The Benefit of the Doubt, Part II: Given, Presumed Denied

Somewhere, most likely Florida, there is an endlessly flowing fountain of crocodile tears called the Fountain of Doubt. Men sit by the Fountain, eager to con you, so they tell you to drink. If you don't give them what they want, they tell you that you had promised to drink from the fountain and you haven't yet. Drink. But you did drink, so you're filled with doubt and you doubt your memory of drinking.

The thing to remember about the benefit of the doubt is that without being inside your head, no one can know that you haven't given it already; if they say you haven't, that's what they've assumed. This assumption is often self-serving, with people saying that you haven't given them the benefit of the doubt because you didn't give them what they want. Other times, people say that you haven't given the benefit of the doubt because you've complained about treatment by a member of a higher-privilege group and as such, the speaker gives the person you complain about the benefit of the doubt instead of giving it to you.

In short: by claiming that you haven't given the benefit of the doubt, they can claim that you aren't being fair even if you are.

Self-Serving Requests

In Arguments

The Benefit of the Doubt, Part II: Given, Presumed Denied

Twice in the past week on GT and other Gawker sites, I have been accused of not giving someone the benefit of the doubt because I didn't side with them in a dispute. I gave all parties the benefit of the doubt, evaluated known facts, and came to a conclusion that they didn't like. I didn't give them what they wanted from me, so they claimed that I was being unfair, that I hadn't given them the benefit of the doubt with the implication that if I had, I would have sided with them. It honestly doesn't matter to them whether I gave them the benefit of the doubt or not, because the goal is to get me to side with them in the dispute or generate a reason to chastise me for not having done so.

The Benefit of the Doubt, Part II: Given, Presumed Denied

The benefit of the doubt is tricky because it's internal. No third party can actually tell whether or not you gave someone the benefit of the doubt, but some people will claim that you didn't until you give them what they want, especially if they are accustomed to getting their way. But women are trained that we have to be kind, fair, giving, self-sacrificing, and sensitive to the feelings of the people around us. The only way to do those things when people tell us that we haven't given them the benefit of the doubt is to change our assessments. It is a constant barrage of people telling us that we can't trust our judgment. It's gaslighting.

"Nice Guys"

The Benefit of the Doubt, Part II: Given, Presumed Denied

So there's this guy—you'll know the one—he likes you and he wants to go out on a date with you but you don't find him attractive. He asks you out and you tell him that you don't like him that way. He tells you that you're not giving him a chance, that if you gave him a chance you would like him, that it's not fair of you to not give him a chance.

But you did give him a chance. You talked to him. You hung out with him. You befriended him. You gave him the chance to prove his value to you and your assessment was that his value is as a friend. He's mad at you because he is entitled to get what he wants and he knows that he can't say that he's entitled to date you, so he says you didn't give him a chance and he's entitled to that chance. It's just that he's defining chance as "date."

He doesn't give a shit whether his claim is true; he just wants to manipulate you into giving him what he wants.

Calling out Discrimination

The Benefit of the Doubt, Part II: Given, Presumed Denied

Then there are the people who say something insulting towards you, let's say it's something sexist like "of course women don't like science; that's just biology." So you say "sexist much?" And he responds "well, that's not fair! Just because I said something that you believe is sexist doesn't mean that I'm sexist." You eyeroll at him and he says "that's not fair! You never even gave me a chance! You would see that I'm not sexist if you just gave me the benefit of the doubt long enough to listen to me!"

But you see: you did give him the benefit of the doubt and you did give him a chance. He simply blew it. He's telling you to give him the benefit of the doubt so that you will take back your assessment, getting him closer to what he wants without making him consider whether the assessment was true.

The problem is that if you concede, he doesn't have to face the idea that he's been sexist. You've also shown him that if he says you're unfair, you'll concede, so in the future he should do that again. And the end result is that he continues to say sexist things and claiming that it's unfair for you to call him on that because you haven't given him the benefit of the doubt.

The Benefit of the Doubt, Part II: Given, Presumed Denied

It could be the 40th time that you've seen him say something sexist and you may have given him the benefit of the doubt 39 times, but you finally said something on the 40th. He will still tell you that you didn't give him the benefit of the doubt and that's unfair. He is literally incapable of knowing that you "never" him the benefit of the doubt because only you know that. He says it anyway in order to manipulate you into saying that you've changed your mind. And he will do the same if you call him on it again the 41st time, if someone else does it the 42nd time—because he keeps getting away with it.

