In 1989, Marc Lépine murdered fourteen women in Montreal for being women and being engineering students. He proceeded to kill himself, having written in his suicide note:
"Would you note that if I commit suicide today 89-12-06 it is not for economic reasons (for I have waited until I exhausted all my financial means, even refusing jobs) but for political reasons. Because I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker.... Being rather backward-looking by nature (except for science), the feminists have always enraged me. They want to keep the advantages of women (e.g. cheaper insurance, extended maternity leave preceded by a preventative leave, etc.) while seizing for themselves those of men." (quoted by Wikipedia)
More recently, in 2014, Elliot Rodger murdered six people near the UC Santa Barbara campus. Rodger also killed himself, citing his feelings of social rejection by women as the reason for his crime:
"I'm 22 years old and I'm still a virgin. I've never even kissed a girl. I've been through college for two and a half years, more than that actually, and I'm still a virgin. It has been very torturous. College is the time when everyone experiences those things such as sex and fun and pleasure. Within those years, I've had to rot in loneliness. It's not fair. You girls have never been attracted to me. I don't know why you girls aren't attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it. It's an injustice, a crime.... I don't know what you don't see in me. I'm the perfect guy and yet you throw yourselves at these obnoxious men instead of me, the supreme gentleman.... How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me?" -- (Rodger's manifesto, quoted by Wikipedia)
Did Lépine and Rodger have some good points? Did they have valid grievances regardless of the regrettable way in which they both chose to express those grievances (mass murder)? I hope you won't have to think too hard before saying "no". Neither Lépine's sense of entitlement to social privileges, nor Rodger's sense of entitlement to sex and racial status, are reasonable.
In Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, Lundy Bancroft (a counselor who co-founded the first program for abusive men in the US and has worked with abusive men for many years) shows that domestic abusers don't abuse because of their feelings, because they're out-of-control or angry, or because they are mentally ill or influenced by substances. They abuse because of their thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes, which create a coherent justification for abuse -- largely through beliefs that they are entitled to something from a woman, and are morally justified in punishing her if she doesn't provide it.
"...an abuser's core problem is that he has a distorted sense of right and wrong." (Bancroft, p. 35)
Likewise, Lépine believed that he had a right to a job and that women were oppressing him by being better job candidates than him. Rodger believed that he had a right to sex and that women were oppressing him by not sleeping with him. By killing women, they hoped to send a message to all women that interfering with men's wishes was dangerous. They killed in cold blood, uninfluenced by mental illness or uncontrollable rage. Both crimes were premeditated; both killers had moral theories that justified their actions. We know about those moral theories because both men wrote about them. The positions that men have a right to jobs and women do not, and that men have a right to sex and women have a moral obligation to provide it to men who want it, are political opinions. I hope it's obvious to you that these political opinions are wrong.
Last week, a manifesto written by a Google engineer surfaced; the manifesto resembles those of Rodger's and Lépine's, and you can [CW: explicit sexism, racism, and various other *isms, as well as gaslighting and manipulation] read it for yourself. The manifesto tells a subset of people who work at Google, "Your presence here is illegitimate and you don't belong." I know that's the message because I'm one of those people: I'm a trans man and thus, according to the document, am biologically worse at engineering than cis men like its author (although it's not exactly clear whether the author thinks that cis women's uteruses make them worse at coding -- in which case my skills would come into question -- or whether their hormones do -- in which case I'd be in the clear, phew!)
The manifesto expresses thoughts, beliefs and attitudes that are common to its author, Lépine, Rodger, and the domestic abusers Bancroft describes. It is written from a place of entitlement: like Lépine and Rodger but unlike some of the domestic abusers, the entitlement is not to just one specific woman's attention and service, but rather, to special privileges as white men and to submission and deference from all women, and all people of color, and everybody else occupying a lower position in the social hierarchy. Like Lépine, he's concerned that they're taking our jobs.
In response, Google's VP of Diversity, Integrity, and Governance -- in an email to all Google employees with the subject line "Affirming our commitment to diversity and inclusion—and healthy debate" -- said, "Part of building an open, inclusive environment means fostering a culture in which those with alternative views, including different political views, feel safe sharing their opinions. But that discourse needs to work alongside the principles of equal employment found in our Code of Conduct, policies, and anti-discrimination laws." Other executives expressed disagreement with the message in the manifesto while agreeing that the author had a good point about the "psychologically unsafe environment" for people with political beliefs like his. Some managers reiterated that it was important to be able to share different points of view at Google. In other words: he was wrong to say these things, but you can't help but sympathize with the poor guy -- he felt persecuted for his political views.
When you say that the manifesto writer had a point, you are saying that Rodger and Lépine had a point.
"...the abuser's problem lies above all in his belief that controlling or abusing his female partner is justifiable." (Bancroft, p. 35)In the rest of this essay, I'm addressing you if you think the views in the manifesto are wrong but that the author has some valid points, or that the manifesto is a valuable contribution to healthy debate. I want to show you that these views need to be shut down, not debated with or sympathized with. I am not addressing people who substantially agree with the content of the manifesto. If that's you, then you might as well stop reading right here.
Lépine, Rodger, and the Googler share the belief that white men are being wronged because they no longer have total control over women. We do not need to tolerate or debate this ideology. It's abuse, and no more justifiable when not accompanied by physical violence than when it is. Abuse is not "sharing an opinion". Being an abuser is not an identity; abusing is something you do, not something you are. Abuse is not "questioning assumptions" or "challenging conversations". Abuse is not justifiable, and should not be tolerated, accommodated, or empathized with.
