Monday, November 10, 2008

To stop a rumor

I was in a meeting yesterday night, work-related, a somewhat high-stakes situation. The president of the organization I work for is taking a hands-off approach. One of my colleagues was talking about the president's decision to stay above the fray, and as a sidebar she said: "He also doesn't have much regard for women." She then told an anecdote that I thought was very ambiguous: he questioned the credentials of a woman subordinate. It was second hand, in other words.

I know that sexism is ubiquitous and that power plays are common. I know that part of sexism is putting the burden of proof on the woman to prove that sexism happened. I also know that reputation means a great deal and that maligning someone's reputation this way shouldn't be casually done. I know the president a little and have never gotten a sexist feeling from him. Of course, I'm a man. The other thing about the president is that he's a man of color, and men of color get accused of sexism by white people more readily then white men.

Calling a man sexist is either a serious accusation or it isn't. If it is serious, then maybe we should be trying to get the president fired. If it is not serious, but something everybody is, then he shouldn't be singled out in stories to be told in such meetings. I think it is serious, and so such accusations should only be made with extreme caution.

There was a moment when I thought I could have stopped the rumor if I had spoken quickly. But I did not want to add more tension and I did not know how to speak up without attacking my colleague. I wanted to say: "You shouldn't accuse him of that without evidence." Or, "that has not been my experience with him," matter-of-factly. And then transitioned to the next topic, or asked a question. That might have been the best move, but if I had blurted it I think I would have sounded harsh.

So, the situation is this: something is said that you think is destructive. You don't want to let it pass. But the social situation is tense, and you don't want to attack the person who said it, or at least not very harshly. What is the best move?

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