You’re Allowed To Be Influenced

For most of my life I have been vocal about not wanting to get married. Extremely vocal. Marriage is only what you make it, it’s unnecessary, it’s got too much history in patriarchal structures, it costs too much. I’ve never felt any particular need to announce to the world in general that I’m in love and want to be with my partner since the one who needs to know that is actually my partner not everybody else. I still believe most of these things. I still think that marriage is unnecessarily prioritized in America, and that defining a romantic relationship as the basis of family is unnecessary. I still think that weddings are a scam to cost lots of people too much money and that marriage makes straight monogamy the building block of society.

But I’ve realized that I want to get married anyway. Kind of a lot.

I’m not immune to culture. I’m not immune to the messages that paint your wedding day as the most romantic day of your life, and that illustrate marriage as a beautiful commitment between two people. I’m not immune to the excitement and joy that other people feel around weddings and marriage, and I’m not immune to wanting a pretty dress and good food and dancing.

I’ve spent a lot of time feeling guilty about the part of me that’s been influenced by culture, the part that wants to femme it up and be swept off my feet on my wedding day. But feeling guilt about the ways in which culture has influenced you doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t demolish the patriarchy, it’s just another way to tear yourself down for having feelings. Everyone has internalized things that they don’t necessarily believe logically. That does not make those things bad or wrong, just arbitrary. But not all arbitrary decisions are harmful. Sometimes you just have to pick between chocolate and vanilla without a logical reason except “I like chocolate”.

There are certainly problems with choice feminism, but as far as choices go, the decision to get married doesn’t have too many direct negative impacts and the choice to do what you think will make you happy as an individual is a pretty strong feminist choice when you’re a woman who spends too much time ignoring their own preferences and feelings.

There are absolutely contexts in which we need to question and challenge the cultural messages that we’ve internalized. But there are also circumstances where those messages are fairly harmless. There’s nothing wrong with being influenced by external forces. It doesn’t make you a sheep or a bad skeptic or a horrible sexist. It means that you’re a normal human being who has grown up within a culture, just like everyone else. The place at which you need to make decisions is when you realize that one of your beliefs has come to you through culture. Once you’ve done so, you need to decide what the consequences of acting on that belief are, how much it will affect your happiness to try to leave that belief behind, and whether there are good reasons to believe what you do.

Sure, it’s never good to hold beliefs without any critical thought put into it, but sometimes we have to accept our arbitrary preferences. So yeah, I want to get married and I don’t need any more reason than that.

Overt and Covert Power

This morning I was at an event put on by BePollen that focused on women in the workplace, particularly how they can influence others. One of the themes throughout the morning was the idea that influence is most powerful when it’s subtle. Speakers called out administrative assistants and secretaries as the silent power in many organizations, told stories of how they took bad situations and found ways to create influence and power, and pointed towards gatekeepers as a source of power.

It’s absolutely true that subtle influence can be immensely powerful. If you can get someone to do what you’d like them to do without them even realizing that you’re influencing them, you do have a lot of power. And taking a position that isn’t inherently influential and finding subtle ways to use it to influence others is a great skill, especially as a woman who may have a harder time reaching the top echelons of most organizations. Of course subtle power has its place, and flying under the radar can give you a lot more freedom than being in the public eye.

And yet this focus on “subtle influence” started to drive me a bit crazy after a while. One other theme that cropped up repeatedly was impostor syndrome. The question was asked over and over how we can fight against it, how we can keep other high achieving women from feeling like impostors, how we can continue to achieve while feeling as if we don’t belong. Something that wasn’t mentioned as part of this discussion is the fact that the face of power and achievement is still white and it’s still male. Of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies only 24 are women. No female presidents yet. Women only hold 18% of the seats in Congress.

Women don’t see other women in positions of power, so it’s no wonder that when they begin to achieve things themselves they start to question whether they truly belong or are simply faking it. They don’t recognize themselves as among the set of people who could have influence.

