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Posts Tagged ‘sexism’

I never did blog about Tim Hunt back when he was topical. And that’s not really going to change now.

I read quite a bit of what was written, though. In particular, I read this article. And I also read this article. They both say things worth hearing.

ETA: Possibly worth mentioning that this most recent blog break was due to being in Copenhagen for a long weekend. Copenhagen is very good and bits of it look like this.

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Okay, so, if you’re going to mock Men’s Rights Activists with contempt and create Facebook pages devoted to taking the piss out of their ideas, you really have to try not to be the caricature they hate you for being.

I mean, you shouldn’t have to try very hard. But at least check once in a while. Those loons on the other side of the debate stop being so laughably wrong if you start turning into their ridiculous straw man.

Case in point: two people were recently arrested by police officers and ended up in court in front of a judge on a charge of “manspreading“. Which is that thing where a guy on a train sits with his legs unnecessarily wide apart taking up too much room. Arrested. Taken to court.

I don’t really want to bring this case up by talking about men’s rights and feminism. The abuse of authority by state agents grossly overreaching beyond any reasonable interpretation of criminal action is a far more relevant and important angle than the gendered aspect, and it was originally reported in the context of some unsettling data about numbers-driven policing. I should be putting on my anarchist hat for this one and leaving my feminist headwear on the rack.

But it was the feminist blogosphere that drew it to my attention in the first place, and the context of the way it’s been reported there doesn’t seem to go any further than “lol, men”. And this drives me crazy, not because I’m worried about being a member of the most oppressed demographic suffering at the hands of those evil feminists, but because that’s the standard dumb MRA narrative and you’re playing right into it.

The Internet provides a surfeit of wankers who claim misandry at any opportunity, no matter how ridiculous, and who absolutely do not need to be handed any more ammunition. “Feminists want me to be locked up just for sitting down in a way they don’t like” is exactly the kind of ludicrous, persecution-complex nonsense they’d have been saying months ago. And now there are sizeable feminist groups online who seem willing to abandon every other principle for the chance to score a point against those terrible MRAs – but are actually doing unprecedented work to vindicate their victimised worldview.

This isn’t about me shifting from one side toward the other in some notional “feminism vs. MRA” battle. The Men’s Rights Movement has very little to do with men’s rights and is far more interested in misogyny and disparaging feminism at any opportunity. And the people I know who’ve been most effective in actually supporting men’s rights have been strongly-identified feminists, for whom understanding and combating the way men are systematically harmed and demeaned by sexist assumptions and prejudice is an integral part of that philosophy.

But that just makes it all the more important that feminists take stories like “arrested for manspreading” seriously as an issue of government intrusion, and don’t laughingly support the same kind of coercive state power they’ve objected to before, now that they’re finally not the ones getting screwed over for once.

Otherwise what happens is: MRAs see women cheering while men are arrested for a seemingly trivial offense; they post their own pictures of women similarly guilty of taking up unnecessary space; they get mocked and accused of being creepy for taking pictures of women on public transport; they note the disparity in the way the genders are treated and conclude yet another case of sexism against men; the “evil man-hating feminists” narrative is reinforced; and this time they haven’t even had to distort reality to do it.

I’m a feminist because we’re supposed to be better than this.


Two posts in a row about standing up for people I disagree with, because ideological consistency is more important than maintaining tribal bounds. Maybe tomorrow I’ll go for the hat-trick and write about my soft spot for Peter Hitchens.

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So let’s recap our first lesson in “not totally sucking as a person”, which it seems like some folk missed.

Making friendly contact with strangers, and engaging pleasantly with people you don’t know, is an important skill to develop. You might use it to make new friends, or maybe it’ll simply help you get along smoothly with some of the many people you’ll briefly encounter in the world, even if no lasting relationships are formed. It’s good that so many of you want to work on this and get some real-world practice.

But let’s look at an example of how this can go wrong.

Let’s say that you offer an unsolicited compliment to a woman you don’t know. You’re putting a random act of kindness out into the world, with a hope of brightening a stranger’s day with some positive words to boost her esteem. But, even though you’re just being nice, this woman doesn’t seem grateful. She ignores you, turns coldly away, shuns your offering, refuses to even acknowledge how nice you were being to her.

Now, if your response to this involves lecturing, berating, chastising, shaming, criticising, blaming, or bringing any negativity to bear on this woman at all for being unappreciative and unfriendly, then… Well, what can we say about your behaviour in that case? Any guesses, class?

