several classmates, Jon and Kathryn and Ahmed, and you and Kathryn couldn’t help but notice that Jon and Ahmed seemed to have avoided a lot of the administrative and tutoring you had. You tried to pull out of some of it and were told that this is part of being a good citizen to the department. Unable to stop yourself, you asked why the men didn’t have to be good citizens, and were told that you were imagining things and looking for excuses and were you sure you could handle it?

You and Kathryn decided to collect data and created a survey on the “grad student experience” that showed, among other things, that the women grad students had more administrative work and a higher teaching workload, got rated lower as teachers despite working from identical lesson plans and achieving higher student scores, and reported lower levels of satisfaction and self-confidence. You gave a presentation on these results and were told that the women’s poor self-confidence was the problem, and if “they” could just get more their teacher ratings would get higher and they’d be able to say no better. The department head thanked you solemnly and promised that they’d work to support women better and then nothing changed. You asked once or twice and they said “it was a process” and the last time they finally snapped that if you wanted change to happen you should make it happen. You gave up. You thought that finding data and bringing it to the people with the power to change was how you made change happen.

Kathryn had been having trouble with her thesis project and one day reported, glowing, that she’d been successful in getting Professor Stevens interested in one of her ideas. Before long she was calling him “Howard” and seemed enthusiastic and bubbly about her work again; you were relieved, because she’d been very depressed. You were a little worried because Stevens had a reputation of being an aggressive and arrogant taskmaster, but Kathryn assured her that the reputation was overkill and she could handle it.

Then one day Kathryn came to you in tears. Howard had taken her out for dinner – a mentorship dinner, Kathryn had thought – and asked her on a date, had told her that he’d been interested from the beginning and thought that with “your beauty and my brains” they could go far. Kathryn was devastated. She’d thought he’d been interested in her ideas when all he’d wanted was her body. You encouraged her to report it, but she knew she’d be blamed, that it would be called a misunderstanding, that it was her word against his. And in any case, her confidence was shattered. She dropped out.

You were angry, full of rage, but channeled it toward your work with a sort of fierce and spiteful determination: they wouldn’t stop you. You made friends with Adam, one of your lab mates, and eventually grew to love his quiet intelligence and his gentle ways. He seemed so different from Mark, from your dad, and if you needed to take charge of him and spent a lot of time encouraging him, so what? He did the same for you. The first time you made love, he was so gentle he was almost timid, and you didn’t have any flashbacks to Mark at all.

You got married. You both agreed you wanted academic careers and a family, and agreed to be completely egalitarian about it: you’d try to make the two-body problem work and ensure that you both had jobs you wanted. Adam said he’d contribute equally to any childcare, and you thought you’d never been so lucky in your life.

You both got postdoc offers, but his was better and in a city with more opportunities, so you decided to go there and you’d use the time to tutor and get to know people and maybe have a baby then, so once you did get a tenure-track job you weren’t also trying to raise a newborn. Somewhat astonishingly in retrospect, this plan worked – you did get pregnant, almost immediately, and also managed to parley a temporary adjunct position into a postdoc with a supportive professor. It went as well as it could have, but it was almost too much nevertheless. Your pregnancy was difficult: you were nauseated nearly every day of the full nine months, Adam was stressed with his (very high maintenance) supervisor, you were trying to perform in lab and publish papers and go to conferences in between puking episodes, and sometimes it seemed that you never saw each other anymore.

Adam’s gentleness and timidity, which had at first so attracted you, began to wear on you: you found yourself having to nudge him into doing everything – sending out job applications, cleaning up the house, signing up for dentist appointments, everything. You tried talking to him about it but it always ended in a fight, with him in tears apologising and promising to do better and then never, ever making any changes, You were so tired it eventually became easier to just do most things yourself.

It all got worse when baby Emma was born. You felt like there was nothing of you left anymore at all, between Emma’s constant need to breastfeed and clinginess, your job’s incessant demands, and Adam’s increasingly visible resentment. You didn’t know what to do so you just did what you always did: worked harder, tried to push away your feelings, be what you needed to be for everyone else and hope it worked out.

