In its first 24 hours, my post Am I Sexist? racked up over 270 comments. Let me try to sum up the debate so far…
When I posted my list of Sexy Female Scientists, I meant it as a lighthearted celebration of sexy women doing science. The reaction I expected was something like the reaction of the only person actually on the list to comment so far, Abigail Smith, who wrote:
…flirting at [academic] conferences is just silly fun, like some blogger’s list of ‘SEXAH SCIENTISTS!’
After publishing the list, someone directed me to a 2009 post by one of the other women on the list, Sheril Kirshenbaum, who apparently does not like being called a “sexah scientist!” Most of the commenters on “Am I Sexist?” sided with Sheril’s view. But Abigail responded:
Why are you all focusing on [Sheril's] reaction, and not mine (or other female scientists) who embrace our femininity, sexuality, *and* brains?
But the fact that most commenters have not reacted the way Abigail did, but more in line with Sheril’s post, suggests that I am ignorant of some things in this domain.
So here’s the thing: It’s quite plausible to me that I’m wrong about this. I’m just trying to get clear what the arguments are.
Why it’s plausible I’m wrong
Here are some reasons it’s plausible I’m wrong about the extent of my own sexism:
- My culture, and especially my planet, are extremely sexist in many ways. I don’t have an impenetrable anti-sexism shield to keep all that from affecting me. The objectification and demeaning of women is everywhere.
- I’m not sure I’ve felt “offense” for several years. I’ve really lost touch with that feeling. So I’m probably relatively blind to that domain of human interaction – though apparently not totally blind, because I get along with people very well in person.
- I’ve never done any research in gender studies, so my views on the subject are almost certainly rather primitive compared to my views on, say, meta-ethics or philosophy of religion.
- All the women I know like being treated as the wonderful, feminine creatures they are. But this is probably not a representative sample of women in general – rather, it’s an effect of my own preferences relevant to choosing with whom I spend my time.
- Really awesome people like Phil Plait side with Sheril, along with many respectable people who commented supportively on Sheril’s original post.
- It seems plausible we might all be “implicit sexists” the way we are all implicit racists.
But what are the arguments?
So all that leads me to suspect the last post in this series is going to have the title “Yup, I Was Being Sexist.” But I don’t really know yet, because I’m still trying to figure out what the arguments are.
Obviously, there are lots of bad or obscure arguments on offer against my original position. Researchers in moral psychology have shown that moral judgment usually happens like this: We have an emotional reaction to something, and then we invent post-hoc reasons to defend our unthinking emotional reaction. And of course that’s no different here.
Some of my favorite examples:
- One person claimed that my calling women sexy was like calling Obama a n*gger, because the n-word has been used to keep blacks down, and sexiness has been used to keep women down. Wowza!
- Some people said my post was “violent” against women. Ummmmm…. well, only if we radically redefine the word “violent” to mean, you know, “non-violent.”
- One person said I should not evaluate people based on something they’re born with, so I should not evaluate sexy women as sexy. This is bizarre on two points. First, most sexy women work awfully damn hard to look as sexy as they do. They aren’t born that way. Second, why can’t we evaluate people for the way they are born? Are people not allowed to call me tall because that is mostly the result of genes? Are people not allowed to call homosexuals “homosexual” because they were born with that orientation?
- Several people said I was reducing women to sex objects by calling them sexy. But I never said these women were nothing but sexy, or principally sexy, or anything of the sort. No such implications are in my post itself – they must be put there by other people. If I made another list of women and listed only their scientific achievements, would I be criticized for reducing them to science objects? If I made a list of philosophers who happen to be good at tennis, would I be criticized for reducing them to tennis objects? Of course not. Making a list about a certain subject does not imply that the people on the list are only important in relation to the subject of the list.
- Many people said I was “exercising male privilege” by calling women sexy or sharing my opinions or making scientific claims about the female gender. Certainly, male privilege exists. I said so in my original post. But males have no special privilege to (1) call people sexy, (2) share their opinions on the internet, or (3) make scientific claims about the opposite gender. Women have just as much privilege to do these things, and I do these things because I’m human not because I’m male. To call such things an exercise in male privilege is weird, and diminishes the actual meaning and importance of real male privilege.
- One person claimed I said women should react to compliments the same way men do. But read my post again. I said no such thing.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. But such “arguments” are to be expected on such a heated topic.
Are there good arguments again my position?
Most people objected to the mere fact that I made a list of sexy female scientists and posted their publicly available photos to my blog.
