Monday, January 23, 2012

Skeptical Sexism

In this post I want to join the debate regarding sexism in the skeptical (and nerd) communities.  This has been an ongoing debate within these communities and for good reason.  There really is a problem with sexism and the debate keeps getting made worse by poor arguments and misreadings of other people's arguments (here's looking at you Dawkins).  I think these problems could be largely eliminated if people would try to remove emotion from their responses (which puts people on the defensive) and if the framing of the issues took on a more neutral stance.

What I want to do in this post is address the problems I have, as a male, with the presentation of arguments against sexism.  While I may agree with most arguments put forward on the side fighting sexism I often find myself initially turned away by the presentation.  I can understand why men are defensive to these arguments, because when I read them my first inclination is to feel attacked and go on the defensive.  You might argue that I am being sensitive and you are right.  But, I think its important to remember that if you are trying to convince a specific audience, then you should address your point to that audience...

If I am trying to show a believer in poltergeists that the coffee cup falling off the table is better explained by other phenomena and I start off saying those who believe in poltergeists are idiots, well then I probably won't make much progress.  But if I step back and frame the issue in a way that the believer understands (such as asking how do you know it was a ghost and not an alien, gnomes, or elves) then I am likely to make more progress.

I want to address a number of ways sexism is framed that I think are unproductive and could be better done, but because of the extent of each topic I will limit myself to one of the following topics per day

1.  Privilege: stop using the word privilege, you might be using the word correctly but it is likely to turn a lot of men away.
2.  Marketing:  Marketing targeted at men isn't sexist, its just marketing, but it may have sexist effects.
3.  Rude & Inappropriate Behavior: I totally agree, there is way too much rude & inappropriate behavior by men toward women, but just because it is rude or inappropriate doesn't mean its sexist.
4.  Gender Stereotypes Aren't Always Bad: I hate to say it, but even though you might think gender stereotypes are bad, doesn't mean everyone agrees or that they are.

To start I want to make a brief apology, I am responding to a number of things here that I read in comments and other blogs that unfortunately I did not bookmark.  Thus, I do not have examples in all cases of what I am talking about.  So I accept that you could legitimately accuse me of straw man arguments and that no one is saying such things since I don't have the evidence to back up my claims.  But, even so I hope the arguments are illuminating on the things that might be driving men away.

Lets start with the idea of privilege.  I agree with the theory that men may have an unknown privilege that hampers their ability to see sexism in many instances.  However, I find the use of the word privilege and many applications of privilege to be unproductive.

When does the privilege argument work
I'm not bothered when someone points out that I might not see certain forms of sexism because I am privileged.  As a man I might not notice the fact that science is dominated by men.  Generally, I see nothing wrong with pointing out a societal benefit that I do not see.  Thus, pointing out that there is very likely some sort of sexism resulting in fewer women than men in science is fine.

When does the privilege argument not work
Don't tell me that I do not understand your argument because I am privileged.  Just because I am a white male does not mean I can't understand the concept of privilege.  You can't argue that there is special logic that only women understand and that men can't understand these rules due to our privilege without royally pissing me off.  Like I said above, its fine to say hey look, there really is a benefit conferred to men that women don't experience.  But if I challenge anything in your argument, then don't tell me I don't understand because I'm privileged, take time, change your words and show me that I am wrong and I might just understand.

Another huge problem is telling me that women can't experience privilege because they are the historically suppressed group.  This argument is essentially an issue of definition along with use of a loaded term.  An example of this argument is the answer to the question "Don't women have 'female privilege'" over at Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog.  Feminism 101 defines privilege as something only belonging to the group historically in power.  This is a definitional argument, it is simply defining the word "privilege" to only apply to the in power group.

So then why do I find defining privilege this way problematic?  Its because privilege is a loaded term and ripe for equivocation.  For those who don't know, equivocation is the act of switching between different definitions of a word.  For example Einstein used the word God to refer to the laws of physics, but then some religious people tried to claim that Einstein believed in a Creator type God.  Here, they jumped from Einstein's definition of God as the laws of physics to their definition of a divine creator.

This equivocation problem exists with the word Privilege. Its a pretty easy step to say that women can't experience Privilege (with a capital P) to accidentally saying women can't have any privileges over men.  I think the equivocation is the large problem here because most listeners who hear "privilege" probably won't know of the limited definition.  So as a man when I hear "women can't experience privilege" I think, yes they can because society does confer some benefits on women.  But of course, we are really just arguing over the definition of the word privilege.
Solution: if you want to use privilege to mean a benefit of the majority group then pick a new word that isn't so loaded.

I also want to note how offensive it is to hear that women can't experience privilege; specifically the argument that it is really benevolant sexism.  There is no greater way to piss me off than to tell me that when I, an unemployed student, take a working and well off woman to dinner, the check comes, and she just waits saying nothing, and when I finally pick it up to pay she doesn't even offer to chip in that it is really my male privilege at work.  Perhaps this historically was a way for men to control women, but when a woman turns this around and uses it as a way to get a free meal the norm is now being used to control male behavior.  When I face being judged as cheap by a woman because I don't follow social norms and pay for dinner I am being subjected to female privilege.  I have talked to many women who wouldn't go on a second date if a guy tried to split the bill and thus in order to conform to social norms I am forced to pay and women get the benefit.

Perhaps you can tie these things to societal sexism but take my perspective.  You just told me that my paying for your meal was part of my male privilege and on top of that if I don't do it I won't get a second date.  Probably not the best way to convert me to your cause.

Why the term privilege is problematic
As I discussed above the word privilege has more than one definition and thus it is likely that equivocation may obscure peoples meanings in arguments.

But I think there is another problem, an issue of advertising. Telling someone they are "privileged" might not be the best way to convince them you are right.  Even if you are absolutely right that I failed to notice the benefits I receive because I am male telling me I am "privileged" puts me on the defensive because it feels like an accusation of improper behavior on my part.  Once I am defensive it will take me longer to realize that you are right, and maybe I won't at all.

So whats a better term?  I would say get away from accusing men of having privilege and start asking men to step into your shoes to understand the unfairness.  As a matter of advertising your cause people respond better to being asked than to being accused.

So:  ask me to step into your shoes; ask me to look from your side of the fence; suggest that there might be a side I don't see, just please don't accuse me.  Then, instead of calling me privileged point out existing inequalities and unfairness.

(Not to mention, accusing men of not seeing privilege may be unfair in cases because some men may see the benefits that men have because they have seen their mothers, sisters, friends, or female co-workers discriminated against.  If you switch to "step into my shoes" you don't offend those who already have looked from your shoes.)

In conclusion I want to point out again that I am not saying that male privilege as defined above does not exist.  I think it does exist and needs to be pointed out.  Additionally, I want to point out that I have also read many good arguments that already do what I have suggested above.

The main point I want to convey is that the use of the word "privilege" and the way it is presented might actually be turning people away who would otherwise agree.  Perhaps you'll read this and think that I should stop whining and not be so offended by the use of the words, but if you do that you'll probably put me on the defensive.  Instead why not find a way to use terms that make me feel included and help me understand.

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