This is the nature of entitlement.

Dismissal of Discrimination Claims

In my Microaggression and Programming piece, I told the tale of going to a programming meetup, kissing my boyfriend* on the shoulder, and being dismissively told that I wouldn't understand the conversation—on the apparent assumption that I was there with my boyfriend as opposed to being there because I'm a programmer. I showed him up, proving that not only did I understand the conversation, I understood the long-term ramifications of a programming topic that he was only slightly familiar with. Later, when I told my boyfriend that I was proud of myself for showing that guy up, he said that he thinks that sometimes, maybe I need to give people the benefit of the doubt more than I do.

The Benefit of the Doubt, Part II: Given, Presumed Denied

What he meant was "I don't think that the guy was being malicious" and with that I agree. I think that he intended to be welcoming. I think that he was being friendly. I also think that in doing so, he exposed a bias that he has that women aren't programmers and possibly that women can't be smart. Why did I think that he intended to be welcoming? One: because that's the impression that I got from his tone; and two: because I gave him the benefit of the doubt.

I could have decided that he was being passive-aggressive, that he wanted to finish his conversation and he wanted to send me away so that he could be sure that it would continue—or even that he thought that my boyfriend is cute. I could have decided that he was being aggressive, that he wanted to let me know that he is aware that women can't program—that he is on to me—alerting me that he will not be tolerating any lady business so I'd better not start any. My boyfriend argued that it is normal for men to try to show each other up in that way to establish dominance, which also would have been aggressive. Any of those would have been malicious. I didn't assume that he was malicious; I assumed that he was unaware of his subconscious bias and how that turned his attempt to welcome me into an insult.

So why did my boyfriend decide that I hadn't given the guy the benefit of the doubt?

Ingroup Favoritism/ Outgroup Negativity (Tribalism)

The Benefit of the Doubt, Part II: Given, Presumed Denied

Long story short: we empathize with people who we believe to be similar to ourselves (ingroup favoritism) but at best we sympathize with people who we believe to be dissimilar from ourselves (outgroup negativism). Now, my boyfriend might sympathize with me (just to clarify, he does) but he doesn't know what it's like to be treated as an incompetent programmer because boobs. He doesn't have experience receiving friendly, condescending greetings; I do.

He does, however, know what it's like to be socially awkward and screw up trying to talk to women, then get called on it and feel terrible. He looks at the situation and he can understand how the guy might feel, having done similar things before. He wants to defend the guy because he identifies with him and feels like he has to defend himself. Thus, he says that I should give the guy the benefit of the doubt.

If I report the incident to my female friends, they do know what it's like to be treated as incompetent because boobs, so they empathize with me. They say the guy needs to grasp that women can be programmers too. They gave me the benefit of the doubt but they also trusted my lived experience having lived it too.

The Benefit of the Doubt, Part II: Given, Presumed Denied

But there are other times that people claim that you haven't given someone else the benefit of the doubt. If someone doesn't identify with any parties, they may give the benefit of the doubt to a person of a high privilege group over a person of a low privilege group, even if they know the low privilege person and have no reason to distrust them. This is why it is important to listen to when people tell you about how they are treated, instead of automatically dismissing one party because of who they are. When someone complains that you haven't given them the benefit of the doubt, you have to evaluate whether you would have dismissed their side and whether doing so would have been unfair.

The Benefit of the Doubt, Part II: Given, Presumed Denied

This is also why it's important that when someone says that you haven't given them the benefit of the doubt, you ask yourself if you did and if you think you were consistent and fair—and especially if the complainer will get an advantage over you or others if you change your mind—stand your ground. No one is entitled to win and in many cases, insisting that the benefit of the doubt has been denied is merely a sense of entitlement to win.

Failing to stand your ground becomes extremely problematic when someone has power over someone else and every report of bad behavior results in giving the person who behaved badly the benefit of the doubt, no matter how many times he has acted that way.

* Since starting this piece, the boyfriend and I have broken up. I will continue to refer to him as boyfriend for the remainder of the piece, for continuity.


Coming up: The Benefit of the Doubt, Part III: Sexual Misbehavior and Victim-Blaming