This story has no ending … that’s the point

A few days ago, a man I didn’t recognize hung around after a conference session, while I talked to a few colleagues. He was doing that thing where you hover around the edges of a conversation because you want to talk to someone, but not about whatever they are already talking about. In other words, you want to interrupt without interrupting. So, after my colleagues dispersed, he approached me, introduced himself, and said he “needed” to talk to me about a conversation we had had on twitter.

I didn’t remember him or the conversation, but he was happy to jog my memory. It happened 6 weeks ago, and was about library neutrality and the efficacy of “dialogue” with nazis (in libraries). In the twitter exchange, he had argued that libraries should “neutrally” welcome nazis, because of some higher goal about advancing dialogue. My final contribution to the twitter conversation was a response to his response to my colleague (below), where I asked him if he thought challenging the validity of women is an effective way to advance dialogue.

validity

Him: I will not agree that is a valid question… Me: Do you find that questions women’s validity advances dialogue?

He said that he wanted to talk to me because this still bothered him and he needed to tell me that his response to her had nothing to do with gender. I will admit that as a sociologist with a pretty good background in gender, I’ve rarely, if ever, found such a statement to be true or helpful. I’m guessing that anyone who is paying attention to how gender frames virtually every social interaction is skeptical of after-the-fact “it had nothing to do with gender” claims. (Someone did convince me once that my eye doctor really did have a legit medical reason for asking asking sex on intake forms, but I digress…).

Back to the unexpected, weird, uncomfortable conversation. In the moment, it was not clear to me what he wanted – but it felt a bit confrontational for sure. I was done with the conversation with him 6 weeks ago, and was not interested in continuing it in person just because he needed something and wanted to talk to me right then. He tried to revisit the argument about neutrality, and tried to explain why he thought my colleague’s question was invalid. I told him I didn’t really want to rehash the conversation. Nevertheless, he persisted.
Finally I said something like “If you are really interested in trying to achieve neutrality, then in the face of mountains of evidence that women and people of color are constantly interrupted, talked over, invalidated, and dismissed in in-person and online conversations, then maybe as a white man you could sit back and be quiet instead of confronting women online and questioning the validity of their statements.” That seemed to get him thinking, and he did thank me for explaining that to him. And then I thanked him for initiating the conversation, even though I was not the least bit grateful about having a conversation I never wanted to have. Why? Because some weird combo of professional courtesy norms and gendered norms apparently made me feel like reciprocal expressions of gratitude were called for.
I have no idea whether he got whatever he needed and/or thought I owed him from this interaction, but I do know that I’m now left having revisited a conversation I would have preferred to have left alone, and wishing I had avoided it, and wondering if I’ll ever figure out how to avoid these unwanted conversations with men who “need” to talk to me …

2 Responses to “This story has no ending … that’s the point”


  1. 1 Meredith Farkas December 25, 2017 at 10:09 pm

    I’m sorry you had this experience, Chris. I think nearly every woman who has ever called out a man has had experiences like this in one form or other, where we are forcibly asked to change our opinion of a man’s behavior or are made to feel like we are being paranoid, knee-jerk harpies for seeing sexism where they believe (because it’s so ingrained in their way of seeing the world) there is none. In the end, the only purpose of the conversation is to help the man confirm his positive view of himself, not for him to really learn anything from the woman. I’m glad you pushed back; there are times in the past I’ve regretted not standing my ground.

    Like

  2. 2 Max Macias December 16, 2017 at 2:19 pm

    Wow. Holy shit! That sounds scary and infuriating at the same time! I’m so sorry that happened to you.

    Like


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