A few months ago, I had an interesting interaction on the dating site OkCupid. This woman’s pictures were nice and her write-up made her seem promising, so I liked her and sent her a note. It wasn’t anything special, but she responded. We exchanged a few messages. It was the usual small talk. Then, she did something different.
OkCupid is set up to let users know how compatible they are, in theory. It has thousands of questions that users can answer, and uses those answers to come up with a compatibility percentage. Some of the questions are important, like, “Could you date someone who already has kids from a previous relationship?” Anyone who answered no to that questions wasn’t likely to be a good fit with me since I have a kid from a previous relationship. Some of the questions are inane, like, “You are interested in someone and you discover they were a nerd in high school. How does this affect your opinion of them?” High school was a long time ago, both for me and anyone in my age preferences. I can’t imagine caring how popular a person was in high school at this point in my life. I didn’t even care much when I was in high school. Some of the questions are very personal, about sex and intimacy, some are political, and some are puzzles. I have answered well over a thousand of these questions. I have no idea how OkCupid’s algorithm figures it out, but this woman and I were supposed to be 94% compatible.
Getting back to the unusual thing she did, she said that she wanted to read through all of my answers and she would let me know if she had any questions about them. After a few days, she got back to me with a question. For the question, “Do you believe that men should be the heads of their households?” I said no. She wanted to know if I really believed that.
I was a bit taken aback, I didn’t know if she was serious or not. Erring on the side of caution, I didn’t make a joke, I answered her truthfully. I said that I felt the idea of a man being the head of the household was really old-fashioned, outdated, and sexist. What about single-parent households, same-sex marriages, and things like that? And even if it is a traditional male/female relationship, I don’t think it’s right for one person to have more authority than the other. It should be a partnership. I don’t want to have a boss/employee relationship in my personal life. Plus, women are just as capable as men at leading a household if you do need a leader.
She disagreed with me. She felt that it was important that men be the strong one in a relationship, set the direction, and take care of the family. Men should be paternal, even with their partners (Let’s set aside the fact that I completely disagree with her views on masculinity. That’s the topic of a whole different post.). Our conversation fizzled soon after, but it got me thinking.
What kind of disagreement were we having? Who should be head of a household isn’t a question of objective fact. It’s not like the number of atoms in a water molecule. On some level, it is a sociology question. But I don’t think we were talking about sociology. I guess it was really a question of values. We value women and relationships and families quite differently.
The question then became, was my reaction OK? What am I supposed to do when faced with a disagreement about values? Obviously, it depends on how important the particular value is. If someone doesn’t value baseball as much as I do, I’m not going to give them a hard time about it. That would be silly, and the person could rightly accuse me of hectoring. Feminism and relationships and families are a lot more important than baseball, though. For the important values, do I have a duty to try to convince others?
A big part of me wants to say yes, I do have such a duty. It makes me think of people who try to convert others to their religion. It makes perfect sense. What kind of horrible person lets others burn when they have an opportunity to save them? I had an opportunity to try to improve someone’s life, I feel like I should have done more.
The problem is that the act of persuading someone conflicts with other values I hold. I value other people’s agency and rationality and feelings. Telling another person what to think or feel denies those values. I guess the idea of importance comes back into play. I’m comfortable denying someone’s agency if that person uses their agency to abuse children. I guess I just don’t see the same kind of obvious harms from someone who has an old-fashioned notion of family structure.
Ultimately, I think I did the bare minimum. I explained my position and gave her reasons to support my position. I didn’t follow up or show her the flaws in her position. Given my other values, and the fact that I barely knew her, I think the bare minimum was the most I could do. I just worry that I’m wrong. Every day I see examples of sexism (and racism and other horrible things) and I can’t help but wonder if I should be doing more to stop it.