On Coercion and a Different Social Ethic

One of my favorite bloggers once wrote a post about the idea of “consent culture” as an alternative to rape culture. After describing various ways to help create a culture of consent surrounding sex, she brilliantly expands the idea to social interactions in general:

I think part of the reason we have trouble drawing the line “it’s not okay to force someone into sexual activity” is that in many ways, forcing people to do things is part of our culture in general.  Cut that shit out of your life.  If someone doesn’t want to go to a party, try a new food, get up and dance, make small talk at the lunchtable–that’s their right.  Stop the “aww c’mon” and “just this once” and the games where you playfully force someone to play along.  Accept that no means no–all the time.

This hit home with me in a very personal way. As a shy, withdrawn child who preferred to do things her own way (who, by the way, grew into a friendly, outgoing adult who still prefers to do things her own way), I experienced this from parents, friends, and total strangers on a constant basis.

Is it as bad as sexual coercion? Of course not. But social coercion can leave its own scars–of feeling inadequate, dependent, and not in control of one’s own circumstances.

Social coercion is something I try very hard to both avoid having done to me and to avoid doing to others. It fails the test that I try to live by as much as possible, which I call the Asshole Test. The Asshole Test is simple–would another person who happens to witness what you’re doing right now think you’re an asshole? If so, you’re more likely than not behaving like one. (Probably with exceptions.)

Would you want to be that person who’s always trying to strong-arm people into doing things “for their own good?” I wouldn’t.

I’ve heard plenty of arguments against this view of social coercion. Here are a few:

1. It’s for their own good. This is the most common justification I’ve ever heard people give for trying to wheedle others into doing things. “But he always orders the same dish! Shouldn’t he try something new?” “But that guy keeps looking at her and she’s too shy to go over and talk to him!” “But they never go out! They need to go to the party and have fun!”

Here’s the thing. Assuming the object of your coercion is old enough to think for themselves (I’ll get to the subject of young children later), only they know what’s best for them. You don’t. Maybe they’re working up the courage to do what you’re trying to get them to do and just need more time, or maybe they don’t want to do it at all. Regardless, it’s not for you to decide. Once someone says no, accept that that’s their answer.

2. But they’ll be glad they did it! First of all, nobody knows that from the get-go. I’ve been manipulated into doing things I ended up enjoying, and I’ve been manipulated into doing things I’ve regretted for years and years. Some of the people who pushed me to do the latter things have been some of the people I’m closest to, and even they turned out to be wrong.

Second, even if they’re glad they did it–even if they’re thanking you–that doesn’t make it right. If it did, then we’d be getting into a Machiavellian sort of friendship ethic in which the ends satisfy the means. I just can’t get on board with that.

But more importantly, it’s the precedent that’s set that matters. You’re not really doing your friend any favors, even if they end up loving whatever it is you made them do, because you’re not teaching them to do it for themselves. You’re teaching them to do it to please you, to keep your friendship, to avoid looking bad in front of you and your friends, or just simply to get you to shut up.

You’re teaching them that, ultimately, their choices have to be moderated by the people they interact with. You’re teaching them to rely on you for direction rather than on themselves. You’re teaching them a lot of negative things that you shouldn’t really want to teach your friends.

3. So what, parents can’t force their kids to eat their vegetables? This is a stupid argument. But yes, I’ve heard people use it, including some of the people who’ve responded to my post about this on Tumblr. I’ve also heard teenagers try to justify their acts of rebellion this way.

Our society–and probably most societies around the world–have already established the precedent that, sometimes, parent-child relationships can have a different dynamic from other sorts of relationships. A parent can (within reason) take away a child’s computer as a punishment. But they cannot do so to their spouse. A parent can prohibit a child from eating certain foods, but they can’t do so to a friend. And that’s not only because they’d never be able to enforce it–that’s because it would be abusive to try to control the life of another adult in such a way.

There are definitely situations, though, when things that many people think are acceptable to force children to do are simply not. Another of my favorite bloggers, Yashar Ali, handles this point beautifully in his piece “Now…Give Your Uncle a Kiss.” Yashar, Holly (the author of the “Consent Culture” piece), and I all agree that coercing children into showing physical affection for other people is wrong.

