“But a feminist was mean to me!”

Every so often a man publishes some screed about how he’s no longer a feminist because feminists have been mean to him. Every very often, some white person opines that they’d be totally on board with this whole anti-racism thing except that people of color are just so damn rude to them all the time. Or a religious person says that atheism is wrong because atheists are condescending. Or a person who consumes animal products dismisses the idea of veganism because they, personally, found some vegan or other to be annoying.

I have seen this happen enough times and with enough different beliefs and social groups that I’ve noticed it as a pattern. I’ve written before about the specter of That One Meanie-Face Feminist Who Got All Bitchy When I Offered To Pick Up The Check, without which no discussion of feminism with a non-feminist man could possibly be complete. This supposedly very rude woman from my interlocutor’s distant romantic past is now trotted out what I imagine is very often to provide an explanation for the man’s distaste for feminism. Or, perhaps with a caveat, “modern” feminism.

But it doesn’t happen just with feminism. It happens with every political issue.

First of all, the most important thing to remember is that when feminists(/women/people of color/vegans/etc.) are accused of being “mean,” this is only actually the case a fraction of the time. (Even if the exact fraction is debatable.) A lot of the things that get people with minority identities or viewpoints are labeled “mean” go completely unremarked-upon when done by someone with a dominant identity or viewpoint. I have a lot of theories for why that is: the expectation that minority or subordinate groups be quiet and not rock the boat; the unfamiliarity that people in dominant groups have with those views and opinions; and the stereotyping of certain groups, such as women and people of color and especially women of color, as being “emotional” or “hysterical” or “angry.” This leads to the simplest cognitive bias of all: confirmation bias. You expect a woman of color to be angry, and lo and behold, you perceive her that way.

“Mean” is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s easy to rationalize why a certain tone or behavior from a female feminist is “mean” while the same tone or behavior from a man is not. And that’s not even to imply that anyone is lying or intentionally skewing anything. It’s subconscious; that’s why it’s called a bias. I have no doubt that everyone who has ever accused me of being “mean” about my feminism genuinely felt that I was being mean to them. But that doesn’t mean that perception wasn’t influenced by their bias.

I’ve seen this play out numerous times with my own writing. A year ago I wrote a post about street harassment that went viral and got tons of comments about how I’m being so mean to men and clearly I hate them and blame them for everything. (For a fun exercise, count how many times I use the phrase “not all men” or variants thereof in the post.) And look. You can disagree with my entire thesis–that “compliments” made to random women on the street are a sort of power play, and that the reason many men feel so compelled to make them is because they’ve been socialized to believe that their opinions on women’s looks are extremely important and worthy of expression–and still see for yourself that there’s no way a person thinking clearly can conceive of that post as being “mean,” or of me as “hating men.”

But sometimes feminists (and vegans and atheists and whatever) are mean. Of course they are. Everyone is mean sometimes, but “default” categories like “white” and “male” are made invisible because they’re considered the norm from which everyone else deviates, so nobody besides women and minorities and their allies usually makes much of fuss about the meanness of men or white people specifically.

For instance, if you do not identify as a feminist or you consider yourself actively opposed to feminism, you probably don’t think of yourself or others like you as especially mean. It looks a little different from over here, though. I’ve been angrily fumed at and condescended to by you. I’ve been called every possible insult and every slur that could possibly apply to someone like me–bitch, cunt, whore, slut, dyke–by you. I’ve been threatened with various acts of violence. I’ve been alternatively called gruesome and unfuckable and told exactly how I should be raped.

And yet, except for when I get especially upset (which isn’t very often anymore) I avoid claiming that everyone who disagrees with feminism is “mean” (or much worse), because I actually have evidence that that’s not true. Most of the people I’ve met in my life have been opposed to feminism, and most of them have been perfectly decent people.

Hopefully we’ve established that people of all genders and races and religions and political beliefs can be “mean,” although some get accused of it much more readily and harshly than others, and not necessarily because they are any more likely to be “mean.”