With that in mind, I see several flaws in the executives' responses:
- "Political beliefs" is not an important axis of diversity. There is no ethical or financial value in including people with different political beliefs the same way we strive to correct historical and ongoing patterns of gender-based and race-based discrimination. Gender and race are valuable diversity metrics because if we exclude people of one gender, or one race, we're failing to hire talented people who can make good contributions. But there's no reason to expect that -- as is true with gender and race -- talent and skill are evenly distributed among people with different political opinions. For example, people who understand science are unlikely to hold the political view that climate change is a hoax, so an employer hiring for jobs that require science knowledge would not be well-served by striving for political diversity. I'm not arguing this point further in this essay (I already wrote about it.)
- Googlers often talk about unconscious bias and how we need to get better at recognizing that we have it in order to make better decisions. That's not wrong! But somehow, it seems to go along with tolerance for conscious bias. Conscious biases get called "political views" and we're expected to respect other people's political views regardless of how abusive those views are. It doesn't make sense to me to treat the same bias as less detrimental to the business when it's conscious rather than unconscious.
- Even if you disagree with (1), it's troubling to constitute abuse as a "political view" that must be included. "I have the right to use other people to satisfy my own needs" is a view that is incompatible with justice, the principle that says every person's life matters just as much as everybody else's. Some ways of expressing your political views hurt other people. Because Elliot Rodger and Marc Lépine were anti-feminist, they chose to pick up guns and murder people with them. Their chosen means of political expression was to take away other people's right to life. The Googler's chosen means of political expression took away the right that people in URMs (underrepresented minority groups) have to a safe workplace.
We do not need to empathize with the author, and his feelings are not an excuse for his abusive behavior. We do not need to make excuses for abuse. There are no feelings of discomfort that justify deploying verbal abuse tactics -- ones that are familiar to people who have survived domestic violence -- against others.
Abusers believe they have the right to abuse, and so they interpret any empathy or sympathy as approval. When we say things like, "Well, he must feel awfully hurt because people demean his beliefs", what they hear is, "Yes, you do have the right to do this; you are justified." As a result, they commit more abuse. To empathize or sympathize with abusers is not an act of compassion; true compassion for abusers means helping them stop being abusers, which begins with refusing to tolerate their behavior. Empathy or sympathy should be reserved for their victims. Empathizing with abusers harms everybody. As Bancroft writes (p. 361), "You can't simultaneously contribute to a problem and solve it."
"Although an abuser prefers to have you wholeheartedly on his side, he will settle contentedly for your decision to take a middle stance. To him, that means you see the couple's problems as partly her fault and partly his fault, which means it isn't abuse." (Bancroft, p. 287)
What makes the Googler's speech dangerous (as opposed to just distasteful) is that he's in a class of people that is accorded social power to use other people to satisfy their wishes: white men. So he's not just expressing an opinion. He's doing something. He's committing a speech act that has the functions of either controlling and intimidating us, or marking territory as unsafe so we leave. It’s disingenuous to say “it’s fine if people say that as long as they don’t act on it”, because saying it is acting on it. Making our workplace unsafe puts us in an impossible position: we can stay in an unsafe environment, or try to find a new job at a company that's less hostile to people in marginalized groups (unlikely unless we abandon technology entirely). Depriving us of a safe workplace is a violation of our human rights. It's deeply deceptive to say that someone's right to express their political views outweighs our right to make a living as if that's a foregone conclusion. It's hard to imagine believing this is true -- unless, like the manifesto writer and like Marc Lépine, one takes it as a given that men are entitled to jobs without competition from women.
Neutrality is a myth; being "neutral" in this conflict means siding with the abuser. As Bancroft writes,
"In reality, to remain neutral is to collude with the abusive man, whether or not that is your goal. If you are aware of chronic or severe mistreatment and do not speak out against it, your silence communicates implicitly that you see nothing unacceptable taking place. Abusers interpret silence as approval, or at least forgiveness." (p. 287)
Domestic Violence at ScaleWhen I read Why Does He Do That?, I was struck by the number of similarities between the abusive behaviors Bancroft describes and the ways that white men argue against diversity and in favor of excluding women, people of color, and people in other URMs from professional and social spaces. If you skip reading the rest of this post and just read Bancroft's book instead, I'll consider it a success. I am not the first person to compare tech work environments to domestic violence; my thinking about it draws on Julie Pagano's 2013 article "I think I’m in an emotionally abusive relationship…with the tech community".
What the manifesto-writer and domestic abusers have in common is feelings of entitlement. Of course, the way they act on those feelings is different. But the effect is the same: to intimidate and control women, whether an individual wife or girlfriend or all of this person's female co-workers. In both cases, making excuses for the abuser fails to identify and dispute the abuser's sense of entitlement.
The Googler's manifesto is characterized by derailing, dismissiveness, and gaslighting, none of which are original. These conversational tactics come up so often that the Geek Feminism Wiki has an entire set of articles cataloging and naming them. For short, I'm going to refer to a particular kind of abusive speech as "gaslighting".
