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Monday, September 20, 2010


Why I'd like to see more men smacking sexists around

A few days ago a blogger I always find interesting, Greta Christina, posted a video of herself giving a rather good talk about diversity in the sceptical movement, which you should check out here. I'm not a member of the sceptical movement myself, but her comments are broadly applicable to all sorts of situations and pretty good sense, so I enjoyed listening to it.

But it got me thinking. During the Q&A, there was a discussion of how to deal with someone who's being unconsciously racist or sexist, and one of the big suggestions was that you should help them save face. Now, there's a good tactical argument for that - it's easier to admit something if you can save face doing it - but having been embroiled in various online arguments about sexism, kyriarchy and privilege, I found myself wondering about it. At least in terms of the benefit of any given community, which is what the talk was about.

Online at least, 'privilege' appears to be fightin' talk to a lot of people. White, male, heterosexual, cisgendered people: basically people who've never really been on the other side of the privilege divide, and so don't have the life experience that teaches them that yes, privilege is a real phenomenon, that it doesn't mean the individual who has privilege is evil but it does mean that some people have it easier than others and that you should probably check your assumptions and listen if somebody tells you it's different for them. And while these are the people who are presumably trying to save face by going through the denial-and-anger stage of response when you suggest to them that some people have it worse than they do, is helping them save face always the best response? Particularly if you're trying to keep your community welcoming to diversity?

Because here's something I've noticed about discrimination. Let's take racism as an example. There's the racism that burns a cross on somebody's lawn, and most of us agree that that's bad. But there's another kind of racism, a less dramatic kind that, being ethnocentric, many of us are prone to: encountering a situation where race is an issue, and being tenderly sensitive to all the tiny nuances of feeling and motivation and circumstance that the white person is undergoing while showing far less empathy towards the non-white person - and thinking you're being fair and compassionate. Forgiving somebody the same race as yourself for doing something crappy to someone of a different race, and thinking that this settles the issue rather than acknowledging that maybe it's not your place to pronounce the final judgement on the rights and wrongs. Thinking, in short, that a big dollop of understanding for the side that happens to look like you makes you sweetly reasonable.

And while that might be an under-the-radar racism for the person doing it, it's not going to fly under the radar of people who have to deal with racism all the time because some people really don't respect people of their race. They're going to notice.

And if nobody calls that person out on it - if people are tenderly sensitive to how terribly difficult it is for the poor person who's making this mistake, but not equally sensitive to how hard it is for the other guys to be on the receiving end of it - then they're going to put people off.

I'm a white person in a predominantly white culture, so I'm not entitled to appoint myself spokeperson for victims of racism here (anybody who has been on the receiving end of racism and who feels like sharing their views, please feel free to take over and correct me if I'm wrong); when I say 'they', I mean 'generic they, sometimes including me', because I bet you anything I've messed up on this plenty of times. But I can speak to an experience I've had several times when it comes to sexism. It's a subtle pattern - but its effects aren't subtle, and I think it's worth calling attention to it.

Here's how it goes.

You're in an online conversation, and the subject of privilege or sexism comes up, as, in an unequal society, it sometimes does.

A man or men get extremely defensive, and start arguing that really there's no such thing as privilege, that the effects of sexism on women aren't that important, that he/they feel upset at such talk, or some other version of 'Screw your struggles with injustice, I don't want to hear about them, and my individual feelings about this matter more than your whole gender's problems.'

A woman, or a few women, challenge this. Often politely, with attempts to explain rather than just to blast the guy or guys. (Important side-note: The number of women who do this depends on who's feeling strong that day - because here's a piece of info that's familiar to most women but not necessarily to men who haven't been told: any woman who challenges a man on sexism knows she's in for a huge, huge fight. It's revoltingly common to act as if pointing out sexism is a worse offence than doing or saying something sexist, to cast the person who says 'That's sexist' as the aggressor who Started Something and the person who said the sexist thing as the victim ... and in order to deal with that whole imbroglio, a woman has to be very confident, prepared to hold her own in a battle and willing to be disliked. It's like that saying about how for every mouse you see, there are twenty-five that you don't: for every woman who says 'That's a sexist thing to say', there are almost certainly a lot who are equally troubled by the sexist comment but who just don't feel up to bringing down a firestorm on their heads.)

A battle results, in which the man or men insist on denying the women's experience, throw in a whole lot of unpleasant remarks that are nasty for women to hear while remaining under the impression that they're the big victims here, and generally act in a wearying way. The tougher women hang in, dealing with all the stress and distress that listening to your gender demeaned for the millionth time brings with it, and often hiding their distress because when you're talking to someone who doesn't respect women, the last thing you want to do is confirm all his buried assumptions by looking weak.

