“Why Don’t They Just”
During the recent, ongoing, (always happening but not always in the spotlight) sexual harassment allegations, a phrase, or variations of the phrase, “Why Don’t They Just” gets bandied about. But as careful observers of human behavior, as humans trying to live our own lives, as writers and readers of fiction, as people who often read to understand others’ points of view, we can do better than that.
“Why don’t they just” is a way to write people off.
We scoff at smokers, people who have been smoking for twenty and thirty years and declare, “Why don’t they just” quit? Or overweight people—why don’t they just eat healthier food or take a walk? Never taking into consideration the work they put in or we don’t put in. Never taking into consideration genetics or stress or the effects of medication or well, circumstances we can’t imagine.
Look up the phrase “Why don’t they just” and we get “Why don’t they just quit,”—about how we stigmatize and deride people with drug or alcohol problems. If we can look at the circumstances of addiction and claim superiority we don’t have, to look down on others and sense their weakness rather than remembering the phrase “but for the grace of God, go I,” then we have lost our humanity, our compassion, we have not been flexing our empathy muscles enough. If we play the blame game, then all the responsibility is on them. Then we don’t have to do anything because it’s not our fault or our problem.
“Why don’t they just” is a way to blame people who lack privilege for not having that privilege.
Somebody’s on food stamps or WIC or some other public assistance? “Why don’t they just” get a job. Except their childcare and transportation costs far outweigh the hourly wages they can scrape together from any entry-level job.
“Why don’t they just” is part of the bootstrap myth. While there are many hypocrites in real life, I was struck by a character in Barkskins by Annie Proulx. In it, Duke is literally pulled out of the mud by the kindness of strangers. He later scoffs at others who ask him for support, declaring that he has always done things on his own and never needed anyone’s help.
“Why don’t they just” is what we say when we know what we would do, but don’t understand why others can’t. A prime example of this was when the Mitt Romney told college students to just borrow money from their parents, forgetting, perhaps, that not every kid who goes to college has access to that kind of family capital. Or when boomers don’t understand why working to put oneself through college may no longer be an option.
“Why don’t they just” get in line is what we say to immigrants. Systems are in place for them, we declare, we assume. But, contrary to what many believe, legal immigration policies are severely limited. We have no sympathy for the hardships people go through, and we have no memory of our own histories.
“Why don’t they just” is a way to blame victims.
It is disturbing reading an article about a teenager accusing an adult of statutory rape and finding the comment section is littered with detritus about how she must have seduced him. That rush to victim blame demonstrates a lack of understanding of how power and control work, about why sexual encounters among unequal parties is legislated against. Sexual harassment is about power more than it is about sex, and the perpetrators of these crimes are getting off on the control, and these harassers work very hard to make their victims feel powerless. So, after she’s been victimized, slut-shamed, and gas-lighted into thinking it’s all her fault, how likely is it for her to rise up and squeak to the authorities? (Never mind that those in charge are either complicit or worse.)
“Why don’t they just” demonstrates a lack of imagination on our part.
“Why don’t they just” is a way for us to imagine an autonomy, a power, that some people, most women, just don’t have. Why doesn’t she just tell someone? Because she will not be believed. Or she we will be blamed. Or she will be blacklisted. Or she will be slut-shamed. Why doesn’t she just quit? Because, maybe, just maybe, she needs the money, that 75 cents on the dollar she takes home. Because she’s invested a lot in this job, this company, this career, and it might be harder to start over. Because getting another job when you can’t explain why you quit might be difficult. Because it’s tough to get a job without references. Because getting another job will likely mean finding yourself dealing with some other harasser and sometimes the devil you know…you know? Because why should she when she’s done nothing wrong?
“Why don’t they just” really is a symptom of a lack of empathy and a lack of imagination. Instead of merely putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, why can’t we imagine ourselves in another person’s entire circumstances, their particular history, their resources or lack of resources, all the predispositions that brought them to their crossroads instead of chastising them for avoiding those circumstances altogether. Why don’t we just imagine what it would be like to be that other person?