So any and all of you that have been following this blog in the last week, and Drugmonkey’s blog in the last week- are familiar with the discussion of gender in science. The post at Drugmonkey developed a rather long comment thread which took several parallel tracks.
But I want to spend one last post on a last point from that discussion which has been bothering me for the last few days. Discussant Dave got things started… and made some rather inflammatory remarks about the inclusion of women at meetings and such that drove the discussion for quite a while… and I think hit several people right in the gut- including myself at times. It was ugly at several points in the comment thread, really really ugly from many directions. But Dave- to his credit stuck with the discussion and actually started attempting to learn from it, took some suggestions seriously and started participating in the discussion in a real way. I acknowledged this effort on Dave’s part on the comment thread.
What disturbs me about this interaction is that some of the participants in the discussion are not willing to give Dave (and others like him in real life) the benefit of the doubt on his effort in the end and on his willingness to be open and change his opinion. As Isis noted in her final response post:
However, the types of statements made early in the discussion are statements that, when made in real life, cause women to leave academia. And they are made in real life. Frequently. I’ve heard them and, I imagine, other women that read the DrugMonkey blog have heard them.
I completely agree with this.
But here’s the thing. I’m a woman in academic science, surrounded by male colleagues in my field- some more progressive than others. Personally, I think that there is a lot of sexist behavior that goes on in real life simply because the perpetrator didn’t think first about what he said- and NOT because he was purposely trying to be an ass. So- ask yourself what’s the right thing to do in these situations.
Does it benefit you to write off every person in your field who has ever made a sexist remark no matter how subtle in your presence, even when you know those particular people to be otherwise good and decent colleagues??? Can male colleagues ignorant to the subtle sexism or ignorant to the inflammatory nature of their remarks or actions be educated to do better?? Are there some out there willing to listen and learn- willing to become your true allies??
For myself- I want to be preaching to more than just those already converted. So, how do you bring your allies around to your side- instead of just calling them asses and adding them to your list of enemies….
You’re absolutely right about how we have to treat most instances of sexism. Sadly, unless you think nearly everyone is a worthless jerk, most instances of sexist words/actions come not from the worthless jerks but from people we like or respect at least some aspects of. Shockingly, even some awesome women can ocassionaly think in slightly gender biased ways (is it funny that I when I was writing my “clueless geek dealing with object of affection” analogy I delibrately avoided the “clueless nerd going Ack! over a girl” because of the implications about gender and orientation it contains?).
The problem in this case was that Dave was an unabashed ass/self-described ‘sociopath’. That made it very easy to see him as the Platonic Form of the sexist jerk.
“What disturbs me about this interaction is that some of the participants in the discussion are not willing to give Dave (and others like him in real life) the benefit of the doubt on his effort in the end and on his willingness to be open and change his opinion.”
The internet is a key differentiating factor, here, though. Dave may well (most probably is) a sincere person. But there is no unreasonable probability that he’s not. He is an anonymous poster who, as DM pointed out, does show many of the hallmarks of a forum troll. Of course, this might be because he simply isn’t well-versed in what is a fairly complex and yet not strictly defined internet etiquette. CPP shared my own reservations, perhaps more vocally, which are actually fairly common and sensible reservations among people who have spent time on internet forums and blogs. The prodigal concern troll who enters a discussion as the Devil’s Advocate, but subsequently sees the light and is embraced by the group (and women can be the targeted group, see below), is a common entity on internet forums. We had one posting as a 23 yr old gay female college student on a political forum I frequented who later confessed to being a 40 yr old male divorced IT consultant. That was after obtaining personal information from some of the less net-wise and specifically female contributors. From what I’ve read since, people like that are a dime a dozen on blogs and forums.
So, I can sympathise with the less than forgiving attitude towards those early comments. I imagine that had this exchange occurred over the course of a few hours at a meeting dinner, where each participant knew exactly who they were really talking to, and could more accurately judge each others’ sincerity, things might have been different. Add to that the point that writing something inflammatory requires a particular level of consideration and sense of purpose which spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment vocalizing of one’s thoughts can sometimes be deprived of. The former is generally harder to retract with sincerity than the latter, and I think this is reflected in online discussions.
