Bullish Life: When Men Are Too Emotional To Have A Rational Argument

On the night of the 2012 election, I was alone in my apartment, refreshing CNN.com. The electoral tally went above 270. I refreshed again! Finally, the headline! I wanted to share with someone, so I went downstairs and told my doorman. I assumed he would be pro-Obama, and I was not wrong. I think I said, “Yay!” And my doorman said, “Yeah, all right!”

Since then, white men all over the television have been LOSING THEIR SHIT. Trump had a public meltdown on Twitter. Limbaugh sounds like he was just dumped by his prom date. (What do I have to do to be good enough for your love?! Tell me! I’ll be anything you want! What about all the good times we had?) This guy is vowing to spit at Democrats and to shout “Obama sucks!” if you try to do something nice for him. Karl Rove got very upset on Fox News. So upset, in fact, that he was not able to think rationally.

This seems like just the right cultural moment for an article I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

Women’s Emotions are “Emotions,” Men’s Emotions are “How People Talk”

A long time ago, in Bullish: What Egg Donation Taught Me About Being a Dude, I quoted Ben Barres, Chair of the Neurobiology department at Stanford, and also a trans man:

It is just patently absurd to say women are more emotional than men. Men commit 25 times the murders; it’s shocking what the numbers are. And if anyone ever sees a woman with road rage, they should write it up and send it to a medical journal.


What I want to talk about is how emotional outbursts typically more associated with men (shouting, expressing anger openly) are given a pass in public discourse in a way that emotional outbursts typically more associated with women (crying, “getting upset”) are stigmatized.

I wish to dispel the notion that women are “more emotional.” I don’t think we are. I think that the emotions women stereotypically express are what men call “emotions,” and the emotions that men typically express are somehow considered by men to be something else.

This is incorrect. Anger? EMOTION. Hate? EMOTION. Resorting to violence? EMOTIONAL OUTBURST. An irrational need to be correct when all the evidence is against you? Pretty sure that’s an emotion. Resorting to shouting really loudly when you don’t like the other person’s point of view? That’s called “being too emotional to engage in a rational discussion.”

Not only do I think men are at least as emotional as women, I think that these stereotypically male emotions are more damaging to rational dialogue than are stereotypically female emotions. A hurt, crying person can still listen, think, and speak. A shouting, angry person? That person is crapping all over meaningful discourse.

I love Rachel Maddow. If you’re a ladyblog reader, you’ve probably seen this. But let me bring back this Maddow video from last April, in which Alex Castellanos denies the existence of the pay gap for women:

RACHEL MADDOW: But given that some of us believe that women are getting paid less than men for doing the same work, there is something called the Fair Pay Act. There was a court ruling that said the statute of limitations, if you’re getting paid less than a man, if you’re subject to discrimination, starts before you know that discrimination is happening, effectively cutting off your recourse to the courts. You didn’t know you were being discriminated against. You can’t go. The first law passed by this administration is the Fair Pay Act. To remedy that court ruling. The Mitt Romney campaign put you out as a surrogate to shore up people’s feelings about this issue after they could not say whether or not Mitt Romney would have signed that bill. You’re supposed to make us feel better about it. You voted against the Fair Pay Act. It’s not about–whether or not you have a female surrogate. It’s about policy and whether or not you want to fix some of the structural discrimination that women really do face that Republicans don’t believe is happening.

ALEX CASTELLANOS: It’s policy. And I love how passionate you are. I wish you are as right about what you’re saying as you are passionate about it. I really do.

RACHEL MADDOW: That’s really condescending.

ALEX CASTELLANOS: For example– no.

RACHEL MADDOW: I mean this is a stylistic issue.

ALEX CASTELLANOS: I’ll tell you what–

RACHEL MADDOW: My passion on this issue–

ALEX CASTELLANOS: Here’s a fact–

RACHEL MADDOW:–is actually me making a factual argument–


“My passion on this issue is actually me making a factual argument.” I could die of joy (yes, that’s an emotion). But despite my deep enjoyment of Rachel Maddow, totally unruffled, calling that guy out for his patronizing bullshit, that video is really hard for me to watch.

I was a high school debate champion. Then co-captain of the team at Dartmouth. I’m no Maddow, but I’m pretty good at holding my own in this kind of situation. And yet, if that were me, deflecting Alex Castellanos’ dismissive mansplaining, I’d need a whole day to recover. How does that kind of discourse help uncover truth?

In a Washington Post article about Ben Barres, biologist Peter Lawrence posits “a range of cognitive differences” between men and women. And yet:

But even as he played down the role of sexism, Lawrence said the “rat race” in science is skewed in favor of pushy, aggressive people — most of whom, he said, happen to be men.

“We should try and look for the qualities we actually need,” he said. “I believe if we did, that we would choose more women and more gentle men. It is gentle people of all sorts who are discriminated against in our struggle to survive.”


“The qualities we actually need” rarely include pushing others around, or having a deep, loud voice.

