A few days ago, a friend of mine was attacked on Twitter just for doing her job. This friend is a former professor who runs programs to help women in academia with organization, navigating the system, university politics, and other academia-related issues. (Full disclosure: She and I have worked together in the past.) Her programs are sometimes geared toward women, but some are open to men, too.
She posted about one of her teleseminars that’s open to the public, and was attacked out of the blue by someone asking if she had a “real job.” It turns out that this anonymous attacker is a male academic at a well-respected private university in the South, and he became enraged enough to compose a tweet to my friend, with whom he’d never had contact, because the office of professional enrichment at his university had had the audacity to invite him to a free teleseminar about controlling facial emotions.
Men reading this may not get what facial emotions have to do with anything, but women reading this have probably had an experience with being told they didn’t have the correct facial expression pasted on at the time. Whether it’s some strange man commanding that you “smile, gorgeous” on the subway, or being told in a performance review at work that you’re either “too happy” or “need to lighten up,” many women have been told they’re not living up to someone else’s standards because they’re not making the correct facial expression. My friend was doing a teleseminar about how to work around that. And then was attacked by someone who’d heard about her seminar and decided it offended him somehow.
I’ve been thinking about that, about why there are some men who feel such a strong urge to assert their own opinion that they’ll demand a woman’s attention to tell her that she’s wrong. I have no doubt that the anonymous academic from the south had no idea that facial expressions are a thing that women deal with. But he didn’t think, “Hey, I have no interest in this. Let me continue tweeting about food and go on with my life.” He thought, “I don’t get this. Let me insult a strange woman because I don’t understand what this is about and she needs to know that I don’t like it.”
It feels to me simply like another form of mansplaining, in which a (usually white straight cis) man explains to a woman in great pedantic detail something she already knows, or attempts to deflect the conversation from a real issue women face to make it about him instead. In this case, though, the Twitter user didn’t bother to explain to my friend why she is wrong for doing her job. Maybe we should be grateful for brevity.
It’s peculiar to me, because this harassment isn’t the violent, cursing, threatening harassment Amanda Hess and Amanda Marcotte have written about recently. My friend’s anonymous troll and the mansplainers aren’t threatening women, they’re simply asserting that women are wrong and they’re right. Which makes it much more slippery and much more difficult to call out. If someone threatens to kill or rape you, no one can deny that that’s wrong. But not everyone sees how damaging it is being told you’re wrong constantly.
Then Grantland published that gut-wrenching piece in which Caleb Hannan stalked a subject of a story he was writing and kept harassing her because she had a secret that she didn’t want to disclose to him. A secret that had nothing to do with the story he was writing. But he pursued her and pursued her, apparently because he was insulted that she wasn’t telling him all the information he wanted to know. He continued to stalk her (presumably his editors at Grantland knew about this) and she committed suicide because of it. (I’m not linking to the story. It deserves no clicks.)
Caleb Hannan decided that his desire to know something private about another person trumped her right not to share every detail of her life with him (and his readers). And he wrote and published a story in which he is the hero, because he doggedly pursued this person that he paints as being difficult, hostile, and immoral simply because she wouldn’t open up every detail to him. It’s a vivid tale of bully culture, but written by the bully himself, who celebrates his victory at the end.
My immediate reaction to these stories is to wonder why these men do this. Why do bullies, street harassers, “keyboard warriors,” frustrated academics, “good Christian men,” tea partiers, run-of-the-mill misogynists, and the other men who insert their opinions where they have no right to be, do this? The majority of men do not. The majority of white straight cis men do not. So why do some of them have this disorder?
I’m not sure there’s an answer. I’d like to think it has something to do with the NSA. That as a culture we’ve just become so inured to the idea that someone else is watching and judging us, that people with nothing better to do and some life frustration think they should strap on the virtual guns and go after low-hanging victims.
But maybe it’s simple entitlement. Men who have never not been asked their opinions cannot help but think that their opinions trump everything else, including other human beings’ rights to privacy, to earn a living, to live.
I really wish I knew the answer. As a mother of two white straight cis boys, I really wish I knew the answer. So that I can raise my boys to be more like the majority of men who are happy to learn from other people and let them live, instead of the ones who file lawsuits because something a professor said in class hurt their feelings or the ones who harass strangers or the ones who write stories celebrating bullying someone.
(My Twitter handle is @AskMoxie. You can find it by clicking the Twitter icon at the top of this page. Come at me, bro.)