"It's true that almost everyone does yell at one point or another in a relationship and most people, male or female, call their partners a name from time to time, interrupt, or act selfish or insensitive. These behaviors are hurtful and worthy of criticism, but they aren't all abuse, and they don't all of the same psychological effects that abuse does. At the same time, all of these behaviors are abusive when they are part of a pattern of abuse. Being yelled at by a respectful partner feels bad, but it doesn't cause the same chilled, ugly atmosphere that an abuser's yells do.
The term abuse is about power; it means that a person is taking advantage of a power imbalance to exploit or control someone else." (Bancroft, p. 123)
Like Bancroft, when I talk about verbal abuse, I'm not talking about being mean or rude, or occasionally swearing at somebody or name-calling. We're all mean or rude sometimes, but we are not all abusers. In the context of an interpersonal relationship, verbal abuse is an attempt by one partner to control, intimidate and dominate the other using words. On a broader scale, it's an attempt by one person to control, intimidate and dominate entire groups of people. The latter form of abuse isn't as effective, because typically the abuser doesn't have control over a large group of people in the way that a domestic abuser often has control over his partner. However, it's larger-scale and hence affects more people, and that matters too. Power means that unlike as with swearing or name-calling, there is no way for the victim to do it back to you. When a man calls a woman biologically unsuited to being an engineer, that harnesses a very specific body of prejudices against women which simply has no counterpart that can be used to attack men. There is no way a woman can make a man feel the way this makes a woman feel.
Here are some specific parallels between domestic violence and gaslighting:
- Verbal abuse is fundamental: People often trivialize verbal abuse and assume it's less bad than physical abuse. Bancroft shows that abusers use verbal violence to control and intimidate women, resorting to physical violence only when words aren't enough:
"...Even among women who have experienced violence from a partner, half or more report that the man's emotional abuse is what is causing them the greatest harm.
The differences between the verbally abusive man and the physical batterer are not as great as many people believe. The behavior of either style of abuser grows from the same roots and is driven by the same thinking." (p. 8)
"...The best behavioral predictor of which men will become violent to their partners is their level of verbal abuse." (p. 162)If you think that's just his opinion, then read the book, which backs up this claim in detail. Abuse victims experience verbal abuse as just as psychologically damaging -- or more so -- than physical violence.
- Entitlement is central: Domestic abusers (Bancroft writes) feel entitled to physical, emotional, and sexual care-taking; deference; and freedom from accountability from their partners. The manifesto doesn't make logical sense except from the point of view of somebody who feels entitled to deference from all women, as well as freedom from accountability for their abusive comments and actions (any accountability gets held up as persecution of conservatives).
"Entitlement is the abuser's belief that he has a special status and that it provides him with exclusive rights and privileges that do not apply to his partner. The attitudes that drive abuse can largely be summarized by this one word.... The abusive man's high entitlement leads him to have unfair and unreasonable expectations, so that the relationship revolves around his demands." (Bancroft, p. 54-59)If women talk back, the author is being shamed, which is unacceptable to him because he feels entitled not to feel shame. The workplace belongs to him and people he sees as peers, and women and people of color don't belong. Fundamentally, he feels entitled to not have to compete with women or people of color for a job; he feels entitled to be judged by a lower standard, one that judges him relative to other white men as opposed to everybody. He also feels entitled to spaces that are uncontaminated by the presence of people who aren't white and male (white men's self-esteem is often dependent on having a job that is only or primarily performed by white men).
"At least until quite recently, a boy has tended to learn from the most tender age that when he reaches young adulthood he will have a wife or girlfriend who will do everything for him and make him a happy man. His partner will belong to him. Her top responsibility will be to provide love and nurturing, while his key contribution will be to fill the role of 'the brains of the operation,' using his wisdom and strength to guide the family." (Bancroft, p. 325)Compare this conception of women's responsibilities with the manifesto's claim that women are good at emotions while men are good at logic. The author would like you to think it's based in science, when in fact it's nothing but the received wisdom that he grew up with.
"Let's return now to our growing boy. From a combination of different cultural influences, he develops an image of his future, which he carries within him. He pictures a woman who is beautiful, alluring, and focused entirely on meeting his needs -- one who has no needs of her own that might require sacrifice or effort on his part. She will belong to him and cater to him, and he will be free to disrespect her when he sees fit. In his mind this picture may illustrate the word partner, but a more accurate word for the image he is developing might be servant.
When this boy gets involved in actual -- as opposed to imagined -- dating, especially as he reaches an age where his relationships become more serious, his childhood fantasy life collides with the real-life young woman he is seeing. She defies him on occasion. She has other people in her life who are important to her rather than making him her exclusive focus. She demands from time to time that he take an interest in her as a person. She doesn't always accept his opinions as accurate and superior to hers. She may even attempt at some point to break up with him, as if she were not his personal possession. The boy doesn't believe that he is demanding anything unreasonable; he seeks only what he considers his due.... He becomes increasingly frustrated, erratic, and coercive as he tries to regain control over his partner.... he feels that his rights are the ones being denied.... The abusive man feels cheated, ripped off, and wronged, because his sense of entitlement is so badly distorting his perceptions of right and wrong." (Bancroft, p. 329-330)
White boys (not only white boys, but especially) are taught not just that they're entitled to a perfect female partner/servant in the way Bancroft describes, but also that they're entitled to high status because of their maleness and whiteness; that being white and male are precious gifts that no one can ever take away from them. Whenever somebody fails to provide the special treatment that they expect, they feel that their masculinity and whiteness are in danger.
