The world is not filled with monsters. It's filled with normal, flawed human beings.
Don't be the person who demands to know who has and hasn't suffered.
A few years ago I was at a party and people began to talk about whether it was OK for people in other countries to use words that in the United States we considered sexist slurs if in those other countries the words have different connotations. Specifically, it was about the C word. Everyone agreed that in the United States it is a terrible word that people shouldn’t use, but in Britain and other places it has a different usage. Two friends—one an American woman, one a foreign man—started to really go at it. I was sitting directly between them and kept trying to diffuse the situation since there were a lot of people there and everything was getting a bit personal. At one point my female friend said to my foreign friend that he should tell his friends back home to never say the word and that even if women in that country aren’t offended by it they should be told about why they should be offended by it. And for some reason I said, “it seems a bit weird to tell other people in other countries what they should be offended by.”
She turned to me and said, “have you ever been raped, Ben?”
This was the first time rape had been brought up.
“Have you ever been raped?”
It was so inappropriate that I couldn’t believe it. Again, this was not a private conversation. There were lots of people sitting at this table and even more in the densely packed West Village speakeasy. I was so outraged that time slowed down and my heart began to race, and then after what felt like an eternity but was really only a few seconds, I told her a story about something that had happened to me when I was a teenager that I had never told anyone before.
When I finished the 15 word version of this event that I had put in a little box inside of me for twenty years, she turned to another person, a woman who had taken the other side in the argument, and asked them, “have you?”
“No,” she said, laughing at the absurdity of this line of questioning.
And then the inquisitor, having gotten what she wanted, launched into a speech about how if you haven’t been raped you can’t understand the power of the C word.
The next few minutes were a haze. I was seeing red. I couldn’t believe that I had revealed this deeply intimate thing to this prompting and that even worse my friend couldn’t care less. She didn’t care about my answer because it was the question was not really a question: it was a rhetorical device. In her defense, she didn’t know that I had literally never told anyone that story before. I had never spoken about it out loud. I had never let the memory touch my larynges. But I was angry that she had put me on the spot like that—as if my answer either way had any bearings on the debate—and then put the other woman on the same spot! And took her answer that she hadn’t been raped as some sort of win! It would be totally understandable that when confronted with this situation you might not feel comfortable revealing information like that! The only reason I did was because I was incensed at what she was doing.
The night ended a few hours later with me drunkenly bursting into tears and storming out without explaining why.
I’m personally glad that it happened because if it hadn’t I don’t know that I ever would have talked about my experience, which I’m not going to detail here because it’s none of your business, but which subsequently I did tell my therapist about. And we’ve talked about it a lot and it’s been a healthy development.
This is a very extreme example of what happens on Twitter on every day.
A few days ago I sent some tweets lamenting that as far as I can tell college students and their professors can’t really be friends outside of class anymore because of a moral panic about power dynamics. When I was in college I wasn’t friends with all of my teachers but I was friends with many of them and once I turned 21 I did drink alcohol with some. The fact that I ended the tweet with “and getting drunk lol” seems to have contributed to the absolutely outraged response.
Many people seem to think I was saying we did beer bongs at the frat house, whereas I more meant sitting in a bar and getting a drink. Regardless, the far more upsetting reaction accused me of basically being ok with male professors raping their female students.
Teachers—or bankers or bus drivers or violinists or grocers or anyone—who do things like that should be punished and imprisoned! But they don’t represent the entire profession. There are professors—like there are car mechanics and baseball players and florists etc—who are bad people. But it’s the assumption that most of them are the worst version that makes it a moral panic.
This post is mainly about the meta reaction to these tweets but since we’re on the subject I truly think that students are being ill-prepared for the real world if they cannot think of professors as equals. Relationships are how adults navigate the institutions that make up life. When you’re in college, you’re a new adult. You should learn the skill of building relationships with people at different rungs of the power structure.
Teachers and dog catchers and rock stars and astronauts and everyone are humans first. If you treat someone like a human, most of the time they’ll treet you like one too. If you treat them like an abstraction, they’ll probably do the same. Name the lobster. Name the chef.
A fact about humans is that we are more kind and more supportive and more helpful and more generous in our acts and interpretations to people we like. Maybe you will never need any help in life or you’ll never need the benefit of the doubt and congrats! But for most people there comes a day where you do need help from someone you are forced to interact with. That day will go easier if they have a relationship with you. It’s not always going to work. Some of your teachers will not like you no matter what. Some will not want to be friends with you. A lot of teachers hated me! But I was surprised and thrilled to discover how many were open to thinking of me as a human who could be their friend. And I tended to learn more from them than I did the teachers I didn’t get to know more.
Setting the “this is a good skill to learn” strategic nonsense aside, it’s a very sad view of the world if you think you can’t be friends with someone who is older than you or more successful than you or whatever. I made a lot of wonderful friends in college; many of them were students, some of them were teachers, some of them were random people I met in the neighborhood! I am better for knowing all of them.
Back to Twitter: the reaction to this very anodyne opinion being so unhinged says something about how insane the internet makes us. All of these thousands of people who have spent the last 24 hours screaming at me are not bad people. They are just humans acting crazy in a group on the internet because the internet and groups make humans act crazy. That’s ok. That’s not anyone’s fault. That’s par for the course. But it’s absolutely insulting to act like you know about my life from a few tweets.
At some point people have a responsibility just as readers to acknowledge that they don’t have perfect information about everything when they’re looking at fragments of a life on social media. Every single person has a deep sea of private experiences that other people don’t know about. Intuitively, we know this because we are people and we have deep seas and whenever we have spoken to someone long enough to explore their lives we’ve learned that they have deep seas and if you have a deep sea and I have a deep sea other people probably have deep seas too. Ironically though this really comes up mostly in the wrong direction. Social media makes us think that the stuff we aren’t seeing explicitly stated is the bad stuff. You know that everyone does have secrets but they’re bad secrets. We’re hiding some malevolent intentionality. If you could give me a truth serum, you think, you could get me confessing my bad faith and nefarious intent. But in most cases that’s not true. Indeed, the truth of our private lives is far more threatening to reductive social media narratives about good versus evil. The truth of our private lives is they’re exculpatory! Far from condemning, plunging the depths of someone else’s sea is acquitting. You see that people are not as bad as you think. They’re flawed and haphazard and in a hurry and forgetful and unthinking and busy and misunderstood, and, like everyone else. Sometimes this isn’t true. Sometimes they are monsters. But most of the time they aren’t. And if you err the other way—assuming that all or most are—then you get a very warped view of the world. It leads you to believe things like a person who thinks teachers and students should be able to socialize as equals is actually saying “rapists are ok.”
That night in New York what my friend was doing was cynically playing the probabilities of sexual assault; that it is mostly something that straight men do to others, and not one another. And when confronted with the bad news that the cards hadn’t gone her way, she moved right on. The assumption that someone is necessarily blind to the worst evils of men and mice just because they don’t present on the right side of the systemic power structure is just monumentally insulting and dehumanizing.
You have had a more complicated life than I or anyone else understands. No one knows your life as well as you do. This is true of every person who has ever drawn a breath.
I shouldn’t have to show you an autobiographical detail about my life to pass some “have you suffered enough” test. The world that follows from that demand is one where everyone is clearing their throat all the time. “Ok before I say the relevant thing I’m here to say, here are my traumatic bona fides.”
There is a line in Merchant of Venice: “What, must I hold a candle to my shames?”
No. I don’t have to. And neither do you.