“You believe he is lying.”
“I believe the woman.”
“Why would he lie?”
“Why would she lie?”
Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a stalemate. When Chris Matthews asked Elizabeth Warren about accusations against the former Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, following this week’s democratic debate, we found ourselves witnessing yet another round of the “he said, she said” debate that almost like clockwork follows accusations of sexual harassment or gender-based discrimination.
Warren’s rebuttal draws attention to an intriguing and pervasive phenomenon – the male default. Caroline Criado-Perez brilliantly describes this idea in her book, Invisible Women. She artfully summarizes decades of research in arguing that much of our understanding of the world, systems, and even our own bodies, remains tethered to the idea that men are the default: they are the default car crash dummy size; the default person we craft new technology for; the default patient in most medical research until 1993 (YES, REALLY!); and on and on. And this default can infiltrate our opinions and views of the world. She eloquently states,
“The fact is that worth is a matter of opinion, and opinion is informed by culture. And if that culture is as male-biased as ours is, it can’t help but be biased against women. By default.”
We see this same inclination in Matthews’ response this week. His default is to believe the man – a default held not just by men, we should add. We hear women make these arguments frequently as well. But why? Why we do we fundamentally default to believing men and why is to so shocking to consider that she might be telling the truth?
There are at least two key concepts at play here – social identity theory and power dynamics. Let’s start with social identity theory, which is the idea that part of our identity is tied to the groups to which we belong. This can include groups like where we chose to attend college, the theatre troupe we belong to, or our ethnicity and gender. Our identities are closely tied to these groups and we can see the group’s behaviors as extensions of our own. As my mom used to say, “it doesn’t matter if you did it – your friends did it and that makes you guilty by association.”
If we consider Matthews’ viewpoint from this angle, we see how his social identity might influence his thinking. After all, Matthews and Bloomberg have more than their maleness in common – they are also both white, cisgender, and wealthier than the average person. They are also part of the same social circles and hold considerable sway in their respective organizations. They have also both faced accusations of workplace sexual harassment that resulted in contractual agreements between the parties involved. Therefore, it's no surprise that Matthews was quicker to put himself into Bloomberg’s shoes rather than those of a pregnant woman. It is simply much harder for Matthews to accept and believe that what Bloomberg was accused of - "just some jokes" (just like Matthews, by the way) - was even that big of a deal. After all, HE, Chris Matthews, didn't really mean anything by it and couldn’t fathom working for an organization that would tolerate real sexual harassment. Psst. Here, we can help with that.
Something else might be going on in his head too as evidenced by Matthews's questioning of Warren later in their exchange, “I just want to make sure you’re clear about this: You’re confident of your accusation?” Matthews shares all these social identities with Bloomberg. If Bloomberg is a sexual harasser for engaging in similar behavior as Matthews, wouldn't that make Matthews one too? We're going to take a wild guess here and assume no one wants to consider that as part of their identity.
We also said earlier that women agree with Matthews’ viewpoints as well. Given that they don’t share all of the same social identities, and therefore, the same ingroup status, why might women believe men over other women? The simple answer is – power. Even though women make up approximately half of the global population, they are still very much in the minority when it comes to positions of power. And those in power are the ones who set the tone and make decisions that impact how we view the world. They also strongly recommend NDAs, you know, for both parties (Insert eyeroll here). As long as men remain the primary power holders, it will be common for us to give them the benefit the doubt.
We're closing out this blog the same way Warren closes out her conversation with Matthews, "It happens all across this country, and men all across this country say, 'Oh my gosh. He never would have said that.' Really?"