Male entitlement is domestic violence at scale (cf. Emily Gorcenski's comment, "Harassment at-scale is actually still just harassment.")
Men like this believe they're entitled to be listened to:
"Why does Wendell think that Aysha is the one who has been doing all the yelling and complaining? Because in his mind she's supposed to be listening, not talking. If she expresses herself at all, that's too much." (Bancroft, p. 62)
"Freedom from accountability means that the abusive man considers himself above criticism. If his partner attempts to raise her grievances, she is 'nagging' or 'provoking' him. He believes he should be permitted to ignore the damage his behavior is causing, and he may become retaliatory if anyone tries to get him to look at it.... Complaints against him, including drawing any attention to how his behavior had hurt other people in the family, he was quick to stifle." (Bancroft, p. 58-59)Compare these quotes with the manifesto writer's argument that any criticism of his opinions is unfair political persecution; like domestic abusers, he considers himself above criticism (at least from the people he sees as his inferiors). Just as the domestic abuser does, they become frustrated and coercive when their expectations aren't satisfied.
An example of the manifesto writer's entitlement is his demand for women-centered programs and groups to be eliminated: he characterizes "Programs, mentoring, and classes only for people with a certain gender or race" as "discriminatory." This is about both entitlement and control: he feels entitled to be everywhere (including spaces that are meant to be extra help for people who face struggles that do not hamper his own progress) and to know what everybody is saying (God forbid women talk about men when those men aren't listening.)
All of these beliefs are rooted in an abuser's core values:
"Jesse perceives Bea to be yelling because one of his core values is that she's not supposed to get angry at him, no matter what he does. He thinks she doesn't care about him because in his mind she can't care about him unless she cares only about him, and not at all about herself or other people.... He thinks she dwells on her grievances because she sometimes attempts to hold him accountable rather than letting him stick her with cleaning up his messes -- literally and figuratively." (Bancroft, p. 142)
- Control and isolation are tactics: Just as an abusive man tries to isolate his partner from friends and family, discourse like the Googler's manifesto has the goal of isolating women from potential job opportunities and from the ability to be fully present at work. It's hard to get anything done when you have to be hypervigilant about which of your male co-workers think you shouldn't have been hired because biotruth.
"An abusive man who isolates his partner does so primarily for two reasons:
1. He wants her life to be focused entirely on his needs. He feels that other social contacts will allow her less time for him, and he doesn't accept that she has that right.
2. He doesn't want her to develop sources of strength that could contribute to her independence." (Bancroft, p. 74)
The upshot is that the abuser achieves his goal: intimidating women out of independence and sources of support and strength, because he feels that they should know their place (which is what all of the biological essentialism is fundamentally about: misusing fake science to say that this is what women should be doing for me.)
- Victim-blaming enables abuse: "She must have done something to deserve it" is a common response to domestic violence situations, even now. Sure, he hit her, but she was talking back. Etc. There is a parallel here with the "both sides"-ism of the Google executives' responses -- to paraphrase some of them, "Well, sure, he shouldn't have written those things, but after all, people were awfully mean to him about his political views. He has legitimate frustrations, even if he shouldn't have expressed them this way. You can sort of see where he's coming from." This is no different from blaming a woman for being abused.
"Abusers externalize responsibility for their actions, believing that their partners make them behave in abusive ways." (Bancroft, p. 70)
"Part of how the abuser escapes confronting himself is by convincing you that you are the cause of his behavior, or that you at least share the blame. But abuse is not a product of bad relationship dynamics, and you cannot make things better by changing your own behavior or by attempting to manage your partner better. Abuse is a problem that lies entirely within the abuser." (Bancroft, p. 18-19)
"The abuser would like us to accept the following simple but erroneous formula: 'Feelings cause behavior.' 'When people feel hurt, they lash out at someone else in retaliation. When they feel jealous, they become possessive and accusatory. When they feel controlled, they yell and threaten.' Right? Wrong.... Although our feelings can influence how we wish to act, our choices of how to behave are ultimately determined more by our attitudes and our habits." (Bancroft, p. 29-30)
"When he leaves, her parents find themselves ruminating: 'Gee, she didn't mention anything about insulting his mother in that incident. That makes it a little different. She can have quite a mouth on her. I've noticed that myself. He shouldn't slap her, but he's obviously feeling guilty about it now. And he's willing to admit that it's partly his fault, while she blames it all on him." (Bancroft, p. 278)
Abusers do not abuse because of political "persecution" -- non-abusive people find non-abusive ways to express their hurt feelings.
"...The disrespect that abusive men so often direct towards women in general tends to be born of their cultural values and conditioning rather than personal experiences of being victimized by women. Some abusive men use the excuse that their behavior is a response to such victimization because they want to be able to make women responsible for men's abuse." (Bancroft, p. 41)
"His discrediting maneuvers reveal a core attitude, which he never explicitly states and may not be aware of consciously himself: 'You have no right to object to how I treat you.'" (Bancroft, p. 125 (emphasis author's)
- Abusers attack victims' intelligence: Attacking women's intelligence on biological grounds, as the manifesto does, is just a more polite form of calling a woman a "cunt". It's dehumanizing -- defining women by their bodies, while men get to be defined by their minds -- and leverages a power dynamic to make it harder for women to respond precisely because it's backed up by an entire culture that reduces women to their bodies. It also creates shame and humiliation that discredit a woman's response as "emotional" while the man throwing the insults gets to remain calm and detached.
