It’s not being “Awkward”, and the difference between Excuses and Explanations

With missing stairs being called out in more and more industries, I’m seeing some of the same arguments that we’ve had in fandom be pulled out again for a wider audience. I want to talk about one of these in particular – the “awkward” excuse.

Awkward or Asshole

Back when harassing missing stairs first started getting called out in the SF/F/H convention community, there were some folks who claimed it was or could be “social awkwardness” (or Asperger’s) instead of “actual” harassment.

This is, of course, bullshit.

I’m reminded of a panel I was on with three women, myself, and one guy who kept talking over all the women – to the point that the women on the panel were getting visibly upset.  I intervened as best I could, and afterwards went up to the guy.

After a bit of introduction, I asked if he had Asperger’s.  He was surprised, and said “How can you tell?”

When I explained what had just happened in direct language, he was horrified, and said that he’d try to pay more attention, and from what I later heard, he did work to change his behavior.

In my interactions with neuroatypical (substitute your term of choice here) and socially awkward people, this is what happens when their interactions with others aren’t how they perceive them.  People who are socially awkward or are in the Asperger’s range of the spectrum have empathy, they just aren’t always able to read social interactions or perceive the social cues that others think they’re giving off clearly. When they’re made aware of what’s going on, their behavior changes.

Contrast this with the doubling down (“It wasn’t harassment”) or non-apology apologies (see the Celebrity Perv Apology Generator) that we get from assholes. What they say has everything about deflecting blame. It’s all about how it wasn’t their fault somehow. Their behavior doesn’t change unless someone forces them to.  Louis CK’s non-apology after years of denying and dismissing the charges he later admitted to is a good example of this.

I call it the “awkward or asshole” test.  If they admit responsibility for what they’ve done, and work to not do it again, it was probably awkwardness. If not, they’re probably an asshole.

Explanations and Excuses

It’s a fine distinction between providing an explanation for a behavior and offering an excuse for a behavior. “I didn’t realize how it made you feel” could be either; it’s when one adds “that was a horrible thing for me to do” before and/or afterward that it stops being an excuse.  It’s the taking responsibility that’s the important part.

It can get tricky sometimes to tell the difference.

Despite my “artistic license” policy, and that any post you read here might be written anywhere from a minute to over a month before it goes up, I occasionally have someone accuse me of writing specifically about them.

One person in particular insisted that I’d been writing about them for about a month, and confronted me about it.  I hadn’t, so I apologized for the effect my writing had on them, and assured them that I’d not been writing those posts about them. I even revealed who or what situations had been the source or inspiration for those posts.  And this person insisted that wasn’t enough, and demanded that I apologize specifically for writing those posts about them.

This was a really hard position for me to be in. I took responsibility for the effect my actions had – even though I’d not intended it that way.  However, I was being asked to admit that I’d meant for that effect to happen… and that simply wasn’t the case.

I’ve rarely spoken to that person since, because we reached an impasse. That was enough of a resolution for me. But had that been a public incident, I don’t know how it would come across.  Would that be seen as an excuse? As an explanation?  I’m not sure.

But – and this is important – I’m not worrying about it too much.

Because when we are still dealing with a world and society where non-apologies are accepted, or where people choose which predatory actions are “acceptable” or “believeable” based on political parties or social convenience, trying to wring one’s hands about tricky edge cases is a way of distracting and delegitimizing the far worse and clear cut cases.

So it’s an interesting thought experiment, but it is most definitely a “future us” problem.

In the meantime, we have work to do and more missing stairs to replace.

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