But where do you draw the line?

When I have children someday, I think I know where I’ll personally draw it. I think it’s acceptable to coerce children into doing things that are unequivocally necessary for their health and safety, such as eating vegetables or avoiding talking to strangers. I think that, within reason, it’s acceptable to coerce children into doing things that are necessary for them to have a happy, successful life, such as doing their homework and using manners.

Beyond that, though, things get hazy, and every parent must set their own boundaries.

An easy way to tell whether you’re coercing a child for the right reasons or not is to examine your own motives. If you demand a child to eat her vegetables, it’s not because you’re going to be personally offended if she doesn’t; it’s because she needs them to be healthy. If you demand a child to mingle with your guests, it’s probably because you don’t want to be embarrassed by his shyness, or because you want your guests to be impressed by how smart he is, or because your personal ideal for people is that they be outgoing. It’s not for his health, safety, or happiness.

If you are coercing a child into doing something, though, they should always know why. And no, it’s not “because I said so.” Kids are naturally curious and one should take these opportunities to teach them things. For instance, tell them what kinds of vitamins and minerals can be found in healthy food, and what these nutrients do for the body. Kids should know that even though their parents can make them do things sometimes, they’re doing these things for themselves and not for their parents.

4. But persuasion isn’t coercion. Good job, you understand the English language. But seriously, I know it’s not. It’s not rape either, as some people on Tumblr misconstrue the argument.

Persuasion is like coercion’s younger, cheerier sibling. It’s usually harmless, and healthy, secure adults can easily ignore it if they want to. But it’s irresponsible, I think, to keep trying to persuade someone to do something while placing the burden of deflecting those requests onto them. Some people have a lot of difficulty saying no. They want to make you happy, they want to keep your friendship. I talked about this a bit before.

It’s very, very hard to tell when persuasion turns into coercion. That’s why I personally avoid trying to persuade people to do things, period. You could say that if they genuinely agree with you, then they’ve been persuaded, but if they go along for other reasons, they’ve been coerced. I don’t really know. Unless you know someone extremely well, you can’t tell what’s going on in their mind, and sometimes you get it wrong even if you do know them extremely well. That’s why I try to play it safe.

And, finally, the most odious and dangerous excuse of them all: 5. But sometimes they want to be coerced. This is a bad excuse when it comes to sex, and it’s a bad excuse when it comes to social interactions.

This is where clear communication is essential. Some people really do want to be convinced to do things. Other people don’t. If you have a friend who always turns down your requests initially but then relents, why don’t you ask them why? Say, “So I’ve noticed that when I ask you if you want to do x/y/z, you always say no at first but then you change your mind. Is it because you feel pressured by me, or because you just needed some convincing?”

And then let them speak for themselves.

What I’m proposing is a different sort of social ethic. In this ethic, we not only respect people’s autonomy by not explicitly forcing them to do things, but we also free them from more subtle types of influence. That doesn’t mean we have to hide our desires and preferences, though. Instead of the “aww c’mon” and “just this once” that Holly writes about above, we say, “I wish you’d come along, but I’ll understand if you’d rather not.” Or “I think you’d like it if you tried it, but it’s totally up to you.” Or “That’s fine, maybe next time. Let me know if you change your mind.”

I think part of the reason why people have so much resistance to this sort of thinking is because we don’t like to take responsibility for things. It’s nice to think that we can just say and do whatever we want to other people and that our words and actions will have no real, lasting, and possibly negative effects on them. It’s nice to think that we’re all fully independent of each other, and that if someone says “yes” to something, it’s for one reason only–that they genuinely, from-the-bottom-of-their-hearts mean “yes.”

But there are ties that bind us to each other. Weak ties for acquaintances, stronger ties for friends, and stronger still for family and romantic partners. Respecting these ties means, among other things, recognizing the fact that you have an effect on this person, that you are not entirely independent of this person.

You don’t have to respect these ties. Unless we’re talking about sex, of course, you won’t be a rapist if you disrespect them. There are no legal consequences, and often there won’t even be any personal consequences, because not everyone recognizes when they’re being manipulated.

