On Taking People’s Word For It (Or, When Not to Argue)

“You’re not really depressed, you just get sad sometimes.”

“You’re not really a lesbian, you’ve just had some bad experiences with men.”

“You’re not really an atheist, you’re just questioning your faith. You’ll find God again.”

Why do people say these things?

Everyone I ask seems to have a story about a friend or family member who just cannot accept what they disclose about themselves and insist that it’s not true–without any evidence.

From a skeptical perspective, that bothers me. Most of the time, when someone makes a statement, it’s possible to (intelligently) dispute it. If someone states a fact–i.e. “It’s 70 degrees outside”–you can dispute it if you have evidence against it–i.e. your thermometer reads 80 degrees. If someone states an opinion that can be supported by facts–i.e. “Mitt Romney would be a good president because he has business experience”–you can counter it with an opposing statement that is also supported by facts–i.e. “Mitt Romney would be a bad president because his ideas about fixing the economy would actually worsen the situation for the middle and lower classes and also because he is a huge lying douchecanoe.” (But I digress.)

However, if someone makes a fact-based claim that they have firsthand knowledge of and you do not–i.e. “I don’t believe in God” or “I am a lesbian”–you cannot argue. Sorry, but you can’t. You have no evidence.

You can, if you want to be an asshole, tell them that they’re going to hell or that you find that appalling or that you hope they change. But you cannot claim it isn’t true.

(Likewise, feelings are not up for debate. If someone says they’re sad, then they’re sad. If they say they feel embarrassed, then they feel embarrassed. “But you don’t really feel that way–” Yep, they do.)

But what if you have a Real Legitimate Concern that it’s “just a phase,” or that they’re misinterpreting things somehow?

First of all, examine where that concern is stemming from. Is it because, in your heart of hearts, you really really don’t want this person to be who they say they are? If so, you should probably keep your Real Legitimate Concerns to yourself, because you may* be a bigot.

If it’s because this person has a history of going through “phases,” it’s more reasonable of you to gently express your concern, but be kind about it. Most people stop going through phases eventually, and this could be it.

However, even if it is a “just a phase,” that doesn’t make it any less legitimate. As people grow and mature–this is a process that lasts a lifetime, by the way, rather than stopping at some arbitrary age–they change. Religious people may become atheists; atheists may become religious. Political identities change. Mental health changes. Even sexual orientation and gender identity can change. That doesn’t mean that a person’s past identities were fake or “lies,” and even if you believe that what they’re telling you now will not always be true, the kind thing to do is to affirm who the person is right now.

And if you’re “disagreeing” with what someone says about themselves because you’re concerned about possible repercussions for the person if they identify that way (such as being bullied for being gay or ostracized by family for being an atheist), remember that the onus is never on victims of prejudice to hide who they are. It’s on the rest of us to learn how to treat them like human beings. If you’re spending your energy on trying to get people to hide who they are when you could be spending it on encouraging people not to be bigots, you’re doin’ it wrong.

Depression presents a special case. When someone discloses to you that they are depressed, it may be extremely tempting to try to persuade them that they’re not “really” depressed because you think that this will help somehow. However, you can’t will an illness out of existence anyway, so you might as well accept what they’re telling you and try to be supportive. For many people (like me), identifying themselves as “depressed” is a relief, because the alternative is to believe that it’s just your personality and that you’re destined for a life of misery. That’s a topic for a whole other post, though.

In general, asking questions is better than making statements when someone’s telling you something personal–it shows that you don’t presume to know more about their experience than they do. However, there are definitely right and wrong ways to go about it. “So how did you realize you were a [insert identity here]?” is worlds better than “But how do you really know you’re [insert identity here]? I mean I had a friend who said they were [insert identity here] but they changed their mind later/were only doing it for attention/were just going through a phase! Are you sure?”

Remember, though, that it’s not the person’s job to provide you with Sufficient Evidence that what they’re saying about themselves is true. Sure, people lie about themselves sometimes. But presuming that someone is lying when they’re actually not is a pretty easy way to ruin a relationship.

If you have someone in your life who insists on disagreeing when you disclose something about yourself, here are some of my favorite ways to respond (warning: snark may not be suitable for everyone):

  • “Interesting. How did you learn to read minds?”
  • “You’re probably right, you know me much better than I know myself. Tell me, am I hungry right now? Should I go eat?”
  • “How do you know that?”
  • “Actually, yes, I really am [insert identity here].”
  • “Citations or GTFO.”

*You may! I said you may! That doesn’t mean you are. It’s a distinct possibility, however.

[In Brief] Do Feminists Care About Men’s Issues? (A handy list!)

