Mean people who aren’t mean all the time

Mean people aren’t necessarily mean all the time. Mean people aren’t necessarily mean to everyone.

I think most people who are mean are nice to at least some people at least some of the time. It can be hard to understand that they’re mean to other people in ways that matter if you don’t see it.

One example of this is that many men who are awful to women treat other men well. Some men don’t know this. They often assume that a man who treats them and their male friend group well is basically well-intentioned — and may have a lot of trouble understanding why their female friends think he’s dangerously creepy.

That happens in a lot of contexts. Some of which have to do with socially marginalized groups like gender or race or trans status or disability or religion or any number of other things. Some of them aren’t like that.

Sometimes it’s about in groups and outgroups in ways that aren’t otherwise connected to privilege.

For instance:

  • Jesse is mean, but not mean to everyone.
  • Jesse is nice to people who they like
  • Mostly, Jesse likes people who admire them and don’t contradict them about anything important
  • Jesse is mean to people outside their circle
  • People who are in Jesse’s circle and really admire Jesse might have trouble believing that they’re ever mean to anyone else
  • On the logic that “Jesse has never said anything like that to me; I can’t believe Jesse would say that”. Or something else like that.

It’s not unreasonable to base some of your opinions on what’s probably going on in a conflict on your personal experiences with someone. To an extent, it’s *necessary* to do it that way, because you can’t find out what’s going on by disregarding what you know. But it’s also important to remember that the way someone treats you might not be representative.

For instance:

  • If you’ve never contradicted someone, you might not know how they handle being contradicted
  • If someone’s never been mad at you or someone you respect, you might not know much about how they treat people when they are angry
  • Everyone gets into conflicts.
  • Everyone gets contradicted.
  • Everyone is wrong sometimes.
  • Nobody handles this perfectly. Some people handle this more-or-less reasonably; some people handle it horribly.
  • If you haven’t seen what someone does in those situations, it’s hard to know whether their reactions are reasonable

Short version: It’s easy to misunderstand conflicts by assuming that people who have always been nice to you are always reasonable with everyone. It’s important to consider what you know about someone *and* to consider the possibility that your experiences with someone may not be representative.

Power is not evidence example: restraint in schools

Staff members in a school held down a young girl with Downs Syndrome and forcibly taped her shoes to her feet with large amounts of duct tape. 

That’s all we know, from the story.

The fact that strong adults decided to do this isn’t evidence of anything else. In particular it’s not evidence that:

  • She was especially disruptive, or:
  • She was doing something urgently dangerous, or:
  • The teachers were overwhelmed, or:
  • This was a last resort done only after gentle options were exhausted, or:
  • She is exceptionally difficult to care for, or:
  • She doesn’t belong in the class she is in, or:
  • Her disability made the problem hard to solve, or:
  • Anything remotely like that

But, a good percentage of the people reading and commenting on stories like this seem to be assuming that, if this happened, there’s a good reason it happened, and that the reason had something to do with the child and her disability. This is the assumption even of a good percentage of people who think the staff were wrong to do this to her.

It is hard not to make that assumption. It’s really ingrained.

But power is not evidence, it is not a reasonable assumption to make. And it is important to bear that in mind.

A starting assumption


  • People who can communicate clearly generally say they don’t like something, and/or
  • People who are allowed to say no and have that respected generally refuse to do something…


  • You should assume that people who aren’t allowed to say no don’t like it either, and:
  • You should assume that people who can’t communicate clearly don’t like it either


  • You shouldn’t do that thing to someone who can’t say no without a *really* compelling reason. 

None of these things are compelling reasons:

  • They’re low-functioning, r-worded, have special needs, or are difficult to manage
  • They’re not actually screaming when you do the thing to them
  • They’re a compliant audience
  • You enjoy doing the thing
  • You feel that it is good for them
  • It makes them look more normal
  • It makes them easier to manage
  • It keeps them busy
  • It’s therapy
  • An experienced expert told you to
  • It might conceivably offer some health benefits
  • Your religion says it is important

When people can’t say no easily, it’s of the utmost important to make good guesses about what they’re consenting to and what they aren’t. If you start from the assumption that they don’t consent to things most other people don’t consent to, you’ll do a lot less harm.