But that doesn’t make it right.

You Don’t Need Alcohol

[This is my first column for the Daily Northwestern, NU’s student newspaper. I can’t find the link on their website so I’m not linking to it, but here’s the full piece.]

You don’t need alcohol.

Wait, hear me out. You really don’t need it.

Before I came to college, I obviously expected that there’d be a lot of drinking and partying going on here. What I didn’t know is why. I grew up in a large, loud Russian family, where alcohol flows freely at dinner parties and camping trips, but never takes center stage. My parents seem mosty the same to me whether they’ve had five drinks each or not a single drop, and they seemed to have just as much fun without alcohol or with it.

I was puzzled, then, when I came to college and found that alcohol was often–not always, but often–the main event. As far as I knew, most people readily admit that they don’t like the taste of alcohol, at least not of the sort usually served at college parties. Dealing with the unpleasant consequences of drinking too much is a drag. Meaningful connections aren’t usually made while one is drunk. So why?

The answer both suprised and disappointed me: people think they need it.

I started hearing the same story from almost everyone I asked. “I don’t really feel comfortable with people unless I’ve been drinking.” “I can’t talk to girls without a few drinks.” “I could never hook up with someone if we’re not both drunk.”

One friend even confided to me that he literally can’t have sex if he’s not drunk. “Why not?” I asked. “I’m more of a traditional person,” he said. “I don’t feel comfortable doing that with someone I don’t really know if I’m sober.”

Could it really be that the brilliant, accomplished people I go to school with can’t make friends or hook up without alcohol?

The answer, I think, is no. I think we’ve been deluding ourselves. Sure, it can be fun to get drunk. But should it ever be something we “need” to function socially?

I think I can attest to the fact that it’s not necessary. I used to be painfully shy and incapable of having a conversation with anyone my age. Since coming to college, I’ve truly branched out and made many friends. Yet I’ve never been drunk and can count the number of parties I’ve been to on the fingers of one hand. People, if the girl who used to bring encyclopedias to read at birthday parties can do it, anyone can.

I also don’t think we should be using alcohol to help us ignore our own values. If you’re just not the sort of person who wants to sleep with people you don’t know, that’s totally fine. I’m not either. If you think it’s perfectly okay but feel too insecure to do it without alcohol, that’s something you can work on.

That applies to making friends, too. This school is full of really cool, really interesting people. You’re going to find people who think you’re awesome. It’s just a matter of convincing yourself of that. So practice in front of the mirror, get friends to introduce you, do whatever you have to do. Having the confidence to approach people and connect with them is a wonderful thing, and it’ll be with you always–long after the party’s over and the alcohol’s all gone.

“I really want to screw you, but you have so much baggage.”

A guy actually said that to me once.

He may have been the only person I’ve ever encountered who was willing to verbalize his shallowness and ignorance, but he’s far from the only one who thinks that people need to be perfect before you can get involved with them.

That idea runs rampant in our culture, and it’s not only men who are to blame. Advice columns for women under 30 often exhibit what I call the “Dump His Ass” effect–anytime a woman writing a letter mentions virtually any imperfection in her crush or boyfriend, the advice columnist usually responds with some form of “dump his ass.” Still has feelings for his ex? Dump his ass. He’s insecure? Dump his ass. Doesn’t like your friends? Dump his ass.

(Of course, there are plenty of offenses for which a person of any gender should almost certainly be dumped, such as sexual harassment or assault, emotional manipulation, being a flaming racist/sexist/etc, and so on. I’m talking about much more minor sorts of flaws.)

Common wisdom seems to suggest that before one can get involved with another person in a healthy and stable way, they need to do things like “work on themselves” and “learn to love themselves” and “figure out who they are.” Leaving aside the fact that for most people, working on yourself and figuring out who you are is a lifelong process, there are some people who are never going to “love” or be comfortable with themselves. I am one such person. Do I not deserve to ever have a partner?

Similarly, people are expected to be “happy on their own” before they can be dateable. That’s preposterous. If you’re 100% happy being single, why would you need a serious partner in the first place? Why is it considered unhealthy to really, really want someone to share your life with?

