Wednesday, June 29, 2016

How Angry to Be

This essay was written over the course of six months and was initially titled “Why I don’t write angry feminist essays”. Then I realized that I actually was pretty angry. The final product is two-part: first I talk about the benefits of staying calm, and then I talk about the benefits of anger.

The TV show Jessica Jones pits a woman with superhuman strength against her rapist, Kilgrave, who can control minds. Many people have commented on how Jones is really fighting the patriarchy: Kilgrave forces women to smile for him and sleep with him, stalks them and threatens the people they love, and Jones confronts many lesser sexists throughout the season. It is deeply satisfying to watch her throw sexist assholes through walls; I watched the entire season three times in three months.  As I did, however, I realized the very thing that made the show satisfying makes it a poor metaphor for fighting sexism.

Kilgrave is an Unequivocally Bad Dude -- a serial rapist and murderer who casually tortures people for no reason:
Figure 1: Seriously, dude?
Few agents of the patriarchy are so one-dimensional. Consider:

Female engineer 1: God, this guy at work asked a coding question today -- and when I answered, he ignored me until a male engineer gave the exact same answer.
Female engineer 2: I hate that. So what did you do?
Female engineer 1: I threw him through a wall. Fractured his spine.
Female engineer 2: You go, girl!

said nobody ever.

This isn’t a complaint about Jessica Jones; it’s a superheroine show, not an advice manual. But it is a complaint about the tactics used by many people who claim to be fighting the patriarchy. Too often, I think, we treat people as Kilgraves when they aren’t.

There are innumerable examples of this. Take the backlash against Scott Aaronson (professor accused of being a sexist, entitled nerd) or Chris Herries (student accused of comparing rape victims to bikes) or any of the targets of viral internet outrage, take this uncharitable response to Stack Overflow’s well-intentioned attempt to get more data on women among their users, take many, many things written by Jezebel. I try not to demonize people in my work for two reasons.

  1. It paints a false picture. People are complicated and contradictory. There are rapists whose wives love them [1]; fraternity men who call some women “slampieces” but treat other women with respect; men who campaign for gender equality but talk over women; women who call themselves feminists but attack Bill Clinton’s accusers; fathers who cheer on their daughters but are biased against their female employees; online trolls who feel remorse; philosophy professors who argue for consent but harass their female students; men who can quote Simone de Beauvoir but won’t do the damn dishes. Demonizing people who do sexist things ignores these complexities. Worse, it lets us relax in the comfortable lie that only demons do sexist things. The scarier truth is that the great injustices in history have not been carried out by Kilgraves, but by ordinary people -- perhaps there was a psychopath at the helm, but they needed willing executioners.

  1. Demonizing people alienates potential allies. Take this recent piece criticizing tech CEOs who think “diversity” refers only to gender: “Is it because they’re racist? Sexist? Ignorant? Some sick combination of all three? Probably.” This is a great way to make CEOs afraid to talk about diversity at all. Of course they should be thinking about diversity in more nuanced ways, but there are less vicious ways to convey that.
I know that such rhetoric alienates powerful men because I’ve talked to them. One male tech leader told me that while he cared about diversity, he was reluctant to speak up about it publicly because he worried about incurring backlash. Another told me that he was less likely to hire gender studies majors because he thought they were more likely to sue for discrimination. Perhaps these men should not have harbored such views. But given that they do, we should adapt our rhetoric if we wish to be persuasive.
And if you’re saying screw ‘em, I don’t care if my essays alienate men -- I would submit to you that men rule the world, and if we really want to change it, as opposed to just writing echo-chamber clickbait, we will do so faster if we don’t lose 90% of CEOs, members of Congress, and tech leaders. Which is not to say that you should try to persuade all men -- but if you don’t persuade any, you might want to revise your rhetorical approach. (It is of course sometimes necessary to voice difficult truths which will alienate people; I am not opposed to all radical feminism, but specifically to feminism which divides by demonizing. You are not speaking truth to power when you demonize people; you are simply being inaccurate in a way which also drives away allies.)
I worry too that the more extreme voices in the feminist movement get disproportionate attention (a phenomenon my sister and I also observed when studying campus activists). Anecdotally, men I talk to are more likely to have heard about public shaming campaigns than about the less controversial aspects of feminism. Zeynep Tufekci, a professor at UNC who studies activist campaigns, notes that if a protest movement does not self-regulate and consciously decide its boundaries, it gets defined by its noisy, flamboyant outliers. Always.


And yet. I can make reasoned arguments for seeing the good in sexists, for preaching to the unconverted, for cutting out vitriol and sarcasm. But the truth is that I’m filled with so much anger. People read my statistical pieces about gender and tell me that they like that I can stay so detached and I laugh -- because why would I possibly spend so much time doing math about gender inequality if I were detached?

