Broken people, part 2.

There’s an interesting discussion going on about creepy stalkers in the comments to this L&L post.

It’s undoubtedly a reflection of my own privilege that I have the luxury to muse about such people rather than worry about immediate concerns like defense against them.* However, that privilege isn’t going to go away (in the good way, by conferring it on others) by not taking advantage of it, nor is it going to get any worse by doing so, ergo, I’ll take advantage to start thinking about more fundamental issues.

My question here is the same as my question with respect to the maniacs: what breaks these people? The creepy stalkers — what has happened in their lives such that their values, judgment, social skills, and/or recognition of the wishes and needs of others are so warped that they engage in the sorts of behavior that creepy stalkers often engage in?

I make a couple controversial assumptions here. First, I assume that human beings aren’t making choices ex nihilo — we’re situated subjects, and seriously abnormal behavior has an external cause or network of external causes. Second, I assume that the causes aren’t entirely biological and fixed — that there isn’t a creepy stalker gene — but rather are traceable in substantial part to things that happen to people in their lives.

If those things are true, then why aren’t we seriously investigating to discover what it is in our society that is so toxic that it creates all kinds of deranged criminals? I think this is related to the fundamental attribution error at some level — our public policy is premised on such a wildly strong notion of free will that we’re unwilling to even seriously look, as a society, for the sociological and mental causes of criminality, apart from isolated projects in academia.

Which is to say: maybe Skinner was partially right in Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Only partially right — the icky Walden Two kind of Platonic totalitarianism he seemed to be leaning toward is, obviously, profoundly immoral — whether or not some strong kind of determinism is true, we ought to think there’s value in individuals’ decisions not being manipulated by society at the kind of deep level he promoted. But: why shouldn’t we work to discover and use psychological knowledge to intervene to stop some of the more extreme kinds of harm inflicted by people on one another, by preventing, to the extent possible, the kinds of experiences that warp minds and behavior?

Can this be done consistent with liberal principles?

* I don’t think Amber’s quite right that it’s impossible for men to understand the threat — there are women who stalk men too. However, the threat is obviously much larger for women, because men turn to violent kinds of stalking far more often, rape is a predominantly male against female phenomenon, etc., so the magnitude and omnipresence of the threat is something that it’s hard, as a man, to really get.


13 Responses to “Broken people, part 2.”

  1. Amber Says:

    Of course it’s possible for men to be the victims of stalking or sexual assault–I don’t wish to deny that this happens, or that men can’t at some level be conscious of the threat. But a man stalking a woman is so much more dangerous than a woman stalking a man that the difference is almost one of kind. A male stalker is far more likely to be able to physically overpower his target and more likely to have access to weapons, for instance.

    On your substantive question: I’m not sure. Your approach would be very different if you believed that these sorts of actions arise from maladjusted, poorly socialized people who are trying to achieve an otherwise laudable goal (such as getting a date), as opposed to being committed by assholes fundamentally interested in power and dominance. “Curing” someone from the former group is perhaps more likely, but also more delicate, and would involve more finely tuned and thus intrusive intervention.

  2. Paul Gowder Says:

    Point taken on the first part, that’s obviously right. (Except perhaps for the gender disparity on access to weapons. I’ve never heard that before — where would it come from, at least in the U.S.? I guess some of it could be from the fact that the military and police are predominantly male, but is there more?)

    On the second, I wasn’t thinking so much of curing those who exist already (they might just have to be stopped with ordinary means) so much as figuring out what it is that creates them in the first place and not creating any more. How do people become maladjusted and poorly socialized, or assholes fundamentally interested in power and dominance?

  3. Amber Says:

    I didn’t have any actual basis for that, but some casual Googling between spates of reviewing documents indicates that 47% of men report a gun in their home and only 27% of women do. Men, for a variety of reasons, are attracted to dangerous phallic instruments of aggression.

    The idea that gun ownership is primarily related to military or police service is . . . not reflective of American reality. Remind me to tell you sometime about when my grandparents decided to get rid of *some* of their guns.

  4. Paul Gowder Says:

    Yeah, that’s why I was skeptical about the military/cops being the story about more men having access to guns. And, failing to come with any other story about why men would have more access to guns, it’s why I was skeptical about the notion altogether.

    But, yeah, men being more likely to seek out the dangerous phallic instruments of aggression makes a pretty believable story too (though not one about access, as such, just propensity).

  5. Amber Says:

    Having it in your house suggests access to me.

  6. Paul Gowder Says:

    Oh, I see. I misunderstood your initial remark about “access” to mean that there was some kind of social barrier to women getting guns, not that men were more likely to have them lying around for impulsive use.

