On Butting In Because You Know Best

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.)

18 thoughts on “On Butting In Because You Know Best”

  1. Doing this here because I can’t find an e-mail, but delete at will: Why "in the South"? The sense of superiority from people north of the Mason-Dixon line is, to me, another form of privilege.

    1. I said "in the South" because I wanted the people who had been following my friend’s story to know which person I was talking about, but didn’t want random people to be able to find him by searching. But thanks for proving my point.

  2. Had a man been in Dr. V’S place, at the center of the original golf story it would have ended right there. "Good idea, bro – shaved 10 points off my game". As it was this guy just had to find a way to discredit her. Once he had a sniff of her history -which in his view meant she WASN’T a woman – exposing her "secret" was about vindication. Misogyny and the superiority of men are what drove him – bigotry against transgender people just allowed him to wash his hands of guilt. "She/he/it was a freak anyway".

  3. Word.

    I acknowledge your reasons, which are clear to me from reading your response in the comments, but as a picky side note I’d like to add that "In the South" and subsequent references grated on my Southern nerves, too. It makes me want to list all the appalling comments I heard in Chicago or in the South from relocated Northerners, but I think you can imagine the details as well as I know that picking on us wasn’t at all your intent.

    Write on.

    1. Interesting. After I responded to Slim above I realized that one of the reasons I put that it was the South the second time was that Northerners are CONSTANTLY being told we don’t have any manners or politeness compared to Southerners, so it was notable to me that this guy who attacked my friend (who is also from the South) is located in the South. Not just the stereotypical rude Northerner. (Although I have no idea where he’s from originally, so who knows.) The appalling comments from Southerners to Northerners are rampant, too. It wasn’t my intent to shade anyone, but to a) let people knowing what had happen know who I meant, and b) emphasize that this is an all-over problem, not just of rude East Coasters or Midwesterners or flashy Californians.

  4. "In the South" got to me too. I am also a female who works in academia, and I can honestly say that I have never experienced a "facial expression correction," nor have I known of anyone else who has (which certainly doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen). I will say that whatever your reason for specifying the geographic location of the man you mentioned, your defensive response does nothing to further diplomatic relations ("well, they do it too!" lacks something as an argument).

    1. As I said earlier, it wasn’t my intention to shade anyone. And I’m glad you’ve never experienced any issues with facial expressions.

  5. On the Hannan front, I agree but disagree. It’s his job as a journalist to report on the truth. He agreed to report on the product not the inventor, but when someone calls themselves a doctor and they aren’t, you kind of have to go back and fact check or else that’s your neck for a bum article. Should he have outed her? No way. That’s a violation of privacy, and once he figured that out, it should have been dealt with professionally. But he is a reporter, and his job is to report. It’s kind of an asshole job because sometimes, you HAVE to kind of nag someone, to get a story. It’s not fun. Different scale, but after a girl misses a championship winning shot, do you think I’d want to rush a microphone into her face and ask "what were you thinking as you missed?" Heck no! But if that’s what I’m paid to do, regretfully I’m going to have to do it. Back to the Hannan story though, it’s his job description to get to the bottom of the story. In my opinion, the only thing he shouldn’t have done is include that. Sorry Magda :-/

    1. I know that in our current society this isn’t common knowledge, but outing a LGB(and especially)T person is not just impolite, it is DANGEROUS. Suicide and assault is RAMPANT within that community and if you don’t know enough to know that you shouldn’t ever out someone, you shouldn’t have a job as a journalist or editor. Also if you don’t even TRY to find that out before running with your self-important wankery, you’re a terrible human being.

      1. I’m well aware of that. I’m not saying he is right for doing. I’m not saying he is right for doing that. But it is his job to find that out. He shouldn’t have put that out there. He is a terrible person for doing so. Either terrible or ignorant. I’m leaning more towards the latter than the former. Just my opinion. 🙂

  6. As someone who’s received on multiple performance reviews the "constructive feedback" that I need a better "poker face" because it’s clear on my face when I think someone is an idiot or has a bad idea, I had never thought about it as sexist. Interesting food for thought. (And kind of pissing me off now, to be honest.)

  7. I think that the answer lies less in worrying about what to do specifically with white/cis/male and more with people in general. Teaching empathy and respect towards others is something we all need. As one Cecily noted, other women can be just as ruthless about enfocing a certain standard of behavior. Specifically with regards to the issue of someone who is trans, I have a trans daughter and I don’t find that white cis men are any worse (in terms of their attidiudte towards her – once they find out) than any other group of people.

    Your friend’s work sounds quite interesting. I have been told since I can remember that I was "too serious" and that I needed to smile more. Often said as "you’re such a pretty girl, you should smile more." Sigh. Those sort of statements only make me frown.

  8. "why do some of them have this disorder?"
    I think that calling being a privileged asshole a "disorder" is an insult to people living with real disorders, and also implies a lack of responsibility to change. If it’s a disorder you manage it as well as you can. If you’re an asshole it’s not about managing with limitations. (exception for personality disorders, but I really REALLY hope you aren’t trying to imply that every asshole is actually a person with a personality disorder).
    Using mental health language to describe negative behavior in people sets up a world view where people who do things that we disagree with must have a mental health issue, and the flip side that everyone with a mental health issue is unreasonable or dangerous. I’m sure you’re already familiar with many of the ways that that goes very wrong.

    1. Oh, sheesh, I hit post before I added this: The rest of what you say? Absolutely. The general message of the post is great. Just that one part was very upsetting.

      1. I’m sorry it upset you. As someone with a mood disorder, my question is whether or not this is an actual personality disorder, or simply asshole behavior. I’m not at all convinced, based on my interactions with some of these people, that it’s NOT a disorder, compounded by a disorder, or correlated with personality disorders. That’s my question.

  9. I’m picking up what you’re putting down. And I’m not tearing your post apart by chewing up all the semantics. I like what you’re doing. I like what you’re writing. Keep doing it.

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