Men’s rights activists (MRAs) would have you believe that feminism is sexist against men because feminists don’t care about issues that affect men, such as restrictive gender roles, circumcision, sexual violence against men, the military draft, and custody rights.

That always seemed like a strange argument to me because, as a female feminist, I care about these issues quite a lot, and so do all of my feminist friends of all genders.

But of course, that’s circumstantial evidence. So I decided to make this list of articles about men’s issues written by feminists. Most of these aren’t some sort of niche feminists, either–the articles on this list come from well-known outlets like Feministing, Feministe, RH Reality Check, and Alas, A Blog.

(A note: it took me and two friends about fifteen minutes to make this list over two pages long. That should speak for itself.)

I’ve also compiled it into a Google Doc, which you can access here. I will keep updating it!

Hopefully others will find this useful in countering MRAs who claim that feminists just don’t care about men.

[In Brief] On “Smug” Liberals

Sometimes I see conservatives derisively claiming that liberals/feminists/progressives are just “smug” and self-satisfied, that we hold the opinions that we hold because it gives us some sense of self-righteousness, that we do it in order to feel like we’re better than everyone else.

I find this bizarre. I, for one, was considerably more smug and self-righteous when I was a far-right conservative than I am now as a progressive feminist.

Yes, I think I’m right. No, I’m not a relativist when it comes to human rights and social justice. I’m right, and the belief that certain people should be denied rights is not equivalent to the belief that they should have those rights. No, I’m not going to do what women are supposed to do in our culture; that is, hem and haw and say “well of course all opinions are equally valid” and “I mean it’s just my opinion and I could be wrong” and whatever. Nope, I’m not wrong. Sorry.

But I’m not saying this in order to feel superior to you. I’m saying it because that just happens to be what I believe.

I don’t feel self-righteous about my political views, but I do feel proud, and it has nothing to do with you, hypothetical person who disagrees with me. I feel proud because I care about people. I feel proud because when people read my writing and see the stickers on my laptop and the books on my shelf, they know that I’m someone they can come to. Someone who won’t tell them, “But come on, that’s not really racism” and “Don’t you have more important things to worry about?” and “I’m sorry you got raped and all, but why’d you go out wearing that?” and “You and your boyfriend did what? That’s disgusting.

I feel proud because I still remember the alternative: that festering sinkhole of judgment I lived in, in which I thought of some people as “those people” and meticulously drew lines in the sand to separate myself from those people.

I feel proud because I am absolutely, positively fine with being told that I have “privilege” and that my life has been easier than many other lives for reasons none of us control. I’m not fine with the fact that privilege is a thingI mean, but I don’t get defensive about being called out on it. Not anymore.

I feel proud because I think–I hope–that my friends would feel comfortable letting me know if I’ve said something that marginalizes their race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other identity. I feel especially proud of that knowing that I have not always had friends whom I would feel comfortable telling that.

I feel proud because I don’t think that my personal morals should have anything to do with the law, which means that in my ideal society, people who disagree with me on just about everything would still be free to live as they choose (provided, of course, that they do not impose on the rights of others).

I think those are all things to be proud of. It’s fine if you don’t, but don’t assume that my politics have anything to do with making myself look better than you. That’s something I couldn’t care less about.

Now, as for liberals who actually behave smugly towards conservatives, two points: 1) Rude people exist within every conceivable political orientation, and we can all agree that they are bothersome; and 2) they’re probably not being smug simply because you’re a conservative.

They’re being smug, specifically, because you believe they shouldn’t be able to marry their same-sex partner whom they love, or that they should be forced to carry their rapist’s baby to term, or that their children should learn insufferable nonsense rather than the theory of evolution in school. 

I would say, in those cases, that smugness is quite warranted.

[storytime] An Abridged List of Lies I Was Taught as a Child

  • Money and success will make you happy.
  • Being beautiful is an obligation.
  • Being fat is the worst thing that could happen to you.
  • College will be a magical la-la land where you will finally be happy.
  • Men don’t like strong, opinionated women.
  • Being gay is wrong.
  • Never ask a guy out.
  • Never have sex with someone you’re not dating seriously.
  • Casual sex will make you depressed, and a slut.
  • Intelligent people are better than nonintelligent people.
  • Your parents know best.
  • Family comes before friends.
  • You should be willing to sacrifice anything for your family.
  • Fitting in is important.
  • If you’re upset, you’re probably being too sensitive.
  • Your friends should come from your cultural/ethnic/religious group.
  • If a guy likes you, he will let you know. And if he doesn’t, he’s a wimp anyway.
  • Your career should be as high-powered as possible.
  • Your husband should make as much or more money than you.
  • It’s okay to let men do things for you rather than learning how to do them yourself.
  • Never, ever trust another woman. She will stab you in the back at the first opportunity.
  • If someone doesn’t like you, you should probably ask yourself what you’re doing wrong.
  • If your boyfriend is unhappy, you should try to make him happy.
  • Politics doesn’t matter anyway.
  • Everyone can tell how many men a woman has slept with just by looking at her.
  • Your clothing should always “flatter” your figure.
  • Sex can only be one of two things: Dangerous, or Special and to be saved for The Right Person.
  • Getting ahead is more important than sticking to your principles.
  • You can always just choose to be happy.