You are right- ‘Dave’ may be a completely imaginary figure. But you know what- I know people who are like this in real life. They carelessly throw out words like a bomb and without thinking about their meaning. When they are called on the carpet about the wrong-headedness of their remarks -they dig themselves deeper because they are defensive.
I still believe that such people can be educated. I still believe such people- if willing to realize their mistakes, learn a thing or two, and become activists- can be advocates for women.
Sometimes I learn the most valuable lessons from my own mistakes.
I think it’s always best to make an attempt to understand the intent of a statement. Most people are well intended, respectful people and just need a friendly reminder and some grace. If you can hear a person’s intent through an ignorant statement, they’re much more likely to hear your critique.
On the other hand, I don’t have the time or energy to educate the bigoted misogynists.
Then again still, Dave seems to have agreed with my take on the Ley paper, so does make me a misogynist?
The problem is that these people barge into what should be interesting discussions among people who already understand the terms of discussion and divert the conversation to being all about them. No one gives a flying fuck whether they’re earnest, joking, learning, growing, spurring discussion, or whathefuckever. The problem is that their long-winded masturbatory gibbering, which seems to always end with some kind of exhortation to people that they are doing whatever it is that they are doing wrong, is WASTING OTHER PEOPLE’S VALUABLE TIME.
No one wants to show up at what should be an interesting discussion and have to wade through thousands of words of inane pedantic fuckwittitude. There are plenty of places on the Internet for these people to do their thing. Different bloggers can differ on this, but my own opinion is that they should quit clogging up discussions among people who already agree on the basic terms of discourse and are trying to figure out how to get shit done.
C PP- I believe my response to the whole event was:
‘comment threads where people just spend 200 comments calling each other assholes are not useful. I stop paying attention, and it pisses me off when a discussion that I care about devolves into pointless mud-slinging. It might make you feel better- but it doesn’t accomplish anything. If this were my kids I wouldn’t care who started it. I would tell them to knock it off and move on to the important stuff.’
But since you mention this:
‘The problem is that these people barge into what should be interesting discussions among people who already understand the terms of discussion and divert the conversation to being all about them.’
You can see it anyway you like. But to me the post DM made was about a particular problem of which I am a target by virtue of my gender, this caused me to think about how this problem comes about… and then imagine my shock and surprise- when an actual perpetrator of the problem (witting or unwitting) attempting to say something smug and not realizing the rules, engages the discussion.
Ok- you can say this is clogging the discourse- but I say that this is what I deal with many many many times in real life- I have to deal with this because I am a WOMAN. In real life I have no choice but to deal with this because the ‘rules’ are not clear to everyone and even people who think of themselves as fine and decent people occasionally put their foot straight in something unintentionally.
And you know what else- with people like this I’m spending less time figuring out how to get shit done and more time figuring out how to do the most effective delivery.
Is the discussion group therapy? 
Is the discussion a pragmatic search for effective  tactics?
Is the discussion a collective attempt to clarify what we  really want?
A lot of slippage happens when people discuss tactics without clear (and self-honest) establishment of the goals. Keep in mind that immediacy is a powerful modulator of reinforcement, so ineffective means that “feel good” are often more attractive than effective means that don’t .
 Group therapy is necessary. One of the Good Things about pseudonymity is that it lets us  vent (relatively) safely.
 “Effective” presupposes that the goals are already well-understood.
 For appropriate values of the first person plural.
 Application of this principle to national politics is left to other fora.
You know, I have been involved in so many internet forums that these things tend not to phase me. ESPECIALLY when I was pretty active in online gaming for about 2.5 years (yeah, I’m that big of a nerd), I played World of Warcraft and participated in many a ridonkulous, pointless discussion on politics and wha-have-you, and observed multitudes of ‘compiopaths’ trying to rile people up and push angry debates along, and I pretty much just got desensitized.