"His tone of condescension indicated how certain he was of his superiority to Kelly.
As memorable as Sheldon's smug derision was, it was only a few notches worse than the common thinking of many abusive men. The abuser tends to see his partner as less intelligent, less competent, less logical, and even less sensitive than he is. He will tell me, for example, that she isn't the compassionate person he is. He often has difficulty conceiving her as a human being. This tendency in abusers is known as objectification or depersonalization. Most abusers verbally attack their partners in degrading, revolting ways. They reach for the words that they know are most disturbing to women, such as bitch, whore, and cunt, often preceded by the word fat. These words assault her humanity, reducing her to an animal, a nonliving object, or a degraded sexual body part." (Bancroft, p. 63)
- Only the abuser is allowed to be angry: Just as abusive men fundamentally attack their partners' right to be angry, participants in abusive society use tone policing to manipulate rightfully angry people and make them feel guilty about expressing anger.
"The abusive man's problem with anger is almost the opposite of what is commonly believed. The reality is:Anyone who has ever talked in public about oppression has experienced what it's like to have their right to be angry attacked (whether or not they actually were angry!) Attacking a person's right to be angry is a silencing technique: it attempts to deflect attention from the content of their grievance to the question of whether or not they're allowed to be angry about it.
Your abusive partner doesn't have a problem with his anger. He has a problem with your anger.
One of the basic human rights he takes away from you is the right to be angry with him. No matter how badly he treats you, he believes your voice shouldn't rise and your blood shouldn't boil. The privilege of rage is reserved for him alone." (Bancroft, p. 59-60; emphasis author's)
- Abusers claim they are the real victims: Abusers are known for claiming that they're the ones being abused as soon as their victims come forward. We see this in the Googler's manifesto: "In highly progressive environments, conservatives are a minority that feel like they need to stay in the closet to avoid open hostility. We should empower those with different ideologies to be able to express themselves." The author frames himself as a victim because he feels that there might be consequences if he says the abusive things he wants to say.
"The abuser's highly entitled perceptual system causes him to mentally reverse aggression and self-defense. When Tanya attempted to defend herself against Emile's life-threatening attack, he defined her actions as violence toward him. When he then injured her further, he claimed he was defending himself against her abuse. The lens of entitlement the abuser holds over his eye stands everything on its head, like the reflection in a spoon.... The abusive man has another reason to exaggerate and ridicule his partner's statements (and mine): He wants to avoid having to think seriously about what she is saying and struggle to digest it. He feels entitled to swat her down like a fly instead." (Bancroft, p. 61-62)
- Abusers have two sides: People who spout some respectable-sounding pseudoscience in public are often not so polite about it in private, as women who have been harassed will tell you.
"Most abusive men put on a charming face for their communities, creating a sharp split between their public image and their private treatment of women and children." (Bancroft, p. 68)
"Do abusive men have split personalities? Not really. They are drawn to power and control, and part of how they get it is by looking good in public. The abusive man's charm makes his partner reluctant to reach out for support or assistance because she feels that people will find her revelations hard to believe or will blame her. If friends overhear him say something abusive, or police arrest him for an assault, his previous people-pleasing laws the groundwork to get him off the hook. The observers think, He's such a nice guy, he's just not the type to be abusive. She must have really hurt him.
The abuser's nice-guy front helps him feel good about himself. My clients say to me, 'I get along fine with everyone but her. You should ask around about what I'm like; you'll see. I'm a calm, reasonable person. People can see that she's the one who goes off.'" (Bancroft, p. 69)
- Dismissing victims as angry or crazy: Of course it's easy for abusers to phrase their abuse in superficially polite and civil ways -- they aren't the ones being driven to the brink.
"When your anger does jump out of you -- as will happen to any abused woman from time to time -- he is likely to try to jam it back down your throat as quickly as he can. Then he uses your anger against you to prove what an irrational person you are." (Bancroft, p. 60)
When we react to abuse using strong language, we're the ones who get criticized for fighting back, because we either cannot remain calm in the face of abuse or don't want to. Why should you react calmly to someone hurting you over and over? It's reasonable to be angry. Yet we get dismissed as irrational, emotional, insert the adjective whose purpose is to silence people in URMs.
- Dialogue doesn't work; healthy debate doesn't work: Asking us to have a conversation and talk about our different points of view is like asking an abused woman to go to couples therapy with her partner.
"Couples therapy is designed to tackle issues that are mutual. It can be effective for overcoming barriers to communication, for untangling the childhood issues that each partner brings to a relationship, or for building intimacy. But you can't accomplish any of these goals in the context of abuse. There can be no positive communication when one person doesn't respect the other and strives to avoid equality. You can't take the leaps of vulnerability involved in working through early emotional injuries while you are feeling emotionally unsafe -- because you are emotionally unsafe. And if you succeed in achieving greater intimacy with your abusive partner, you will soon get hurt even worse than before because greater closeness means greater vulnerability for you." (Bancroft, p. 351-352)
Just as Bancroft points out that the greater intimacy achieved in therapy only gets used against the victim, the intimacy and vulnerability of talking about our experiences with systematic abuse just give the abusers more to exploit.
