Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Shermer, it's not a guy thing

This is part two of my discussion of the Shermer vs. Benson debate, where I talk about the mistakes made by Michael Shermer. If you haven't read part one you'll be missing a large part of the conversation and the history. As I mentioned at the start of that article I am responding to a number of different blog posts and in order to avoid biasing others opinions I ask that everyone read the source material in order before reading my posts.

So again here is the list: First watch this video starting at 11:30. Then read 1, 2, and 3.

Now, here's a short pause for those who haven't followed this yet...

Ok, now that you've see the video I want to get into a discussion of both his original comments and his response.

Shermer's Comments
To start I want to put Shermer's comments down on paper. In a video, Shermer was asked why the male/female ratio in  atheism was not closer to 50/50 and additionally, the moderator asked why she had such a hard time finding women to come on her show. Shermer answered:
I think it probably really is 50/50. It’s who wants stand up and talk about, go on shows about it, go on conferences and speak about it, you know, who is intellectually active about it. It’s more of a guy thing.
As I discussed in my last post, Benson's criticism of this comment were far off mark and seriously problematic from a skeptical point of view. Thus, what I want to do is analyze this comment from a neutral standpoint (by neutral I mean how Shermer has told us he intended the comment). Before I get into the issue of whether this is sexist I want to answer whether it is problematic.

Was Shermer's Comment Problematic?
The quick answer is: yes, it is problematic. Right now we in the atheist movement are trying to fight the image that it's a guy thing! So all I have to say is, seriously Shermer, you should have known not to simply restate the stereotype that we are trying so hard to fight right now.

I understand that, perhaps, the stereotype could be considered factually correct. If there are more men who are active in the atheist movement that would mean that on average it is a guy thing. But, just because something is factually correct doesn't mean you should say it out loud because poorly phrased factual statements can have unintended negative consequences. Political correctness does have its critics, but there are real reasons supporting it.

The big issue we worry about when someone repeats a stereotype (even one that is true when looking at averages) is that it perpetuates the stereotype we are trying to stop. How are women supposed to break into the atheist movement  when even the prominent members of the group keep telling us its a guy thing? I don't care whether the statement was "sexist" because even if we drop that accusatory language we can show that it is in fact problematic because it perpetuates stereotypes.

Another problem with stereotypes is that they demean and ignore those who break the stereotype. Take for example the stereotype that some races (I refuse to use examples because I do not want to perpetuate stereotypes) are more likely to commit crimes than others. These stereotypes cause those who don't commit crimes to be subject to the same social scorn as those who do merely because they fit the stereotype. Thus, it demeans their value as a human merely because they are a member of a group.

Shermer had an opportunity to put this debate back on track if he had simply addressed this problematic aspect of his comment and apologized for it. In fact, he could have done so in his response article without changing anything else because his other arguments stood on their own. In fact, if he had done so, he could have argued from the higher moral ground in this case.

Instead Shermer simply failed to address the problematic aspect of his comment. However, as I will discuss in my upcoming post about PZ's contribution to this debate, Shermer had a rather good reason for not apologizing. He wasn't accused of making a problematic statement, he was accused of saying something that he says he didn't say. Thus, Shermer had the opportunity to take the high ground, but simply missed it in his attempt to defend himself from Benson's problematic attack.

Alright, now that I've shown how Shermer's statement was problematic I want to delve into the more complicated issue of sexism.

Was Shermer's Statement Sexist?
To start, I want to say that Benson has stated that she "didn't label him a sexist or a misogynist." That instead she just said he made disparaging remarks. However, I feel this is a bit disingenuous. The accusation that Shermer stereotyped women as not doing "thinky" is an accusation of, at the very least, unconscious sexism. Thus, if Benson wants to say that Shermer disparaged women, she needs to at least admit she is accusing him of being sexist.

So on to the question: was it sexist? This is a bit of a complicated question. The first issue is the ambiguity in Shermer's statement. Did he mean women are less than men as Benson interpreted it, or did he mean that numerically speaking there are more men than women active in atheism (as he told us)? It would seem easy to simply accept what Shermer told us his meaning was. However, we need to remember that part of good speaking is to make sure your words are clear and not open to misinterpretation. Clearly Benson interpreted it differently so we know that it was ambiguous to at least one person.

Luckily, this first bit of confusion is easy to get around. Under Benson's interpretation, clearly the statement was sexist so I won't even bother discussing this interpretation of Shermer's statement. And, I already discussed in my previous post why I found Benson's accusation and interpretation to be problematic. If we view his statement the way Shermer intended it the issue gets more complicated.