Warehouse Clearance Sale


What Do we Not Hear When the Loudest Person Wins?

A few months back, I was asked to participate in a debate on the topic of whether men should have to pay on dates. (I was “the feminist.”) It turned out that the male debater and I didn’t really disagree much on that topic. I said that, generally, whoever asks the other person out pays for that date, and then at some point couples generally transition into sharing costs in whatever way works for them. He was actually pretty happy to pay for first dates; he just wanted women to say thank you and to not use him. I had no problem with that.

I think he said that women should offer to pay half, knowing they’ll probably be turned down. I said, well, sometimes — but what if the other person invited you someplace really expensive? What if you agreed to a date with the guy and he spent an hour saying crazy racist shit to you and you felt like you couldn’t escape? This is what led to our real disagreement.

The male debater felt strongly that if a woman wasn’t interested in a second date, she should say so on the spot. If the man says, “Let’s do this again sometime,” the woman shouldn’t say, “Sure, great,” and then back out later. I said that that was a nice ideal, but that he should keep in mind that most women spent most of their lives living in low-level fear of physical aggression from men. I think about avoiding rape (or other violence) every time I walk home from the subway, every time there’s an unexpected knock at the door, and certainly every time I piss off an unhinged man. So, if I were on a date with a man who I felt was unbalanced, creepy, overly aggressive, or possibly violent, and he asked if I wanted to “do this again sometime,” I would say whatever I felt would avoid conflict. And then I would leave, wait awhile, and hope that letting him down politely a few days later would avoid his finding me and turning my skin into an overcoat.

The male debater was furious that I had even brought this up. He felt that the threat of violence against women was irrelevant, and that I was playing some kind of “rape card” as a debate trick. He got angrier and angrier as we argued. I also got angrier and angrier, although I worked hard to keep speaking in a calm and considered way. He was shouting and cutting me off when I tried to speak. I pointed out that the debater himself was displaying exactly the sort of behavior that would make me very uncomfortable on a date. THAT made him livid.

He then called me “passive-aggressive.”

I was genuinely taken aback. “Actually,” I said, “I call this ‘behaving myself.’” It’s a lot of work to stay calm when you’re just as furious as the other person, and that other person is shouting at you. I felt that I was acting like a grownup — at some emotional cost to myself — and I wanted credit, not insults, for being able to speak in a normal tone of voice when I was having to explain things like, “We can’t tell who the rapists are before they turn violent, so sometimes we have to be cautious with men who do not intend to harm us.”

After the debate, I was not really ready to make friends, but we ended up going out for a beer with the producer and crew. The male debater said that he was often a guest on radio shows, and that shouting and interrupting is just how they talk. You have to engage in that way, or you don’t get airtime. The male debater was congenial (and talented). The whole debate had been conceived because he had gone on some shitty dates, and who among us has not had that experience?

This was a good guy. The problem wasn’t him, it was that the behavior our society rewards was not, in my opinion, the best this guy had to offer.

That, to me, is the real problem. It’s also why I’ve used the terms “stereotypically male” and “stereotypically female” in this article; I’m sure that some part of our debating styles is due to how much testosterone is floating around our bodies, but some large part of it is learned. If you’re accustomed to arguing on radio programs, you have to shout because otherwise you would not get to speak. If you majored in women’s studies, you’ve probably had it drilled into you that shouting is “denying someone her voice.” On a talk radio show, crying would immediately invalidate your argument. At a feminist conference, shouting would make you the oppressor. I’m suggesting that both crying and shouting are emotional expressions, that some of these emotions are more destructive to debate and dialogue than others, and that we should all recognize our emotions and then channel them into rational discourse. That means dudes, too.

From Rolling Stone‘s Rachel Maddow’s Quiet War, on Maddow’s encounter with Castellanos:

The tricky part is knowing what to do about the lie [that women make as much as men]. Chris Matthews would erupt in thunderous outrage; Keith Olbermann would dissolve into a knowing sneer. But Maddow’s skills are different: She strives not for the expression of political anger but for its suppression, to distance herself from the partisan debate rather than engage it, to steward progressive fury into a world of certainty, of charts, graphs, statistics, a real world that matters and that the political debate can’t corrupt…. “Anger is like sugar in a cocktail,” Maddow tells me. “I’d rather have none at all than a grain too much.”


What Makes a Debate Productive, and What Destroys Its Value?

If you involve me in any kind of debate about smart, poor kids not being able to obtain education, a tear will roll awkwardly down the side of my nose about every ten seconds. It’s cool. I’m still pretty articulate. Those tears are an appropriate response to tragedy and injustice. In fact, I think having an appropriate emotional response to tragedy and injustice makes my arguments on the topic more credible, not less. Or maybe those tears are simply irrelevant. That’s fine — whatever’s going on with my eyes doesn’t shut down debate. Not being able to control your disagreement while I’m mid-sentence? That shuts down debate. And it’s rude, in a way that crying isn’t.