Now let’s get to the main point, which is the utter ridiculousness of dismissing someone’s argument or opinion merely because you find them to be mean.

It doesn’t actually matter if a feminist is mean to you–at least, not in terms of making up your mind about feminism. Feminism is based on a wide variety of observations and theories that are empirically testable. Either women (especially women of color) make less money than men for the same work or they do not. Either women are less likely to become CEOs and film directors and elected politicians or they are not. Either women are held to impossible and unfair standards of beauty that are impossible for most of them, especially for women of color and women who are not thin or able-bodied, to achieve, or they are not. Either women are interrupted much more often in conversation by men or they are not, and either resumes and applications belonging to men are more likely to be read and approved of than those of women or not. Either women (especially women of color and women with disabilities) are subject to extremely high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault or they are not. Either people of all genders are frequently blamed for being sexually assaulted or they are not. Either trans people, especially trans women, are socially persecuted for allegedly violating the gender binary or they are not. Either men are expected to be “strong” and “manly” at the expense of their emotional needs, or they are not. Either women (but not men) face a double bind between being considered competent but unlikable or incompetent but likable, or they do not. Either reproductive care for people with uteri (but not for people with penises) is constantly being attacked, or it is not.

Hundreds or thousands of pages of research are available about all of these questions. Even if you peruse the research and find it wanting, the reason you are not a feminist should be because you don’t find the evidence compelling, not because some woman yelled at you for offering to pay for her meal. I’ll still disagree with you about the evidence, but at least then you have a real argument, and not one entirely based on feelings.

Likewise, the criminal justice system is demonstrably discriminatory against people of color at every level regardless of whether or not you personally enjoyed your recent interactions with people of color. The production of animals for human consumption has negative effects on the environment even if many vegans are snobby. There is no, and has never been, any evidence for the existence of a higher power, even though some atheists are pretty crappy to religious people. (By the way, one way to help would be to stop calling them mentally ill, but you already know that)

It’s common to claim that a feminist who is arguing with you and also calling you names is making an ad hominem fallacy, although the argument there is usually less “You’re wrong because you’re an asshole” and more “You’re wrong and, by the way, you’re also an asshole, so there’s that.” Bu in fact, it seems like an ad hominem fallacy to dismiss someone’s arguments because they’re mean. People aren’t wrong because they’re mean; they’re wrong because they’re wrong.

If I wanted to, I could explain to you that 2 + 2 = 4 in the most nasty, condescending, stuck-up, snarky, hateful, vicious way possible. (I’m trying to imagine this now, and it’s funny.) You might never want to interact with me ever again, but that doesn’t mean 2 + 2 suddenly doesn’t equal 4 anymore.

What would be fair to say is that you’re now upset and not interested in trying to learn about basic arithmetic from me anymore, so while you still haven’t been convinced that 2 + 2 = 4, that doesn’t mean it necessarily doesn’t. You can also say that the emotional response that you’re experiencing is interfering with your ability to think clearly about this subject.

Feminism is not as clear-cut or obviously correct as 2 + 2 = 4, but the same principle applies. It’s natural to start to feel very bad when you perceive (accurately or otherwise, doesn’t even matter) that you’re being personally attacked, and that can make you not want to engage with this person, listen to their arguments, and reevaluate your own opinions in response. But that doesn’t make them wrong; it just makes them ineffective–for this particular purpose in this particular situation. Remember that meanness is somewhat in the eye of the beholder, and what may seem mean to you may be just a normal spirited debate to someone else.

At this point, the rational thing to do is to tell yourself that your unwillingness to agree with or even consider the person’s opinion has less to do with the merits of the opinion and more to do with your emotional response. Disengage, let the emotions subside, and, if you’re interested, find another way to learn about the view in question.