The men in the group, for the most part, sit it out. You might get one here and there, but on the whole, even though they probably don't agree with the sexist opinions the other men are chucking about, the majority of the men leave the fighting to the women.

And here's a variant: occasionally the sexist guy gets the point enough to retract something he said. And when he does, all the other men weigh in to congratulate him, shake his hand and generally tell him what a great guy he is to change his opinion.

And it's a pattern that really, really annoys me.

Those men were nowhere when the women were doing the hard and exhausting work of convincing the guy to stop being a jackass. They have no words of support or thanks for the women who did that work. Yet the minute the man reduces his jackassery just a bit, they're all over him.

Probably not out of deliberate sexism. But this pattern reinforces sexism even as it attempts to reward non-sexism, for a very simple reason. By saying nothing when the guy's being a jackass and falling all over him when he stops, the men - who are the people whose opinion a sexist guy is, deep down, going to take seriously - send a subtle but clear message: being non-sexist is above and beyond the call of duty. We'll do nothing to penalise you if you do it, but we'll reward you if you don't. Non-sexism isn't a minimal requirement, it's being a great guy who can expect special treatment if you take even a baby step towards it. And if you aren't being that great a guy, well, nobody who counts really minds. It's just a shiny extra feather in your cap.

(This effect can work if women weigh in to congratulate him as well, but there's a particular twist when it's mostly men doing it: it reinforces the unconscious sexist's assumption that it's men who get to decide when a subject is closed. With a whole bunch of guys slapping Sexist Version 1.2 on the back, it becomes very difficult for any women who are still upset with his behaviour to say anything more about it without looking ungracious. The back-slappers probably don't intend to close off the women's options, but they are acting out the traditional role of men as referees of public discourse, the ones who pass the final judgement on when a matter is or isn't settled, the ones whose opinons really count. And that's only going to add to our unconscious sexist's sexism - especially because it's very much in his interests to accept a model that lets him think of himself as a great guy.)

It also carries a corollary implication: women who work hard to promote equality deserve nothing, but men who make a small shift from total jerk to somewhat less of a jerk deserve a lot. There's no need to reward the women for doing the work of making him shift, but the man needs lots of petting and praise. The unequal and male-favouring distribution of support and endorsement is a community being fair. One man's feelings matter more than all women's feelings ... Which is pretty much the assumption the guy throwing the tantrum was going on in the first place. He can walk away with a slightly revised opinion in some areas, but his ideas about what slice of the pie he deserves actually confirmed - because while listening to him was a punitive experience for all the women around, he doesn't get seriously punished. He gets a carrot for letting up on giving everybody stick. Men matter more than women, and more specifically, he matters more than women.

And that's the thing about privilege; that's its whole foundation. Privilege - and I speak as a white, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied, middle-class person here, so I've got privilege coming out of my ears - means being able to get away with stuff, with suffering no negative consequences for not thinking about what it's like for someone less advantaged. If you suffer no serious consequences for saying something sexist (and if you don't respect women's opinions, women taking you to task is a less serious consequence than men doing it), you're getting away with it. You don't have to change your basic opinion that it's safe and okay for you to disregard women.

Helping someone like that save face? That's a problem. It means, basically, working hard to keep them in the position of unchallenged security that led to them being prejudiced in the first place. Losing face, or the threat of losing face, is a powerful social motivator. If their face hadn't been preserved so often in the past, they'd probably know better than to say offensive things now. They'd know there was a cost attached.

This is all going to affect communities, because while you're working hard to help the prejudiced people save face, there are people watching who, through their prejudice, they've insulted. If you're trying to respect the dignity of someone prejudiced while doing nothing to support the dignity of the people they've degraded, you're still valuing the dignity of the man, the white person, the heterosexual - of That Guy - more than the dignity of people on the other side of the line. (And it's not as if you're operating in a world where face-saving is an evenly distributed resource. I can tell you from experience, it's not as if unconsciously sexist men are eager to help women save face when they want them to knock off this feminist talk. I'd bet money that unconsciously racist people aren't all about helping non-white people save face, or that homophobic people aren't lying awake at night wondering how to help gay people save face. Helping you save face treats your credit as something you should consider yourself entitled to, which is exactly what prejudiced people don't think about others.)

Helping someone save face might gradually unstick them from their prejudices, sure. But you have to decide what your priority is: unsticking one individual from their prejudices on the do-it-slowly-and-painlessly principle like you were removing a plaster, or having a community that doesn't favour certain members over others. And spending a whole lot of time gently working on the dignity of someone who did something wrong, while showing no such consideration for the victims of their prejudice who didn't do anything wrong, is a very uneven distribution of community resources.

