Hoo, boy. Well, I think I managed to avoid any inadvertent crass insensitivity that one time I decided it would be fun to talk about rape. Let’s see if I can keep that up while blathering about sexism.
I just read through this post, by the mighty Rebecca Watson of Skepchick, and it made me enlist my desk in the service of causing severe blunt trauma to my cranium. Not what Rebecca had to say, but the parts where she quoted some of the people responding to the recent discussion about sexism on the SGU podcast.
One of the other Skepchicks, Carrie, had been on the show as a guest, to discuss what she’d recently blogged about gender-biased attitudes in skepticism. I thought they had an interesting, insightful, well reasoned discussion, during which the other (white male) podcast hosts stepped back a little, but still got involved and asked sensible questions as best they could.
To be honest, I kinda just got on with my life after it finished. I don’t think I really need to be further converted to the cause of feminism, and it doesn’t play a very active role in my life, but it’s good to be reminded every so often that it’s an ongoing issue, which some people are still having problems with.
And then I see some men’s responses to hearing a couple of women taking a few minutes to discuss the possible under-representation of females in some area of life and what approaches might best encourage a more inclusive atmosphere. And then I get frownyface.
I’m a middle-class white male. I could probably be a lot dumber than I actually am, and still realise that I’m going to be speaking from the position of privilege in just about any discussion of discrimination or prejudice that I’m ever going to be involved in. It’s very clear that my gender and my race are doing fine, comparatively speaking. My country has had precisely one NWM (non white male) elected leader in its history. So has that big place across the pond, and their female president count is still stuck at zero. Men and women’s comparative roles started out as something that made biological sense, and have lingered in various forms throughout the various stages of civilisation. The oppression of women has been a constant historical fact, and is still ongoing.
None of this is changed by the fact that I happen to disapprove of sexism. Men are doing very comfortably. Women still sometimes have to struggle. Not all of them, not all the time, not everywhere, not in every situation – but enough that white male me can’t really tell quite how much of a drag it is.
So, because my lot are doing fine, how can I understand what sort of oppression is going on, so that I know what’s worth taking a stand against, and being careful to avoid? Well, I could try letting women talk about their experiences, and maybe paying attention to what they say. Because, y’know, they’re the ones actually feeling the discrimination here.
The panel of speakers at TAM this year was almost unanimously white and male, as were a majority of the attendees. If women were finding it as easy as men to get involved in this movement and get themselves represented as a part of it, then you wouldn’t expect those numbers to be so different. How did the women present at TAM feel about this imbalance? Did they think it was indicative of any deep-seated problem, or that some kind of action should be taken to redress the balance?
If you’re not a woman, you really, really need to shut up and let them answer this. [Edit 12/08/09: I’ve clarified this a bit in a comment below. What I mean is that men should shut up for long enough for women to answer that kind of question, not that we should stay out of the discussion entirely.] Even if you’re smart, and sensitive, and inclusive, and all for equality of every kind, and know just how to sort it all out so that nobody’s discriminating against anybody, you do not get to assume that you can make this decision on your own.
If the only proposed solution is forced castration of the entire irredeemable half of the human species who are to blame for everything, then sure, make a stand for something more reasonable, express your concern that they might be going too far, and point out that this is also unhelpfully biased and exclusive.
But fuck, if women are feeling shut out by a male-dominated atmosphere, and the numbers are there to back them up, don’t start whining about how whiny they’re getting. Don’t let your first response to a potentially legitimate complaint – made in as calm and reasoned and generous a manner as you could ask for, lodged by a demographic that consists of half the population of the planet and who have a history of being beaten down by the other half – be to tell them to shut up because they’re wrong to feel the way they do. That should not be where you instinctively, immediately go to when someone’s not happy with the way things are.
A lot of the responses seem to bring up the factor of whether the women in question are young and attractive. Even the fact that that’s considered relevant seems to highlight that there really is a significant gender difference in the way these things are talked about. I’m not that hot. I’m not aware that it’s ever held me back. To my knowledge, whether or not someone views me as a desirable mate has never swayed their thoughts on how interesting or welcome my presence at a gathering was. The fact that I’ve barely given these notions a moment’s thought is part of the privilege that not everyone has.
So when someone’s experiences are different from mine, and they claim to suffer from lacking a privilege that it wouldn’t even occur to me to realise I possess, the least I can do is keep my ears open long enough to try and find out what it’s like for them.
I consider myself a feminist. I don’t do much about it, but I can be spurred to write lengthy exposition like this in what I hope is a gender-positive manner. I do think it’s important. And I’m prepared to do my best to look really hard at my own behaviours, if I’m given cause to think that I’m screwing something up without realising. Some of these attitudes are pretty insidious. It’s scary sometimes how much things like incredibly out-dated stereotypes can whoosh right past me without registering at all until Sarah Haskins points out how offensive that just was.
With that all in mind, I open these questions to the floor. What should I be doing about this? Is there anything in particular I, as a well-meaning but sometimes hopelessly oblivious white guy, can do to encourage the kind of genuine inclusivity and equality which I’m sure is basically what we all want? Are you handling it okay without my interference? Have I managed to step accidentally in any steaming mounds of stupid during this rant itself?
I generally try to avoid posting anything this long without taking a break from it and re-drafting a print-out copy later, but it’s late and I just want to get this up before bed. I may revise it somewhat tomorrow.