Had an interesting exchange on Facebook earlier. I shared a post from Jacq The Stripper, where a stripper asked her followers (mostly strippers) for stories about the worst attempts their clients had made to impress them. I shared it with the caption “entertaining thread”. A friend replied with disbelief – why are there so many attractive women outing themselves as strippers? It doesn’t make sense. It’s atypical. Only pretend strippers post pictures of themselves pole dancing.
I thought this was a really interesting example of a broader phenomenon where people reveal the gaps in their model of reality. My friend probably doesn’t know of any strippers, hasn’t looked them up online, and can’t believe that strippers would out themselves on Facebook. It reveals to me that he has some assumptions about what strippers are like, what their social lives are like, and how they would or would not behave on Facebook.
Which got me thinking about something I read on Slatestarcodex once, about social bubbles, filters. I suppose the general phenomenon might be described as something like, “If I have never seen it, it doesn’t exist. It’s atypical”. The mistake here is thinking or believing that your life experience so far is somehow ‘typical’, when it’s most probably not. We all experience a very narrow slice of reality, which is far more complex, strange, weird, multi-faceted than we can ever imagine.
Consider the following questions. How many of your peers are gay? How many of them are trans? How many of them are in unhappy or abusive marriages? How many are cheating on their spouses? How many have consumed illegal drugs? How many watch porn? How many watch really hardcore, ‘atypical’ porn? How many have participated in threesomes, orgies and so on? How many of your peers are victims of sexual assault or rape? How many have had abortions or miscarriages? How many have had abusive parents, dysfunctional families? How many have mental illnesses? How many have had depression or suicidal thoughts? How many are struggling with the illness of a loved one? How many visit prostitutes?
Most people do not talk about these things openly – and it’s usually quite rational for them to do that, because they can’t anticipate how other people will respond to them, and negative or critical responses will hurt. But as a result, lots of people who haven’t experienced such things will be tempted to erroneously assume that such things are very uncommon.
It isn’t just a random thing, either. If you present yourself as a certain kind of person (I have in my mind a pretty clear picture of a sort of performative skeptic, quick to mock and make light of serious things – the kind of person that you wouldn’t be comfortable sharing sensitive, tentative information with), then you’re actually going to be SYSTEMATICALLY deprived of this information. In practical terms – if you make ‘harmless’ jokes that subtly shame and degrade women on Facebook, then women are almost definitely NOT going to tell you their stories of being harassed and assaulted. So you then go on thinking something like, “I know lots of women, none of them have ever said anything about being harassed or assaulted, therefore sexual harassment is an overblown myth perpetuated by attention-seeking women”.
Do you see the problem?
How do we even begin to solve something like this? Is it solvable? Should it be solved? What should I do, knowing this? Well, one thing I want to do is write essays about it so that people can share them with one another and talk about it. I don’t think I’m going to turn my life into a personal crusade to get people to open up their mental models. Well – not immediately, anyway. But it’s a thing, and I don’t hear people talk about it very much.
Not too long ago I had some respected friends discussing the problem of sexual harassment in tech. One of them was a woman, one was a man. Both of them are really smart, good people. The woman, by virtue of being a woman, would have had a lot more exposure to the ugly side of things. She would have received unwanted messages and advancements from men. She would have heard stories from her friends about such stories. And so she has no trouble believing any new story about sexual harassment at the workplace. The man… was concerned about the problem of accusations being assumed to be valid and true. I don’t think he was trying to defend the accused per se, I think he was just trying to point out that it’s important to presume innocence until guilt is proven. But you see how this plays out. The woman is almost insulted that the man would choose to focus on that – it comes across as doubtful, disbelieving. She responds with questions like “why are you defending him”, or “why are you more eager to defend him than to listen to the victim” – which is, on retrospect, a bit of a straw man. We enter some moralising territory here. At this point a lot of men tend to get frustrated and feel attacked. If you step back and see the big picture – men feeling attacked in such conversations is far less egregious than women feeling attacked, harassed, etc in their everyday lives. This is where ideas like “male fragility” come into play.
But also I guess it’s interesting to me how we collectively navigate these conversations about social justice. The phrase “social justice” has become so loaded, to mean something oddly specific, but imagine if we just put those two words together for the first time. What is just? What is fair? In a social setting? Who are we judging? Who are we listening to? Who do we write off? Who do we support and encourage? Who do we question and doubt? What is the justice system of ordinary groups of people, when things aren’t escalated to courts of law?
It’s a lot to think about, and obviously something that isn’t going to be solved in a lifetime. But we can work towards getting better at this, and it’s something we definitely have to do to become better as a species.