It’s not very nice of you? Well, that’s partly right, but you can go further. In fact, if you act like this, you were never being nice to her in the first place.

You might think you were being nice. In all likelihood that’s the story you’ve told yourself about what happened and your motivations. But you’re lying to yourself.

If you did something nice for a stranger, but then stopped being nice and indignantly complained about how unjustly you were being treated the second you didn’t get what you wanted out of the interaction, then you weren’t actually doing something nice. You were being an asshole from the start.

Because what you’ve done there, you see, is decided that your feelings are the only thing that really matters, and that you’re owed something by this woman whose path has only crossed with yours at all because you’ve actively and uninvitedly injected yourself into her life. You’ve demanded that your benevolent intent be recognised as the only admissible truth, and that a complete stranger reward you with precisely the kind of interaction you deem appropriate, at a time of your choosing. What this stranger might want from life, and how she might be feeling, hasn’t come into your calculations at all – which is mutually exclusive with actually being nice to someone.

“But where’s the harm in just offering a sincere compliment intended to brighten someone’s day?” I can hear one or two of the slower learners among you still asking. “Maybe some cat-callers shout abuse and other things women might not want to hear, but I don’t deserve to get lumped in with them when I’m saying something flattering and non-threatening and just trying to be nice.”

Well first of all, this person didn’t ask for your opinion, they didn’t invite you to get involved, they don’t owe you shit, you don’t deserve shit, so get the fuck over yourself.

But you know what, you raise a good point there. Some people do shout abusive, threatening, hateful things at strangers – most commonly women – and some even escalate this abuse to physical assaults and violence. And while it’s a good sign that you can at least recognise these as being bad things to do, you’re not actually as completely different from those violent assholes as you might like to think.

One thing that many of those abusive, threatening, rapey assholes have in common is that, before they turned so abusive that it’s obvious even to you how unacceptable their behaviour is, they started off by offering some unsolicited but positive assessments of some aspect of this woman’s appearance or character, which were intended to be interpreted as a compliment.

And guess what? This is something that you and those abusive assholes have in common too!

Yes, yes; I’m sure you know that you’re not going to take things any further, that you’d never try and grope a woman or call her a slut for shunning your advances, no matter how rude she is when you were just trying to be nice. But she doesn’t know that.

That thing you’re doing, where you offer her a “compliment” to be “nice”? You look exactly like a lot of guys who turned out to be abusive violent assholes when you do that. You may not be an abusive violent asshole yourself, but that doesn’t get you a whole lot of credit in this situation. Especially when, as discussed earlier, you’re not really being nice.

Offering unsolicited opinions on a woman’s appearance or character, then complaining about her conduct and the unfairness with which you’ve been treated, is what those abusive assholes do. If you don’t want to be unfairly compared to that sort of person, don’t act exactly like them.

And here’s some proactive advice on how you can achieve that: try directing more criticism toward men who shout abuse, or send rape and death threats online, than you do toward women who’ve received more threats and abuse than you could know (because – quick reminder – you don’t actually know a fucking thing about them) and who sometimes aren’t too keen to make friendly conversation with a stranger as a result.

I’m sure you all think you obviously do that anyway – but is it really reflected in the way you talk about it? You might find, in practice, that the behaviour you spend the most time policing is that of women who don’t give men what they feel entitled to, while the abusive assholes tend to get a brief “yes obviously BUT” before returning to the main story of what women are doing wrong.

If that’s the case, then you don’t need to look any further. Your journey is at an end. The shithead was you all along.

And there’s the bell. Class dismissed. Do try not to make complete tits of yourselves, or I’ll drag you back in here for a remedial session.

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Atheist horseman Sam Harris has denied being a sexist pig.

Having to defiantly declaim against a position you purport not to hold rarely ends well. In fact it’s usually a sign that things have started pretty badly and are only going to get worse (cf. 98% of all sentences ever composed which begin “I’m not racist, but”). And considering the umpteenth resurgence of interest, over the past week or so, in what a clusterfuck of prejudice and tribalism some corners of the atheist movement have turned into, you could be forgiven for expecting the worst.

