We get tired of arguing with you
Content warning: sexual assault, abortion.
This week has been a shitty one for women. We watched as a president credibly accused of sexual abuse defended a Supreme Court nominee credibly accused of sexual abuse who is nonetheless likely to become the Court’s second justice so accused . At this point I’m genuinely confused about how any woman could vote for a Republican party that holds us in such obvious contempt.
This week I’ve also spent an enormous amount of time arguing with men. I posted on Facebook that the burden of proof for Kavanaugh’s accuser should be something weaker than preponderance of the evidence, given the very high cost of appointing an abuser to a lifetime Supreme Court seat and the fact that no one was going to jail – a fairly tame point that a law professor argued a day later in the New York Times. Within an hour, a man counter-posted, and then messaged me privately, to tell me about the potential for false accusations – a point anyone who thinks about this issue has already thought of, and indeed one I already heard from dozens of people on Hacker News several years earlier. Another man messaged me to explain his five-point equilibrium model of false positive accusations. A third man spent half an hour arguing with me over lunch about the subjectivity of probabilities. I posted publicly the following day to comment about all the men arguing with me; a man immediately posted to argue with me about that post as well and, when I told him I couldn’t continue the debate because I had spent too much time arguing with men, asked me if I wanted to make a monetary bet about who was right. I could list five other arguments about gender I had with men this week, but I’m tired. (Incidentally, my use of “men” here is based on the data: as far as I remember, I had no extended arguments about gender with women this week. There is a striking disparity between the gender composition of the group liking my Facebook statuses about Kavanaugh (45% male, 68/150 reactions) and the group commenting on them (73% male, 35/48 comments).)
Men argue with me, I think, because I lean further left than they do but I phrase things with logical detachment and I don’t lose my temper. If you tell me (as another man did this week) that you believe homosexuality is a medical disorder, I will not tell you to go fuck yourself; I will tell you that I “believe your rationale is logically incoherent”.
Men also like to argue with me, I think, because I like to argue with them. Most weeks. This week, not so much. Walking around Palo Alto, I passed a bunch of boys playing soccer, maybe 8 years old, and so help me the first thought I had was, “statistically, one of you will grow up to rape someone” [2,3,4] and I burst into tears right there. My little sisters tell me I should not relate this anecdote because I sound overwrought, but I suspect many women who read the news are feeling this way and it’s probably worth being especially nice to the women in your life for the next few days.
I asked my little sister to argue with men for me. My thought was that I could tell the men that I didn’t have time to deal with them, they would have to talk to my baby sister, and she (who is perhaps the most successful college debater in American history) could bring out the rhetorical buzzsaw. She refused. “Why?” I said. “What is the point of your debate skill if you don’t occasionally defend gender equality?”
“You don’t understand,” she said. “I don’t have an off switch.” She found it stressful, she explained, because she ended up arguing with people for hours and they would not be persuaded of things she viewed as obvious. My baby sister, in addition to being a much better debater than I am, is also evidently more self-aware, because as soon as she said that I realized I don’t have an “off switch” either. I wake up at 3 AM rehashing arguments I’ve had that day with men and trying to think of how to persuade them. What bothers me is that I doubt they’re doing the same.
Men have told me that the key to civility in debate is to separate the intellectual from the personal; no matter how rancorous the debate, you should all go home as friends. No topic should be off limits, and if someone finds a topic too upsetting to discuss, they might have to sit it out for the good of free discourse. The problem with this stance is that it disproportionately silences the most vulnerable. Women are more likely to become upset in a debate about sexual assault, racial minorities in a debate about police violence, and surely it’s perverse to disproportionately silence the people most affected by an issue.