Even (and in fact, particularly) when the compiopath is saying really offensive stuff about something close and important to me, it just doesn’t piss me off too much. And frequently they might be someone honestly n00b to the internehts and not realizing the format around these parts, but even then I usually just feel tired thinking about arguing with them or trying to train them about it. When it comes down to it, this is a place I come to express myself and I don’t want to have to be trying to train in every noob that starts shizzstorms.
As far as I see this whole shizzstorm (and yeah, while I’ve remained quiet I’ve read pretty much all of it on all the various places) it’s just a stereotypical situation that only upsets me in that it takes advantage of the time and energy of the people who I respect. The danger of trying to have meaningful discussion on the internet, illustrated. IF there was something useful to be achieved, I lean more towards your hopes drdrA: that someone who maybe totally didn’t “get it” before has now been brought closer to getting it. I also don’t think its usually very mature or useful to just add assholes to one’s list of enemies, when achieving functionality is the goal in human interactions, banishing people from your world is not an option so some form of compromise and education is usually more effective. But at the same time, I tend to react just as emotionally to people who offend me personally so it’s no like this is easy.
I think I’m going to disagree with some of this. I DO agree that sometimes engaging with someone who is, say, blatantly and unapologetically sexist, can provide a “teachable moment” and teaching to that could incrementally help the greater good. But I disagree that we have a responsibility to teach everyone – or anyone, for that matter, if we don’t feel like it. The information on these subjects is out there for anyone to find; I’ll even be so kind as to link someone to FinallyFeminism101 or elsewhere if it would help someone read up. But I think a lot of us are sick and tired of having to bring the conversation back down to the 101 level to patiently teach some asshole about critical theory on every single comment thread where it comes up. I think conversations we could be having about constructive approaches to problems are prevented from getting very far (or take four days across five different blogs to get anywhere) because of efforts to engage with what would be seen as derailing trolls anywhere else.
I recently put up a post on my blog about what has surprised me moving from feminist blogs to the science blog community, on exactly this subject. Maybe, rather than just being about the level of broader education and practical engagement with critical theory topics in the science community, the difference also reflects the very different goals of those blogs. D.C. Sessions, your comment is making me think about that, thanks. I think some of the feminist blogs I like the best are not only serving to raise awareness, but to create safe(r) spaces for victims of sexism. That’s a different goal from most science blogs, and it requires a zero tolerance policy for trolls (including concern trolls).
Nonetheless, I’m still hesitant to say we should be teaching the trolls just because their intentions might be good. Sometimes, even if I’m not creating a safe space, it still won’t be about them. And Dave was making it all about him (and the Menz).
(Fyi, I just posted something, but I’m a first-time poster on this blog and it had some links, so it’s probably stuck in the spam trap.)
Arlenna- I noticed that you have been very quiet this last week, and I wondered about that. As for your second paragraph- I agree with you. I try not to let people get to me, this is easier for me (believe it or not) on the blogs that it is in real life. I guess I don’t like to make assumptions about people’s motivation unless I’m absolutely sure of what that is. I generally try to give people the benefit of the doubt if at all possible.
volcanista- Yes, sometimes new commenters get stuck in comment moderation- even if their comment is perfectly ok. That’s what happened to yours- but you should see it up there now.
‘But I disagree that we have a responsibility to teach everyone – or anyone, for that matter, if we don’t feel like it.’ Yeah- you are right about this. I’m an oldest child- we feel a responsibility for absolutely everything and everyone. On the other hand- in real life- I benefit by educating those around me on these subjects.
But your point about who we choose to educate is a good one.
True, I do find I put in more of an effort to educate IRL. If nothing else, I have to work/live/interact with most of those people, so it’s in my immediate interest to do so. I also can’t very easily walk away from many of those relationships, while online I can limit my conversations to people who have some previous exposure to the subject at hand if I want informed input, without serious repercussions.
No worries, I have a WordPress blog, too, so I figured the links caught me up. I just wanted to let you know to check the trap. 🙂
volcanista- I had a look at your blog and I look forward to reading your further thoughts on the science blogging community!