Social Justice Versus Social Anxiety: An Impossible Dialogue
By Bryan Caplan
The Scene: A mandatory sexual harassment training seminar for college freshmen.
Training Officer: … So to recap, No always means No, but Yes does not always mean Yes. Someone who feels pressured will often say Yes when they don’t really mean it. Be careful not to apply pressure, or else you could be guilty of sexual assault without realizing it.
Anxious Student: [Reacts with horrified look, then collapses.]
Training Officer: Oh my God, what’s happened?
Anxious Student: [Silent, crumpled into a fetal position.]
Training Officer: Students, this is what sexual assault does to students!
Anxious Student: [Whispering.] No… that’s not it at all.
Training Officer: [Baffled.] Then what?
Anxious Student: [Even quieter.] You did this to me.
Training Officer: [Puts microphone up to Anxious Student’s mouth.] Tech support, maximum volume! Who’s the “you” you’re talking about?
Anxious Student: [Student keeps whispering, but amplification makes the sound audible to all.] “You” means you, Training Officer!
Training Officer: [Incredulous yet defensive.] Me?! We’ve never even met.
Anxious Student: You have to understand, I have severe social anxiety.
Training Officer: And?
Anxious Student: Talking to strangers has always been a struggle for me. Talking to girls is almost impossible.
Training Officer: [With self-righteous anger] Women.
Anxious Student: [Sudden scream, maximally amplified.] Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Aaaaaaaaaaaaah!
Training Officer: [Freaked out, clutching ears in pain.] OK, OK, calm down.
Anxious Student: [Resumes whispering into mic.] How can I calm down when you keep saying these frightful things?
Training Officer: What are you talking about?
Anxious Student: I’m already petrified that I might say the wrong thing to another person. And what do you do? Warn me that anything I say could be a heinous “microaggression.”
Training Officer: Easy for a privileged straight white male like you do say.
Anxious Student: [Sudden scream, maximally amplified.] Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Aaaaaaaaaaaaah! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!
Training Officer: [Doubly freaked out, clutching ears in agony.] OK, OK, calm down. Maybe I should be more sensitive about your social anxiety.
Anxious Student: Do you think?!
Training Officer: You’re right. You’re right. But what exactly was it that… set you off… I mean… What did I say that made you… feel… the way that you feel… now?
Anxious Student: Look, over the years I’ve gotten used to talking to other guys. It’s hard to make friends, but at least I have some.
Training Officer: [Suppressing knee-jerk self-righteousness.] And women can’t be fr… Oh, I mean, good for you!
Anxious Student: [Controlling urge to scream.] …
Training Officer: [Forced.] Please go on, I really want to learn about your lived experience.
Anxious Student: I’m still mortally afraid of talking to women, much less asking one out on a date.
Training Officer: [Judgmental, then solicitous.] I don’t know why you… Well, please continue.
Anxious Student: I dream of working up the courage to ask out a [shudder] woman… and having her say Yes.
Training Officer: A fine dream.
Anxious Student: Apparently not! How am I supposed to know if I’m “pressuring” her?
Training Officer: Oh, that’s what’s on your mind. Don’t worry about it.
Anxious Student: [Incredulous.] Don’t worry about it? Don’t worry about it?!
Training Officer: It’s not like you’re going to pressure a woman by accident.
Anxious Student: No? Please tell me: What doesn’t count as “pressure”?
Training Officer: [Nervous.] Lots of things…
Anxious Student: What if I look like I’d be really disappointed if she said No?
Training Officer: Well, yes, I suppose that could be pressure.
Anxious Student: Uh huh. Or what if I avoided her after rejecting me, and word got around that I avoided women who rejected me?
Training Officer: Well yea, that could make every woman who hears about your likely reaction feel pressured to say Yes.
Anxious Student: I didn’t win the Oscar for Best Actor.
Training Officer: Huh?
Anxious Student: If a woman rejects me, I feel bad. And I’m not a good enough actor to disguise that fact.
Training Officer: No one’s asking you to.
Anxious Student: Oh yes you are. To be more precise, you’re giving me two choices. I can either subject women to heinous “pressure,” or never ask a woman out.
Training Officer: Simplistic. [Self-correcting.] What I mean is, you’re misunderstanding me.
Anxious Student: Am I? Great. Give me a zero-pressure recipe for asking women out.
Training Officer: I can’t, that depends on the woman.
Anxious Student: So anything can be pressure?
Training Officer: [Defensively.] Well, most women wouldn’t regard a polite request for a date as pressure.
Anxious Student: I’m often accidentally impolite; that’s partly why I feel so much social anxiety. And in any case, do the women who would regard a polite request for a date as “pressure” wear a badge declaring their hypersensitivity?
Training Officer: No, that would be stigmatizing.
Anxious Student: So I’m right. The only way to know I’m not pressuring a woman is to avoid women entirely.
Training Officer: That is so s… Well, the best thing is to arrange some counseling for you.
Anxious Student: Counseling might help me get over unreasonable fears. But according to you, my fears are reasonable.
Training Officer: No. No, no.
Anxious Student: Yes. Yes, yes. I’m afraid that anything I say to a woman could constitute “pressure,” and you confirmed it.
Training Officer: Well, I didn’t confirm that it’s likely. Most women are reasonable about these things.
Anxious Student: So I only have to worry about the unreasonable women.
Training Officer: [Uncomfortable.] Well, I don’t like that phrase. Society has been stigmatizing women as “unreasonable”…
Anxious Student: Your double-talk confirms my worst fears. I don’t know if I can go on like this.
Training Officer: Given what I’m hearing, I’m afraid I’m going to have to refer you for mandatory suicide prevention training.
Anxious Student: [Shrugs.] I have a better idea.
Training Officer: Wonderful. What is it?
Anxious Student: You admit that your position is absurd. And change your official policies. Now.
Training Officer: What?
Anxious Student: You heard me.
Training Officer: We can’t do that.
Anxious Student: We can’t just go back to bright-line rules?
Training Officer: What bright-line rules?
Anxious Student: Here’s a classic bright-line rule: In the absence of violence or threat thereof, consent is valid. End of story.
Training Officer: We changed that rule because it was unfair to people who consented to things they weren’t comfortable with.
Anxious Student: You changed it to a rule that is unfair to people who are socially anxious.
Training Officer: [Finding courage.] The whole world can’t revolve around them.
Anxious Student: Your rule is also unfair to people who can’t read minds.
Training Officer: The whole world can’t revolve around them, either.
Anxious Student: That’s all humans, actually.
Training Officer: [Impatient] So all humans are Aspies?!
Anxious Student: [Taken aback.] Classy.
Training Officer: [Chagrined.] What I mean is, Neurotypicals are pretty good at figuring out these kinds of these. People on the spectrum are another story.
Anxious Student: So people are “pretty good” at being able to follow your absurd rules? Again, why does everything have to revolve around unreasonable women?
Training Officer: [Enraged.] Unreasonable people! Unreasonable people!
Anxious Student: You’re right. Unreasonable people. OK, so why does everything have to revolve around unreasonable people?
Training Officer: [Stumped.]
Anxious Student: This is college, right? Isn’t this supposed to be a place where reasonable people are in charge, and “pressure” students to emulate them?
Training Officer: [Grabs mic.] Aaaaaaah! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!
[Training Officer wakes up in a cold sweat.]
Training Officer: [Spends a full minute catching breath.] Thank God that in the real world, socially anxious people keep their mouths shut during training. Thank God!