I decided to start a series of essays pinpointing and describing male-privileged behaviors and explaining why they are harmful. These are not behaviors that are exclusive to male-bodied people, but male-bodied people are overwhelmingly the ones who employ these behaviors, and they are also historically validated for doing so. They are all invalidating behaviors regardless of who employs them, but the impact is exponentially enlarged by the systemic social, economic and sexual power men hold.
Today’s topic is: Demanding Justification
Scene: A white man (Vince) and a white woman (Marisa) enjoy a platonic, mutually inspirational relationship. They meet in a park every afternoon at 4:00 pm to talk and drink tea and they often stay for several hours. They have enormous fun together, normally.
However, the woman has been feeling uncomfortable because her friend has crossed her boundaries several times by making very subtly oppressive comments about women in politics. They’re not very overt—just small jabs here and there, mostly sexist needles about white women, but sometimes sexist and racist comments about non-white women holding a belief he doesn’t agree with. He never calls them epithets like “skank” or “spic,” but she feels discomfited by this—he gives off this low-level vibe of contempt for these women, and worse, he expects her to agree with him and begins monopolizing the conversation if she doesn’t enthusiastically do so, as if he’s trying to convert her.
One day she gathers her courage, waits for the right time, and brings her discomfort with it up to him. She points out that, while she respects his opinions and she enjoys talking to him, she feels uncomfortable about his comments about female politicians and that she doesn’t want him to make them around her anymore.
His response is typical: “How have I made you uncomfortable?”
– After Marisa explained to Vince how he made her uncomfortable (sexist/racist comments), he immediately asked her to explain “how he had made her uncomfortable, implying that Marisa’s reasons are either insufficient or fundamentally invalid—erasure of her words.
– Vince called into question Marisa’s right to be uncomfortable with his behavior by erasing the reasoning behind her discomfort, thus making it “objectively” useless.
– Marisa is forced by Vince to bring up specific examples to justify her invalidated discomfort—examples which may be difficult to recall in such an emotionally stressful situation and that bring even more danger: even if she does bring up examples, he may pick at inaccuracies—”I said this, not that,”—or dismiss the validity of the examples altogether. (“No, what I meant was this. You just took my words wrong—you shouldn’t get uncomfortable.”)
– Marisa is placed at the powerless end of the equation: Vince has constructed the power differential in the conversation so that she must nicely “present” evidence to him, wherein he will decide who is right. The person who is supposed to make reparations is also the person deciding whether or not he has to make reparations. Vince is both judge and jury.
– Vince is forcing Marisa to think for him, explaining how his remarks were sexist—which, again, he can then confirm or deny—instead of reflecting on them himself.
– Marisa is situated as unreasonable if she refuses to allow Vince to decide whether or not he is sexist/racist or breaks off the friendship for her health—because she didn’t allow him to define reality, she will be seen as “not being fair,” demanding unconditional agreement.
Discussion: Vince believes that he has to admit to any kind of issue before it’s valid—that’s why he acts like it. The issues that other people have with his behavior need to have his consent before they are allowed to have them without it being “unfair” and “a misunderstanding.” As such, he expects anyone who has a problem with his behavior to present him with evidence—examples, in precise quotations, in enough quantity that he can’t argue it was only a few select times—before he decides to change.
Vince set himself up as the arbiter of whether or not complaints against him were valid. And Vince, as you might imagine, has an enormous reason to declare these things are invalid—his self-image and reputation. Even more than that, Vince won’t be held accountable if he declares all complaints against him as invalid—his opinion will be accepted as reality, and anyone who persists will be punished mercilessly.
Marisa faces an enormous threat no matter which way she goes in this game—either she gives in and allows him to control reality, trying to get him to see that he was wrong when he has no inclination to, or she withdraws and preserves her sanity and self-control. The former holds the promise that he might agree with her: the latter means that, while she comes out whole, Maris loses a friend and will be tarred forever after by anyone who knows Vince as “unreasonable,” “irrational,” “too quick to judge,” and “holding a grudge.” And even though Marisa will keep herself safe, she will be judged harshly for the social taboo of rejection—on the grounds that relationships and friendships must be kept at all costs, even unbearable ones to self and soul.
The only way Marisa could have avoided this confrontation, and all the potential dangers—of stress, invalidation, losing a friend (as well as mutual ones), social tarring—was by never speaking up in the first place.
And Vince’s behavior is designed to play off of this. His entitlement is constructed by the social atmosphere of exactly this scenariO, of anyone who has a problem with them being afraid to speak up, and anyone who does speak up being shot down. His behavior is subconsciously learned, and reinforces the lessons Marisa’s had to learn good and hard.
Within this society, the power dynamic between Marisa and Vince—regardless of their actual faces and names, since these characters were entirely fabricated—Marisa is positioned as a petitioner to a ruler. She has no right to call for redress of any wrongs done to her, and no right to have her discomfort and safety taken as inherently valid. Vince is her judge, and he determines whether she gets to be taken seriously. And, both actively and passively benefiting from the privilege this position of judge and jury affords him, Vince is unlikely to give her that validation.
Subsets: How Do I Abuse You; Well I Don’t See How You Could Think That; You Don’t Know Me; You Just Want To Feel Persecuted.
What You Should Say So You Don’t Ask Me, “Well, What Do You Want Me To Say (You Unreasonable Bitch)?”: Try, “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. I’ll think about that.” Or even just, “Okay. I’ll think about that.”