And I’m getting angrier with age. I am only 25 so this is somewhat concerning. I have lost the ability to laugh at things. I’m writing this in my room after watching Top Gun, an 80s movie about a bunch of military pilots. In one scene, the hero and his copilots surround a woman in a bar, much too close, red-faced and sweating, and drunkenly serenade her; she eventually escapes, so the hero follows her into the woman’s bathroom and tries to block her from leaving. On the one hand it’s dated and you want to laugh at these ridiculous men. But then I think about the rapes in the US military and how this movie was so influential that signups for the naval air force went up by 500% and I wonder how many rapes it helped cause. I read that the actress in the movie, a lesbian, was actually raped in real life, and spent decades thinking the rape was a punishment for her sexuality -- these are the hilarious things that happen when you aggressively push heterosexuality on everyone, haha! I remember the thousands of sexually aggressive comments of the fraternity men I studied and the papers that show how much more often rape occurs in fraternities and the hundreds of stories from survivors I perused and the ones who were brave enough to talk to me directly and the rape cases my mother prosecuted and I have to admit: I can no longer laugh at sexually aggressive bros. I close the door to my room and slam my fist into the wall over and over again, feeling nauseous.

On a day to day basis it isn’t the rapists who bother me; it is the subtle inequalities even among my progressive, thoughtful social circle. (I can only imagine how women who face more overt discrimination feel.) It’s the men who sit when the women clean after dinner; the women who don’t speak up when they’re uncomfortable because they want to be accommodating; the men who ramble at me even when I’m supposed to the one giving a talk or giving advice; the dates and friends who can lecture but can’t listen; the professional meetings where comments are addressed only to my male colleague. And if I can see these inequalities already, what will happen if we have children, when our incomes further diverge? I am afraid for my friends and afraid for myself.

Part of this increased awareness is the accumulation of slights that are each insignificant, the chafing of a blister rubbed raw. Part of it is that I spend so much of my research time looking for discrimination. Part of it is dealing with online responses to my writing. My writing voice is mild, but in response, I’ve had people call me a lying cunt; insult my body; speculate that I’m bitter because no one will sleep with me and I’m too prudish to get invited to parties; advise my boyfriend to break up with me; call me a token admit to the schools I’ve attended or the conferences I’ve been invited to. These commenters, of course, are the warts on the long statistical tail of readers, but you don’t forget them. On the advice of a male colleague, I now pay $100 a year to keep my personal information off the internet.  

Part of it is that I’m now single. I could make a joke here about how attempting to date Silicon Valley men would make anyone a feminist, but that would contravene what I said above about not unnecessarily being an ass to men and isn’t the point I’m trying to make anyway. When I was in a relationship and I got angry about something, I’d come home to a boyfriend who, our breakup notwithstanding, was one of the most gentle and decent people I’ve met, and he would both calm me down and by his mere existence remind me that #NotAllMen are Satan.

These days I sleep alone. I wake at four in the morning and brood for hours; there’s no one to break up my thoughts, no one to vent to except the empty page. And I’m beginning to believe in the value of anger untempered.

A few months ago I went to dinner with a man who wouldn’t let me get a word in and I came home to an empty house; soon my anger got the better of me and I wrote an essay about mansplainers so quickly it was as if it was torn out of me. It was one of the angriest essays I’ve written but also, I think, one of the better ones. Another night, I woke up so irritated about a male collaborator who was not pulling his weight that I couldn’t go back to sleep. Perhaps men were simply better at getting credit for projects they hadn’t led, I thought, while women’s contributions were ignored [2]. I grabbed my laptop and wrote a computer program to scrape a database of scientific papers and look for gender disparities. A few months later I published a piece based on that 3 AM analysis. So there are times when I am glad I’ve had to reach for a laptop rather than a hug; when I’ve had to put my anger fresh onto the page because there was no one to dull it.

(My friend advised me to cut out the last three paragraphs because they invite nasty comments about how I’m just bitter because I’m single, but I want to trust you to read what I wrote and not skew my words.)

So as I said at the beginning, I’m conflicted about how angry to be. Often when I work I’m not angry at all -- I’m looking at the world through twin lenses which both help me stay detached. The warm lens comes from years of counseling training: to listen without judging, to want to understand how someone who seems despicable can be the hero of their own story. The cold lens comes from years of quantitative training: rapists, like cancer cells, are simply high-dimensional mathematical structures to be parsed.

At times I can master this difficult balance: to humanize without exculpating; to be both furious and curious; to be motivated by anger but not overwhelmed by it.

And then I read, say, the Palo Alto woman’s statement to her assaulter and my careful detachment shatters and I’m overwhelmed again.


[1] You might say, I don’t really care if a rapist had a golden childhood -- but I think you actually should care, not because it exculpates them but because the whole problem is to understand how people grow up to commit rape. If only devil spawn did evil things, we would have a much easier problem. Obviously, we need to put an end to media pieces which portray rapists as athletes first and criminals second. But we also need to analyze rapists as a complex human beings, not monsters, while still giving full weight to the seriousness of their crimes. David Lisak’s seminal research on repeat rapists, which humanizes them without ever forgetting that they’re serial predators, is an example of this kind of work.
[2] There turns out to be some evidence for this: see here and here.