What Do we Not Hear When the Loudest Person Wins?
A few months back, I was asked to participate in a debate on the topic of whether men should have to pay on dates. (I was “the feminist.”) It turned out that the male debater and I didn’t really disagree much on that topic. I said that, generally, whoever asks the other person out pays for that date, and then at some point couples generally transition into sharing costs in whatever way works for them. He was actually pretty happy to pay for first dates; he just wanted women to say thank you and to not use him. I had no problem with that.
I think he said that women should offer to pay half, knowing they’ll probably be turned down. I said, well, sometimes — but what if the other person invited you someplace really expensive? What if you agreed to a date with the guy and he spent an hour saying crazy racist shit to you and you felt like you couldn’t escape? This is what led to our real disagreement.
The male debater felt strongly that if a woman wasn’t interested in a second date, she should say so on the spot. If the man says, “Let’s do this again sometime,” the woman shouldn’t say, “Sure, great,” and then back out later. I said that that was a nice ideal, but that he should keep in mind that most women spent most of their lives living in low-level fear of physical aggression from men. I think about avoiding rape (or other violence) every time I walk home from the subway, every time there’s an unexpected knock at the door, and certainly every time I piss off an unhinged man. So, if I were on a date with a man who I felt was unbalanced, creepy, overly aggressive, or possibly violent, and he asked if I wanted to “do this again sometime,” I would say whatever I felt would avoid conflict. And then I would leave, wait awhile, and hope that letting him down politely a few days later would avoid his finding me and turning my skin into an overcoat.
The male debater was furious that I had even brought this up. He felt that the threat of violence against women was irrelevant, and that I was playing some kind of “rape card” as a debate trick. He got angrier and angrier as we argued. I also got angrier and angrier, although I worked hard to keep speaking in a calm and considered way. He was shouting and cutting me off when I tried to speak. I pointed out that the debater himself was displaying exactly the sort of behavior that would make me very uncomfortable on a date. THAT made him livid.
He then called me “passive-aggressive.”
I was genuinely taken aback. “Actually,” I said, “I call this ‘behaving myself.’” It’s a lot of work to stay calm when you’re just as furious as the other person, and that other person is shouting at you. I felt that I was acting like a grownup — at some emotional cost to myself — and I wanted credit, not insults, for being able to speak in a normal tone of voice when I was having to explain things like, “We can’t tell who the rapists are before they turn violent, so sometimes we have to be cautious with men who do not intend to harm us.”
After the debate, I was not really ready to make friends, but we ended up going out for a beer with the producer and crew. The male debater said that he was often a guest on radio shows, and that shouting and interrupting is just how they talk. You have to engage in that way, or you don’t get airtime. The male debater was congenial (and talented). The whole debate had been conceived because he had gone on some shitty dates, and who among us has not had that experience?
This was a good guy. The problem wasn’t him, it was that the behavior our society rewards was not, in my opinion, the best this guy had to offer.
That, to me, is the real problem. It’s also why I’ve used the terms “stereotypically male” and “stereotypically female” in this article; I’m sure that some part of our debating styles is due to how much testosterone is floating around our bodies, but some large part of it is learned. If you’re accustomed to arguing on radio programs, you have to shout because otherwise you would not get to speak. If you majored in women’s studies, you’ve probably had it drilled into you that shouting is “denying someone her voice.” On a talk radio show, crying would immediately invalidate your argument. At a feminist conference, shouting would make you the oppressor. I’m suggesting that both crying and shouting are emotional expressions, that some of these emotions are more destructive to debate and dialogue than others, and that we should all recognize our emotions and then channel them into rational discourse. That means dudes, too.
From Rolling Stone‘s Rachel Maddow’s Quiet War, on Maddow’s encounter with Castellanos:
The tricky part is knowing what to do about the lie [that women make as much as men]. Chris Matthews would erupt in thunderous outrage; Keith Olbermann would dissolve into a knowing sneer. But Maddow’s skills are different: She strives not for the expression of political anger but for its suppression, to distance herself from the partisan debate rather than engage it, to steward progressive fury into a world of certainty, of charts, graphs, statistics, a real world that matters and that the political debate can’t corrupt…. “Anger is like sugar in a cocktail,” Maddow tells me. “I’d rather have none at all than a grain too much.”