People are not weather.
Let me explain.
One of the constant frustrations of being a live human is that you cannot actually control how other people behave toward you. And if people tell you that you can, those people are either liars or wizards. You can try, of course. You can lean in. You can dress up or down as the occasion demands. You can wear all the things they tell you to wear and avoid all the places they tell you to avoid and — nope, still nothing. You cannot control how other people behave. Unless you are, say, those people’s mother. And even then, it’s a struggle. They may not listen.
Still, this is a fallacy people fall into, when giving advice: to assume that you can control the way the world responds to you. If you just follow a certain array of simple rules, nothing bad will happen.
And, well, maybe. Sometimes. This would almost work if the only dangers you ever encountered came in the form of ominous, faceless natural forces. If what you’re dealing with is UV rays or pouring rain, there are certain specific steps you can take — preventative measures, if you like, that will keep your skin safe and your hair dry. You can’t stop the rain, but, with an umbrella, you can stop the rain from hitting you.
If you are playing with fire or volatile chemical elements (that would be the provocation of an element), there is protective gear for you to wear. There are right and wrong ways of handling these situations, and it is a friendly gesture to warn those who don’t know.
But these problems are so straightforward. There is an impersonal threat out there that falls equally on everybody, unless he or she takes precautions. The limitations in the situation are limitations of physics or chemistry or animal instinct. Don’t run into traffic. Don’t climb a tree if you’re being pursued by a black bear. (Or, wait, is it a grizzly? I’d better not leave the house until I’m sure.)
But unfortunately, some dangers have faces.
And those are much less simple. What happens when you encounter them is not a direct consequence of your preparedness. You can wear all the protective gear and sunscreen in the world and still not escape unscathed, because the behavior of other people — and this, it seems, is the tricky part — is something they are responsible for, not you.
This is very difficult for some people to believe. Most of these people are men. To hear them talk about it, every action they take is the result of a choice a woman made earlier, and really, they are powerless to help themselves. Walk away from a fight? Not whistle at a stranger walking down the street? Give a drunk friend some water and listen when she tells you to back off? It’s like we thought they were human beings capable of reason and judgment.
When something particularly awful happens, these people shake their heads. He “just snapped,” they say. “What,” they wonder, “did she think would happen?”
After all, it was up to her.
If you look at a lot of the advice women receive on a daily basis, you would be stunned at what power we have. When I decide, each morning, whether to put on a sweater or not, I am deciding exactly what response the men around me are going to have. I have the power to force total strangers to catcall at me, whether they want to or not, simply by donning a skirt. They have no agency in this. It is all up to me. Sometimes even sweatpants will do the job.
This kind of power isn’t really power, of course. It’s an excuse. Not only must we be responsible for our own behavior, but we also have to be accountable for the behavior of the people around us. This is far from a healthy way of thinking about these things — especially something like domestic violence.
And we’re starting to see how bonkers this is, now.
At least, I hope we’re beginning to. It’s not that complicated. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith was suspended after he made comments — in light of the suspension of Ravens running back Ray Rice — about how women needed to take “preventative” steps to make certain nobody hit them. Avoid “provocation,” he said. (He rambled and babbled a bit longer, as well.)
Nope. People are not weather. They are not speeding cars that can’t slow down in time, or rabid opossums or rock slides. They don’t “just snap” and veer out of control like poorly secured train cars. They have the capacity to make decisions. But reading much of the advice that gets put out there, especially for women, you might be forgiven for thinking that they couldn’t.
This can go almost too far and get pretty contentious, sometimes. Just try telling girls how much is a good idea to drink at college parties. It is possible to give this advice in such a way that it falls into the same category as sunscreen and umbrellas and tips for where to stand to avoid getting crowd-crushed. And it is also possible to go a step or two or three hundred too far and imply that the decision to drink is the only decision that counts, and that anything anyone else does afterward is just a consequence of that. Nope.
I think finally, slowly, painfully, we’re starting to realize just what a fallacy this is.
Smith’s suspension is just for a week, but it’s time enough to think. There’s plenty more where this came from.
I know Women Against Feminism is a hashtag and a Facebook group and perilously close to an actual movement. Who needs feminism, anyway? they ask. (And, hey, if feminists are really as opposed to sandwiches as these writers claim, we need to have words.) But I think as long as people keep saying it’s on us to make sure that nobody hits us, we still need it.
It doesn’t make women into victims. There is a difference between saying you’re a victim and saying that it is ridiculous to act as though you could control other people’s behavior and should be held responsible for what they do. It is ridiculous. People are not forces of nature. Not even Stephen A. Smith.