- Empathy doesn't work. Raising the cost of their actions does: We often hear that it's important to empathize with everyone, but empathizing with an abuser helps him keep abusing.
"[The abuser] draws you into focusing on the turbulent world of his feelings to keep your eyes turned away from the true cause of his abusiveness, which lies in how he thinks. He leads you into a convoluted maze, making your relationship with him a labyrinth of twists and turns. He wants you to puzzle over him, to try to figure him out, as though he were a wonderful but broken machine for which you need only to find and fix the malfunctioning parts to bring it roaring to its full potential." (Bancroft, p. 21)To empathize with someone is to try to feel what they feel. But abusers harm people because of what they think and believe, not because of how they feel. Bancroft writes that abusers are angry because they're abusive -- they're not abusive because they're angry. This is key to understanding why empathy with abusers is fruitless (until they stop abusing): accepting an abuser's anger as valid means agreeing with the flawed thought processes that produced the anger. To understand how abusers think, we can read writing like Bancroft's by people who work with abusers professionally, as well as writing by abuse victims. An abuser is not a useful source of information about how they think because committing abuse requires deceiving both others and oneself.
"I have almost never worked with an abused woman who overlooked her partner's humanity. The problem is the reverse: He forgets her humanity. Acknowledging his abusiveness and speaking forcefully and honestly about he has hurt her is indispensable to her recovery. It is the abuser's perspective that she is being mean to him by speaking bluntly about the damage he has done. To suggest to her that his need for compassion should come before her right to live free from abuse is consistent with the abuser's outlook. I have repeatedly seen the tendency among friends and acquaintances of an abused woman to feel that is their responsibility to make sure that she realizes what a good person he really is inside -- in other words, to stay focused on his needs rather than on her own, which is a mistake. People who wish to help an abused woman should instead be telling her what a good person she is." (Bancroft, p. 288)
"Therapy focuses on the man's feelings and gives him empathy and support, no matter how unreasonable the attitudes that are giving rise to those feelings. An abuser program, on the other hand, focuses on his thinking. The feelings that the abuser program discusses are primarily his partner's and his children's, not his." (Bancroft, p. 356)
Abusers need boundaries -- they change their behavior only when the cost to themselves changes. This, by the way, is why most abusers don't go as far as Rodger and Lépine did: they don't want to die or go to jail for life. We can raise the cost of abusive speech, too. We must not fall into the trap of empathizing with abusers, because to do what's best for them is not to see things their way. Their thoughts are distorted.
"Bringing about change in an abuser generally requires four elements: (1) consequences, (2) education, (3) confrontation, and (4) accountability. Consequences, the first item on the list, are manifested primarily through the abuser's experience of losing his relationship (at least temporarily if not permanently), or through the legal system if he has committed any abuse-related crimes, such as threats or assaults. He may also experience consequences in the form of criticism or disapproval from other people in his life." (Bancroft, p. 355)
"An abuser doesn't change because he feels guilty or gets sober or finds God. He doesn't change after seeing the fear in his children's eyes or feeling them drift away from him. It doesn't suddenly dawn on him that his partner deserves better treatment. Because of his self-focus, combined with the many rewards he gets from controlling you, an abuser changes only when he feels he has to, so the most important element in creating a context for change in an abuser is placing him in a situation where he has no other choice. Otherwise, it is highly inlikely that he will ever change his abusive behavior.... I have never seen a client make a serious effort to confront his abusiveness unless somebody required him to do the work." (Bancroft, p. 360)
- Abuse is a choice, not a skill deficit: We cannot stop abuse by teaching emotional intelligence.
"An abusive man is not unable to resolve conflicts nonabusively; he is unwilling to do so. The skill deficits of abusers have been the subject of a number of research studies, and the results lead to the following conclusion: Abusers have normal abilities in conflict reslution, communication, and assertiveness when they choose to use them.... You can equip an abuser with the most innovative, New Age skills for expressing his deep emotions, listening actively, and using win-win bargaining, and then he will go home and continue abusing." (p. 44-45)
"Abusers are unwilling to be nonabusive, not unable. They do not want to give up power and control." (p. 75)
"Anger and conflict are not the problem; they are normal aspects of life. Abuse doesn't come from people's inability to resolve conflicts but from one person's decision to claim a higher status than another. So while it is valuable, for example, to teach nonviolent conflict-resolution skills to elementary school students -- a popular initiative nowadays -- such efforts contribute little by themselves to ending abuse. Teaching equality, teaching a deep respect for all human beings -- these are more complicated undertakings, but they are the ones that count" (p. 388)
Verbal abuse tacticsBancroft lists the four critical characteristics of an abusive argument:
- The abuser sees an argument as war.
- She is always wrong in his eyes.
- He has an array of control tactics in conflicts. Just a few that Bancroft lists:
- Distorting what you say
- Accusing you of doing what he does, or thinking the way he thinks
- Using a tone of absolute certainty and final authority --"Defining reality"
- Not listening, refusing to respond
- Changing the subject to his grievances
- Provoking guilt
- Playing the victim
- He makes sure to get his way -- by one means or another.
- Why else would you bring up discredited pseudo-science unless you saw an argument as a war that it's necessary to win by any means necessary?
- The foregone conclusion in the doc is that women do not belong in tech, and he reasons backwards from there.