Somehow, a miracle happened, and both of you were offered tenure-track jobs at a good research institution. It wasn’t ideal – it was in the middle of the country in a town you thought you’d never feel at home in – but you knew that in many ways you’d hit the holy grail of academia and you couldn’t say no. As Emma grew, you wanted to give her another sibling but the moment you tried to think about how to make that work you felt just lost in despair. As it was, you were only sleeping five hours a night; you felt constantly stretched thin, not succeeding at giving her or your students or Adam what they needed. Everyone thought Adam was a dream partner because he came home to cook most nights and was loudly and vocally supportive of your work. You fought resentment, because he was those things, he was more than you had the right to ask for: and yet, you did all of the cleaning and shopping and organising and planning, while also having a higher teaching load and more committee work than him. He had spare time and hobbies and you counted yourself lucky to have ten minutes to yourself but somehow the burden was still on you, always on you, to change this.

You increasingly see how Adam has floated upward his whole life. His gentleness is interpreted as quiet genius while you are told you needed to be more confident and then told you are strident and unsympathetic when you are. You see how his apparently more successful career has been underpinned by your filling out job applications, proofreading grants for him (“because you’re so good at it”), and listening to his ideas every evening over dinner. Your ideas get saved for “when there’s time” and your contributions to the house and to Emma are erased because they are mental and invisible, even while they give him the time and energy to do more ground-breaking research than you.

You sometimes contemplate just running away from all of it, but you can’t do that to Emma. You can’t even refuse to do things anymore, refuse the planning and organisation and work, because you know that Emma would suffer, not Adam, and you’d be blamed, not Adam.

You think often about how the world is stacked against people like you, how your whole life you fought tooth and nail against men for everything you’ve ever achieved, how the system beats you down, how even the people you love most – like Adam – can’t seem to see you as a full person and can’t seem to give you any rights unless you fight for them. And when you do fight, you are told you’re doing it wrong, you’re too angry, you have the wrong tone, and you will only get those rights if you can somehow find some magic balance of tone and argument that would give them to you.

You become increasingly convinced that no such balance exists. You are out of fucks to give. You are tired and bitter and angry. You worry that you’re turning into your mother and feel a surprising sympathy to her, to what she must have gone through to turn out as she did. You go on twitter and found a supportive community of other women in the same boat, and that community gives you more hope and strength than you feel like you have had in years.

One day you see an article about a professor who’s been accused of sexual harassment. You didn’t know the people involved, but the situation reminds you so much of Kathryn, of countless other “missing stairs” you’ve heard about, and you know that if it has reached the point of being reported in the press there is doubtless ten times as much behaviour that hadn’t been reported. It’s more of the same, endlessly more of the same, and in your frustration and anger you retweet it, adding “what can i say, men are trash” with an eye-roll. The anger feels good and justified, and you need the solidarity, and you think that maybe if you post this kind of thing enough men will realise exactly what kind of shit women have to put up with every day.

Of course, as you could have predicted, that’s not what happens. The post is only up for a few hours when some dudebro you’ve never seen before named Justin replies with the exact same thing that always comes out in these situations. Justin is polite – oh so polite, so deniably so, so that if you get mad you will look like the unhinged one – but he trots out one trope after another. It hasn’t been proven. You're being unfair; not all men are trash. He’s not trash.

You see red. It’s just the same old shit, over and over. Of course you didn't literally mean that all men are trash; anybody can see that it was hyperbole. But this clueless dude comes in and makes it all about himself. Now the conversation will turn to soothing his feelings instead of talking about the prevalence of sexual harassment in academia and the structural and personal barriers to reporting it. You try to give him the benefit of the doubt, and click on his profile, but sure enough, there he is: young and handsome and (of course) white, with a beautiful stay-at-home wife and two homeschooled children (because of course they’re homeschooled, of course they are). He’s some higher-up muckety muck in some environmentally disastrous building company. Not at all the sort of person who enters into these conversations in good faith at all. Not the kind of person who wants to do anything but derail.

