The uncertainty of the well-intentioned

Posted: October 27, 2010 by Jender in good intentions gone awry, subtlety of problems

There is a younger female graduate student in my department with whom I have had a lot of really good conversations. She is smart, open-minded, and insightful. I get a lot out of our discussions, and I would like to think that I respect her just as much as anyone. But sometimes she talks to me as if she’s afraid that I’ll disagree with her, as if she has to make sure to put things gently – with a smile – and to pull back at any sign of resistance. It makes me feel uncomfortable about contradicting her, and I end up talking to her differently than others in my department. That, in turn, makes me feel like an awful sexist, like I’m helping to create an environment in which she’s treated delicately because she “can’t handle” the normal intensity of philosophical discussion, and because she’s “too gentle and sweet to really be argued with.” I want to talk to her in a way that makes her feel comfortable, but sometimes I suspect that my instincts about how to do that are telling me to treat her “like a cute, dumb girl.” I wish I knew how to do the right thing.

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