And now I’ve written over 1,500 words, and, to be honest, I think most of the people who say things like this already know all of this. Of course someone being mean to you doesn’t suddenly invalidate all of their opinions. So when you say that you disagree with feminism/veganism/atheism/anti-racism/queer rights/whatever because someone you have apparently designated an official ambassador of one of those views was unkind to you, you probably really mean one of these two things:

1. I disagree with feminism/veganism/atheism/anti-racism/queer rights because I hold a diverging opinion.

2. I feel hurt by a discussion I had with a feminist/vegan/atheist/anti-racist/queer rights advocate, and that makes me not want to think about this issue anymore or reevaluate my opinion on it.

Say what you mean.


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How to Be a Responsible Devil’s Advocate

Devil’s advocate is a tricky rhetorical strategy. On the one hand, it can be extremely useful for exposing the flaws in an argument, helping others clarify and strengthen their positions, and practice your own argumentation. Using devil’s advocate when the topic under discussion is, say, whether or not we should pursue immortality or how best to end our dependence on non-renewable energy sources will probably be productive and enlightening.

On the other hand, when the topic is whether or not it should be legal to shoot unarmed Black teenagers or how best to respond to sexual assault, devil’s advocate is a minefield of potential faux pas, triggers, and discussions that end in yelling and/or blocking each other online.

Although some claim that in discussions like these we should be “objective” and not allow emotions to “get in the way,” I would argue that 1) it is virtually impossible to be objective about issues to which we have a personal connection, and 2) it’s not even desirable to be objective about issues to which we have a personal connection. For all their flaws, emotions alert us when the stakes are high, tip us off to our biases, and keep us fighting our battles. The important part is knowing what your bias is, and reminding yourself constantly to be on the lookout for information that doesn’t fit into that bias.

The reason this is relevant to the devil’s argument discussion is that people are going to have strong emotional responses to issues like sexual assault prevention. They just are. If you choose to play devil’s advocate during a discussion about an issue as personal and painful as this, you’re probably going to push some people’s buttons, and not in a good way. You’re going to sound exactly like the people who argue against them in earnest, and you’re going to make them defensive and cause them to double down even on parts of their arguments that are not that good. You’re going to jeopardize any chance of having a productive discussion.

Unless you learn how to be a responsible devil’s advocate.

First of all, and most importantly, accept that some people do not want to engage with devil’s advocates on certain issues. They do not want to hear about your thought experiments and hypotheticals. They do not want to argue with people whose positions on the issues are not clear, because it can be painful and even triggering to hear these opinions.

You may feel that these people are not doing their duty as Good Skeptics by not engaging in your Spirited Debate or supporting Free Inquiry or appreciating Diversity of Opinion, but it frankly doesn’t really matter. Some people don’t have the privilege to be able to look at issues like this objectively and without emotion because they have lived through the traumas and tragedies associated with these issues. If you can’t respect that and accept that not wanting to argue with you does not mean someone is Bad At Arguing or Bad At Skepticism, then you have no business trying to discuss these issues with anyone.

Second, make sure you have examined your own motivations for wanting to play devil’s advocate on an issue that’s personal and painful to many people. I’m not saying that there are no good motivations (insofar as you can discern “good” and “bad” motivations here); I’m just saying that it merits examination. Are you doing it to hash out your own doubts and figure out what you believe? That’s pretty legit. Are you doing it to help the other person argue better? Commendable, but not necessarily recommended; I’ll get to that in a bit. Are you doing it to get a reaction out of someone? If so, consider not doing that ever.

Often people are “rubbed the wrong way” by the discourse on issues like sexual assault, sexism, racism, and so on. They just find the claims made by progressives on these issues to be irritating somehow and they feel compelled to argue against them without really knowing for certain where they themselves stand or why they feel such a need to argue with a random internet person they don’t know.

A lot of the time, these people discover that their irritation and discomfort are stemming from unexamined prejudices, biases, and feelings of guilt. They realize that they’re actually worried that they will be perceived as an “-ist” or that they have undeserved privileges or that they have mistreated others because of bigotry or that they are resentful because they think minority groups are receiving special advantages of some sort. Examining carefully your reasons for wanting to play devil’s advocate can reveal some of these deep-seeded thoughts and feelings, and prevent others from using up valuable time and energy trying to get you to recognize them.