So you unload on him. Your words aren’t aimed at him precisely; you have no hope of getting through to him and you’re tired of every ounce of effort you spend trying to understand guys like him when guys like him seem to never spend any effort trying to understand you. You don’t know who you’re unloading on: maybe the world, maybe the patriarchy in general. Maybe you just want support from friends. All you know is that this is an example of so many things that have gone wrong in your life and so many things that are shit that you don’t know how to fix – men making it all about themselves, men overlooking women again and again and again – and mostly women being expected to make nice and be soothing and never rock the boat and then maybe they’ll be given their rights and you just don’t believe that anymore.

You end the conversation dismayed and distressed. You don’t think this will ever get better.

Okay. Whew. Take a deep breath, clear your head, and try to get yourself into the mindset to empathise with this other person now too. You're going to need to take a little break for this to work. Do so, so you give him a fair shot. Please.

#2: Imagine you are Justin

You grew up in a rural farming community in middle America. You were an early reader but from the start, school felt like torture: you felt a profound inner restlessness and an inability to concentrate on the (inevitably boring and remedial) lessons. You became known as the class clown, as the one ready with a quick joke, but also the one who was always in trouble. At first you were a misfit with few friends, unable to control your temper and happiest of all playing by yourself building dams and forts or reading in the corner of the library where nobody could find you. But as you got older, you learned to play the game, learned to hide your pain behind well-timed sarcasm and verbal barbs, learned that a show of confidence would make anyone follow, learned that if you acted like you didn’t care nobody would ever find out you did. You learned to do this because it was safer that way.

As a teenager you grew, and grew, and grew, until you were one of the biggest in your class. You channeled your restless energy into football, and came to love the simple clean joy of supporting your team and losing yourself in the rhythm of solid hits and the strategy and challenge of the game. It helped your reputation, too – suddenly the girls were interested, your teammates supported you, and even the teachers gave you nods of respect when you walked the halls. It was heady and nice.

But a small silent part of you was deeply unhappy. Where was the you in this, you wondered sometimes? You felt most of the time like you were playing a role: you still were happiest curled in your bed, reading. On weekends after a hard game you learned to code and built your own fantasy game based on the Tolkein books you read. You couldn’t share any of this with anybody, though, because books were for nerds and D&D was for the weedy geeks who couldn’t get girls and obviously you weren’t that. You were sometimes deeply jealous of your sister, who got to take the advanced courses that seemed so much more interesting than yours, but everyone knew she was smart and you were a meathead jock and the only reason you weren’t failing out of the courses you were in was because your teachers didn’t want to fail the football captain. It didn’t matter anyway, because everyone knew you weren’t destined for much. You sometimes snuck your sister’s books and tried the exercises in them and they seemed to make sense but you figured you were deluding yourself. She saw you doing that once and laughed, and you begged her not to tell anybody.

When you got your first girlfriend, you were terrified. You didn’t know what to do and you’d heard so much about consent and you wanted to be a good lover but she didn’t say anything the entire time, she gave hardly any feedback at all, and you were so so tentative and so so nervous. After the first time Isabel laughed and said she’d thought it would be better, that you’d be more like the men she read about in books. With later girlfriends you learned to hide your vulnerability better, to be less tentative. You worried that maybe you might accidentally go over somebody’s boundaries as a result, but you didn’t know what else to do. Girls were so confusing and they always seemed to expect you to read their minds. You tried and tried but couldn’t always figure out what they wanted and none of them just told you. You felt pathetic and unmanly whenever you tried to ask. And sometimes, when you closed your eyes, you could still hear Isabel’s laugh. Like so much else, you learned to hide that pain as well.

You were lonely. You loved the camaraderie of your football friends but it was only surface, it only went so deep. In 11th grade your best friend Alan seemed to be struggling a lot. You tried your best to be a good friend. You took him drinking. You suggested that you train together for the pre-season. You took a risk and confided in him that you’d been coding up your own fantasy game, and he said that sounded cool. One day, he drunkenly told you that he wished he were dead. You didn’t know what to say. You wanted to hug him, but that would have been gay and you didn’t want to freak him out. Instead you just hit him softly on the shoulder and said, “Man, that’s fucked up dude” and he smiled at you and you thought it was okay. But when he killed himself a few months later you thought back on that interaction and felt intense shame and guilt. Maybe you could have done something. Maybe it was all your fault.

