When “I Didn’t Mean To” Makes it Worse

Entitlement and violation in STEM communities.

by Frances Hocutt on April 28th, 2014

Since 2010, STEM-adjacent communities have made strides in addressing deliberate and calculated abuse and harassment. These are necessary conversations; predators target the vulnerable at our conferences, in our companies, in our departments. Some communities actively work to identify and exclude serial harassers and other predators. Other communities continue to prioritize the reputation of the community and its leaders over the safety of individual members.

Current anti-abuse efforts in STEM are not perfect, but they are progress. But how are we addressing less obvious, but even more common, boundary violations in our community?

“I didn’t mean to.” “She thought you wouldn’t mind.” “They didn’t mean it like that.”

These aren’t always the excuses of a deliberate predator. Often, they’re true. The offender didn’t intend to cause harm.

But what difference does that make? How is it that we keep doing this? What can we do to reduce the damage we cause?

Entitlement and power

Entitlement is a double-edged sword. When we act as though we are entitled to what we have a right to — when we set our own boundaries and have them respected, when we act with assertiveness, when we project our belief that we matter — that’s healthy. But when we assume that others will give us something we have no right to, that entitlement poisons those relationships.

Entitlement comes out when we internally substitute our assumptions and desires for another person’s boundaries and lived experience. Maybe our assumptions are more convenient for us; maybe we assume that our own experiences and boundaries are universal, possibly because we’ve never thought to check, or because we didn’t listen when those around us talked about their own assumptions and backgrounds.

Just as implicit bias is often at odds with consciously held opinions, actions we take out of entitlement often conflict with our stated values — to the frustration and confusion of everyone involved.

Power breeds entitlement, and entitlement gives us a deniable way to entrench existing power dynamics. The more power we have in a relationship, the less likely we are to notice when we overstep ourselves, and the less the other person will be able to assert themselves.

It’s tempting to think of this toxic entitlement as a weapon only other people use. This idea is seductive and false. Even when we are marginalized in some ways, we have power and privilege in others. We may be managers, mentors, teachers, founders, parents, role models — regardless of our gender, sexuality, race, class, socioeconomic status, or other contexts in which we lack power. Entitlement is everywhere.

Entitlement to Time and Work

We’ve all had (or been) the roommate who “doesn’t see dirt”.

Maybe they only did chores when asked; maybe they waited for others to get fed up with the mess and clean it themselves. In either case, they obviously had no desire to learn new skills and share in the task of household management. They assume that it will be done… and not by them.

Kitchen sink, piled with dirty dishes.

Image, cropped and filtered, CC-BY via kbcanon

What about in the office? Who bites the bullet and cleans the coffeepot? Who is usually asked to take notes in meetings? Who chats with collaborators to make sure they’re on the same page? Who makes sure that thanks and credit make it to the people who did the work?

Social and emotional work (and sometimes even the need for it) is invisible when done well. Conversations flow. Anger is expressed in socially acceptable ways. Forgiveness is granted when asked, and apologies are accepted. Boundaries are never defended with force. This is all work, and it is exhausting. Entitlement lets us assume that someone else will do it. Entitlement lets us make seemingly polite demands without thinking of the cognitive burden doing so imposes.

While wearying, these are minor examples compared to ways entitlement to work may play out in a stronger power dynamic. For example: a manager slowly asks more and more of an employee until the employee is doing far more than originally negotiated. Since it is never discussed and the manager assumes there is no problem, there is no easy way for the employee to assert themselves without seeming “uncommitted” or “like a slacker”. Over time, boundary violations become normalized. A graduate advisor/supervisor may expect an immediate response to late-night research status requests. They may even call a student’s cell phone at night to make sure they will be rested enough to be in lab on time the next day. When the person with power acts as though these are reasonable requests, the target of their demands finds it even harder to draw and enforce appropriate professional boundaries.

Entitlement to space

Entitlement extends to taking up literal and metaphorical space. In one-on-one interactions, the entitled person prioritizes themselves. They monopolize the conversation or only address the person most like them. Entitled men patronizingly explain a subject to the expert standing in front of them. Entitled white women think nothing of startingdiscussions with black women that go, “I’m tired of having these discussions. I’m having a hard time dealing with your anger.” Earnest middle-class people explain how “the poor” make bad economic decisions. Curious cisgender people think nothing of asking trans people about the shape of their genitals.

In individual physical interactions, entitled people invade others’ personal space by standing too close, leaning in, or touching their belongings without invitation. The initial intrusion may be a difference of culture and habit, but entitlement comes into play when the intruder does not (want to) notice the other’s discomfort and pull back. The implication is always: my comfort level and my opinions matter. You will be interested in them, because I am.

This type of entitlement extends to the expectation of access to physical spaces. Those with power resist the idea that spaces exist where they are not welcome and ignore rules that exist to exclude them. (See this excellent dissection of a particularly egregious example.) Men ask if they can be members of women-only spaces and show up anyway when told “no”. White men and women show up in spaces intended for people of color.

Even when entitlement does not lead to the assumption that we can show up whenever and wherever we like, expecting our preferences to take priority in spaces that center minority groups makes it unnecessarily difficult for those spaces to exist. Abled people complain about the inconvenience of accessibility modifications in a talk. White women question the necessity of a space that is only for women of color. (Bonus: they do this in a women-only space.) Thin people complain that fat people’s bodies literally take up too much space on public transit. Majority voices are amplified, entitlement persists, and these patterns repeat.

