I had an interesting experience on Twitter the other day.
I don't tweet much, as a rule, although it's becoming my preferred way to find political news, and I've gotten more active as the presidential race has gotten more... interesting. I love Lin-Manuel Miranda's morning inspirational tweets and the Post-it Note conversations that Alton Brown puts up. I follow the accounts my tween son follows, as a matter of parental prudence. I retweet more than I tweet, I think. I follow less than 100 accounts (a small enough group that I don't need to manage it with lists) and I regularly unfollow accounts as I get less interested in them or as their usefulness to me expires. I do so little on Twitter that for a very long time, I had email notifications enabled for everything so that in the rare event that someone replied to a tweet of mine, I wouldn't miss it.
I don't tweet much, but I'm not above tweeting back at people who say things I think are silly -- at first glance.
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So, on Father's Day, via someone else's tweet, I saw (not long after it had been posted) this tweet by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a think tank CEO and former State Department official:
Happy Father's Day! Let us all commit to expect fathers to be equal caregivers & just as competent in the home as mothers are in the office.— Anne-Marie Slaughter (@SlaughterAM) June 19, 2016
So, I read that, and I thought it was really, really funny. And I dashed off a semi-snarky (but true) response and thought no more of it for a few hours.
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A little background here, so you don't think I acted out of disdain for Slaughter herself.
A few years ago I read with interest and not a little empathy a longform article that Slaughter had penned for The Atlantic called "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." It's a personal tale leading into the assertion that the existing structure is bad for both men and women, after which she calls for buy-in from organizations of all types to enact family-friendlier policies. There isn't a whole lot there philosophically that is new to the great Working Mothers Debate, but I like reading personal stories, and hers was interesting. She left her State Department job to be closer to her family (among other reasons), and she wrote about the condescending reactions of other women, and the hollowness of the "have it all" message, and the difficulty of living a reasonably human family life while serving in a high position in Washington.
I thought I remembered Hillary Clinton throwing some shade back at her in response, and a quick Google search turned that up: "Clinton said Slaughter’s problems were her own and that 'some women are not comfortable working at the pace and intensity you have to work at in these jobs ... Other women don't break a sweat,' according to the story."
All this is to say that I have some good will toward Slaughter in general, and I really did think her article was important (which is to say, if there's a snark battle between her and Hillary Clinton, I'm going to be on Slaughter's side). Work and family life do need to be balanced -- in my view, the best way to put this is to remember that the purpose of all labor is to support families, and not the other way around. It is good for the rest of us if women are well represented in government, and academia, and think tanks, and all the other sorts of elite positions that Slaughter was writing about in her piece. Slaughter was pointing out that it may be good for the rest of us, but it isn't always a good deal for the individual women (paycheck aside).
I also get that one of the great annoyances faced by married, white-collar working women, is tension between themselves and their partners about the division of child-raising labor. Some of that can't be helped much (if only one of you can breastfeed, for example); other parts are amenable to mutual agreement, but the nature of even the best compromises is that sometimes people feel cheated, and -- this is key -- not every compromise is actually a fair one, and sometimes people really are cheated, and that kind of stinks.
I read her post and I pictured saying to my spouse, wagging a finger: " I expect you to be an equal caregiver and competent in the home! Happy Father's Day!"
So I tweeted back:
@SlaughterAM Thanks, but I already told my husband and kids' dad I love and appreciate him unconditionally. It's more my style.— Erin Arlinghaus (@erinarlinghaus) June 19, 2016
And then I went on my way and didn't think about it again until I checked my mail and found the hundreds of notifications. When I noticed that Instapundit had retweeted me, I turned the notifications off.
Several days later, Twitter analytics tells me, the number of people who have seen this tweet is 46,559.
Slaughter had replied directly to me:
@erinarlinghaus I think you are misunderstanding me in some way. But Happy Father's Day!— Anne-Marie Slaughter (@SlaughterAM) June 19, 2016
Another person replied:
And then people really started piling on her. I decided to tiptoe away slowly, metaphorically.
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As far as I can tell, nobody in all those retweets reacted negatively to my tweet, which is pretty damn amazing, considering Twitter. I muted some likers who had racist handles, also some obnoxious MRA's and white nationalist types. Ew.
It's too bad some of the replies to Slaughter were terribly rude, because I wondered if she would listen to the more reasonable ones trying to explain to her why her original tweet was so laughable. I kept thinking about how on earth she could possibly have thought that her expression, which recalled a schoolmarmish "I expect these papers to be neatly handwritten in ink," or a paternalistic "I expect this mess to be cleaned up when I get home," constituted praise? I mean, I wouldn't have pegged her as the type.
Some days later, I have a theory.
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The word "expect" has an ambiguity about it.
If I say "I expect" an event to occur, it might mean that I am confident that the event will come to pass. I believe it will happen. I anticipate, I may even take steps to be ready for it.
But in the very special case where the event is an action that may or may not be performed by another person...
...and I am speaking to that person...
...then "I expect" is tantamount to a demand that the person carry out the action.
It is an indirect way of saying "I will be very very disappointed if you don't do the thing." It is an implied threat! A mild one, but a threat nonetheless.
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I took Slaughter as meaning the latter: as saying, "Let's commit to being very very disappointed in fathers who are not equal caregivers and who aren't competent in the home." Apparently so did almost everyone else. And they can hardly be blamed for it -- the evidence suggests that this is not an "unexpected" way to read the tweet. The word "expect" is loaded.
But it does strike me as plausible, especially given her dismayed and incredulous response, that she meant it the other way, and doesn't understand why on earth people could have been offended.
In that reading, Slaughter might have meant to say: "Let's commit to confidence in the competence of fathers -- that they are not second-class caregivers, and that they can succeed in roles traditionally designated as 'women's work.'"
If that's what she meant to say, then it is praise for fathers. And it's a message we need more of -- popular culture is full of dismissive images of the dumb, incompetent dad, burning the dinner and duct-taping the baby to the wall. The ditzy dad is not a helpful corrective. It doesn't help dads, and it doesn't help moms --- who go on bearing the brunt of society's disapproval for anything whatsoever that goes wrong within the family, because no one "expects" dad to be the equal caregiver.
Unfortunately, it was an inept way to phrase it, because of the ambiguity in the word "expect," and it wound up meaning the opposite. That's because we use "I expect you to do it," so often, as a means of communicating "I don't expect you to do it, unless I remind you." So "let's commit to expect" sounds like "let's commit to remind."
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I still am not sure which meaning Slaughter intended, but I'm leaning toward the more positive interpretation. I think we owe people the benefit of the doubt, to choose the most charitable of several possible interpretations. However, it's reasonable to call her out on her wording. She writes for a living, and she tries to make policy: clarity is not optional. I feel bad that so many people responded to her so rudely, but it is entirely unsurprising.
I stand by my tweet. The ironic thing: my professed love and appreciation for my spouse and the father of my children is indeed unconditional, but it isn't unearned. He earned it, as we should all earn it from one another, by being trustworthy, competent, and caring. The two of us have our own spheres of responsibility, and each of us takes care of what we're particularly gifted at, but I absolutely would call him an equal caregiver. He's made it clear to me -- from long before we were married -- that he would be. So I think (if Slaughter meant what I think she meant) -- we don't actually disagree.
We all could use a little work on our tone sometimes, eh?