And people who are used to getting a smaller piece of the pie are going to notice. Because they've been here before, many, many times.

I often try to explain things politely, at least as a starting move, but when it comes to diversity in communities - well, I won't name names, but while I'm someone who's perfectly prepared to go ten rounds with people on a cause I believe in, I nevertheless have in the past dropped out of communities, or chosen not to join them, precisely because of this pattern. There's a place for educating the unconsciously prejudiced ... but it's a place that favours the unconsciously prejudiced, and we have plenty of those already.

Sometimes you need to draw a line between what's good for the individual and what's good for the community. It might be good for the individual to be gently persuaded of the error of their ways - though I'm personally not too starry-eyed about that, as a lot of people aren't persuadable - but what's good for that individual and what's good for a community aren't the same thing. Sometimes educating that individual is done at the cost of the community, or at the cost of other members or potential members of the community - and if the educatee tends to be someone privileged (which, in a discussion about prejudice, is highly likely), then that's going to discourage diversity, because sometimes people have just had enough of listening to prejudiced talk and don't want to stick around for some more.

In short: if you really want diversity, there's something to be said for patience, but there's also a whole lot to be said for just bouncing the jackasses. If they're serious, they'll learn and come back - and getting bounced can teach you a sharp and much-needed lesson - and if they're not, we're better without them. And in the meantime, turning the place into a gentle, supportive school for them while making other people listen to themselves being insulted? Not favouring diversity.

The fact that you get this completely explains just why "Bareback" was so brilliant. (Yes, I know you didn't post this for back-pattings, but I'm patting your back anyway. This post got my day off to a wonderful start. Thank you. :-D)
Well, thank you! How very kind of you. :-)

It's a bit tricky trying to talk about the experience of prejudices I will, by virtue of my race, orientation or what have you, never have any personal experience of, and being on the receiving end of one kind of discrimination doesn't mean I know everything about all kinds. But on the other hand, it annoys me when men who don't like sexism never say anything against it, so it seems like I should probably apply that standard to myself. Which means there's always the possibility that I'll say something stupid, and if I do, I hope someone will point it out to me so I can fix it...
Hey, Kit.

I chased this around with my boyfriend because, at 40, I just never understood this, and it's not like I don't know that people who aren't like me experience the world differently.

It's because apparently the word "privilege" is just packed with extra meaning.

When I hear the word "privilege," as applied to me, I hear "That car/TV/stereo is a privilege, young lady, and if you don't behave, I can make sure you don't get to have it!" So I come from a weirdly inverted place where to be "privileged" means "Someone else has the power to take things away from you. You don't own them and you don't deserve them."

Boyfriend, on the other hand, was on the hook with "privilege" being Latin for "private law." For him, it was a case of, Although I know there is corruption and some rich/important/not me people get away with murder, I believe in American democratic justice where all are equal under the law.

Of course, neither of us, progressive, compassionate, moderate-to-liberal, ever attempted to get anything we didn't deserve or cheat someone out of what was fair to them.

"Privilege" as simply "the water you swim in," specifically, STUFF YOU'RE NOT AWARE OF, just never occurred to us. Until you and some of the slacktivites started talking about it a couple of weeks ago, I simply Had Not Had It Explained To Me In Words Of On Syl-La-Ble Or Less. :)

Suddenly, a lot of fuzzy things I had been struggling with--hypocrisies, strangely unfair situations (I know something's wrong, but how to address it?), and false equivocations--sharpened right up!

My sister, who acts like men have to do everything for her cuz she's so decorative? Aha. Why isn't it fair for the Christians to ask the Muslims to "be sensitive"? A-HA. And, like you said, those strange conversations where you think it should be simple, but it keeps doing these flips where the wrong person ends up on defense? Ohhhh....

I think I'm catching on. Our first idea was that what we needed was not an end to privilege (can't do it, can't legislate it--if one fades, another will rise), but awareness so that We Might Not Abuse It.

Anyway, having been reassured that it also will probably cause a fight any other time I talk about it, I'll not expect too many candy rainbows from the new insight. :)
I love it when you dissect privilege, Kit. I loved it in Fred's comment thread (was that what sparked this, that massive derail?), and I love it when you expand upon it like now. This is so coherent, so much better than anything I could say, but I am nodding away vigorously because yes that is so true, to be a woman saying 'That's sexist' (or to be a coloured person or a queer person or any marginalised person calling someone out for X) is already so difficult, so tiring, it takes a real douche to blame us for oppressing ourselves by 'not speaking up'. That's privilege, right there.

Thank you for this post.

I came by here because I was looking up your old description of depression, back on Slacktivist.

Thank you for saying this, and doing it so clearly.

Love and coffee,
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