A friend of mine posted an article (that I obviously didn’t keep a link to, because this is how I roll) about how men and women are perceived and treated when using the same tactics to perform the same job. Certain attitudes and behaviours that are considered appropriate for the setting if coming from males are deemed inappropriate when coming from females. For instance, when a male lawyer takes a tough stance he’s just doing his job, but when a female lawyer does the same, she’s ‘a bitch’. From personal experience, the same is often true of women who work in rule- or law-enforcement. If a male person doing crowd control raises his voice or even goes physical, he’s ‘responding to the situation’. If a female person does the same, she’s ‘hysterical’ and ‘has allowed the situation to get out of control’.
How do I know this? Because I’ve lived it for over a decade professionally, because I see how other women in ‘traditionally male’ roles are treated, because occasionally I shut the fuck up and listen to people talking about their experiences. Not so a lot of the people who like to join in this kind of conversation, apparently.
In response to my friend posting the article mentioned above, a bunch of people insisted that the problem is that women are over-invested in everyone’s opinion. So what if the loser in a legal battle or a perp you’ve just arrested calls you a ‘bitch’? You just need to get over it and do your job. If you persist in being so oversensitive that you fail to do the job you’re paid for, that’s on you.
Unsurprisingly, all the people who commented thusly were guys. Also unsurprisingly, those guys were apparently incapable of parsing the responses women gave to their comments, which was that this isn’t a name-calling problem. It’s a sexism problem, but not intrinsically so: it could be an any-ism problem. It’s a discrimination problem, or at least an uneven-expectations-and-consequences problem.
The problem is when gender expectations put you between a rock and a hard place, because you are expected to achieve the same results as the guys (e.g. a legal win, compliance with rules, etc.) but without using the same tactics. When you have to do what the guys do, but you have to do so without upsetting anyone in any way, and if you fail at either goal then you have failed altogether. When that failure is seen either as your responsibility, a sign of your inability to perform your job, or as yet another proof that Women© just cannot operate in certain settings. When the fact that men and women are supposed to play the same game with different rules and handicaps is completely discounted.
The problem isn’t when ‘the enemy’ calls you a bitch. The problem is when ‘your people’ decide that you’re a bitch and treat you accordingly from then on just because you were doing your job in the only way it can be done. The problem is with having to choose between losing your social capital by underperforming or by performing in a way that is deemed inappropriate for people like you. That’s the first part of the issue: that, due to societal expectations, you can find yourself caught in lose-lose situations.
[Note: This isn’t something that happens only to women, but I’m familiar with that side of it because I’m saddled with looking female. Guys, feel free to write about how this affects your life in the comments section below or in your own blog. Me talking about my shit doesn’t stop you talking about yours. The airwaves aren’t full yet.]
The second part of the issue is that so many people fail to see those losses as real. They treat social capital as if it were imaginary, or a thing of no real value. They may regard it purely an ego issue (you needing people to see you in a certain light) or an insecurity issue (you needing everyone to looooove you). They therefore completely discount it in their calculations as to the pros and cons of making certain choices. From their point of view, you should do what you think is right, and if your social group doesn’t support that, fuck’em.
This point of view is fairly pervasive in self-defence and recovery. It isn’t completely incorrect, particularly in high-stake settings. If someone is threatening your life or welfare, that’s not the time to worry about the fact that clawing their face off would be unladylike. If someone wants you to remain a victim, their negative opinion of you making lifestyle changes to stop that should be a badge of honor to you. Unfortunately, extending that approach to cover all situations is a strategy that can fuck up your life. Acting with total disregard to how your social group will view your actions can cause you serious, sometimes irreparable problems.