There was nobody to tell this to, of course, so you boxed it up, along with all of the other feelings you felt you shouldn’t have. It was safer that way. You didn’t know any other way to be.

You were full of anger and you didn’t know why. You managed to graduate from high school, although only just, and got a job in the building trades. The work was brutally hard, hours of heavy labour in the hot sun. You liked what it did to your body, liked feeling your muscles work and seeing the looks the girls give you, but you wondered, is this all there is? You heard of classmates who went to university, left your town, seen the world, and you felt a burning jealousy and rage that that was not you and it never would be you and why why why couldn’t it be you?

When you met Lissa, she was a breath of fresh air. She, too, was an inveterate bookworm, and she was the first girl – the first person – you felt like you could share more of you with: your love of ideas and thinking and learning and building as well as your joy in your physical competence. She encouraged you to take classes at the local community college, so that maybe you could become a proper builder and not just a laborer. She dreamt of owning her own salon. She wanted a family and children. You weren’t sure – you thought you’d like that, but it was so terrifying to contemplate, and you wanted to see the world first – but you loved her like nothing else. Before you know it, you were married and she was pregnant with your son.

It was hard. Everyone said having kids was hard but man was it hard. Lissa had to quit work to take care of the baby. You wished you made enough money to be able to afford daycare, and felt intense shame that you didn’t. You offered to cut back on your hours so she could work part-time, but the finances didn’t make sense – your job paid a lot more than hers, especially since she got passed over for promotion thanks to taking maternity leave. And she said she couldn’t bear to be apart from little Robbie for that long anyway. You worked harder, longer, still taking community college classes in your spare time, hoping for a promotion so you could ease some of the burden on her.

You were tired all of the time. You felt like you hardly saw Lissa anymore, and when you did she was snappish and depressed. She complained of the burden of being the main caregiver, and you tried to understand but you would have given anything for a few weeks indoors, not battling wind and rain and sun, not having to kiss up to your asshole boss, not being brutally exhausted from working heavy manual labour in the day and trying to cram in community college at night while juggling Robbie. Robbie was cute, but he greatly preferred Lissa, and you increasingly felt cut off from the bubble of family life. You wondered resentfully if all you were valuable for was the money you brought home. You feared that Lissa’s heart was hardening to you and was entirely consumed by Robbie, and like Robbie didn’t even care that you existed. You questioned where you’d gone wrong with your life.

Robbie got older, and things got a bit better. Lissa, seeing your struggles to do the work in your college classes, encouraged you to get evaluated for ADHD. It took you several months to gain the courage – it felt weak, like you were looking for excuses or a handout – but you finally did, and the first days on the meds were a revelation. You didn’t tell anybody you had ADHD – you didn’t want to lose their respect – but you started acing your classes and eventually transferred to the local university. It took years because you were trying to do this while still working full-time in the trades, but you eventually got your civil engineering degree. And somehow, impossibly, you started thinking about grad school and academia: you realised that your true passion was in sustainable and renewable housing, and you wanted to contribute to that.

But that’s a pipe dream, you told yourself firmly. You now had two kids, and Robbie was causing a lot of troubles at school. You recognised his combination of rage and inattention from when you were a kid, and felt like it was your fault, it was your genes that made him that way. He was diagnosed with ADHD too, but the diagnosis didn’t help much: Lissa was constantly at odds fighting the teachers and administration, and Robbie was always in trouble. He started to say he hated school and hated himself, and Lissa cried whenever you were at home, and she had dark circles under her eyes and kept saying what is wrong with me and I feel trapped and you felt trapped yourself. You told her you’d do whatever she needed and she said she thought she needed to homeschool Robbie and you were worried at her taking even more on for herself but she said she saw no other way so you said okay. You hushed up that little voice that wanted to go to grad school, and you took a promotion that got you out of the sun and working more family-friendly hours.

