Stop Asking “What Did You Expect?”

Many a non-activist has wondered what can be done at the layperson’s level to help in the quest to make the world a better place. One answer — to raise your everyday, expressed expectations — may sound like a platitude, but it isn’t. It’s not overly idealistic to believe that raising expectations can change at least the part of the world that exists around you. By making it harder for any oppressive types to be oppressive around you, you limit their scope of influence and thus directly reduce their potential to harm.

What helps oppression, on the other hand, isn’t limited to direct support. There is an insidious form of support that comes by way of often well-meaning people attempting to alleviate perceived distress or dispel perceived ignorance. I’m talking about those whose response to call-outs is a jaded “welp, what did you expect?”

Take the conversation around cis male behavior, for instance. While the “What did you expect from him?” sentiment is usually uttered with the intention of only excusing one cis man’s behavior, the thought behind it is echoed in the cliches that are often misconstrued as feminist thanks to unsavory stereotypes.

a billboard reading "men stink"

Men are all pigs who want just one thing. Men just aren’t as evolved as women. Men are big babies. Typical of men, amirite? What did you expect?

The sentiment behind commercials that portray them as bumbling does not lead to cis men being banned from, say, entering china shops. The notion that they will have sex with anything and everything has not led to mandatory chastity belts for cis men. As seemingly anti-male notions do not lead them to be stripped of their power, agency, and authority across society, they don’t represent oppression — but they do have an effect. The liberation of lowered expectations is a not-insignificant part of male privilege. Think of a father being praised for taking his child out for an ice cream cone where a mother would have been shamed for having fed her child unhealthy desserts, the group of men chatting in the living room after dinner while the two women who happen to be present clear away the dishes, the career woman told that her lack of high heels is “unprofessional” while men’s formal shoes remain not physically debilitating in the long term.

To all those whose gut reaction to someone pointing out injustice in the world is to ask “What did you expect?”, I ask them the same. Should we be expecting so much of women and so little of men? More broadly, do you expect for the horribleness of the world to continue unchecked and unaddressed?

I know that people are terrible and/or thoughtless and that the world is unfair; I suspect that most people calling out injustice know all that, too. We also know that most people are going to behave because there are consequences for not behaving rather than out of the goodness of their hearts. Our outrage is not necessarily, always, or even often an expression of startled inexperience — it represents our effort to raise the social cost of bad behavior.

Answering those who express raised expectations with a “Well, what did you expect?” isn’t a helpful or, often, even a neutral act. It harms the effort to raise the standards for human decency in society by excusing bad behavior as well as condescending to those who are striving for better. Those who don’t want to express raised expectations are free to refrain from doing so. Treating those who call out as if we were expressing naive incredulity, however? It should surprise no one when the question is treated for what it is: a call to succumb to the defeatist attitude that favors silent acquiescence.

Stop Asking “What Did You Expect?”

12 thoughts on “Stop Asking “What Did You Expect?”

  1. 2

    Recently two colleagues were murdered in Russia, well what did they expect when they shut down a massive spam operation that was making huge profits for organized crime which had bought many politicians?

    Ever since the Snowden/NSA revelations people have been telling me that “everyone should have known something like that” was going on. Move along, nothing to see.

    Funny thing is that when I suggested as much at the time, the same smarmy know-it-alls were telling me that I was paranoid for suggesting that sort of thing might be happening.

    I am certain that there are many individuals in the NSA who have or are abusing the information they have access to for political purposes. And I am pretty sure that while partisans on both sides are doing it, that there are more Republican, Tea Party and Fascist partisans with access to that data than Progressives.

    I am also pretty sure that at least one group of retired NSA employees are hawking similar services to large corporations as ‘cyber defense’. Only that this will mean using criminal means to spy on legal protest groups. The individual and his accomplices betting on the belief that if the establishment won’t let them be put on trial for the war crimes they were a party to under Bush, they can get away with anything.

  2. 3

    I’m with you.

    Maybe this is an example of privilege, but I’m not around people who say “what did you expect?” I don’t get people saying racist or misogynistic things around me, either — maybe they realize I’m one of those weirdos who will object.

    What I mainly feel is helpless when I hear about this stuff. It’s as if I were on the Titannic and seeing the iceberg, but couldn’t get anyone to pay attention to it. I can kind of understand why some radicals back in the 1960’s and 1970’s came to feel that violence was the only answer. (Note that “understand” != “agree with”) And the more I hear, the more I feel helpless and angry about. There seems to be no end of humans’ ability to do awful things to other human beings.

    They say people are supposed to get more conservative with age, but I seem to get more radical every year.

  3. 4

    “What did you expect?” is unhelpful in another way; it’s equivalent to saying, “you should have known better,” or “you should have done X thing instead of the Y thing that you actually did.” Criticizing the past may feel good, because the person who does it gets to be a condescending know-it-all without any chance of being proven wrong, but it’s dismissive and minimizing and unhelpful going forward. It’s an expression of power and privilege disguised as advice. It’s also something I hear from men much more often than from women.

    A good answer to “what did you expect?” is “I expected Useless Person to act like a responsible adult.”

  4. 5

    Thanks for writing this article. It hits close to home. A coworker of mine asked ‘what did you expect?” after a story about a woman who probably got drugged at a bar (don’t worry nothing else bad happened to her). Afterwards, I just told him that’s it’s bit unreasonable to expect all women to know exactly what to do in every situation to avoid being raped. I feel like all we did was respectfully disagree. Is there anything better that I could have done? I feel like my coworker is only proven guilty of having a very bleak (and possibly realistic) view of the world.

        1. I’m sorry about my post. I’m mad at myself for acting as if victim blaming isn’t horrible. The respect I have for my coworker probably made me miss what was obvious (or it could be that I’m a moron…). I’m going to leave this site for about a month and if I come back, I’ll give myself time to think before posting.

          1. How about instead of leaving if you stick around and go through past posts that are related to this one and do some reading? That will be more useful to you educating yourself than quasi-flouncing. 😉

          2. No way! Don’t go away! What Will said. We’ve all been guilty of these kinds of things. To quote a very eloquent Patrick Rothfus Facbook post on this topic…

            “What’s happening here is that you’ve been accidentally poisoned by our culture.

            We absorb cultural knowledge starting when we’re very, very young. The same way we learn language. The same way we learn the difference in the words “slim” and “slender.”

            This sort of cultural knowledge isn’t taught. We simply soak it up.

            And some of it is good. This is how we learn to love. This is how we learn about humor. This is how we learn about ephemeral things like justice and fairness.

            But we also soak up some of the culture’s negative things too. And our culture has a problem with women. And sex. And women AND sex together…. well, we *really* have a problem with that.

            So if some part of you *thinks* “Only a slut would…” that’s understandable. It’s not good, but it’s understandable. In some ways that’s what you’ve been trained to think by the culture you’ve been raised in.

            But you *do* need to realize that it’s wrong.”

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