Dr. Crazy has made a contribution to our feminist vade mecum with Lessons for Girls, Number Two: Opting Out. She writes,
If I wish I had learned one lesson earlier in life, it’s this: it’s okay to opt out of toxic situations and conversations. Opting out doesn’t mean that you’re weak, nor does it make you a bad person. Sometimes, the most advantageous position is, in fact, one in which you don’t resist, in which you don’t explain, in which you don’t try to justify your position, in which you don’t bother trying to help others see your point of view. Or, conversely, in which you don’t try to be inclusive, to give antagonists a forum, or to apologize to diffuse a situation.
In other words, pick your battles, and don’t waste time on people or arguments in which your opponents just want to oppose you rather than work towards a consensus or a productive resolution. This is exactly what Carol Berkin said to me a few years ago on the subject of doing women’s history. She said, “I don’t argue any more with people who think women’s history isn’t important or worthwhile. I just talk to the people who want to hear what I have to say, and ignore the rest.” This struck me as a very enlightened perspective–it’s not that she’s uninterested in evangelizing about women’s history. Rather, she’s not going to waste time and energy trying to open minds that are firmly closed. Does the Southern Poverty Law Center engage in debates with white supremacists and neo-Nazis? Does Planned Parenthood send an ambassador to the Vatican? No–what would be the point? (And in the case of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, it would dignify their dangerous crackpottery by suggesting that racism was a legitimate “other side” to antiracism.) Dr. Crazy continues:
And also, just because we are women, and in particular women who are intellectuals with academic credentials, it is not our responsibility to opt in and to engage in toxic situations or conversations. While it is true that we may value the free exchange of ideas, spirited debate, a diversity of opinions, etc., that does not mean that we individually are obligated to engage with all ideas, to enter into all debates, or to entertain all opinions. We are not required to get angry and to respond with anger to any and all comers. Particularly if there is no positive way to channel our anger toward a concrete outcome.
In these cases, serving up a slice of old Bartleby, and “prefer[ring] not to” is what’s called for. Moving along, Lesson for Girls, Number Three: On Pity wasn’t designated as such by Professor Zero, because she wrote it before my Lesson Number One on Anger and I only read her post later that day. However I think it’s a very worthwhile addition to our lessons, so I hope she won’t mind my annexation of “On Pity.” She writes,
I have found that pity is the first step in the creation of any abusive relationship. As a child, the children we were supposed to play with out of pity were the abusive ones. Because we had been so exhorted to pity these children, we then felt guilty and conflicted about noticing that they were abusive. And so it has always gone.
2.Pity is the first false step. The next ideologeme, also one I was taught early on, was “but they like you.” “I do not want to play with that person, they are mean.” “But they like you, and you should appreciate that. They are probably only mean because they like you and they do not know how to express it in another way. Be kind.”
3. I have heard this at work a great deal, too. “You are stronger, more competent and better published than he is, and he has had a terrible time in life, so put up with it and help him out. It is part of your job to put up with it and help him out.”
I have seen this recently among the preschool set–and it’s only girls who are instructed that other people’s bad behavior is their problem to fix. When these girls grow up and go to therapy, they’ll learn that other people’s behavior is their own responsibility, and that they have no power to change other people’s behavior. Why not tell them that when they’re 3, 4, and 5–why teach them something that years of expensive therapy will have to undo? Professor Zero continues, “when I was a child it was manifestly clear that one’s purpose in life was to allow pitiable people to be mean and perhaps manage their meanness to some degree, by helping to tame their demons or even slaying some of them.” As if!
Like Professor Zero, I’ve seen pity mobilized to excuse bad behavior in adulthood, too. “You’re younger, prettier, and thinner than she is–she’s very threatened by you.” “She doesn’t have your social skills–she’s very threatened by you.” “You don’t understand how intimidating you are to people–invite them out to lunch, get to know them a little bit.” One by one, I was informed that all of the things that I thought had won me my first tenure-track job–being articulate, confident, and having a clear intellectual and teaching agenda–were presented as reasons my colleagues didn’t like me or were “threatened” by me. How many young men assistant professors are instructed to be less competent, less confident, and not to tell anyone about their publications or grants won–in short, to deny or hide the qualities for they were hired to function in a professional capacity? I suppose it happens sometimes, but I’m not the only woman who was essentially instructed not to do my job so well because of other people’s feelings. No one suggested that if my colleagues had all of these “feelings” that it was their responsibility to get to therapy and work them out. No–it was the responsibility of the youngest, newest professor in the department not to provoke unsettling “feelings” in her senior colleagues.
So class, to review our “Lessons for Girls:”
What’s next, class? What lessons do you wish you had learned earlier in life? (By the way, check out the new page in the top left corner of the homepage, “Lessons for Girls,” where I’ll keep a list of all of the contributions.)