I used to think I understood rape jokes—then I moved in with someone who laughed at his own. F was young, white and angry at the world, and I met him after he advertised a room. The two of us talked for an hour or two, during which time he spoke more than I did, with the eagerness of a child desperate to make friends but unsure how. Like me F was addicted to TV: the fourth season of Game of Thrones had been the best, I said, except one character being raped despite her pleas and attempts to break free. ‘Come on,’ he said, all jocular. ‘She deserves it.’
It didn’t take my flatmate’s views long to become clear. His favourite authors included Charles Bukowski, who he told me ‘treated women like shit’ (there was no ‘but’), and I once spied Russell Brand’s Booky Wook on his table. My last landlady, he declared, had been a ‘nasty fucking dry old cunt’, and our female flatmate (a ‘silly little girl’) was acting ‘like a total bitch’ when they fell out. He hadn’t had a problem coming onto her—‘I only let girls move in because I want to fuck them,’ F told me once. He was a misogynist, he agreed, but felt he treated his women well.
I took the room looking on the bright side. The flat was comfy, the location neat, the prospect of searching elsewhere uninviting, and F’s response hadn’t been bad when I mentioned I blogged on a feminist site. Living with him wouldn’t, I thought, be the end of the world, and for me it wasn’t. Still, there were doubts. F laughed about his excitement when women online had rape fantasies, not quite sounding as if he knew where fantasy ended. Was rape so bad, he asked another time, quickly assuring me he was kidding. I’m not certain he’d have said so had I shaken my head.
I don’t know if I lived with a rapist, or someone who’d have liked to be. None of these incidents proves anything, but what if that was the idea? Was F, I wonder now, scoping me out the way queer kids scope out their mum and dad, as I’d scoped him out with mention of feminists? Did he laugh about rape because it amused him, or because what might be a joke is always plausibly deniable, like a sexual advance veiled as an invitation for coffee? One’s instinct is to award the benefit of the doubt, but maybe that’s the point.
* * *
Online we’re asked to be charitable: to look on the bright side, argue graciously and assume the best. Most days I see the case for assuming good faith: most days, when trying to say what I mean, I can pay folk the courtesy of acting as if they mean what they say. (Taking sincerity as read even when one has doubts seems both good manners and a good tactic, because attempting to read minds implies the owners can expect you to.) I respect the benefit of the doubt, but remembering F makes me wonder—can we ever be overgenerous?
‘Addressing the best form of the other person’s argument even if it’s not the one they present’ has advocates. Steelmanning, as Chana Messinger describes, is good for road testing one’s own beliefs, but in close combat I’m less keen. If I’m out to change someone’s mind, I want to answer what they’ve said. One person’s steel is another’s straw: if your idea of the best case for someone’s stance differs from theirs, they might see weaknesses in it you don’t. Conversely, if they could argue better, you risk attacking an argument they don’t understand.
What happens when it’s a person we doubt? Atheist rock stars’ fans can be relied on to call critics uncharitable, obsessed with smear campaigns and witch hunts, denying other perspectives are even competent or sincere: I liked Dawkins too once, but stopped being able to assume the best when it meant thinking thousands of people were lying or mad. One can’t, it seems, be equally generous to both sides, and people’s track records make a good tiebreaker. Eventually my flatmate’s comments about rape did stop, perhaps because he could see my faith in him wearing thin.
What if the very appeal for charity is cause to withhold it? Where doubt exists, people who deserve generosity rarely rely on it, nailing their colours to the mast instead and making what they think clear. Those who evade, equivocate and require others to assume the best sometimes sow doubt for their own benefit: F asked me to believe his daydreams of torturing women were a joke, yet never offered any reason to, sheltering in uncertainty. Without a means of dispelling the fog, I wonder what charity might have forced me to ignore.