Third, if you’re playing devil’s advocate in order to try and help someone else, find out if that person actually wants or needs your help. Unsolicited advice is frankly annoying in almost any case, but especially when it involves a long, drawn-out debate with someone you believe to be in need of convincing, only to find out that they actually think they’re kindly bestowing their argumentative expertise on you.

If you’re not a progressive activist, you might not know how discussions generally work in our communities. We’re always hashing things out with each other, trying out new arguments, and asking for feedback. If we blog on networks or in groups of some sort, we often have private backchannels where we practice our arguments. You may think, running across a random blog or Twitter feed, that we’re desperately in need of someone to help us refine our views, but generally we have plenty of trusted friends and colleagues that we can do that with. So don’t assume.

Fourth, if you have now decided that you’re going to play devil’s advocate, tell the person what you’re doing. Be open. Get consent. Constructive debate is not that different from sex in this regard. For instance, here are some things you can say:

  • “I generally agree with you, but I’m having some doubts. Can I argue from the other side to see how you’d respond?”
  • “I’m not sure this argument will stand up to scrutiny. Do you mind if I try some counterarguments?”
  • “Want to practice debating this issue?”
  • “I don’t actually believe this, but just out of curiosity, how would you respond if I argued that ______?”

As Captain Awkward says, use your words. The clearer it is what you’re trying to accomplish and what your actual point is, the likelier it is that you’ll have a productive discussion and nobody’s feelings will be hurt.

And, as I mentioned in my first point, don’t forget to accept no for an answer. Do not respond passive-aggressively about how “sad” it is that you can’t even have a good debate about this issue. Do not snark at them about how “some skeptic you are.” Do not bloviate using grand, vague terms like “freedom of expression” and “free inquiry.” Do not pout about how you “just wanted a discussion.” If they say, “Sorry, this is too close to home,” say “Ok, sorry I bothered you!” and move on.

Fifth, be prepared for the possibility that people will misinterpret your arguments and positions as much more vile than you believe they actually are. You may be accused of rape apologia or various -isms or of not giving a fuck. Two things may be going on here: 1) the people you’re arguing with have a more accurate impression of your views than you think they do, because they’ve been down this road before; 2) the people you’re arguing with are extremely sensitized to horrendous bigotry and now sometimes see it in places where it isn’t really.

You may feel this is incredibly unfair, and that’s understandable. However, what’s considerably more unfair is how often these people, many of whom have been personally affected by the issues they’re discussing, have to deal with those who blame them and treat them like they’re subhuman and advocate for them to have their rights taken away (or not even given in the first place). Your arguments may sound exactly like the arguments made by those Actual Bigots, and so you get pegged for one.

Remember that being charitable means trying to understand why others often aren’t.

And remember that when it comes to social justice issues, the devil already has plenty of genuine advocates. There are people who tell us every day that bitches be lyin’. There are people who tell us every day that we shouldn’t ruin rapists’ lives by holding them accountable for what they did. There are people who say that Trayvon deserved it. There are people who say that a fetus has more rights than an adult human.

So, I will include the same cautionary note for devil’s advocate as I recently wrote for sarcasm: if you mimic terrible opinions and sound exactly like the people who hold those opinions earnestly, do not be surprised if people don’t take kindly to your arguments. Do not be surprised if we’re tired of responding to the same terrible opinion every day. Maybe you were bored at work and started reading a feminist blog for the first time in your life and wanted to play a fun game of devil’s advocate, but for those of us who write those blogs, that’s what we do every day. And for those of us who live the horrible reality of some of the issues we write about, facing the same terrible opinion for the millionth time can be too painful and stressful to be worth it.

You may be able to turn these issues into an engaging intellectual exercise while we may not. Do not hold yourself up as a paragon of emotional stability and argumentative prowess because of this. Understand that you’ve been lucky.

Update: added a link to this relevant post.