Your work now is deeply tedious and you spend most of your time playing dominance games with assholes (and winning them, because you are nothing if not good at dominance games). You despise yourself for being so good at them even as you keep getting promoted because of it. You hate yourself for having sold out, for spending your time enriching some corporation, for being unable to support your wife and kids better without having to take a job like that. You wish you had someone to talk to about all of this, but you don’t, and you don’t know how you’d find the words anyway. You drink more.

You watch the news. You hear all about “toxic masculinity” and how it’s the problem in our society. You think about how you still sometimes worry that you might have gone over some girls’ boundaries when you were younger. You think about how women walking alone on the street cross the road because they’re scared of you. You think with sadness about how so many see you and feel frightened just because of your size and your body language. You think about how you enjoy winning the dominance games at work, and how you loved football and hitting people. You worry that maybe you are toxic, maybe you are the problem.

It’s yet more shame on top of a lifetime of it, and you don’t know what to do with it. And it’s hard not to feel resentful, too. You think about how everyone (still) thinks you’re an idiot because you’re big and strong and the middle-class language of academia doesn’t come fluently to you at all. You think about how as much as you might wish to become an academic, you don’t belong there at all: those people, with their fancy vocabularies and privileged lives and the time and money to talk and think and contribute – they’re in another world from you.

You fight the bitterness, the rage, because sometimes life is unfair. You know that as well as anyone. You concentrate on being the best person you can and loving what you have. But it’s hard to shut up the resentment and anger when you hear these privileged people talk about how you’re the privileged one because you’re a white straight cisgender male and how you’re an asshole if you don’t use the right words or respond in exactly the right way (but how would you know what that is? They’re not your people, it’s not your culture, it feels like you’re learning a foreign language half the time, and “the right way” seems like it’s constantly changing anyway). You try to remain silent, to “educate yourself” as they say, but you don’t even know what that means or how to do that because apparently asking questions is not the way but you don’t know what is. You are increasingly ashamed of your white skin and your maleness and your “privilege” even though none of it feels very privileged to you at all and it's not like you chose any of it. Every time you read one of these discussions, you end them covered in a blanket of self-loathing, as if everything you do is wrong, as if these people in this world you so long to be in would hate you if you were actually there.

But dreams die hard. You follow some of the researchers whose work you really like on twitter. You let yourself dream of maybe someday applying to be their student, when the kids are older and Lissa has gone back to work. You read the conversations they have about sustainable design and you read the papers and follow the links and dare to think that perhaps you might one day be part of that world.

Then you see a link about some professor somewhere who has been accused of harassment by a student. Not even his own student, just a student in the same department. You read the link, and it doesn’t seem so bad to you – nothing is proven, it’s her word against his, and it looks like all he did was ask her on a date. You think, how are people supposed to show interest if they can’t even ask each other on a date? You realise you initially asked Lissa on a date and wonder uneasily if you did something wrong there, or if these people would think you did. You wonder even more uneasily if Lissa only said yes because she was scared to say no.

As usual in these discussions, you decide to stay quiet, because you can’t see it going anywhere good. But then a professor named Jennifer who you really admire (she went to MIT and Harvard and seems so kind) posts “what can i say, men are trash” and something just snaps in you. You had dreamed in some vague inchoate way of one day working with her, but is this what she would think of you? You take some deep breaths, take a walk, try to get some perspective. When you get back those words still sting, and you can see that she’s been joined by several other professors all agreeing with her.

You try to be the bigger person. Maybe you’re misunderstanding, maybe there’s some important context you’re missing. Maybe you need to, as they say, educate yourself more. So you post on her thread: “Am I missing something? Nothing has been proven about what happened – and even if this guy is a jerk, that doesn’t mean that all men are trash. I know I try to be honorable and it hurts and feels unfair to imagine that people like you (who I admire) think this about me.”

You’re kind of proud of yourself for this statement. It feels measured and reasonable (far more measured and reasonable than “men are trash” did). It does what your therapist is always suggesting you do – use “I” words, state your feelings, admit you might be wrong.