This, by itself, was sexist or misogynistic or otherwise objectionable, according to many of my readers.
It certainly isn’t sexist in the usual ways. I don’t think that women should be limited more than men in their opportunities, wages, education, political influence, or respect. So what’s wrong with a list of sexy women?
The objectification argument
Some claimed that my post “objectified” women – that because it was a list about women and their sexiness, it ignored their other qualities and turned them into “sex objects.” This is wrong because it causes harm and downplays the dignity and autonomy of women.
But if I make a list of philosophers who play tennis, would I be accused of objectifying them as “tennis objects”? Of course not. The subject of the list is sexiness, and that’s why the focus is on their sexiness. This doesn’t imply that their sexiness is all they are, or that it says anything about the quality of their ideas, or that sexiness is the most important thing about them. It just happens to be the topic of the post.
But, my critics object, there’s a difference between women being shown for their sexiness and philosophers being shown for their tennis prowess. The difference has to do with the history of how sexual portrayals of women have been used to demean or really objectify women as sex objects.
There might be a good argument here, but I’m still waiting to hear the inferential logic from the facts about the history of misogyny – about which we agree – to the conclusion that therefore we ought not make lists of sexy women.
The unwanted compliments argument
Others have said that my list of sexy scientists is condemnable because my celebration of these women’s sexiness is unwanted in some cases, and something that is unwanted – or even offensive to someone – should be avoided unless it serves a higher moral purpose.
Abigail Smith seemed to appreciate her inclusion in the list, and other women have written me in the past saying they wish they had made my sexy atheists list, but Sheril, it was pointed out to me, does not appreciate being called “a woman in science” (nor, presumably, a “sexy scientist”). And if people don’t like hearing your compliments or your opinions of them, you shouldn’t give them.
This was spelled out a bit more thoroughly by some commenters, but my worry is identical to one left by ‘corn walker’:
I have a friend who easily takes offense. Talking to that friend is somewhat comical as I try to avoid saying anything that might possibly be misconstrued by a brain that works incomprehensibly to my own. In the end we don’t talk about much because the conversation field is scattered with eggshells just waiting to be broken.
I’m a teetotaling, non-smoking vegetarian. If I took offense every time someone offered me a drink, or a smoke, or bacon I’d be right to be ridiculed. Some people assume I’m offended when they eat meat in front of me, others tell me I don’t know what I’m missing. I don’t have the time or energy or insecurity to be offended by the things other people say or do. Ultimately I, and I alone, am judge jury and executioner. If I find their friendship not worth putting up with their behavior, then I don’t need to be friends with them.
However sometimes being purposefully provocative is called for. Just as you have a right to take offense, I have a right to say your taking offense is ridiculous. Take the example of drawing Mohammed. I think it’s important to draw Mohammed – not to be intentionally offensive to Muslims, but to make a very strong point that it is not acceptable to kill someone because they’ve offended you. I doubt there would be much interest in drawing Mohammed if it weren’t for the threat of violence that accompanies some Muslim’s umbrage. I see little distinction between it and gang members who kill each other because of slights both perceived and real – it’s immature and thuggish and ought not to be tolerated.
…I wouldn’t want to live in a society where we’re each tiptoeing around trying desperately not to offend someone. If I offend you, and you tell me I’ve offended you, I’ll likely try to avoid offending you in the future. If I think your offense is unwarranted, I’ll try to bring you around to my point of view. Moreover, I expect of my friends that they will challenge me on it – not wilt away in a heap of insecurity with injured sensibilities. I see it as an opportunity for personal growth if friends call me out, and no one is growing if we’re busy tending to each other’s bruised sensibilities.
I don’t believe feelings are necessarily valid. Emotions are reactive. They are both instinctual and learned, and they’re not always right (although confirmation bias leads us to think they usually are). By insisting that others pay deference to our emotional responses, we’re not seeking shared understanding but instead behaving as emotional tyrants. You don’t have to believe what you think and you don’t have to trust what you feel.
So maybe there’s an “unwanted compliments” argument to be made, or maybe not.
There are other arguments gradually being clarified in the comments, but those are the two that have made the most progress, I think.
I think we all agree on a great deal. Obviously women are constantly objectified and demeaned and weakened by male privilege. And yes, there are very good reasons why I might end up titling the last post in this series “Yes, I Was Wrong about Sexism.”
But let’s see if we can’t make some more progress on the issue.
Again, I ask: What do you think?
Update: Sheril has written a preliminary response to my posts.