As someone who has had “baggage” virtually since birth, I have never not been aware of the fact that American culture considers people like me undateable. However, the idea that we’re also unfuckable is a pretty new one to me.

Why? Why do people need to be perfect before we’ll have anything to do with them?

It might surprise some people to know that everyone has flaws and psychological baggage; it’s just a matter of getting to know them well enough to figure that out. And yes, other people’s baggage can sometimes cause you trouble. You know what? Tough titties. You have two options: grow up and deal with it, or avoid getting to know anyone.

Incidentally, the guy I quoted in this post’s title eventually overcame his reservations and spent quite some time harassing me for sexual favors. After I refused, he looked at me and said, “You know, I couldn’t ever see you as my girlfriend. I’d need a girl who’s sweet and kind.”

Now who’s the one with the baggage?

My Facial Expression is None of Your Business

[Snark Warning]

I am not a cheerful person. I don’t wear my happiness on my face, and I do not consider it my moral duty to brighten the day for perfect strangers.

I am an introvert despite the fact that I’m usually pretty friendly and sociable when spoken to. Most of the time, I inhabit a world that nobody really knows. When you see me sitting still with a facial expression that is technically neutral but that many would characterize as “glum”, I’m actually anything but. Usually I’m making up music, writing my next blog post, planning out my love life or my career, or analyzing people I know, all silently in my mind.

But most people don’t bother to ask what I’m doing that’s taking up so much of my attention that I haven’t bothered to plaster a smile onto my face for others’ benefit. Instead, they assume.

And so it begins. “What are you looking so miserable about?” “What’s wrong with you?” Or, simply, “Smile!”

Some of these responses are passive-aggressive attempts to chastise me for not doing my womanly duty to keep everyone around me happy at all times. Others are genuine attempts to understand me, or genuine concern that I might be in a bad mood.

What they all have in common, though, is the shared assumption that underlies them–that there is something “wrong” with my facial expression and that this fact is anybody’s business but mine.

It’s not only people that I choose to associate with who claim the right to dictate what should be on my face. What woman hasn’t walked down a city street, perhaps on the way to work or to run errands, and encountered a random man yelling at her to “Smile!” or “Put a smile on that beautiful face!”?

Such remarks, which feminists call “street harassment” and most non-feminists call “a compliment,” represent the most glaring and offensive of non-physical intrusions into a person’s private self. My facial expression is even less the business of a total stranger on the street than it is of a person who does know me.

(Speaking of feminism, my inner feminist compels me to ask: how often are men publicly berated for the arrangement of their facial features? Quite the contrary, moody, brooding men are often considered very sexually appealing in that mysterious way. A moody, brooding woman, on the other hand, is usually called “difficult” euphemistically, or just “a bitch” if we’re really being honest.)

This issue is intimately related to something I wrote about just recently, on the concept of Debbie Downers and how sad or negative people are constantly accused of “bringing people down.” In contrast, this situation is even more absurd because the facial expressions in question usually aren’t even negative; they’re just neutral. They’re just missing that socially mandated smile. But if you read my argument for why people shouldn’t allow themselves to be “brought down” by “Debbie Downers,” you’ll see that it applies just as well for those of us who, for whatever personal reason, choose not to go about grinning like maniacs.

Furthermore, lest anyone attempt to feed me platitudes about how people who concern themselves with my facial expression are just worried about my mental wellbeing, let me ask you this: when you’re concerned about someone, do you ask them privately if everything’s okay, or do you draw attention to them in a group setting and demand to know why their face looks the way it does?

(For the sake of your friends, I hope you choose the former.)

What strikes me as most ironic about all of this is that, for all the constant blather I hear about how the unappealing configuration of my face means I’m “selfish” and “don’t care” that I’m “upsetting” people and whatnot, I’ve chosen a life that’s infinitely more helpful to those around me than many other possibilities. I’m going to be a therapist, which means that, yes, it’ll be my actual job to help people feel happy. If that’s not more important than my transient facial expression, I honestly don’t know what is.

