Warning: Fencesitters and Bystanders May Be Affected

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:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/edyong209/status/141577571400810496″]

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.

Warning: Fencesitters and Bystanders May Be Affected
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12 thoughts on “Warning: Fencesitters and Bystanders May Be Affected

  1. 1

    I used to be pretty rabidly post-racism. To me the greatest examples of racism were things like affirmative action. It was, in my libertarian 17 year old mind, what was truly insulting an demeaning to us non-whites. Not that it would shock anyone but I prided myself in being controversial (read, calling women bitches after they’ve told me they don’t appreciate it) and regularly hung out with white republican kids and essentially modifying my own opinions to fit in with them.

    I got really hysterical when someone pointed that all out and called me an Uncle Tom.

    Weird thing is I dropped the post racism attitude because I could no longer defend my post feminism position after enlisting. You want a clear example of sexism in the work place? Try showing up your first duty station after Comm School and being greeted by a pair of male corporals loudly complaining about how if you have a vagina you own the Marine Corp while you are travelling with two female privates also right out of Comm School.

    For whatever reason they seemed not to hear them and walked off pretty quickly leaving me with the two corporals who’d started complaining about how females could never stay in during formation runs. I later learned (the next day really) neither of these two upstanding male Marines could do 3 miles in under 25 minutes.

    Anyway, that story kinda didn’t go anywhere. Point is, some of us do grow out of such ideas but it takes a bit. Especially considering how we seem to be predisposed to agree with whatever the majority opinion seems to be.

  2. 2

    What Ed said. I’ve gotten schooled by a couple things in recent years. The ugly racism following Barack Obama blew up my assurance that we were in any way post-racial. Watching female science bloggers heaped with scorn over even the mildest requests they be treated as, you know, people instead of objects made it impossible to think we were post-sexist.

    And when I first started coming out as an atheist online I was all “Hey, we can groove with religious people because you know, it’s all about mutual respect blah blah blah”. But I found out that what a lot of religious people mean by “mutual respect” is “you shut up about that atheism stuff”. And then they turn around and spend a million or eight fighting some law that would affirm gay people have the same rights as the rest of us.

    And when anyone points out how idiotic it all is, the response is always the same: “Hey, I was only joking! Can’t you take a joke?” That excuse has been mined, brah…

  3. 3

    Nicely said. I used to be a lot like this too – calling myself a ‘humanist’ rather than a ‘feminist’ because I thought the feminists were overreacting and trying to pull men down while raising themselves up instead of fighting for simple equality. It finally occurred to me that as a skeptic, it was my responsibility to figure out if that was accurate before continuing to spout off about it…and ‘thinking’ something is true is a far cry from factually establishing it. Isn’t that why we so soundly denounce religion?

    I started actually reading feminist sites and blogs. I noticed that every time one would speak up, there’d be a huge vicious overreaction aimed their way…and that right there told me there was something to what they were saying. People overreact when they’re called on their biases but don’t want to have to examine them…or because they’re complete flaming jerks. Further examination showed that hypothesis to be accurate.

    If you’re a skeptic or atheist and you act in a sexist manner toward women – especially if you’re an atheist or skeptic who loudly complains about how religious people treat atheists in a horrible way – you are acting in a hypocritical fashion, and you deserve to be called on your behaviour.

    Professor Dawkins, I’m looking at you.

  4. 4

    Dawkins’ response was very disappointing. Not what I expected from him, and as far as I know he has not fixed it. As a result I still find him brilliant on biology and relevant on religion but stupid on sexism.

    I would hate to think that being a humanist implies any denigration of feminism though. I try to use it as an inclusive term.

  5. 5

    It is an inclusive term – I was trying to lay out my thought process that led me to determining that the two were incompatible. It saddens me that so many other people aren’t willing or able to examine their biases/prejudices in a similar fashion.

  6. 6

    My movements towards feminism and racism have been gradual over the years. I have never considered myself to be either, but as I age I see more and more where I could have been much more sensitive to the issues. At the very least, I watch movies that I once thought were humorous and now all I can see is the blatant racism and sexism that were always there.

  7. Jen

    Thank you for this. Your quote of Ed’s really resonated with me: that the pervasive assumption is that Not Being Sexist is easy/default. And that’s what I’ve assumed, and it kept surprising me that “seemingly innocent” phenomena are held up as examples. After reading this post, I feel my body weight has shifted a bit more over the fence. And … how many other assumptions keep me/us from treating others as equals?