Sexism generally is defined as prejudice or discrimination against women. Many (But not all) people believe that stating a negative stereotype is also considered to be sexist. This disagreement over definition is why the issue is complicated. People who say that citing a difference between the sexes that can factually be measured would not say Shermer's remark was sexist. However, on the other hand, people who say that negative stereotypes are sexist would say his remark was sexist.

This divide over what constitutes sexism can create a language barrier that I have noticed cropping up over and over again in this debate. One side says: no it isn't sexist and the other says: yes it is. The real disagreement, however, is over the definition of the term sexism.

There are good reasons both to include and exclude negative stereotyping from the term sexism. On the side of inclusion, many stereotypes really do arise out of prejudice and are simply evidence of internal bias. Even allegedly factually correct stereotypesstereotypes that are true on averageare problematic for the reasons I discussed above.

On the other hand broadening sexism from prejudice and discrimination can be a bit like dropping the Nazi bomb (as seen from this debate). If we include simply citing a correct stereotype as full blown sexism we allow serious negative association and condemnation of the accused. Its the problem that if you accuse someone of making a sexist remark it is unclear whether you are saying: A) they deliberately are discriminating against women, B) they believe women are inferior to men, or C) they are stating a stereotype that, although correct on average, might perpetuate negative views about women.

I would say that person A and B are far worse than person C. A and B are actively against women's rights whereas C is simply disconnected from the consequences of his word choice and may actually support women's rights.

This lack of clarity on which version of "sexist" is being used is the big problem that I see with labeling every case of stereotyping"sexist." Clearly some stereotypes are sexist (i.e. women are dumb) because they are simply attacks on women. However, the stereotype that more men than women are active atheists could actually be a factual statement. It of course takes a lack of tact and lack of knowledge about feminism to make such a statement. But, from my perspective, it is on an entirely different scale than deliberate derogatory sexism such as discrimination and prejudice.

So, I want to move on and ask that people change their language. Instead of shouting "sexist" or "sexism" when someone makes an unthinking stereotype that isn't a type A or type B stereotype tell them that they are using a negative stereotype.

The reason I make this request.
I fully accept that many people will disagree with me on this point and say that obviously such a stereotype is sexism. But, for the sake of conversation I would ask that you choose different language than calling someone a sexist. As I stated above saying someone (or something someone says) is sexist instantly causes that person to become negatively associated with type A or type B sexists who actually do think less of women.

The natural reaction of most people who are accused of being sexist in this sense is to jump in and defend themselves. They think: "hey wait, I'm not a sexist, I think women are equal and I believe in women's rights." They fail to realize that you are simply pointing out that they perpetuated a negative stereotype. Its that whole issue of miscommunication again. Of course, some people are able to take the higher ground and admit that they were wrong. However, in most men's eyes you have intentionally associated them with men that they despise. And in their eyes admitting that they made a sexist remark would be tantamount to admitting that they are type A or type B sexists.

If your goal is to facilitate understanding and communication then using the word sexist in these cases is not helping. You of course have the right to use that word but realize that it likely won't get the reaction you want. In fact, if you change your language just a little you probably could get the reaction you want.

Lets take the Shermer vs. Benson debate as an example. I believe either side could have fixed the debate if they had said something like this.

Benson could have said: Shermer made an unthinking off the cuff remark and used a problematic stereotype that perpetuates the image that skepticism is only for men. Perhaps there are more men than women active in the skeptical movement but Shermer should have realized that this is the exact image we are trying to fight. Whether he intended to be sexist or not, having a prominent skeptic repeat the idea that skepticism "is a guy thing" is not helping this movement. I would ask that Shermer clarify his response so we can know that he was not intentionally trying to be sexist with this remark.

Shermer could have said: I made an off the cuff, unthinking remark. At the time it seemed to make sense as an answer to the question I was posed. But looking back on my answer I realize that it perpetuates negative stereotypes and reinforces the very problem we are facing in the skeptical movement. I understand that my words were ambiguous but I want to emphasize that I did not mean my words in the way Benson has stated. The ambiguity was caused, again, by poor word choice on my part.

I think that this debate in a large part has been a problem of poor word choice. First, Shermer poorly chose his words when he said "its a guy thing." Benson then poorly chose her words when she criticized Shermer. This resulted in a debate where both sides talked around each other and nothing good has been accomplished. If either party had paused to ask "how will this sound to those listening who have differing viewpoints." The debate might have been avoided.

Update: Read the third post in this series entitled PZ's Witch Hunt here.

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