But I don’t think this is anything like the train-wreck it might have been. I said on Twitter that I was around 85% in agreement with Harris in that post, and a day later I think that stands. He doesn’t seem to believe anything outrageous, and his stated position seems level-headed and pretty reasonable. I have a huge problem with the snide dismissiveness I’ve seen directed at people who disagree with this assessment and take greater issue with Harris’s words, but that hasn’t seemed to come from Harris himself. His cause is done no favours, though, by certain of his supporters, including the occasional “big name” of atheism who really should have learned to handle these pseudo-controversies more humanely and communicatively by now (naming no names, Professor).

One point on which I’m not wholeheartedly in support of Harris is his closing jabs against “a well-known feminist-atheist blogger” with whom he’s had some recent private correspondence over this matter. Now, it’s possible that he’s not talking about Greta Christina, but given her own public comments about engaging with him, it seems a reasonable bet. As I type this, she’s not had time to respond to Harris’s post in full, but has tweeted a link to this old post of hers as a relevant collection of thoughts in the meantime.

The piece is about the (apparently) common social justice slogan, “Intention is not magic”. This refers to the idea that, if you’ve caused somebody harm or offense, the simple fact that you didn’t intend to do so doesn’t magically absolve you from responsibility for the harm you did, in fact, cause. “It wasn’t deliberate” is only a partial excuse, and that’s as true for, say, using a term you weren’t aware was a slur against a minority, or naively parroting a false and derogatory stereotype, as it is for accidentally crushing someone’s toe.

It’s an important point, worth remembering when people try to excuse blatant sexism and racism as harmless banter. All too often, people get haughty and defensive when it’s pointed out that they’ve caused offense, and attempt to hide behind the magic of their intent.

But intent’s not the only thing that isn’t magic. And, in this case, something else seems worth remembering:

Your immediate gut reaction to someone else’s words isn’t magic either. And nor is the unfavourable interpretation you instinctively place upon them when you take offense.

Both these “not magic” rules have to be applied discriminately. Some things are viscerally appalling at first glance for very good reasons; obviously complaints of offense are often legitimate and should be taken seriously. But it’s not out of the question that someone saying “I don’t think I have anything to apologise for” is basically in the right. (Many atheists will have experienced religious folk being outraged and “offended” that they dare to assert their own lack of belief; even if my saying “God doesn’t exist” upsets you, I don’t think I owe you an apology.)

And as much as the sincere apology format that Greta suggests probably should be a much bigger part of general discourse than it currently is, it’s not automatically the only acceptable response to an accusation of harm or offense being caused. We’re not magically obliged to bow and scrape our way through an “I didn’t mean to, I’ll try and do better next time” every time someone else reckons we were out of line. And, in this case, I’m not at all convinced that Sam Harris is the prejudiced, hate-filled, unrepentant monster some folk really are making him out to be.

The world in general could surely use a good deal more honest contrition, of the kind that really listens to our interlocutor’s concerns, and doesn’t mentally put them into a box as “someone on the other side of the argument and who I will therefore always be in dispute with”. Even if this isn’t a case where that’s the best way to fix things, you won’t have to go far to find another where it will.

Try not to let these disagreements divide the way you see the world into teams, though. I’m not on Team Anyone here. I spent a while being wary and uncomfortable with a couple of good atheist bloggers because they were coming down on the wrong “side” of a Rebecca Watson-centric debate (I forget which one), and that was a ridiculous way to behave. Greta’s still cool, and you should read her book.

Dawkins is kinda just turning into a dick, though.

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I don’t really have the combined time, energy, and enthusiasm for the subject to analyse Jen McCreight’s latest post in much depth. It’d take hours I don’t have or could be spending on better things to fully lay out the interesting points she raises, the problems she highlights, the ways in which I take issue with how she sometimes addresses them, and so on.

If I were also to go into everything Rebecca Watson’s ever done which I’ve strongly agreed with, strongly disagreed with, or which has provoked a reaction from other people about which I have strong feelings, I’d be here all day. Ditto Ophelia Benson. They write a lot, and people write about them a lot, and it gets complicated and intricate. (Greta Christina’s still pretty much unqualifiedly awesome.)

So, since I don’t have the time, the energy, or the enthusiasm to hammer out all the fine details, I’m going to have to continue covering things with inadequately broad strokes, and acknowledging the shortcomings of my own approach.

Broad strokes time: There has been a lot of vicious, creepy, unpleasant, unnecessary verbiage on this part of the internet lately. The above named female skeptics have been the objects of direct and deliberate abuse – language intended to demean them, mock them, and cause them emotional pain – significantly more often than they have been the initiators of any such negativity towards others. It’s by no means been a one-sided issue, but it’s clear to me where the balance lies so far.

