Drawing a line – 2.

And then Dan of The Aikitchen sent me this article.

I hate it. It’s the best article I’ve read on the subject to date, and I didn’t write it. Read it, share it, print it on metal signs and hit people on the head with it. It’s better than good.

Dan and I got to talk about an issue the article doesn’t specifically raise: is it possible to turn socially awkward people into creeps over time by over-validating their behaviour?

My gut reaction was no, no way, oh hell no. I don’t think I could ever get to enjoy  repulsing people, or breaching their consent, however much my social group supported that kind of behaviour. Hell, if my social group supported that kind of behaviour, they wouldn’t remain my social group for long, goshdarnit. Problem is, my gut reaction is composed of an equal proportion of wishful thinking and bovine excrement.

Anyone who’s studied any history or anthropology knows that it’s absolutely possible to raise people who believe that “taking the non-given”, breaching consent, and similar behaviours are not only acceptable options, but the only right way to do business. All you have to do is catch people young enough, give them a consistent message, and make sure that the right efforts are rewarded. They won’t feel bad doing it. They won’t feel bad after they’ve done it. They won’t even consider stopping doing it. They’ll regard other ways of behaving as wrong or stupid.

Anyone who’s spent any time around people knows that it’s absolutely possible to get many if not most people to break their own established rules, even their own taboos, by applying a judicious mixture of peer pressure, brainwashing, and rewards. It’s back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; belonging trumps self-actualisation. They may feel bad doing it. They may feel bad after they’ve done it. But they’ll still do it, and if the reward is enough they might do it time and time again. Problem is that people can only break a taboo once; after that, it’s broken. And, over time, the guilt may lessen to the point that a once inconceivable behaviour may become a habit.

When you combine the two, the answer to the question becomes obvious. Of course it’s possible to turn socially awkward people into creeps over time by over-validating their behaviour. Some socially awkward people only really get to use and develop their social dynamics skills once they find accepting environments. They don’t quite come at the issue with no previous experiences, but they may come at it with no previous positive experiences. For whatever reasons, they lack some of the skills required to fix the problem. They can’t fit in the mainstream, and the mainstream won’t adapt to accept them. They then find an environment where they suddenly belong; where their behaviours and attitudes are not only accepted, but even encouraged; where they may be told that those who do not accept those behaviours and attitudes are in the wrong; that the problem has never been their behaviour, but other people’s intolerance to it.

This is how Dan put it:

What if you have almost exclusively negative interactions with people, and because you’re the “proper broken” (e.g. social dynamics = advanced quantum math) type of awkward, you can’t fix it without help. Then suddenly you are somewhere where that behaviour gets validated (aka. it’s not wrong/bad/immoral, this is important). Now you have power over people (both in the “direct emotional impact” way and in the “they need to accommodate me, cool” way). See how this could condition somebody in a bad way?

In many social circles, we’re already seeing this. What we’re often failing to see is the causal link between poor social skills, inclusiveness/permissiveness, and giant clusterfucks. Clusterfucks that are actually resulting in many good, innocent people getting hurt, or leaving a scene in order to avoid getting hurt.

I was reminded of a quote I stole from a thread I’ve long lost, where people were talking about the problems of sexual harassment at cons:

“Unfortunately the combination of a very socially accepting place for people with less social skills, and exposure to what can be a very permissive environment, can cause people to make really bad social choices at cons.”

Efforts to bring the problems into the light and put a stop to them are often thankless and hopeless. From the same thread, different source:

“(…) I have backed out of most conventions. They used the be the equivalent of a family reunion, now the only family left it seems are the ones that you hope don’t come over to visit – the weird uncle, the cousin right out of rehab, the zealots, the literally delusional. I’ve been through too much in my life to have to deal with that kind of hassle.”

I’ve personally sat and listened to guys lecturing about the non-significance of the problem. Cons take place in areas commonly used for hook ups: of course guys will try to hook up with women there. (Yeah, and if you’re walking through a cemetery, it’s perfectly normal for someone to try and bury you.) Cons are increasingly mixed-gender affairs: of course guys who don’t get to meet women much in their daily lives will do their best to strike connections there. (Because forcing women to interact with you when they don’t want to is such a sure-fire way to get laid.) People go to cons to get seen: of course guys will be looking at women there. (Eh? I go places because I have an interest in the subject matter.) If women didn’t wanna get looked at, they wouldn’t go through all the bother of wearing costumes. Yeah, some women not in costume are also getting bothered, but, yannow, they should see it as a compliment; it’s a sign someone finds them attractive! And yeah, some guys get carried away, may get a bit too touchy-feely, or a bit threatening, or a bit fixated, but they don’t mean any harm by that. If women don’t wanna interact with every thirsty male in the room, they can just stay at home. Their presence is their consent, right?

I’m just picking on cons because they make a good example of how a culture can justify and foster certain behaviours (and also because I’d love to be able to enjoy them, but I can’t). Similar arguments are made by similar people about similar problems occurring in other places. If women didn’t wanna get catcalled, they’d stop going to places were catcalling happens, like, yannow, the street. If they didn’t wanna get creeped at, they’d stop using public transport. If they think it’s bad here, they should move to Saudi Arabia. That’ll teach them! Women just need to realise how good they have it, really, and to learn where they can go. And yes, I’m quoting.


Which kinda brings me back to my recent lamentation about the problems brought upon trying to make allowances for special circumstances without drawing some very firm lines. The next logical step is often a general lowering of standards. This can result in a diaspora of anyone who recognises that those lower standards are actually not ok, and who is not willing to lower their standards in order to belong. And the final result can be the creation of an echo chamber of people who’re completely oblivious as to why certain people cannot abide their behaviours and attitude. There may be nobody left within their earshot to tell them that what they are doing is not ok. Their narrative may allow them to class anyone raising any issues as a bigot, an idiot, a naysayer, a insert-insult-here, and discard their opinions. An echo chamber which can help turn its participants into a much worse version of themselves, and to feel good about it.


One thought on “Drawing a line – 2.

  1. I would focus on validating offenders’ humanity and future potential — but definitely not their current behavior.

    Not to mention offer a firm hand up — social skills/consent education for the first offense*, requiring the offender to have some skin in the game too (a program fee at the offender’s expense, the course itself requiring some effort, practice exercises and skull sweat, etc). With the understanding from Day One that any second offense will receive no mercy.

    [*] Or rather, for the first offense once the program begins. I wouldn’t exclude repeat offenders who’d never had a chance to learn before.

    For that matter, I’d favor offering this in middle schools, high schools, college and adult education in general. In fact, I taught just that last fall.

    Bottom line: High standards of behavior, with initial benefit of the doubt as to intent + help meeting the standards. More firmly integrating socially awkward people into mainstream society, helping to prevent just the dynamic you outlined.

    PS: That Dr. Nerd Love article misses the mark in the same way many others do too (or in the opposite direction): Pick out one side of the issue and hammer away at it, while ignoring collateral problems said hammering raises on the opposite side. Including dismissing and stereotyping a whole group of people.

    Here’s my long take on Dr. Nerd Love’s piece.


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