Moral of the story (or tl;dr, for my fellow internet nerds): If you don’t like what my face looks like, don’t fucking look at it.

An example of my neutral facial expression. No, it is not a personal insult to you.

Death to Debbie Downer

Made famous by SNL.

I propose a moratorium on the term “Debbie Downer.”

“But whyyyy?” you might argue. “Those negative people are so annoyinggg!”

Perhaps. But I think we need to stop using that phrase, for several reasons.

The first thing I think of when I hear the phrase “Debbie Downer” in one of the contexts it’s most commonly used (i.e. “Oh, don’t mind him, he’s just a Debbie Downer”; “Why are you being such a Debbie Downer?”; etc.), is that it’s a reflection of our culture’s dismissal of anyone who doesn’t have a smile plastered all over their face at all times.

After all, isn’t that such a dismissive thing to say? When one calls someone a Debbie Downer, they’re implying that this person’s thoughts and opinions aren’t to be taken seriously. It means that rather than taking the time to figure out why someone’s saying all these negative things, they’re just going to write them off with a convenient alliterative term.

Second–and if you read this blog regularly, I’m sure you know where this is going–“Debbie Downer” is often used as a disparaging term that basically means “person with a mental illness.” In that context, it’s not only insulting, but inaccurate. Depression and related disorders don’t simply make people “negative.” They make them hopeless, joyless, and, at times, suicidal. You don’t really know if the frustrating person making pessimistic comments all the time is actually a pessimist, or actually struggling with a debilitating illness. So why assume?

~~~

“But wait!” you might say. “How dare you tell me how to talk? Free speech!”

Absolutely. Unlike certain more Leftist people, I would never argue that one should “ban” words just because they offend people. But look at it this way–if your friend or family member is being negative and you call them a “Debbie Downer,” all you’re doing is shutting them down and making them feel like you don’t really care about how they feel. Is this really what you want them to think? No? Then choose your words more carefully.

As for how I think one should respond to overly negative people, it’s not the way we’re used to doing it. Many people respond by trying to argue with or counteract the negative statements with positive ones, or sarcastically asking “Don’t you have anything nice to say?”, or snapping something like, “Stop complaining.”

(Our culture places a huge stigma on anyone who expresses anything even closely resembling a complaint. What else would explain the proliferation of special purple bracelets given out by various groups that members are required to wear until they have stopped “complaining”? My high school band used them. Rather than feeling free and happy in all this new-found positivity, I felt shut up and silenced, like my opinions–negative or otherwise–don’t matter.)

You’ve by now probably gathered that I think all of this is not only an exercise in futility, but actually quite damaging to relationships. Unsurprisingly, people don’t like to feel belittled and rejected.

Next time, try this simple question: “What makes you say that?”

You may be surprised at the response you receive.

~~~

The last point I wanted to make regarding this phrase is that it reveals something very interesting about our culture. We view others’ negative emotions as some sort of personal insult or attack, and we respond accordingly. Rather than either addressing the person’s issues or ignoring them, we instead allow them to bring us down–hence the term “Debbie Downer.” The response that many a depressive (or simply a sad person) has encountered is, “Why do you have to ruin my mood all the time? Why do you have to bring everyone down all the time?”

My response to that is, why are you letting someone else’s problems ruin your mood?

One might argue that it’s “impossible” to be in a good mood if someone around you is not. This is pure bullshit. In fact, I’m going to propose something radical–what if it’s entirely possible to be in a good mood despite the presence of “Debbie Downers?”

I believe that unless you yourself have a psychological problem that keeps you from being in control of your own emotions, nothing can keep you from being in a good mood if you want to be. So perhaps we should stop blaming our own bad moods on other people and acknowledge that we have control over them instead.

The great irony here is that the people bitching and moaning about “Debbie Downers” are usually those very same people who tell those of us with mental illnesses that we just have to “look on the bright side” and “stop letting the little things bring you down” and all those tropes. Perhaps they should take their own advice.

A sad person isn’t a personal insult to you, nor an insurmountable barrier to your own happiness. Next time you encounter one, try a little compassion instead of sarcastically putting them down with a cliched phrase.