My little sister would put me to shame in a debate round, but I too debated as an undergrad, and the last round I ever spoke in, the finals of the US championships, required me to defend the right to abortion. (Something which would never actually be under threat, of course.) The other side argued against the right to abortion even in cases of rape. Not because they actually endorsed this position – because they were consummately prepared, and so they remembered the 2009 debate round when a team had gotten into a logical tangle for making exceptions for rape. Debate’s just a logical game, right? And for me, it almost always was. But in that moment, in front of an audience of hundreds, I genuinely lost my shit:
“This – this to me is genuinely, like, somewhat offensive, so I’m going to do math because I do math, like, when I don’t want to get upset…[Audience laughs.] No, but seriously. They say, ‘we are not okay with abortion even in cases of rape’. They actually said that, I didn’t mishear them. So let’s just think about what this means, right. Let’s talk about women, in college, in the US alone. 3 million women in college in the US, ok, a quarter of them will be sexually assaulted, that’s 750,000 women, 8% of those people will get pregnant, that’s, like, roughly 60,000 women, check my math if you want, so that means that 60,000 women who have been raped are being forced…to carry these babies to term . So let’s think about what this means, because you are torturing these women. It means that for 270 days during the course of their pregnancy they have to wake up every day and feel that part of their rapist thrumming and growing inside them. That is torture…that is torture that you do not have the right to impose upon people. It means that when they are born they have to feel that pain and know that pain is a consequence of their rapist. It means that every day that baby lives they have to look and see themselves and their rapist intermingled…[to opposing team] you are decent people, I don’t understand how you can argue for that. It seems so basically morally wrong. [Audience laughs].”
The audience laughed because they thought I was acting; they didn’t realize I was genuinely upset, because we debaters have such a strong belief that all’s fair in love and debate . I’d just say this: my little sister and I are at the very extreme end of how much a person can love to debate. If we get tired, all women get tired. I am not saying don’t ever argue with me. Truly, I’m not. I want to hear from you. I’m saying:
- Remember that women get tired, and that when powerful men are doing terrible things to women, we’re especially likely to be tired.
- Consider our relationship. Are we friends? Have we ever met in person? Do I voluntarily initiate discussions with you? When we argue, do I say things like “good point!” or “you’re annoying, but smart” or “I didn’t think of that”? If the answer to these questions is “yes”, it’s more likely I enjoy arguing with you.
- Give a few minutes of thought to your argument, as I give a few minutes of thought to anything I write on the internet. When you post something on my wall that is a) unpersuasive and b) misspelled, it exasperates me, because I know you didn’t think about it. Please also consider whether I’ve likely heard it fourteen thousand times before. If you’re proposing a five-point mathematical model of false accusations, I probably haven’t (also, you are weird) (also, let’s collaborate). If you’re saying, “sometimes women make false accusations”, I definitely have. Because I prefer novelty, one thing I like hearing from men (and everyone) is personal stories, which basically by definition I haven’t heard before. Often I’m more sympathetic to personal stories than arguments (even if the personal story has a moral).
- Every time you argue with me, please do one thing working towards gender, race, or other type of equality, and I don’t mean adding “feminist” to your Tinder profile. If you view gender equality as an intellectual issue that is fun to argue about, debating with me is a great thing to do. If you view gender equality as an urgent need, there are better ways to achieve it than arguing with me. I’m more interested in arguing with people who actually care than with people who just view these issues as intellectually interesting.
- If you are a man, please don’t react to this essay by being like “oh my God I will never talk to her or any woman about gender again”. That’s really not what I’m trying to say. If you think it is, please message me directly and we’ll chat about it (probably not this week, but at some point).
When this was published there was one allegation against Kavanaugh. Subsequently that number has increased, and it is looking less likely that he will be confirmed. ↩
Swartout, Kevin M., et al. “Trajectory analysis of the campus serial rapist assumption.” JAMA Pediatrics. 169.12 (2015): 1148-1154. ↩
Lisak, David, and Paul M. Miller. “Repeat rape and multiple offending among undetected rapists.” Violence and Victims. 17.1 (2002): 73-84. ↩
Please don’t tell me this is a totally unfair reaction to a bunch of kids playing soccer. That’s the point. ↩
Some of these numbers are definitely way off, though the math is right. Don’t trust any numbers in debate rounds. ↩
To be clear, I bear no ill will towards the other team – nice guys, and better debaters than I was, who went on to win the round. ↩