How Do I Stop Being a TERF?
And other questions for Persuasion's Advice Columnist.
I’m a straight man who used to work in the domestic violence field. While I worked there, I learned that men in general—and tall men like me in particular—often came across as threatening to women, even when they didn’t mean to. I don’t work at that job anymore, but I am still single, and I’m afraid to date because I don’t want to scare anyone. What should I do?
For starters, I'd like you to go outside, plop yourself down on a bench in an area with decent foot traffic and people-watch for a while. Observe the women in particular: do they seem scared to you? Are they scuttling around like frightened crabs?
Of course not, right? Women wouldn't be able to live normal lives or function in society if they were constantly worrying about the threat of the bigger, stronger male population—so they don't. This is the same mindset that allows you to comfortably walk down the street without being afraid that a driver might suddenly veer onto the sidewalk and run you over for kicks: you have a reasoned, baseline level of trust that your fellow human beings won't hurt you.
It’s true that men—particularly physically imposing men—can sometimes come off as threatening even when they don't mean to. (Zachary Levi does a great bit about this in the latest season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: "When you're really tall, you can't get mad!") But it’s very easy to mitigate that: don't loom over people, be gracious about rejection, avoid flailing around or getting loud when you're upset. You certainly don't have to recuse yourself from the dating pool lest a woman find you frightening, a prospect as infantilizing to them as it is lonely for you. Even if you're seven feet tall, built like a bulldozer and dressed like Pennywise the Clown, it's still a woman's prerogative to decide if she wants to run the risk of dating you. Let her make that decision. Because, while it’s nice to try to protect women from fear, it’s even better to respect them—and that starts with trusting them to make their own choices. Now go ahead and ask someone out. (Maybe don't wear the clown costume, though.)
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I run the training division in a large law enforcement agency in the Southeast. Recently, I was tasked with updating our online “Community Policing” training module, which is targeted at law enforcement personnel but also available to the general public. I would like to foster meaningful discussion about topics like police use of force, how the current strategies developed, trends in criminal behavior, public polling data and court system statistics. But an honest look at any of those issues could open my agency up to ugly press coverage, and might get me personally targeted. Should I shoot for the moon and put something substantive out there?
On the one hand, it's true that some folks will not take kindly to the injection of pesky bias-disconfirming statistics, data and nuance into any discussion of community policing.
On the other hand, please, PLEASE inject these things. Not just for the sake of a more nuanced public conversation, but for the sake of making meaningful progress. A complicated policy discussion might be, well, complicated, but isn't it also necessary? How else will things ever change?
And sure, be careful: it's easy to see how coming off as either too defensive or too critical of cops might backfire and undermine whatever you put out there. But as someone who clearly understands this issue from multiple perspectives, you seem uniquely capable of threading that needle and steering the conversation towards a better place. I hope you will.
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I think I’m a TERF. I would like to stop being a TERF for the sake of friendships, to stop feeling outraged by things like compelled pronouns or well-meaning people who want to be inclusive by writing womxn and gxrls, and to not come across as someone who blocks people on sight. How?
You mean, how do you change your mind? The bad news is: it's hard. Human beings are hardwired in a million irritating ways to cling to whatever we believe, even when evidence says we've gotten it wrong, or even when (as in your case) our opinions have become politically and socially inconvenient. Of course, being open to persuasion is a good start: you can read widely, seek out the best arguments from every perspective, think critically on all of it, and see how your views evolve.
But while that might satisfy your intellectual curiosity, I'm not convinced that it'll solve your problem, because the problem isn't that you have certain opinions: it's that you are allowing those opinions to make your life difficult. And rather than changing your views, or lying about them to keep the peace, have you considered simply opting out of public outrage? You can! If talking about this issue leads to unproductive fights and puts needless strain on your friendships, then stop discussing it. If you see something outrageous, you can choose to roll your eyes and walk away instead of engaging. Be discriminating about how, why and when you indulge the impulse to be angry. Realize that you don't have to attend every argument you're invited to! You'll be amazed at how much less time you spend being mad online.
Kat Rosenfield is a culture writer and author of several novels.