Entitlement to bodies

Entitlement to personal space can go beyond crowding to include touching: a hand on an elbow or in the small of the back, a hug that lasts just too long for comfort, an unwanted kiss on the cheek. The difference between this and the usual quick nonverbal negotiation of physical contact is that the person touching has no thought that the other might not want to be touched. They may be on autopilot and not think to check in, or they may be operating on the unconscious assumption that their own comfort level is the only one that matters. As with other social manifestations of entitlement, there is an inability (or a lack of inclination) to notice a soft “no”.

We unconsciously absorb so many beliefs about touching, bodies and sexuality that make it easy to rewrite the discomfort the person in front of us is projecting. So many things can prime us to believe that “yes” is the answer until we get a hard “no”: we see them habitually hug or kiss their friends; we are in a preexisting relationship with them; we know that their romantic or sexual relationships involve kink or nonmonogamy; or even just our own wishful thinking. When we assume “yes”, we don’t just ignore “no”. We don’t expect it, don’t see it, and pass right through it. We risk doing tremendous harm.

Entitlement to bodies can lead to unwanted sexual touching (extending up through sexual assault and rape). Entitlement around physical and sexual boundaries is particularly insidious because so many of us have already had those boundaries violated. It’s extraordinarily difficult to figure out where to stand our ground when we’ve been punished whenever we tried to stand up. And it’s too easy to turn around and take advantage of that tendency in others.

Entitlement-based expectations of universal safety

Our entitlement doesn’t only come out in one-on-one interactions. We build it into our structures when we assume that everyone who matters is like us. When it does, it endangers people and limits their options without any effort on our part.

Some examples: You can’t change the name attached to your git commit history, regardless of the reason for your name change. Are you reclaiming your name after a divorce? Transitioning? Hiding from a stalker? You can do your best to rip old commits out of their place in the git ecosystem and push the corrected ones back in (and good luck getting all the projects you worked on to accept that disruption), but realistically you’ll be left with your old name on the public internet and you get to decide whether you prefer to associate yourself with it or lose credit for your work. For that matter, Google wants your “(Western-looking)” wallet name, and doesn’t ask before sending it to your contacts.

Alcohol is a near-mandatory component of socializing in many parts of the tech world. The expectation that everyone should use an inhibition-lowering drug in a professional setting is a problem for those who don’t feel safe revealing all parts of their identity to their coworkers and boss. Even worse, though, are the ways that the presence of alcohol can facilitate sexual assault: “[b]eliefs about alcohol’s effects on sexual and aggressive behavior, stereotypes about drinking women, and alcohol’s effects on cognitive and motor skills.”

A group that appears to be mostly made up of twenty and thirty something young white men sits at a table of a mid-scale restaurant.

Image, cropped and filtered, CC-BY via pinguino k

An organizer who has never feared sexual aggression may think that it is only hospitable to provide unlimited alcohol and encourage nervous guests to drink as much as they want. Data on sexual assault suggest a different framing, which is: organizers push everyone present to use the drug most commonly used to facilitate sexual assaults. The strong possibility that the organizer either doesn’t know who the predators in their community are or has decided to “not take sides” and not exclude them makes this practice even more alarming. The organizers and the bulk of the community have, without meaning to, created an environment where sexual assault is easy and excusable.

How to reduce entitlement

We assume that our stories are universal. We assume that what helps us will help others. We ask, “Couldn’t you just…?” and explain that, actually, if they saw things our way they’d have it better. We ignore differences of ability, power, class, and culture to overwrite their stories with ours. We expect the world to be as we want it, and when we have power we act like that’s true.

That is the danger of entitlement. When we expect more than we’re due, we are in danger of robbing those around us of their own autonomy. Our assumptions shape our actions. Unintentional harm becomes easy. When we don’t expect boundaries to exist, we step right past them without looking, all in what we think is good will.

We don’t want to do this. How do we stop?

  • Practice empathy. Consume media by and for others unlike you.
  • Notice power structures. Think about your relationships and map the power dynamics you notice.
  • Listen to other people’s experiences. Notice what makes them happy, frustrated, sad. Notice when it’s different from what you expect from your experiences. Notice what isn’t actually helpful. When you notice a kneejerk “that’s wrong”, sit with it. Why do you think it’s wrong? Is it possible it’s just different?
  • When you have power, make it easy for those around you to be assertive. Give them space to talk; as with public speaking, go much more slowly than you think you need to. Ask for input and respectfully acknowledge the response, whether or not you agree with it.
  • In a touchy situation, let the other person set the pace and make a point of listening for, inviting, and respecting their boundaries. They may have complicated feelings and give off mixed signals. When in doubt, go slowly and ask.
  • What about recovering from unintended harms? If the one doing the harm is truly interested in supporting the one harmed, it is easier to rebuild trust and forgiveness. All the same, the cognitive dissonance between known good will and the harm done is hard for both people to deal with. It is legitimately difficult to reconcile an idea of the self as “a good person” or “a good ally” with evidence that, in that case, we didn’t act like one. For the one harmed, it may be hard to acknowledge that harm was done; doing so leads to the realization that in this case, our trust was misplaced and from there, to self-doubt and self-blame.

It can be particularly difficult to respond to ongoing, repeated, entitlement-based violations. Habits are persistent. When it’s normal for our boundaries to be treated as irrelevant, it’s even harder to identify and communicate how we want and need to be treated. Doing this is difficult even when the person who’s been acting from entitlement demonstrates that they understand the harm they’ve caused, makes changes to show that they respect our desires and boundaries, is careful about making requests, and doesn’t ask us to manage their feelings and make the conflict comfortable for them.

It’s not easy to address our own entitlement, and the entitlement in our communities. When we listen, we may hear things we wish we hadn’t. But everyone benefits when there are fewer barriers to living with our authentic selves. As we help that happen, we begin to treat people as people.

Postscript

“…And sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”

“It’s a lot more complicated than that—”

“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”

–Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax, in Carpe Jugulum