I learned these things as a child and a teenager. Now I’m an adult and I finally get to reeducate myself. A decolonization of the mind, so to speak.

Most of these lessons have been proven false by experience and common sense.

What lies were you taught as a child?

[Guest Post] The Evolution of ‘El Tigre': A Feminist Discovers the ‘Beauty’ Aisle at Walgreens

Here’s a guest post from my friend Emily.

I have stretchmarks, acne scars, oddly shaped eyebrows, a decades-long nail biting habit, rough spots on my feet, and hair that is generally nice, but tends to be boring.

So, given that I’m not a girl who spends a quarter of her paycheck on creams, gels, goos, brushes, tweezers, and other body products, I had just lived with my imperfections—accompanied by a self-hatred and guilt worthy of any Jew joke you can make out of it.

So steeped in the hot water of my own shame was I that I didn’t even want to go to the gym for fear of wearing tight clothes (in public!) that showcase my lumps, bumps, and the outline of my underwear. So, the pounds slowly marched further on, till I was 50 pounds overweight, which really shows on a 5’4 frame.

Then I put my big girl panties on and got over it.

I realized that the only way to look the way I wanted to look (so maybe I’m a little vain), feel the way I want to feel, and be as healthy as I want to be was to GO TO THE GYM. I also realized that I had to do it for myself and no one else.

That decided, I bought some gym clothes, signed myself up for a spot in the torture chamber (gym), and hauled my needs-its-own-zipcode ass up on a treadmill. I’m not even halfway to my goal, but I’ve lost more than ten pounds, which is better than nothing.

And I felt SO much better about myself. I can like… run and stuff. If I clench my stomach, I can feel abs. They are hiding, snuggled deep down under the remnants of Papa Johns and chocolate, but they’re there. I know I’ll find them one day.

Then I looked at the rest of the things on my laundry list of self-pity, shame, and loathing and realized I could fix them too. I got what was probably the third manicure of my life (after my bat mitzvah manicure, and one before a family vacation years ago), which helped me stop biting my nails. I’ve gone over a month without biting them, and I have long claws now (so watch yourself).

I actually marched myself to a salon wherein I allowed someone to pour hot wax on my face and slowly rip out my eyebrows, And even though I won’t doing that EVER AGAIN, I now know what eyebrow shape best suits my face and keeps me from looking like an angry troll doll. (And I found some tweezers).

And speaking of trolls: I got a little hair cut, I stopped washing my hair so often, and I bought some leave-in conditioner which has smoothed the frays and brought out a shine I didn’t know was possible without flashbulbs going off.

As for the stretchmarks, I once again donned my big girl panties and waltzed back into the beauty aisle I had spurned and misunderstood before. BioOil is now my personal savior, as it has turned my stretchmarks—formerly livid red lines—into meek little white squiggles that know better than to show up again.

And all of this isn’t to say that I’m some beauty queen who will get a boob job, rhinoplasty, and a pedicure. No. No one will ever touch my feet (it feels weird and I’m very ticklish). My eyebrows will still attempt to belie my Russian ancestry. I still have a few many more hours to clock at the gym.

But I feel a lot better about myself.

I had always shunned the beauty aisle from the get-go because of its ridiculous name. Oh, I can go to the soup aisle and pick up some soup; I can go to the bread aisle and pick up a loaf of wheat; I can go to the beauty aisle and buy beauty? Hell no. But after a little growing up and some experimentation, I realized that it’s not vain, or stupid, or shallow, or anti-feminist to want to look nice or feel good about yourself as long as you’re doing it to make yourself happier. I’m still not an object to be ogled. I’m not doing this to satisfy what my gender studies classes have told me is the “male gaze.”

My bright red nail polish makes me feel more confident and powerful, like I can go sit in a boardroom and tap my claws against the table as I intimidate a bunch of people—or something.

My new nickname for myself: El Tigre.

Emily Davidson is a loudmouth from the State of Tennessee who enjoys talking about politics and correcting other people’s grammar. A Senior majoring in American Studies at Northwestern University, she has many accomplishments that she would love to brag about. She loves reading, books, literature, and belles-lettres as well as science, history, and the color purple. She writes about feminism, religion, and politics.