Talking to Strangers

Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book, is about why we can’t catch people who are lying and don’t believe people who are telling the truth. Gladwell is very careful to divorce the act of not believing any given person from identity politics. What I believe he’s trying to suggest is that our cognitive failures have more to do with human psychology than the particularities of any given society in any given place at any given time. Moreover, suffering from a critical misunderstanding is something that could happen to any of us, regardless of race or gender.

Malcolm Gladwell makes a strong and convincing argument, because Malcolm Gladwell always makes a strong and convincing argument. Malcolm Gladwell is an excellent writer and very good at the sort of journalism he specializes in.

That being said.

Oh boy.

That being said, it’s a bit disingenuous for Malcolm Gladwell to remove gender from the equation when almost every single example he references involves people either not believing what a woman is telling them or not believing that a woman could be who and what she clearly is.

A clever reader will pick up on this, of course, but it would have been nice for Malcolm Gladwell to include, like, I don’t know. A single footnote? Acknowledging the existence of the incredible amount of research that strongly suggests that gender is a major contributing factor regarding whether or not we believe what someone is saying, especially when all available evidence supports their testimony.

For example, why does no one believe the female victims of sexual assault and abuse, even when the incidents are well-documented and reported by multiple unconnected parties? Is it because of complex psychological reasons, or is it because, I don’t know, women are lying liars who just want attention and will only cause trouble if you take them seriously? I mean, it’s always good to hear the full story and judge these incidents on a case-by-case basis, but it’s also taken for granted as a truism in the LGBTQ+ community (especially transgender and nonbinary communities) that people either start believing you or ignoring you almost immediately after you change your name and gender presentation.

Also, I keep saying this, but it’s not necessarily the case that people don’t believe women, but rather that they don’t care and hope the problem will go away on its own. Based on my own experience, I would say that this is doubly true when it comes to women refusing to act on the testimony of other women, as the credibility of the woman who takes concrete action based on the report will be disbelieved or disregarded by association.

Personally speaking, as someone who is not female but presents as female for the sake of job security in a precarious environment, I have deliberately made myself unavailable to meet with female students whom I’m reasonably certain intend to speak with me about being harassed by a male student or by one of my male colleagues. I know this sounds evil, but listen.

If I can only justifiably report one incident of sexual misconduct or gender-based discrimination in any given academic year, I need to make sure that the case I report is worth it, meaning that the report will add evidence against a serious repeat offender instead of “merely” giving the student a sense of support and closure. Title IX “compliance” offices at American universities need only to “address” an incident on paper, so it’s unlikely that anything will be solved – or even change – for the student who has experienced abuse, harassment, or discrimination. As a result, the only way I can help anyone is by not “wasting” the impact of any given report.

(How did I arrive at this conclusion? Believe me, friend, you do not want to know. Not to mention that no one believed me or cared when I tried to tell the relevant story in any number of informal and professional forums.)

If you’re disgusted by this, you absolutely should be. If you happen to be a cisgender man (of any race, ethnicity, nationality, or sexual identity), you should also take away from this that your privilege gives you an incredible power to do good in the world through allyship and advocacy.

Speaking as someone who is often on the receiving end of not being believed, even with impeccable credentials and a strong and assertive affect, I think all of the reasonable, intelligent, and sane reasons Malcolm Gladwell provides for why we can’t catch people who are lying and why we don’t believe people who are telling the truth apply if and only if gender is not a factor – but let’s be real, gender is absolutely fucking always a factor.