- The author plays the victim by claiming that conservatives like him are being oppressed and shamed and changes the subject to his grievances; he rarely gives direct quotes that exemplify the kind of persecution of conservatives he alleges, preferring to distort, ridicule, and provoke guilt.
- The manifesto sets up a no-win situation. If you don't respond, you're proving him right. If you respond, you're an angry woman who is trying to persecute conservatives or a politically correct leftist who is trying to silence opposing views. (Only by silencing yourself can you please the author.) The manifesto uses superficially polite language and calls for debate, which might mislead the reader into thinking that there might be a correct way to debate him. In reality, anything you say will be used against you: "An abusive man subtly or overtly imposes a system in which he is exempt from the rules and standards that he applies to you." (Bancroft, p. 157)
"The abusive man's goal in a heated argument is in essence to get you to stop thinking for yourself and to silence you, because to him your opinions and complaints are obstacles to the imposition of his will as well as an affront to his sense of entitlement. If you watch closely, you will begin to notice how many of his controlling behaviors are aimed ultimately at discrediting and silencing you." (Bancroft, p. 147) (emphasis author's)
"The abusive man has another reason to exaggerate and ridicule his partner's statements (and mine): He wants to avoid having to think seriously about what she is saying and struggle to digest it. He feels entitled to swat her down like a fly instead." (Bancroft, p. 62)The manifesto author wrote, "...when a man complains about a gender issue affecting men, he’s labelled as a misogynist and a whiner." This is an example of using ridicule to avoid confronting an argument: nobody is really labelling men as misogynists and whiners, at least without elaborating further, but rather than examining the reasons why someone might think he's a misogynist, he chooses instead to be a victim. I've seen more extreme forms of ridicule elsewhere in arguments that go like: "Oh, so you think I'm a horrible monster just because I'm a Republican and I should go jump in a river." This distorts criticisms of expressing hate speech at work and makes the critic seem ridiculous. It also provokes guilt, shifting the conversation to one where the person with the original grievance comforts the offender. As a result, the offender receives emotional labor from the victim and the original grievance never enjoys consideration.
Describing one particular type of abuser, Bancroft writes:
"Mr. Right considers himself the ultimate authority on every subject under the sun: you might call him 'Mr. Always Right.' He speaks with absolute certainty, brushing your opinions aside like annoying gnats. He seems to see the world as a huge classroom, in which he is the teacher and you are his student.... Mr. Right's superiority is a convenient way for him to get what he wants. When he and his partner are arguing about their conflicting desires, he turns it into a clash betwen Right and Wrong or between Intelligence and Stupidity. He ridicules and discredits her perspective so that he can escape dealing with it." (p. 80)Read the manifesto and judge for yourself whether its author sounds like Mr. Right.
Speech like the manifesto has effects: just as abusers can wear down their individual partners' sense of their own capabilities, when speech like the manifesto is disseminated and entertained as a valid argument -- even when it's not endorsed widely! -- this has a corrosive effect on women. Studies on stereotype threat have demonstrated the harmful effects of lending legitimacy to stereotypes.
"When Mr. Right decides to take control of a conversation, he switches into his Voice of Truth, giving the definitive pronouncement on what is the correct answer or the proper outlook. Abuse counselors call this tactic defining reality. Over time, his tone of authority can cause his partner to doubt her own judgment and come to see herself as not very bright." (p. 82) (emphasis author's)
"Mr. Right tries to sanitize his bullying by telling me, 'I have strong opinions' or 'I like debating ideas.' This is like a bank robber saying, 'I'm interested in financial issues.' Mr. Right isn't interested in debating ideas; he wants to impose his own." (Bancroft, p. 83)We do not need to protect opinions; we need to protect people.
Male Entitlement Considered Harmful
"An abuser who does not relinquish his core entitlements will not remain nonabusive. This may be the single most-overlooked point regarding abusers and change.... Abusers attach themselves tightly to their privileges and come to find the prospect of having equal rights and responsibilities, living on the same plane as their partners, almost unbearable. They resent women who require them to change and persuade themselves that they are victims of unfair treatment because they are losing their lopsided luxuries. But they can't change unless they are willing to relinquish that special status..." (Bancroft, p. 345) (emphasis author's)We must distinguish between reasonable expectations of respect, and entitlement to power. Abusers misleadingly frame their entitlement as just a desire for respect, but we must recognize that from their point of view, they're not being respected unless others are treating them as an authority. We must be able to say that they are wrong when they say that. As the activist adage goes, "When you're used to privilege, equality seems like oppression." We must reject relativity and say that even though abusers perceive things this way, they are wrong and their perceptions are not reasonable.
You can have psychological safety or you can have abuse. You can’t have both. “But it’s not psychologically safe for me if I can’t express my abusive politics at work!” Exactly the point. Psychological safety for people whose politics is founded on hating women (regardless of whether they would admit to harboring personal animus towards women) cannot be achieved without creating a hostile environment for women. The same goes for every other oppressed group.
"...Promote alternatives to abuse and oppression by recognizing how intertwined different forms of abuse and mistreatment are. The opposite of arrogantly defining reality is listening respectfully to each person's perspective. The opposite of placing yourself above other people is seeing them as equals." (Bancroft, p. 387)
We have to attack abusive men's sense of entitlement. Anything other than an unqualified "no" endorses it. Ideological diversity doesn't justify enabling abuse. Abuse is, perhaps, founded on an ideology -- one of entitlement and control -- but it's an ideology we need to fight, not include.
