[Content Note: lots of talk about gender relations and some talk about assault.]
There’s this Thing that happens where someone (usually a man) is accused of assaulting someone or being generally creepy or boundary-crossing. For a while, I’ve had a story about what I believe is often (but not always) causing this to be such an extremely volatile conversation. A few weeks back, I started testing this explanation on people, and it seemed to make sense to them. All it needed was a name and a public debut. Last week, it got both of those. So! The ambiguity abyss problem:
1. Alice, who is new to the scene is talking to Bob at a meetup. Alice isn’t terribly invested in Bob, and ready to leave the conversation. She feels like she’s signaling this; giving the body cues of turning away and trying to engage others in conversation, talking in monosyllables, and not engaging except to answer the questions Bob asks.
2. The evenings starts to wrap up as people trickle out and away. Bob offers to walk Alice to her room, as it’s late.
3. Alice doesn’t have any strong preference that he doesn’t, and is on the spot when Bob says “I’ll walk you, it’s dark!” It seems extremely rude to give a flat “No”, and she doesn’t want to seem irrational or silly in front of the new people she’s just met for refusing a walk home.
4. Bob talks for much of the walk. Alice talks in monosyllables, but isn’t sure Bob notices that she’s trying to give all the signals of being disinterested.
5. They get to Alice’s apartment, and Bob walks in behind Alice, rather than saying goodbye.
Okay, pause for a second. Right now we have Dude Who Misses Cues and did something fairly uncomfortable. But if you’ve ever wandered into a conversation only to realize that everyone was waiting for you to leave, or overstayed your welcome, this is familiar. Unfortunately, Guy Who Is Well Meaning And Missed All Those Hints and Guy Who is Pretending to Miss Hints In Order To Talk His Way Into Isolating You are currently indistinguishable.
6. Now, Alice is in the uncomfortable position of having someone who pattern-matches to dangerous (seemed to be not reacting to signals that she didnt’ want to be near him, won’t go away, has walked into her room, etc etc etc.)
7. Alice is quite scared and gets more abrupt. She all but pushes Bob out the door.
8. Alice is unsure whether or not she got lucky by averting something bad, or Bob just didn’t realize he was making her really uncomfortable. Since the difference between dangerous and socially-awkward is quite vast and also quite important for the next time she sees Bob, Alice talks to her friend Eve about it. (Also, humans are just bad at living with ambiguous identities. Being able to categorize Bob as either harmless but boorish, or dangerous will meant devoting less mental energy to turning the encounter over and over in Alice’s head.)
The conversation with Eve could go a few ways.
Option 1: Eve could endorse the “yeah, he’s well meaning but just really doesn’t notice when people aren’t enjoying talking to him” thing, and Alice is happy to hear this. In the future, she just finds it mildly annoying when Bob does similar things. She works harder to be more direct, or just carefully sidesteps one-on-one interactions with Bob. Not ideal, but a fixable problem.
Option 2: OR, Eve could say “Wow, I keep hearing this story, and do you know last year when Samantha told Bob he was making her uncomfortable he got really mad and yelled at her until she called the police!”
And so when two new women join the group, Alice or Eve warn them to not let the third step happen: not letting Bob get into conversation with you, lest ye end up having Samantha or Alice’s experience. This continues on for a while.
Keep in mind, Bob has thus far been sort of a jerk who could plausibly be categorized as socially unaware in combination with jerkhood. However, he’s done it so many times and reacted so very badly when someone called him out on it, that people are concerned about his potential to escalate. Now, everyone wants to avoid that scenario and warns each other.
Later in our fictional scenario, Bob is accused of assaulting someone. It’s a case of he and she said,
She said he followed her to her room at night. She tried to push him out, he became angry and shoved her against the wall. A passerby is heard outside. He backed off and left.
He said that he walked her home, and was annoyed when she rudely told him to leave, but didn’t touch her.
And then here’s what happens:
A group of (mostly women) who include Alice, Eve, Samantha, and people who know them, come out of the woodwork and all side with the woman who accused Bob. He must have done it! He’s known for this sort of thing! In their hands/ears/brain, they’ve got a bunch of priors: Bob doesn’t take indirect hints that he’s not wanted, and reacts explosively to direct hints. It fits in with the pattern they’ve seen, experienced, or heard about. They’re mightily frustrated that they have been updating as they get more information…and it feels like nobody will listen to them or consider that any of this is plausible.
A group of (mostly men) who don’t know Alice, Eve, or Samantha are quite upset in the opposite direction. All they’ve seen is this guy, Bob, who missed some cues (who doesn’t?) and is a little socially awkward (who isn’t?) be accused of something for which there is no more information than he-said/she-said. Then, they’ve watched a group of people leap right past the whole charitability thing and go about dogpiling on Bob. And what happened to innocent-until-proven-guilty?
And so these two groups stare across at each other, each thinking the other is Wrong and Bad, and also hazardous to having a safe community. Group One badly wants to know that if they’re hurt or assaulted or treated badly, they can be believed (because it feels like Group Two isn’t listening). And Group Two badly wants to know that they can make social faux pas without being summarily thrown out of the group.