Ostracism was and is a serious, overt punishment in many culture. If you fuck up they won’t slap you in jail; they’ll just cut you off from all social interactions, or banish you altogether from their territory. Our mainstream society is not immune to ostracism; we tend to do it covertly, but that doesn’t mean that it has no impact – and I’m not talking about purely emotional or psychological impact either. Your boss won’t throw you bodily out of the office and threaten to cut your head off and put it on a pole you if you come back; they’ll just give you all the shitty shifts or the projects doomed to fail. The person in charge of photocopying won’t pretend they can’t see and hear you when you speak to them; they’ll just put your work at the bottom of each and every pile. Once you get a reputation for being a problem person, and once enough people (or a few key players) start treating you as an undesirable, your life can get very difficult very quickly.
[If you think I’m talking shit because you’re a true roughty-toughty independent person who don’t need nobody as all true individuals should, I hope you’re reading this on a computer you built all by yourself, using your own designs and hand-made tools, from materials you mined. And congratulations on launching that satellite!]
Social capital is a thing, and an important thing too. Losing it will cost you, at least in the short-term. People who tell you otherwise tend to fall into three categories:
- People who’ve never lost it. People who have always been in a secure, comfortable position in a stable social group, with enough latitude to live their life while naturally matching societal expectations, find it remarkably easy to blather about how they wouldn’t care if they lost it all. They have no idea of what that loss would look and feel like. It’s easy to be word-brave when you can’t understand the cost of actions.
- People who never had it. People who’ve had truly shitty social lives, particularly those raised by shitty families, may not comprehend the value of social capital because they never had any. It’s easy for them to talk about just walking off from your community at the least provocation, because their community never truly benefited them.
[FYI, this is my bias. It makes me remarkably useless to talk to on a number of issues, because that’s what I tend to default to. “Heeeey, just do the thing! Come out! Take up naked bog-snorkeling! Write your shit and publish it! What have you got to lose?” In Bo Burnham’s words, “all of your friends and the approval of your parents.” For me that doesn’t fully register.]
- People whose social capital is non-standard; in particular those who self-identify as outsiders to mainstream society but also as members of a special, extra-societal group. For instance, those who identify as ‘outlaws’ or ‘nerds’ may see no benefit whatsoever in conforming to the expectations of mainstream society: they don’t, and they do perfectly well! What they fail to see is that they are conforming to the expectations of their group of choice, which is at least as important to them as mainstream society is to its members.
The cognitive dissonance is not only vexing, but often downright dangerous. In my experience, people who subscribe to this point of view, particularly if they do so unknowingly, can take swift and aggressive actions towards those who dare upset the internal running of their little group. While they preach individuality and non-compliance, they tend to stomp hard on internal whistle-blower. The more they identify with being against a type of behaviour, the harder they’ll stomp on people who point out that behaviour in their own midst.
If you are a normal-ish person with a normal-ish background and normal-ish social life, you may be aware of and attached to your social capital and the benefits it brings you. Even if you never consciously think about it, chances are that it will be a factor influencing your decisions. Most of the time, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s how you get to be a functional member of a social group: by actually giving a damn about other people and behaving accordingly. It becomes a bad thing if you can’t switch that mechanism off when you’re dealing with dangerous situations. If someone is trying to kill you or rape you, that’s not the time to worry about how grandma said that ‘hands are not for hitting’. But to switch that mechanism off altogether, to ignore what your social group deems appropriate in each and every conflict, regardless of the stakes, is terminally unwise.
I think, but I’m not sure, that that’s one of those situations when the blending of principles and tactics causes systems to fail their users. The principle, as I see it, is that you should use reasonable ‘force’ (still applicable in non-physical settings): do as much as you need to and as little as you can to resolve the situation safely and to your satisfaction. The tactic, in lethal setting, may be to abandon all of society’s rules and expectations – don’t hit, don’t scream, don’t scratch off people’s retinas – and go balls out until the danger is over. When that tactic is seen as a principle and applied to lower-stake settings, that’s when things can get a tad unhelpful. That’s when you get self-defence experts effectively teaching their students to fuck their personal and professional lives up.