“The bunny did not get the job because the bunny is cute. The bunny got the job because the bunny knows WordPerfect.”
New Yorker Cartoon
One of the most depressing things that bug me on Twitter are Tweets following this basic formula:
Something negative happens + the person it happens to is female = It happens to her because she is a woman.
Whether it’s flak due to postings or tweets, experiences of violence, job offers retracted when the person tried to negotiate, or whatever else the negative event was — there is the quick gut-reaction to attribute it to the gender of the person. Women have it harder than men, women are discriminated against, women are victims. Meh.
Don’t get me wrong, sexism does exist. And sexism, defined as prejudice based on gender, goes both ways. (Don’t get me started on definitions of sexism that fix one gender as perpetrators and the other as victims. Definitions should establish clarity in what people talk about, not exclude a group of victims for ideological reasons.)
But before one goes for sexism, perhaps it’s prudent to look for other explanations first. Gender is a very visible, much hyped variable. But personally, I don’t care much about it. Sure, it’s relevant when I’m looking for a partner. But in almost all other cases, I just don’t care. And I think the majority of other people feel the same.
And yup, I see the advantages of this sexism-explanation. If you feel you are negatively discriminated against due to an attribute you cannot change (easily), you can feel righteously angry about it. It is a simple explanation providing you with a clear enemy. It removes all responsibility from you. You can even feel superior to all those who negatively discriminate against you. No matter your ability or effort, you at least have the higher moral ground.
Unless it’s not about gender. Then you’re just looking like an idiot.
And I am frequently wondering: So, that happened to you and you are a woman. Those are the facts, no arguing about that. But do you really think this only happens to women? Or even that it happens more frequently to women? That would be the requirement for it to be sexism. But perhaps it happens to men as well. But then these men are not successful and thus usually invisible. And perhaps men have learned not to complain about it, because society strongly discourages men complaining. And yup, that’s sexism, but it makes sense. If more men were complaining when it happens it would make the “because woman” explanation untenable. No wonder that open criticism of this explanation triggers even more gut-reactions.
Seriously, I’m currently unsure about my activity on Twitter. On the one hand, it’s incredibly stimulating and I got a lot of very interesting and useful information and links from the Tweets. But on the other, the prevalent bad reasoning is taxing. Not only because I think it’s the wrong attribution in most cases — and because it’s incredibly sexist and self-involved to reduce a general problem to something that “only affects women”. It’s also absolutely self-defeating and depressing. Usually, I think these problems are general problems. Violence is a general problem — yes, men are victims too, including of domestic violence. The bad situation is Academia is a general problem, with the exception of high-performing golden boys/girls, many Academics suffer under the current abysmal working conditions.
So, why not ditch the crappy ideology and address the actual problems. It’s harder and not as self-serving. And the more complex explanation is more difficult to deal with.
But at least it’s the only way to actually improve the situation.
This posting actually sparked a short interaction on Twitter. While this “discussion” contained what I consider as allegations (e.g., that I want to shut people up) and a tweet telling me to “shut up now” (no, the irony is not lost on me ;-)), it was also interesting in between(*). For a couple of reasons, actually:
- It reinforced my view that this is a topic that needs discussion. It’s not a fun topic and many people quickly react emotionally, but it screws up things too much to ignore it. I hate bad reasoning and bad theories, as I think they do serious damage. To be creative you need to have (more or less) accurate information — and ideology biases the data.
- The style of the discussion actually reminded me strongly of the discussions with deists about faith. At that time, I thought it was because few religious people actually make up their own mind about their own religious beliefs. To use Marcia’s theory, the worst discussions I had were with those who had a “Foreclosure” identity status. Not sure whether this is the case here as well, or whether there is something else at work here. Something to look into.
- Twitter is definitely the wrong medium for such a discussion. Not because you cannot discuss in 140 characters. You probably could. But giving its public nature and public commitment to positions, it’s unlikely to change minds. Yet at the same time, it lacks the public exposure to change those listening in. It’s not conductive to listening into conversations. Even worse, I think Tweets are easy to quote-mine. It’s easy to take tweets out of context, by retweeting them or favoriting them. Redirecting people to the comment section of the blog would probably be more conductive.
- I think it’s hard to discuss a serious issue without a basic level of humor. The ability to laugh about oneself and others — in a good way. Not to use humor to avoid accountability for personal attacks (to quote Victor Zen), but to keep a healthy distance to the issue and avoid becoming a fanatic. And boy, was that hard to keep in mind. After all, reducing a general problem to a gender specific one does real harm. But I think it’s necessary, otherwise this topic just drags you down.
- And yup, the amount of attacks and name calling and allegations you get when you ask for evidence is stunning. Not sure why, after all, I did point out an observation I have made and asked for proof. Okay, it’s naive to assume there are circumstances where this is uncontroversial when ideology is involved. But still, while questioning me about an observation is usually helpful, attacks are not.
And the last point leads me to the open question:
When to discuss and when not to discuss? I think good discussions can be really helpful, but they are also extremely hard to do. You have to clarify what is at stake and define the terms. You have not only to agree to disagree but also to agree to agree. And you both need to have epistemological beliefs that are amendable via critical thinking. Not sure yet when investing this effort is a good idea.
I think reducing general problems to gender-specific issues is a problem and a relevant topic with huge consequences. But the ideology and entrenchment … brrrrr. I don’t know, if it weren’t for the negative consequences, I’d take this approach. But given the consequences, I’ll have to come up with a better solution.
(*) At least the discussion was interesting for me, I’m not sure whether I still have Twitter followers tomorrow. I guess I’ll have to split my account with one for site announcements and retweets specifically related to organizing creativity, and another one for more personal comments and discussions.
We should never forget that the sexual blame game works both ways. A few weeks ago I heard a feminist icon, Gloria Steinem, speak. Afterward, it occurred to me that her only positive remark about men in the entire speech was a passing remark that most men are not rapists. I assume that was meant as a compliment and one she felt was necessary for an audience made up almost exclusively of unhappy-looking women. But for her to talk that long and never mention any positive relationship she has or has ever had with a man was a real eye-opener. She’s turning eighty this month.
A couple of years ago I had a similar experience with a man I had the misfortune of working with for a few hours. He was divorced and couldn’t understand why his wife left him after some twenty years with no explanation. I certainly knew. All he talked about was himself and he regarded everything he said as the absolute truth. Why that wife put up with him for so long is beyond me. I wanted to flee after five minutes.
“Because woman…” or “because man” isn’t usually a good answer. But “because obnoxious” often is.
–Michael W. Perry, http://inklingbooks.prosite.com
I agree. Unfortunately, many people I notice online do not think that sexism can work both ways. Might be the issues that interest me at the moment, but it bugs me. These people see sexism as something only women suffer from (and solely by the hands of men), and like the old saying — “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” — they see sexism against women and oppression of women everywhere.
And yup, of course, some men are sexist assholes. But I would argue that it is a tiny minority. In some cases the sexism of the involved individual might be the real problem (= dealing with this person), but I think with many issues it’s a general problem that is not gender-specific. And here this divide impedes actual progress. If I were a paranoid nut-job, I’d say that it serves those in power like a “divide and conquer” strategy. As long as male and female citizens regard each other as enemy, everything’s “fine”. But no, I don’t assume conspiracy-level intent, just individual people using claims of sexism to secure power and jobs for themselves (and a lot of emotional baggage). And it bugs me. But I’m still looking for a way to deal constructively with this issue and not being dragged down by it.