But the reaction of the women is terrible. You’re castigated for #notallmanning, for making it all about you and centering your pain over theirs, for automatically showing “himpathy” (you have no idea what that is) and taking the man’s side and not automatically believing the woman. You’re told to be mindful of your privilege by these women who collectively wield far more social power than you can ever hope to. Before long a discussion starts between the women about toxic masculinity, with you as the prime example of it.

You feel like utter shit.

Maybe you are toxic. Maybe you are terrible. Maybe they’re a bunch of judgmental shitheads. Whatever the case, it seems fairly clear that academia is not for you and they are not for you and there is no way you will ever, ever be accepted there.

Your dreams are shattered, so you do what you always do: you go have a drink. And you vow to give up on academia and never to get into one of those conversations again.

Okay. If you made it this far, congratulations.

I think you’ll agree that there’s a lot to unpack here, but a few things jumped out at me as I did this exercise. The main one was that I found both people profoundly sympathetic. Perhaps that’s not a surprise, since I deliberately constructed them trying to do so – and perhaps that didn’t work well for you. And, yes, they are fiction. But it was amazingly easy for me to write both of these people, and I don’t think anything in either of their lives is particularly implausible. Jennifer’s experiences are more like my own but Justin is, quite honestly, much closer to the kind of person I feel like I’d probably be in the closest counterfactual worlds. Regardless, I think both Jennifer and Justin capture what most people are: mostly doing our best, but making mistakes and so trapped in our own experiences and circumstances that we very often have a hard time seeing people who they are and not responding to the caricatures we’ve created for them in our heads. This is especially true on social media, and happens even if both people are trying to be adult and trying to take care.

You probably want to point out that both Justin and Jennifer are victims of toxic masculinity; Justin isn’t Jennifer’s enemy here, the patriarchy is both of their enemy. I agree absolutely, but my point is that neither of them realise that, and that’s a serious problem. Jennifer might realise it if she took the time to do so, but she (totally understandably) is out of fucks to give on that count in any case. Justin doesn’t realise it because of his own marginalisation and his own victimhood: he lacks the vocabulary and socialisation and emotional fluency and time and cultural knowledge to have made those links. Even though he’s heard phrases like “toxic masculinity” floating around, he doesn’t have any of the intellectual background or emotional tools he would have needed to fully understand what that meant (or didn't mean) about him. And, given his background and the nature of generic statements, it’s not at all insane or unreasonable that he would interpret things the way he did; it’s no more reasonable to expect him to overcome that than it is reasonable to expect Jennifer to be nice and conciliatory and not red-hot full of rage for all of the shit that she's been through.

Neither of those things are reasonable. The reason these painful discussions keep happening over and over again is that all of the people in them are acting absolutely reasonably given the background and tools they have. None of them are wrong. Given who he was, Justin could do nothing else other than be hurt by hearing “men are trash” in the context that he did. Given who she was, Jennifer could do nothing else other than say it.

So what does this mean about generic insults? Honestly, I don’t think that’s the main point anymore. I mean, I still think they’re hurtful – because they’re generic, they can’t be targeted to just the subset of the people they actually refer to, and when broadcast on social media where you can’t precisely control your audience, it’ll inevitably cause collateral damage. But it’s absolutely also extremely damaging to be told what you can and cannot say or do in response to a lifetime of frustration and marginalisation.

I guess what I wish is that instead of having these arguments, we just told our stories. If Jennifer had heard a lot of stories like Justin’s, she might not have tweeted that, because he would have been in her mind as a potential reader. If Justin had heard a lot of stories like Jennifer’s, he might not have been offended, because he would have known better where she was coming from. If we all just told our stories, maybe many of the thousand cuts of the patriarchy that hurt both of them wouldn’t have happened in the first place.

Stories are powerful. It can be hard to tell our stories: it’s rare to find the kind of self-knowledge, writing skill, capacity for reflection, and courage that underpins stories like this, for example. But I think we can all try. And if we do this instead of arguing about abstract principles, we might be all the better for it.

Andrew Perfors
Associate Professor

I seek to understand how people reason and think, both on their own and in groups.