So when a group of women gets together to talk about influence, it makes me sad that we talk about subtle influence, about being behind the scenes, about being the power behind the throne. Why are we so afraid of openly saying and acting as if we have power and deserve power? A huge part of being influential is being visible. Sometimes simply existing in a space that is designated as “powerful” is a huge influence and shows young women that they can be in those spaces and have that power as well. A great way to fight impostor syndrome is to keep young girls from feeling as if there are certain spaces and ways that they should live in and act. It’s showing them a wide variety of choices so that no matter where they end up it seems appropriate for a woman.

Another element of this is that subtle power doesn’t garner respect in quite the same way that open power does. A big part of influence and power is having a platform. Unfortunately, the way the world is set up is such that more people listen to someone with a title. Having that clear and open title that says “I have power and I have influence” actually heightens one’s ability to do work. It comes with resources, it comes with respect, and it comes with an equal footing to others that you may want to influence.

I’m afraid that when we say how powerful secretaries and admin assistants are, we’re doing more than recognizing the seriously important work they do. We’re also reinforcing what kind of power is appropriate for women. We’re giving ourselves a consolation prize because we still don’t feel that we can be on equal footing with men as CEOs or presidents. We’re telling ourselves that we have the same amount of influence that men do, but if that were the case then why would we be having a meeting to discuss how to encourage women to embrace their ability to influence?

I don’t want to have to sneak in sideways to influence people. I would like to be able to equally and calmly express my opinion, own my power, and have others respect that. If I want influence, I want it to be the influence of running an organization, or influencing policy through my work, or writing a book that changes the way people think.

Perhaps it’s naive. Perhaps that’s not the way that power works. But when men talk about influence, they don’t have to couch it in terms of being subtle, of taking notes in meetings, of being a secretary who can gatekeep for the person who has the real power. They talk about running for office or starting a company. Why are women afraid to have that same kind of power?

There is a time and a place for subtle influence. But there is also a time for overt influence, for standing up and saying that we deserve respect, we deserve the attention of others, and we deserve our power. When did this go missing?

More About Skeptech: Individual and Societal Responsibilities

So at the conference this weekend we spent a fair amount of time talking about censorship because hey, we were talking about the internet and censorship had to come up at some point or other. Zach Weinersmith (edited because I fucked up Zach’s last name. Sorry) of SMBC gave a talk about comics as a natural experiment in censorship and argued that we should have no censorship (except maybe yelling fire in a crowded theater) particularly of art, because art needs to reflect life, and the best art reflects ALL of life, not just the pretty parts.

We also talked some about Reddit and the r/jailbait fiasco. Some people argued that the subreddit never should have been shut down, because protecting free speech is more important and we should be able to talk about illegal activities if we so choose. Should we be able to shut down the r/trees (edited because apparently the subreddit about marijuana is called r/trees. Way to confused me guys) thread simply because marijuana is illegal?

These are all really important concerns, and I am most certainly a free speech advocate. However I tend to think that our morality should be more about harm than about rights. I don’t think we should do away with the concept of rights entirely because it’s incredibly important for the safety of minorities, but in general when you have to invoke a “right” to justify a harm, you’re doing something wrong. Something that was rarely brought up in these discussions was at what cost do we allow completely unrestrained free speech. Because there certainly are harms. Zack Weinerstein made the argument that with this unrestrained free speech, we now have the most tolerant generation in history, so it’s no big deal that certain parts of the internet are steaming cesspits of hate. But that completely overlooks the damage that that hate directly does to the people who have to witness it. We may be “more tolerant” of women, but if a woman gets harassed every time she logs on to her favorite website, that is a harm.