I can’t think of anyone else who’s spent as much time trying solely to make another specific person feel bad about themselves via insults and belittling, as that elevatorgate blog has with Rebecca Watson. She gets called a cunt a lot. Replacing her own name with a slur makes it easier for some people to dehumanise her, so that they don’t have to worry so much about how else they treat her. And I don’t even know what the hell this is. The most egregious stuff in this debacle has been the invective hurled at a number of women. So that’s where most of my anger and attention is.

There are, without question, numerous blogposts which could be written about occasions when Rebecca Watson has been overly harsh with someone, or snapped aggressively, or been curtly dismissive of a point which might have been valid. But to place all your emphasis on that, without comparing it against the hundreds of specific, personalised rape and death threats other people have sent her, would be like starting a site about male victims of rape without ever acknowledging that women can be sexually assaulted too. There are unquestionably real and important issues to be raised, but your emphasis can make you seem oblivious to the context into which you’re wading.

And if I had the time, energy, and enthusiasm, I might try raising those issues, and providing the context to them in such a way that I could bring these things up without being an ass. But I don’t. And, given how much downright hateful shit some of the above named have faced lately, they deserve some of that context before I go ladling on any more public criticism.

Thus, while Rebecca Watson et al. are certainly not blameless paragons of virtue, they have my general, conditional support, on the broad-strokes issues. If I had to “pick a side”, because I had so little time and energy that I wanted to really oversimplify things, it’d be theirs. I wouldn’t be entirely content with that solution, but it’d be the least repellent choice open to me.

My next post will be about something which really does interest me. And no, it’s not how all police are bastards.

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Boobsession

(This may turn out to be something of a Roman railway.)

In performing a superficial pretense of research for this piece, I began asking Google what I imagine to be a common question. I got as far as typing why are men o, at which point it suggested that I might be wondering why men are obsessed with one of three things: breasts, football, and virginity. Right first time.

(By the way, the top Yahoo! Answer to the question is: “i’m more a leg and bum man… :D”. So… now you know.)

But this isn’t going to be a post about evolutionary psychology, or even about boobs and why they’re awesome. It’s about suggesting a different approach to fixing all of sexism. (Okay, just one teeny tiny bit of it.)

The point is, many women are clearly baffled by the attention that their front-upper-butts receive from a significant number of men. The appeal isn’t obvious to them, and that’s fine. I’ve tried and failed to get into things that girls seem to enjoy, like Project Runway or Star Wars. It’s not going to help anyone trying to explain what’s so awesome about them, it’s just a perfectly natural difference in tastes.

But the fact that men are mighty keen on boobs doesn’t, on its own, bother anyone. The problem comes when we act mighty keen on boobs.

Actually no, even that’s not a real source of any trouble. It really only becomes a problem – as, I guess, with any other obsession – when our passion spills over into our everyday, non-boob-related lives to the extent that everyone else is more than acutely aware of exactly how boobicentric our minds are.

The problem is when we really like boobs, and we act like we really like boobs, and we act like we don’t care how irrelevant you thought boobs were to this conversation before we mentioned our fondness for them, and we seem either unaware or unconcerned with the fact that things other than boobs might be high up on other people’s lists of priorities.

It’s just not practical to expect men to “get over” boobs anytime soon. They’re not going anywhere (unless I’ve been very wrong about God’s benevolent non-existence and actually he’s been setting us all up for a fall), and it’d be insincere to pretend they’re not awesome. If I meet you, and you have boobs, I will probably notice them. I may automatically evaluate them. That may sound unfair and judgmental, and it probably is, but I can’t switch it off. And part of me doesn’t want to, because hey, boobs.

The things I actually have control over – whether I’m notably staring at them, whether I’m needlessly making them relevant to a conversation, whether I’m acting in a needlessly boobaholic way – all that I’ve got a handle on. Those are goals we can realistically meet, and we should. But we’re not going to magically evict boobs from our brainspaces anytime boob soon.

(If I was less tired and had figured out where I was going with this sooner, I might have found some clever way to tie it into, like, Boobquake, or elevatorgate, or something with some relevance. But no, none of that. Boobs are their own reward.)