“I’m the REAL Skeptic”: On Begging the Question

Things you need to stop doing in debates: framing your position as “rational/skeptical” and the opposing position as not “rational/skeptical.” What I’m talking about specifically are rhetorical moves like these: “Some hysterical people think sexual harassment is a huge problem, but I’m going to be rational about this.” or “I’m an actual skeptic, so I’m not going to whine about some so-called ‘rape culture.’”

Of course, some positions are truly anti-skeptical and/or irrational, but in that case, you can show why they’re not with evidence. For instance! “Anti-vax is an irrational position because all the evidence shows that vaccines are really useful, and no credible study shows that vaccines cause autism.” Or! “It’s not very skeptical to say that mental illnesses are just made up by Big Pharma. Have you spoken with people who have mental illness? Have you researched its neuropsychological correlates?”

But it’s not sufficient just to say something like, “I’m a Real Skeptic so I believe X.” or “You only think Y because you’re being irrational.”

First of all, even assuming for a moment that you, personally, are thinking rationally/skeptically, the fact that your opponent disagrees with you does not necessarily prove that they are not thinking rationally/skeptically. Shockingly enough, rationality and skepticism, when applied to the same issue, can still lead to wildly different conclusions! Some people have studied the evidence and think religion is good for mental health in general. Other people have studied the evidence and think religion is bad for mental health in general, or that its good effects are moderated too much by other factors. Some people have studied the evidence and think that it depends. All of these positions may be products of rational thinking. However, one or more of them may still be wrong, because rationality is not a panacea. It’s just a useful process that often produces good results.

Second, by painting yourself as a True Skeptic/Rationalist and your opponent as a hysterical over-sensitive irrational whiner, you’re engaging in a cheap rhetorical ploy that doesn’t actually 1) prove your point or 2) falsify your opponent’s point. It simply attempts to curry favor to your side through the use of buzzwords like rationality and skepticism.

What you are doing, oh person who probably loves to bloviate about logical fallacies, is begging the question. “I am a rationalist and you are not because my position is right and yours is wrong. My position is right and yours is wrong because I am being rational and you are not.”

Somewhere within whatever issue you’re attempting to needlessly obfuscate lie falsifiable claims that you’re simply ignoring. For instance, if rape culture does not exist, you would not expect rape to be treated more leniently than other crimes. But it is. If rape culture does exist, you might expect rape victims to be blamed for their rapes more frequently than other crime victims are blamed for the crimes committed against them, and they are. If rape culture does not exist, you might not expect people to feel sorry for rapists who have their “lives ruined” by being accurately accused of rape, but they do. If rape culture does not exist, you might expect all rapes to be treated as equally “legitimate,” but they are not. The point is not which of us is being “rational” about this and which of us is a “True Skeptic.” The point is, in which direction does the evidence generally go?

And when scientific evidence has not been accumulated yet, there are still ways in which you can think rationally about the issue. Someone yesterday demanded me to find them statistics on the frequency with which white people touch the hair of people of color without their permission. First of all, if you expect such a study to come out of an American research university, you simply don’t understand how underrepresented people of color are as university faculty, and how unlikely white people are to just spontaneously choose to study an issue such as this (although perhaps it’s happened, I’m not a human research database). Second, riddle me this: if it is not the case that white people frequently touch the hair of people of color without their permission, why does basically every person of color say that this has happened to them? Why have many of them written blog posts and articles about this? Do you think people of color just got together in some secret cabal to plan a conspiracy in which they accuse white people of constantly touching their hair without permission? If so, what motivation do they have for doing this? You’re a Skeptic/Rationalist, aren’t you? By all means, propose an alternative hypothesis to explain this!

Calling yourself skeptical/rational is not enough to make you so. Calling your opponent anti-skeptical/irrational is also not enough to make them so.

P.S. This is only tangentially related, but if you’re a man arguing with a woman and you’re leaping to call her “hysterical” and “irrational,” pause for a moment and consider the historical and cultural implications of this.