If you hang out on third-wave sex-pos feministy sexy blogs, you find that as well as all the sexy-times stuff, we talk about social interactions a lot. Basically, we start out just wishing it would be okay to show a bit more cleavage without people calling you a slag, and end up wanting to change the entirety of human socialisation. Because once you start to pick apart that toxic pile of unconscious assumptions about the Way Things Just Are, you start to realise how big, and how fucking horrible, it really is.
Today I want to talk to you about Missing Stair Theory. Partly because it's really useful and interesting, and partly because I'm taking next month off to work on my novel, and I'll feel better about doing that if I can pretend I've done something visibly constructive first.
The metaphor of the Missing Stair came from The Pervocracy. I'm not going to link to that piece yet, because it goes somewhere we're not yet going. I want to start with examples of Missing Stairs we're all familiar with.
You know Racist Christmas Uncle? He's a Missing Stair. It's a person with whom you have to socialise who damages other people. They make racist/sexist/homophobic statements, or inappropriately sexual comments. They tell rape jokes. They talk about your weight, and whether you should really be eating that. A Missing Stair enjoys upsetting people to some degree, even if they're not deliberately baiting you.
The Missing Stair is someone you can't just avoid. They're a relative, or a co-worker. They're the partner of a friend, or a friend of your partner. They belong to the Group that does your Thing: gaming, or wine club, or whatever else normal people do. They may be supported there by Geek Social Fallacy Number 1.
This isn't just a person who's a bit socially awkward. You know you have a Missing Stair when the thought of going to a social event you know they're going to be at makes you feel sick. You really know you have a Missing Stair when you complain about their behaviour to a mutual friend and they say, "Oh come on, you know what he's like. Don't let him get to you."
Because that's the thing about the Missing Stair: everyone knows what they're like. If you quietly say, "I don't know, one of the guys there, he kind of creeps me out," everyone knows who you mean. Everyone knows the stair is missing. Nobody fixes it. Everyone is expected to work around the Missing Stair.
People will not handle you being rude to the Missing Stair. The Missing Stair has a free licence to be a jerk, that's just the way they are, but you are socially obliged to not make a scene. The Missing Stair can tell you you're raising your children wrong with no sanction at all. Yet if at any point you call them a fucking moron, somehow you're the one starting a fight. You can be told you must support the Missing Stair because they are family, or a friend - as if you somehow magically aren't.
If you ever do manage to get a Missing Stair out of your life – by moving city, for instance, or through a death – that's when you really start to realise just how much energy you were putting into constantly working around it. The relief is amazing. I have, a couple of times, been rude enough to deal to a Missing Stair, and having other people come up and thank you afterwards is little compensation for the stress and adrenalized sickness of the confrontation they totally failed to back you during.
I have to admit I have also been the one bringing the Missing Stair into a social group. You guys were right. He was a total Darth Vader Boyfriend. My apologies are genuine, if twenty-two years too late.
So, while you have to put up with them, how do you deal with Missing Stairs? Calling them out takes incredible nerve, and often leaves you in a worse situation. You think afterwards, "Man I wish I'd told my brother not to call my kids' friends 'coconuts'," but honestly you probably don't. In my mid-twenties I discovered I didn't have to have every fight with my brother, I could just let his shit go. I called that growing up. It might not have been.
But, short of the thermo-nuclear conversation explosion, which I still firmly believe has its place, what to do?
There's the Conversation Blocker. "Huh." It probably won't save you, but it gives them nothing to get their teeth into.
"You shouldn't let him play with girls, you know, it'll make him soft."
There's polite honesty. This at least positions blame for the inevitable escalation firmly where it should be.
"I mean, I'm not racist or anything, but it just stands to reason you want to keep a closer eye on Those People."
"I don't agree, but I really don't want to have this conversation, okay? Can we talk about something else?"
And then there's the Necessary Bastard. Necessary Bastard should probably come after a couple of attempts at nice defusing. One thing I've noticed is that people respond to conversational tone first, and content second. So:
*laugh* "I get it! It's funny because women are stupid!"
Or, in your most genuinely polite voice:
"I'm sorry, could you excuse me for a moment? I have to go and not be talking to you."
I'm sure you all have tips and tricks and stories for dealing with this, the soft end of the Missing Stair spectrum. Next time, we'll get to the really scary stuff.
One note, though. A few of you are probably now wondering if you are the Missing Stair. As a rough guideline, if you're capable of wondering that, you're not.