Rachel Maddow in Rolling Stone:

“The cable-news model is that you want to create a fight. Because people will yell! And there will be exclamation points and things will be in ALL CAPS and people will watch! Having been the left-wing person booked to fight with the right-wing person in that Punch and Judy show, I’m not interested in re-creating that. If I’ve booked you, I feel like you’ve got something worth listening to. With conservative guests, that means you can’t just be a random hack who’s here to fight with me because I am who I am. You’ve got to bring something to it where even without sparks flying and even with it being civil, you’re going to illuminate something that I can’t.”


I was the Lincoln-Douglas debate champion of Virginia in both my junior and senior years of high school. I can be both adamant and imminently reasonable, as appropriate. (There was no crying; we mostly debated about topics I cared little about in real life.) My victories, however, were made possible by the fact that there are timed speeches; during your time, the other person doesn’t try to shout louder than you. On a talk radio show, I would undoubtedly lose the fight to grab airspace for myself, just as I often lose the fight for airspace in many barroom discussions and bloviating dinner-table talks. So obviously my ideas are invalid.

The way most “debates” happen, on television and otherwise, is like beginning a writing contest by making all the writers physically fight each other for paper. Obviously, writers who don’t get any paper are the worst writers, right?

[ctt template=”3″ link=”JGbcO” via=”no” ]The way most “debates” happen is like beginning a writing contest by making the writers physically fight each other for paper.[/ctt]

For a demonstration that this is not, in fact, true, watch this video of Mona Eltahawy and Leila Ahmed on the Melissa Harris Perry Show, discussing Eltahawy’s article “Why Do They Hate Us?”, about the position of women in the Muslim world.

After Eltahawy (who, by the way, is an incredible badass who was arrested covering protests in Tahrir Square and was sexually assaulted and had her arms broken by Egyptian police) makes her case, host Harris-Perry says they’re going to “dive into the controversy” and “add a dissenting voice” after the commercial break. Controversy! Dissent!

The dissenting voice is author and Harvard Divinity School professor Leila Ahmed. Ahmed begins by saying, of Eltahawy, that she would like to “salute her and thank her for the extraordinary work she’s doing.” And then she gets to her “core disagreement”: Eltahawy paints all of the Arab world with the same brush despite striking differences among nations, for instance. Some of the problems Eltahawy discusses are associated more with Africa than the Arab world. No one interrupts anyone. Harris-Perry says, “As an academic, I love nuance.” Eltahawy acknowledges that her goal in talking about oppression against women in the Muslim world is to “go for the jugular.” Ahmed argues against giving fodder to people who simply hate Muslims. Around the 17 minute mark, things get a little heated. Eltawhy is speaking and Ahmed says, “Can I just give you an example of some of the complications?” Eltahawy says “Sure, please!”

I mention the actual arguments in this debate to point out that EVERYONE GETS TO SPEAK IN COMPLETE SENTENCES. Can you tell me somehow that this is inferior to a bunch of men shouting at and interrupting each other? It isn’t.

I want everyone to behave as rationally as the three women facilitating an intelligent discussion in this nineteen-minute video. If I may remind you, this is how Alex Castellanos talks to Rachel Maddow:

RACHEL MADDOW: No, listen–

DAVID GREGORY: All right, let Rachel–

RACHEL MADDOW: Right now women are making 77 cents–

ALEX CASTELLANOS: And litigated–

RACHEL MADDOW: –on the dollar for what men are making, so–

ALEX CASTELLANOS: Well, that’s not true.



[Moderator] DAVID GREGORY: All right, let Rachel make her point.


A transcript of a productive debate has more periods and fewer hyphens.


Towards a Better Model of Discourse

Many feminists have posited that we need to break free of the idea that male behavior is the default to which women should aspire.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, in Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, wrote:

I continually push the young women in my classes to speak more. They must gain the confidence to value their own insights and questions, and to present them readily. My husband agrees, but he actually tries to get the young men in his classes to act more like the women—to speak less and listen more. If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal.


I want a model of discourse in which we all behave like adults: mostly calm, as rational as possible, and informed but not controlled by our emotions. I would like a model of discourse in which stereotypically female emotions are less stigmatized, and stereotypically male emotions — especially destructive ones — are not given a free pass. I’d like us to acknowledge that we’re all emotional beings, and if Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh get national airtime to completely give in to those emotions, there’s no argument to be made anymore that women “too emotional” for anything. I’d like us to acknowledge that uncontrolled emotions are the cause of most crime, and most crime is committed by men.

I can tell you, the truth is infuriating to irrationally angry men who try to bully you and shut you down. You want to see how much such men cannot handle the truth that they are slaves to their own emotions? Tell a shouting, angry man — “All you whores voted for Obama because you want handouts from the government!” — tell that man, “Stop it, you’re getting emotional. I can’t talk to you when you’re so emotional.”

If enough of us say that enough times, maybe it’ll sink in. If not, we’ll just have to act like grownups and ignore whoever’s having a temper tantrum.

Of interest: Trevor Noah: It’s Easier to Be an Angry White Man Than an Angry Black Man


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