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An interesting moment of clarity from QRG [Edit: It’s actually a guest post] at Graunwatch:

You’ve got nothing to worry about, son. I’d suggest going out on a rampage with the boys, getting on the booze and smashing anything that moves. Then, when some bird falls for you, you can turn the tables and break her heart. Of course, the other option is to cut your ex’s face, and then no one will want her.

I wouldn’t be above some impromptu castration, either. Last December German Helmut Seifert cut the knackers off the 57-year-old “boyfriend” of his 17-year-old daughter with a kitchen knife. That’s the way to do it, sir: grasp the issue at its root. Don’t telephone the man and sound him out. Just saw off his nuts. Sure as eggs is eggs, he won’t do it again, will he? See. Direct action. It works (almost) every time.”

Both of these atrocious, inhumane sentiments are quoted from the Guardian, but in entirely different contexts.

The first is an extract from an advice column by Danny Dyer, which the Guardian were reporting on after its appearance in Zoo magazine gained widespread criticism. (I blogged about this two years ago, almost to the day. It’s interesting, incidentally, to note the way my style of public engagement has changed since then – perhaps most notably in my approach to calling people cunts and telling them to fuck off.)

The second is from a straight-forward and apparently wholly irony-free column written by arch-feminist Bidisha, for which she was presumably paid by the Guardian and which is presented by them without comment.

I think Graunwatch over-simplifies the situation by suggesting that the Guardian’s varied coverage of these two opinions is the only difference between them. It’s an important difference, but the distinctions which render the one opinion more acceptable than the other – in at least some sub-editors’ eyes – are also worth examining. The reasons for the distinction are more interesting and complicated than simply a lefty broadsheet being fashionably sexist against men.

The victims of the proposed punishments are, respectively, a young woman who was in a relationship which ended some months ago (at whose instigation remains ambiguous), and a middle-aged man who was “involved with” a teenage girl. (Whether or not the relationship was sexual is also unclear, and Bidisha doesn’t seem too concerned either way; it at least seems to have been consensual.)

The notion that this latter victim deserves, not just retribution, but sexually violent retribution in particular, is, firstly, profoundly repugnant; but it also aligns neatly with the “women as victims” narrative common to the left. I realise that’s a dangerous phrase to use without clarification: it’s certainly true that some crimes exist in which the a significant majority of victims are female, and a gender disparity like this should always be taken into account when considering how to deal with these sorts of crimes. But a generalisation that women are “victims” are men are “aggressors” as a matter of course simply doesn’t follow.

And yet, such a generalisation is the only thing which can really explain the glee with which some feminists imagine violently assaulting men, even before those men have provably done anything to any women that might merit it. The idea that there might be any complexity or nuance or humanity to the above tale of castration isn’t even considered. He was some old perv leching after a teenage girl. Just saw his nuts off. Job done.

Another important difference is that, as best I can make out, Bidisha’s comments were the more sincere. Dyer (or whoever wrote that column) was, I suspect, not genuinely suggesting that the letter-writer to whom he was responding should take the specific violent action described. He was making a joke – a bad, tasteless, unfair joke, a joke which insensitively targets women who’ve suffered violence, a joke without even humour as a redeeming quality – but a joke all the same. Bidisha appears to be genuinely in favour of the “medieval justice” she writes about. There’s no detectable hint that she’s affected an extremist position for the purposes of lampooning it, in the way that more gifted satirists tend to make just obvious enough without overplaying it. I can only take her at her indefensible word.

But the similarities between the two pieces are also striking. In particular, they both assume that there’s no need to treat some segment of the population with any particular humanity or dignity, and that’s why what they’re saying is basically fine. With Dyer, that demographic was women, and I think he was fairly criticised for being callous. I suspect “women” didn’t occupy quite the same mental space as “people” for him, and so being blasé about violence against them went unremarked upon in his thought process.

In Bidisha’s case, on the other hand, that demographic is men – but not for the same reasons. She’s not callous about men because they’re not quite people, but because men are fine. They can take it. They’re all homogeneously lumped together in one big privileged group, full of people who never have to worry about any gender issues, and so don’t merit any consideration in matters like this. They’re entirely distinct from women, who are in a separate group of beleaguered victims. Dismembering men with a knife might be an appropriate way to bring them down a peg or two.

It’s dangerous, dehumanising nonsense in either case. Let’s try to remember that getting “revenge” on an entire gender, either because you’ve identified them as the “other” and they need to be put in their place, or because some of them might seem to be abusing their privilege, makes no more sense than any other form of sexism or racism ever has.

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