At the risk of inviting a miasma of socks, I am going to talk about Womanspace once again. It’s important, and I’ve got a point to make.
There are a couple of open letters that are worth reading. Dr. O’s An open letter to Dr. Rybicki makes a very important point:
Maybe your short story isn’t the biggest issue out there concerning sexism, but it’s the little issues that are frequently the most dangerous. Little slights, which appear innocent enough on the surface, permeate our thoughts and actions without our conscious permission and ultimately DO have consequences, whether we intend for them to or not.
And when your small act of sexism, intentional or otherwise, ends up published in a venue the size of Nature, it has an outsize effect. This is why women and men spoke out. Silence would imply the issue is unimportant. It’s most certainly not. As any scientist who also happens to be a woman whether a culture of sexism harms, and chances are excellent she will tell you it does.
Of course, this wasn’t the worst act of sexism ever perpetrated in the entire history of civilization. And it would have probably died quite quietly if the author had possessed the humility and courage to utter just two words.
I’d have liked it if he had. But he chose to pour gasoline rather than balm, and we all know what happens when someone starts a fire on the internet. I’m not sorry it happened. Many excellent posts came out of it. Nature got put on notice, and so did anyone else who might have thought that a little light sexism was quite all right. Dust-ups like this raise awareness. And I want to talk about why that’s important.
I came across this tweet from Ed Yong after the whole fracas had died down a bit, and it struck me:
It struck me because I’ve been that person.
I wanted to make sure I’d understood Ed correctly, so I emailed him. I’m beginning to believe the rumors he’s some sort of android, because he emailed back immediately.
So before I became an active science blogger, I would have reacted to this with all the derailing tropes that are coming to the fore: you’re overreacting, he didn’t *intend* to offend anyone etc etc. Fortunately, I’ve been party to a lot of conversations with intelligent feminists, both female and male, since then, which have changed a lot of my view on gender issues. I’m immensely grateful for that.
In the responses of the “out-of-proportion” camp, I see a belief that always crops up in these debates: that “not-being-sexist” is somehow an easy, default position. Hence: it matters whether or not Rybicki intended to offend, because sexism would be an *active choice* over and above the baseline of not being sexist.
Which is rubbish. Not being sexist is hard. You’re pushing against unconscious biases, cultural norms, historically ingrained turns of speech, and more. Not being sexist requires an act of listening to, and learning from, the reactions of those who speak out against it, even if that may make you uncomfortable. It requires introspection, care, and effort.
Ed Yong, for those not familiar, is not only one of the best science bloggers on the planet and a person I follow on Twitter equally for the knowledge and the hilarity he tweets, he’s also one of those men who actually gets it, who understands what sexism is and does and that it must be fought. There’s a lot more now than there used to be, and it’s not because women shut up when told they’re “overreacting.”
This should sound familiar to any atheist in the crowd. There’s a steady drumbeat of voices urging us to tone it down, don’t rock the boat so hard, stop being so sensitive, etc. forever on and on. I’ve been seeing the same thing with talk about sexism, and I’ll be providing more examples quite soon, because there was a particularly egregious example just today. And it’s rubbish.
I know it’s rubbish because, like Ed, I was once in that camp. I stopped camping over there only because people kept talking. Shouting, sometimes. I’ve been that sneering person. The noisemakers were noisy and annoying and disturbed my peace. I wished they’d shut the fuck up and let me get on with ignoring various issues.
But all those voices eventually got my attention. They broke through the deliberate deafness. It becomes impossible to ignore many voices speaking out. It’s damnably difficult to ignore a variety of viewpoints on the subject. It’s impossible to ignore when someone you respect joins that diversity of voices. Like me, you may, eventually, end up giving those voices a hearing, fair or not. And you may end up changing your mind.
This is uncomfortable at first. None of us necessarily likes rethinking certain of our assumptions. There are issues we may not think are issues or would rather not hear about. And sometimes, the counter-chorus starts. We want the voices to go away. Shut up, or go somewhere they can’t be overheard at the very least. But if they shut up, nothing will ever change.
Some things need to change.
And some things do.
This is what’s so often missed in these furors. I’ve been told I’m wasting time. So have my fellow bloggers, both here at Freethought Blogs and all over the internet. Why are you preaching to the choir? Why waste your breath on people who won’t change their minds?
The secret, dear reader, is that we’re not always trying to reach the unreachable. Oh, it would be nice. If I meet Ed Rybicki several years from now, and he tells me this whole thing got him thinking, and even changed his thinking just a bit, don’t think I won’t buy him a celebratory drink. It would be brilliant if his consciousness got raised, and if all those people so quick to defend him calmed down and realized that no one ever hated Dr. Rybicki as a whole human, but were annoyed by his story and appalled that Nature would give a platform to something that showcased sexist ideas about both women and men. It would be wonderful if everybody realized that unconscious sexism and unintended offense are things worth addressing, and doing something about.
But that’s not who we’re after.
The next Ed Yong may be listening. The next Dana Hunter may be, right at this moment, taking pride in the fact she’s not like those hysterical females, without realizing that those females are not hysterical and, additionally, are watching out for her ass too. The next person whose consciousness is raised on this issue, or any number of other uncomfortable issues folks wish we’d just shut up about, is out there, sitting on a fence or standing by.
That’s why speaking out is important. That’s why we won’t stop.