  8. 8

    My problem with the calls of sexism and racism by watchdog groups is that they make two assumptions:
    1) that little things “permeate our thoughts and actions without our conscious permission” and
    2) that sexism/racism will persist until we eradicate the thoughts from the minds of everyone.

    As for 1), little things that are socially disgusting will always permeate the thoughts of many (“i could shoplift that” or “my best friend’s significant other is hot”). They may even affect some of our slightest actions. HOWEVER, they should not permeate gross actions such as bias in hiring or name calling. Drawing the line any further is a dangerous crossover from removing discrimination to forcing thoughts.

    That leads me to 2), where the goal is not to teach people to be un-sexist or un-racist. The goal of activists is to make others think exactly like them. You think that joke is funny? Sexist. You support that athlete? Racist. Activists have pushed the envelope to the point where they do not want to make us see no differences, they want to enlighten us to be LIKE THEM.

    Sorry if I don’t want to be like someone who tries to find discrimination everywhere they look.

  9. 10

    HOWEVER, they should not permeate gross actions such as bias in hiring or name calling. Drawing the line any further is a dangerous crossover from removing discrimination to forcing thoughts.

    I’m not sure what you mean.

    Are you saying that activism should end at trying to stop bias in hiring and name calling and that going beyond that point is akin to thought police?

    If so, I couldn’t disagree with you more. Subconscious attitudes aren’t just bad because of the biases they create in us but because of the outworldly manifestations of it. For example, saying ‘blacks are all right’ but when presented with a black person being cold, removed and adopting an unwelcoming posture. Children (and the black person) will pick up on those signals.

    (In fact I think there were a couple studies where children responded more strongly to attitude than words. Despite the adult saying ‘John’ was ok, the children only responded positively to ‘John’ when the adult’s body language was friendly.)

    Our personal biases and disdains are almost inseparable from our day to day actions. It isn’t as if when you walk out the door you leave all of that behind you (despite how much we may like to believe that possible.) And besides, what’s wrong with a group rightly pointing out that such attitudes are wrong and need to stop being excused?

    where the goal is not to teach people to be un-sexist or un-racist. The goal of activists is to make others think exactly like them.


    Don’t agree but even conceding the point, all groups advancing a position want you to ‘think like them’ to some extent. It isn’t unusual or uncommon. A skeptic groups wants you to embrace skepticism, a Christian group wants you to embrace Christianity, ectectect.

    And no sorry, activists are not the thought police. The point of pointing out sexism or sexism enforcing behavior isn’t to control your thoughts, it’s to make the world more ‘unsexist.’ After all, if sexism isn’t pointed out how exactly is the behavior going to stop?

    You think that joke is funny? Sexist.

    Oh poor little you. Can’t tell women to get back in kitchen without someone being offended. What exactly is your complaint?

    Activists have pushed the envelope to the point where they do not want to make us see no differences

    Who wants that? There are differences (economic, social, sexual orientation, history, methods of discriminating against, history of discrimination, the list goes on) between different people and especially between marginalized groups and ‘privileged’ groups.. You can’t take a ‘I see no difference’ attitude towards these things and hope things go well. (I think The Crommunist did a recent post on Color-Blindness. Good read.)

    Sorry if I don’t want to be like someone who tries to find discrimination everywhere they look.


  10. 11

    There is a line between law and awareness. The law prohibits discrimination, or it should. Awareness is a different matter. Being racist or sexist doesn’t always, or even usually, “harboring ill will toward the other”. More often it means having no awareness of how you sound to the objects of your “humor”.

    It’s analogous to the person who lets you know your fly is open. They’re not being the “thought police”; they’re letting you know how you appear to others who do not have the privilege of not thinking about it.

  11. 12

    What blows me away is that Rybicki still doesn’t understand that a simple, “I’m sorry,” would have been the RightThingToDo.

    I’m glad both you and Ed wrote what you did. Not being sexist is difficult because we are cultured from an early age to be so – precisely because of the number of “little things” we let slide as stereotypes.

    I am still getting schooled despite my very best intentions – and I’m open and accepting of that. Most recently, I asked Janet Stemwedel at the last ScienceOnline conference to help me with one of my common statements I know is sexist: “A man isn’t man enough to be a woman” (which I came up with after my wife’s very difficult C-section and recovery after our daughter’s birth). Janet educated me about “man enough” as the offending phrase and suggested that I use “strong enough.”

    I thanked her for her insights and have since changed my wording – staying aware of the other little things I do.

    And, lo and behold, (to quote your FTB colleague, PhysioProf), my dick hasn’t fallen off!

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