Not Social Disapproval!

This week is full of commitments and deadlines. Rather than try to meet all my blogging commitments with new work and failing, I’m pulling out some old posts. Given how my audience has grown, most of you won’t have read them at the time. This post was originally published here.

Among the various things that are apparently more important than condemning rape jokes and threats aimed at a young woman on Reddit–besides the precision of Rebecca Watson’s language and whether a deeper understanding of Reddit might make it possible to deflect the blame onto someone else (answer: no)–is this:

While I have compassion for others… their statements are not my responsibility to police.

It’s progress, actually. Consensus is growing that something should be done about situations like these. Now we must instead debate about just what that should be–and who should do it. The refrain has changed from “What’s the big deal?” to “Why me?”

Many of the reasons why “Not me” are variations on a theme.


Empathy is involved, certainly, and there’s a straightforwardly empathetic bit of the dynamic here that makes perfect sense. Someone out there’s being treated like shit, and you don’t want that to happen–perfectly understandable.

However, there’s a funny little jump from “I feel empathy for this person” to “you ought to feel the same empathy”. I am deeply suspicious of that little jump. It immediately twists empathy from an emotion one has for others into a prescriptive social norm and a tool for judgment.


See, I do this by striving to be more informed and intelligent than they are. Not by saying people aren’t allowed to communicate their views with me, even in ways I find distasteful.

I’ve even seen a couple of people say things like, “Social disapproval is a technique used against atheists by theists. We shouldn’t be doing that ourselves.” All told, the consensus among those feeling challenged for doing nothing is that doing something is dangerously repressive–when that doing something is registering that one simply does not approve.

They’re even a tiny bit right. Social disapproval is indeed a potent force. It strongly shapes our societies and our interactions with each other. Being outcast presents a form of stress that is bad for us all on its own.

However, where these folks are a tiny bit right, they’re also a whole heaping lot wrong. The problem with this sort of social pressure isn’t that it is inherently wrong. As I mentioned, this is a big part of how we add order and structure to our societies. The problem is when we use to enforce pointless conformity, when we shame or cast out those who are doing nothing wrong, nothing that will harm our society.

For the record, sexism, misogyny, objectification, normalizing rape through nudge-nudge-wink-wink humor, threats to bodily autonomy–these are all doing something wrong. They all hurt a substantial portion of our society, and I don’t just mean women. This is not comparable to not believing in a god.

Those behaviors are all also prevalent in our society, though less than they used to be before we started confronting them. They are being held in place by a narrative that, while it can no longer claim that nobody at all is concerned by this behavior, the only people who are concerned are “thin-skinned pussies” and “irrational cunts.” That means that if you–yes, you–don’t speak up when something like this happens right in front of you, you feed that narrative. This is what “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” means.

The only thing that can really cut through that narrative is more voices that come from within the groups where this behavior happens. No bullying or questing for bad behavior required. You don’t have to be any more eloquent than “Dude, don’t go there” or “It’s only a joke if it’s funny” or “I’m with X on this” to back up someone else already taking the heat for standing up. Or you can just use the brilliant line that should become a meme as of yesterday: “I am also the internet and I don’t want to see that shit.”

That’s it. Social disapproval 101. It’s remarkably simple to do, it has a much-needed place in both society in general and this particular issue, and beyond that–people who are arguing against the idea are already employing it. What does anyone think talking about why they shouldn’t be asked to apply social pressure is anything other than applying social pressure?

Now it’s time to take those skills and put them to work where they can do some good: against the people who are making the problems instead of the people who are pointing them out.

Not Social Disapproval!
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7 thoughts on “Not Social Disapproval!

  1. 2

    For the record, sexism, misogyny, objectification, normalizing rape through nudge-nudge-wink-wink humor, threats to bodily autonomy–these are all doing something wrong.

    More importantly, they all contain their own inherent social disapproval. Just in the wrong direction.

  2. F

    Social disapproval is a good chunk of how society operates. Someone just doesn’t happen to like it with respect to these issues, from people on the other side of the issues. (Waaah.) If they truly have a problem with social disapproval in general, I submit that they haven’t been paying attention to life and they need to wake the fuck up. They just don’t notice everyday social disapproval (somehow).

  3. 4

    Terrific post! I’ve only been following your blog for about six months now, so I’m really enjoying these older posts.

    Good luck with the deadlines.

  4. 6

    Great writing Stephanie. I’ve been struggling with doing this is real life. Most of my social circles are strictly “no-asshole” zones. I’ve cultivated good close friends, and my outer circles have been carefully chosen. But the guys I play in a disc golf league with? Sheesh, they might as well hang a “no queers” sign up. There’s not a week that goes by without homophobic, sexist, sometimes bordering on racist jokes. Language that would get you tossed out of here in a heartbeat. And of course expressing discomfort is a great way to be targeted. If it weren’t for the incredibly thick skin I’ve developed, and the fact that I love the game (and seriously need the exercise) I’d ditch them. As it stands I just roll my eyes and try and pointedly not laugh.

  5. 7

    The irony here is that if you assume the patriarchal, misogynistic nature of most religions, we could expect that women would be zealous, activist atheists; and yet, the male behavior seems almost intended to deter females from participating.

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