And in addition to that, what do we really mean by “more tolerant”? A lot of these websites normalize horrific behavior by arguing that they are tolerant. They say that cat-calling a woman is no big deal, that African-Americans are just practicing reverse racism, that slurs are simply free speech, but that they think everyone should be equal. This is lip service to tolerance. But if we can actively see online through their writings for all the world to see that they treat other people like shit, clearly they aren’t tolerant. And they normalize that behavior.

For some reason, this conference seemed to focus entirely on personal responsibility in terms of free speech. You might be exposed to any number of things, but it’s your job as a responsible human being to not be influenced by any of it if you don’t want to be (apparently). But here’s the thing: societies have responsibilities too. As skeptics, we should know by now that NO ONE is immune to the influences of society. All of us internalize the messages that get sent to us, no matter how hard we try to resist (hello eating disorder that reeks of internalized misogyny. How are you today? Oh you’re all my fault because I should have just made a better personal decision? Thanks). It has been well-documented how easy it is to influence people. And when you’re constantly bombarded with certain images and certain messages, there’s only so much personal choice that you have. That limits the amount of personal responsibility you can have.

Media has to be responsible for the messages it sends. Now I don’t necessarily think this should lead to government censorship of unpleasant topics. As a lot of people said, ignoring things doesn’t make them go away, and often bringing them out into the open can help us deal with them. I’m honestly less worried about some of the unpleasant topics and far more worried about some of the glamorized topics. Take for example binge drinking. We see binge drinking all the time on TV held up as fun and awesome and hilarious and completely normal. If someone has a predisposition for alcoholism, can we hold them completely responsible if they fall into the trap of alcoholism when they are seeing how great alcohol is all the time? Do we have to take some responsibility as a society for the pain caused that individual and their family? I think we do.

Society has some responsibility to try to create media that isn’t damaging. It should be free to discuss any topic it so chooses, but I think it’s entirely possible to legislate ADDITIONAL information be available about any topic that could be triggering or influencing in a negative way: for example if a TV show depicts rape, we could require that it includes a short discussion of the characters involved and why they acted in a negative way to deconstruct the negative actions they made. And as individuals, I think that we are entirely allowed to exert pressure on media to stop perpetuating shitty stereotypes and harmful messages. We are 100% obligated to be as careful as possible about the media we consume (tell TV networks when their shows are sexist, tell advertisers when they’re perpetuating rape culture).

We cannot always be critical consumers, even when we want to be. Oftentimes we’re lacking in the choices to be ethical about the way we consume media. If I want to watch a movie that is free of sexism and racism, I would be hard-pressed to find one. We need to exert some pressure on media to provide us with more options. Weinerstein suggested that when censorship is taken away, then more types of art flourish. I do agree with that, but I think that we also need to be active in promoting different types of art and different perspectives. We need to vote with our money, and I think as a society we need to discuss larger fixes to the problems of sexism and racism in media and on the internet. If an individual has only ever been exposed through the internet to individuals who say that a woman might owe you sex if you buy her dinner, are they entirely to blame if they rape someone? No. They have some responsibility, but not all of it. We are products of our society.

There is serious harm in unmitigated free speech. I don’t know what the solution is, but ignoring the fact that there are places on the internet that actively normalize hate crimes, sexism, racism, rape, cissexism, and homophobia is not helpful to anyone. We DO have an interest in trying to keep people safe from each other and safe from internalizing negative and destructive messages. I think that people who host websites and people who host other people on their websites need to be clear about what they will and will not accept: you OWN that space, and you can easily say that you will not tolerate bigotry. People do that in meatspace all the time. Why is it unacceptable online? You can get your own damn website and spew hatred. But we will minimize the damage that you can do.

I am so frustrated with the idea that individuals exist in a vacuum and that “personal responsibility” trumps all social issues. NO. Individuals should be held responsible for their actions, but their actions should be taken in context so that we know what led to the problem. If we simply keep pointing to bad behavior and saying “don’t do that” we’re just trying to take care of symptoms, not the etiology of the bad behavior. We are all a part of systems, and our whole systems are broken right now.