Perception, motivation, and touch.

A writer for feministing, Chloe, recently shared an experience she had that made her angry.  She was standing in line at Starbucks, and some guy leaned toward her, put his hand on her arm, and told her, “You’re so beautiful.”  She found this to be intrusive and disrespectful.

What is interesting about this encounter is that Chloe’s reaction depended on her perception of the state of mind of the man who approached her.  Consider the following scenarios:

Scenario #1:  George thinks that men are more important than women.  He thinks women should cater to men, and make themselves beautiful so that he can enjoy looking at them.  He recently fired his secretary because she was too old, too ugly, and not deferential to men.  When he touched Chloe on the arm and she gave him a dirty look, he thought it was funny that the ladies can get miffed about the silliest things.

Scenario #2:  George has been seeing a therapist for years, because he’s been painfully shy his whole life.  Finally, his therapist suggests to George that he speak to women in public, to overcome his shyness.  George’s therapist suggests that he needs to be enthusiastic when he does this, and that he can’t just mumble “nice day isn’t it” with his eyes to the floor and his hands in his pockets.

Let’s give another hypothetical:  I’m walking to a job interview.  Suddenly, someone stands in front of me and begins yelling personal insults and gesticulating wildly.

Scenario #1:  The person yelling at me is has an interview with the same company, scheduled later in the day, and has strategically decided to yell at me for the purpose of throwing me off my game, ruining my interview, and thereby improving the odds that he will be selected for the job.

Scenario #2:  The person yelling at me has severe schizophrenia, and he recently stopped taking his medication because he thinks it’s poison.  He is yelling at me because he wants me to stop reading his thoughts and passing them on to the F.B.I.

An obvious point:  The emotions we feel in reaction to another’s behavior depends on the motivations we ascribe to their behavior.  And to someone who has been reading and re-reading Catherine MacKinnon, a man who places his hand on the arm of a woman at Starbucks and gives her a compliment will almost certainly be seen as motivated by feelings of male privilege and power, even if this is not the case.

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