  7. matt Says:

    I’d like to point out that there was no actual discussion of “creepy stalkers” in the original post but rather the worry that someone who makes small-talk at a shop might be a stalker- a product more of over-active imagination than a real problem. (Also, class bias, I think. Read some of Amber’s posts about her interactions with shop workers and tell me there’s not some serious issues there.) The “creepy stalker” stuff was all imagined with no actual examples. It’s not, of course, that such things can’t happen- they obviously do- but rather that this sort of reaction is out of proportion to it and cries out for other explanations, primarily psychological ones, I think. Also, the demographic group most likely to be physically assaulted is young males.

  8. Paul Gowder Says:

    Matt: the class bias thing seems hasty to me. Women of all socioeconomic backgrounds report discomfort and concern about too-friendly-too-quick interactions from stranger males of all socioeconomic backgrounds…

  9. Amber Says:

    Matt, for someone who is so invested in women giving too-friendly men the benefit of the doubt in social interactions, you certainly seem reluctant to give women like Belle and I similar consideration with respect to our feelings about being the target of those attentions. It couldn’t be that we are genuinely concerned about a “real problem” that is unlikely to affect you, or merely that we are introverted—it has to be that we are nasty classist bitches? I don’t know which posts of mine about shop clerks you’re referring to, but the one I do recall was actually an exploration of the various reasons overfamiliarity could make one uncomfortable, something that you are foregoing in favor of simple accusations of bias. Psychological explanations are called for on both sides, perhaps.

    Men get assaulted more: Patriarchy hurts men too. We know.

  10. Mike Says:

    I have about zero fear of being stalked, though I have had some very creepy encounters with wananbe male suitors who could not take, “No, I’m not gay. Really, back the eff off,” for an answer.

    That said, I share BL’s skezeometer.

    If I were a single man, I’d be pretty paranoid about false rape accusations. I know many guys who take great lengths to preserve the record establishing consent. Save e-mails, texts, etc. And if a girl seems off, I’d stay away.

    So men do have similar problems. We do worry about becoming another man’s meat – via the indirect way of a woman making a false rape accusation.

  11. Paul Gowder Says:

    I don’t get the fear of false rape accusations thing. Don’t have sex with women crazy or malicious enough to do that, problem solved, easy. (Which might fall under the “if a girl seems off, I’d stay away” category.) I have never once gone into a sexual act worrying about being accused of rape.

    My strong suspicion is that the false rape accusation notion is the availability heuristic run amok — one or a few rare cases of false accusation become so prominent that some people blow the risk way out of proportion. The real risk is probably somewhere between getting struck by lightning and getting bobbitized by an even more malicious sex partner.

    (On the one hand, some woman once grabbed my package out of nowhere in a club… the closest I’ve ever come to being a victim of any sex-related misconduct, I suppose.)

  12. Mike Says:

    I’d like to see comparative analysis done re: stalking and rape. How many women get stalked v. men who are falsely accused of rape? One Air Force investigation concluded that 25% of all rape accusations were false.

    The problem is bias. Few social scientists would be brave enough to tackle the false rape accusation issue.

    It’s fashionable and PC to say that men are stalkers. It’s not so fashionable to say that women falsely accuse men of rape. See, e.g., Duke Lacrosse.

    Heck, just read the comments here and at BL. No one (well, other than Matt) has any hesitation saying that women who are timid of men are behaving rationally. But bring up false rape accusations, and the assumptions shift.

    Everyone who discusses these issues goes on this premise: Patriarchy. Which means women should always be afraid of men, but that it’s irrational for men to be afraid of women.

    Yet when you examine certain aspects of society (sexual assault cases; family law cases), you see that the patriarchy is not nearly as strong as many suggest.

  13. Paul Gowder Says:

    Mike: assume that’s all true. Why rape? What’s so special about rape, as opposed to all the other crimes you could falsely accuse someone of? Why not worry about someone going to the cops and saying “Mike beat me up and took my wallet?”

    Here’s one hypothesis: as Amber pointed out, the patriarchy hurts men too. In this case, it makes voluntary sexual participation ambiguous in many cases, because there’s so often a worry about coercion happening. (Cf. “the opposite of rape is not consent, the opposite of rape is enthusiasm.”) When sex so often happens on the borderline between consent and not-consent, it’s natural for there to be worries (rational or, as I suspect, otherwise) about being accused of coercive sex even when totally innocent — just because there’s so much cause, in society as a whole, for there to be true or nearly-true accusation! Blurred boundaries are bad for everyone.

    Also, many report that family law, sexual assault cases, etc., go hard in the other direction from what you suggest. That is, there are a *lot* of forces making things difficult for women in family law cases (the effects of domestic violence being an easy example), rape victims are often treated as criminals, etc.

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