"It is impossible for a community to stop abuse while continuing to assist or ignore abusers at the same time. Protecting or enabling an abuser is as morally repugnant as the abuse itself." (Bancroft, p. 289) (emphasis author's)
How do we stop abuse? For inspiration, I look to Bancroft's list of conditions for change. In order to truly change, he says, an abuser must:
- Admit fully to his history of psychological, sexual, and physical abusiveness toward any current or past partners whom he has abused.
- Acknowledge that the abuse was wrong, unconditionally.
- Acknowledge that his behavior was a choice, not a loss of control.
- Recognize the effects his abuse has had on you and on your children, and show empathy for those.
- Identify in detail his pattern of controlling behaviors and entitled attitudes.
- Develop respectful behaviors and attitudes to replace the abusive ones he is stopping.
- Reevaluate his distorted image of you, replacing it with a more positive and empathic view.
- Make amends for the damage he has done.
- Accept the consequences of his actions.
- Commit to not repeating his abusive behaviors and honor that commitment.
- Accept the need to give up privileges and do so.
- Accept that overcoming abusiveness is likely to be a lifelong process.
- Be willing to be accountable for his actions, both past and future.
In a workplace context, I think the important points here are:
- Acknowledge that the behavior was a choice. Faux apologies often include phrases like "I didn't mean it" or "I wasn't thinking." To reckon with abusive behavior, abusers must admit that they chose to act this way.
- Accept the need to give up privileges and do so.
- Be willing to be accountable for his actions, both past and future. Bancroft's words apply: "His attitude that he is above reproach has to be replaced by a willingness to accept feedback and criticism..." (p. 342) Unwillingness to accept feedback is a hallmark of abusers.
"Abuse and respect are opposites. Abusers cannot change unless they overcome their core of disrespect toward their partners." (Bancroft, p. 75)
"As long as we see abusers as victims, or as out-of-control monsters, they will continue getting away with ruining lives. If we want abusers to change, we will have to require them to give up the luxury of exploitation." (Bancroft, p. 157) (emphasis author's)
The opposite of abuse is not empathy. The minimum baseline we ought to expect from everybody is respect, which everyone is capable of giving. Abusers choose not to respect the people they abuse. Their behavior isn't caused by low emotional intelligence or low empathy. They don't need to be taught social or emotional skills. In fact, when they are taught these skills, abusers use them to become better at abusing people. Abusers don't lack emotional intelligence, they just choose to use that intelligence to come up with ways to use other people as instruments for getting what they want. Attributing mistakes to lack of skill rather than genuine desire to do the wrong thing can often be a useful strategy, but applying that strategy to abuse only compounds the abuse.
"Unfortunately, the more an abusive man is convinced that his grievances are more or less equal to yours, the less the chance that he will ever overcome his attitudes." -- Bancroft, p. 352
"Murder of women in technology, death threats to women in technology, and nasty comments about women in technology are not the same thing, but they grow from the same roots and support each other. Words lead to actions, words support actions, words are themselves actions. The next time you want to speak up about sexism in technology, but aren’t sure why it matters, remember the École Polytechnique massacre, and the way that words grow into deeds." -- Valerie Aurora, Connecting the dots: “Everyday” sexism and the École Polytechnique massacre (2012)
"I don’t think being a woman in technology is worth dying for, but I learned early that some men think it’s worth killing for." -- Deb Chachra
- I am disappointed but unsurprised by the news that an anti-diversity, sexist, manifesto is making the rounds at Google..., Erica Baker (8/5/2017)
- So, about this Googler’s manifesto., Yonatan Zunger (8/5/2017)
- We Know Who He Is, Cate Huston (8/6/2017)
- Empathy, Collaboration, and Cooperation: Diversity Deep Dive #2, Sarah Sharp (8/7/2017)
- Previous writing from me about the connections between domestic violence and online abuse: "It's All Connected" (2014). GamerGate is an example that shows the connection very clearly: Zoë Quinn left their partner, denying him what he felt he was entitled to. The process of his revenge on Quinn turned into a broader attack against women who don't know their place.
- Trouble at the Koolaid Point, Kathy Sierra (2014). Sierra's account of how online harassers feel entitled to a monopoly on attention and feel personally attacked when a woman receives attention and credibility is essential reading for understanding the abuser's sense of entitlement.
- I do not use the name of the Google engineer who wrote the manifesto here, though it has been made public, to avoid giving him the attention he craves; to avoid contributing to his persecution complex by appearing to "publicly shame" him; and because the problem isn't him, and I have interacted with many other Googlers who think the same way. The problem isn't him, or any of them, it's the executives and managers who appear to think that the cost of excluding these people exceeds the cost of excluding the many of us who are less productive or leave because of the hostile workplace environment they create.
- I want to be clear that the Googler's manifesto is deeply racist, not just sexist; it's also ableist and exhibits hostility towards trans people by reducing us to sexed aspects of our bodies. But in this essay I focused on the gendered abuse aspects, partly because I used Bancroft's book as a guide and partly because gender is what I know more about. You should listen to people of color when they write about the white supremacist ideology that underlies the manifesto.
- Quotes from Lundy Bancroft's Why Does He Do That? are from the 2003 paperback edition, Berkley Books (New York) (ISBN 978-0-425-19165-1).