Friday, December 15, 2006


In Which Razib Opens Up a Can of Blogospheric Worms

Recently, Razib of Gene Expression made a short post in which he expressed his surprise on seeing an attractive woman recommend a few science fiction books to another, as he puts it, "far less attractive". Insofar as this is a typical your-average-blog post (short, confirms a cliche, tongue-in-cheek), it obvously doesn't merit much attention. What's more interesting is this: Several women science bloggers have taken issue with the post and its expression of a tired gender stereotype, and challenged it. And this is where the fun begins. All the above posts are full of comments that can serve as a useful reminder that the supposedly enlightened community of science bloggers does have its share of... somewhat less enlightened people.

Let's take a look at some typical responses to illustrate my point:

#1. The Ignorance and Confusion of the Privileged:

"If you can't express why you disagree with what Razib actually said, or you can't actually take what Razib said and show how it implies your straw man version, then just leave it alone. Let people who can read the post without putting entire essays in between the lines criticize it. As it is, you just look reactive and silly, and the last thing the blogosphere needs is another reactive, silly feminist that the reactive, silly right wingers can use to represent all feminists (they're already good at making rational feminists look reactive by parodying them, but this sort of post needs no parody -- it's its own parody)."

This comment, by Chris of Mixing Memory, is a very common reaction from "nice guys" in a feminist discussion. They just can't understand what all the fuss is about. So many feminist discussions end with the woman being fuming with anger, and the man just going "Huh? What a shrill bitch" and shrugging it off. To Chris and other men who respond like this I present a thought experiment.

Say you are a member of a frequently stereotyped and discriminated minority, such as blacks or women. While instances of outright racism/sexism are rare, you are surrounded by people who, every day, drop small comments that reveal their ignorance and prejudices. Day after day you are faced with the task of correcting these comments, of ensuring that you are treated as an individual, not a stereotype - or to let them stand unchallenged and be reduced to "the girl" or "the brotha". Every time you meet a new person or enter a new setting, this Sisyphan task must be performed again, and kept up, requiring you to invest time and energy, while the people who belong to the privileged majority never need to exert themselves in such a fasion and are thus free to spend these resources on other, more rewarding activities. This is (part of) what "privilege" or lack thereof means.

While perhaps harmless in itself, it's easy to see why Razib's comment infuriated someone like Zuska, who spends a lot of her time fighting sexism on so many fronts already, and who didn't expect to see that crap on her "doorstep" from a fellow ScienceBlogger. So, for the people who respond with #1: I recommend some empathy.

#2. The All Nerds Are Ugly Response

"You are right, Tara, but let's be realistic. Women who are REALLY into sci fi can be generalized as not-so-attractive. But then again, regardless of the gender there is a whole lot of ugly going on at those things."

"I wonder what her high school yearbook photo looks like. Maybe she was an ugly growing up. That would explain it. Either that or you've wandered into bizarro land."

You know, this is obviously just my naivete speaking, but ever since I decided on becoming a scientist (about age 7), I always imagined scientists as being nerds. I figured no one who is not passionately interested in the subject would want to go near a job that is so unrewarding, hard and tedious (not to mention the pay is crap). But, surprise, wherever I go, there are still people who act like they're still in high school and they have to be "cool" by dissing knowlege and bragging about their ignorance. Recently, I overheard a masters student bragging about how she made her end-project report by plagiarising (copy-pasting whole paragraphs) from papers, because she couldn't be bothered to learn the theory behind her work. Often, the subject of conversations among postdocs or PhD students is how they hate reading papers or how they just see their projects as a 9-5 job that they don't really care about. Sure, some detachment is a good thing; but why diss knowlege? Why stigmatize people who do have a burning passion for their work?

Embedded in this is also the intellectual contempt for science fiction, which is somehow seen as low-brow and unworthy literature, read solely by society's rejects, fit only for ugly people. To all those who respond with #2: Grow up, please. You don't have to regurgitate your adolescent hangups.

#3. The "It's a Statement of Fact, Deal With It" Defence

"This seems to confuse is-ought. Razib did not make a statement of "ought" regarding stereotypes. He seemed to simply make a statement of "is".

And I think in taking that in, most people will cool their heels and realize the intrinsic difference between saying one and the other."

"I find it a little uncomfortable when people object too vigorously to stereotypes of the form: People of type X are generally of type Y. What's wrong with being a Y, anyway?"

Some people seem to believe that there's nothing wrong about perpetuating a stereotype, or embodying it. Obvbiously, someone who is attractive and stupid is not doing anything wrong per se; he/she is choosing an identity and lifestyle like everyone else. The problem that with stereotypes is when everyone is reduced to only live the stereotype; when the idea of the "hot chick", or whatever, becomes entrenched in the minds of people and restricts choices and behaviour. Words and ideas have power over people, and when you are expressing prejudice and playing along without challenging it, you're not doing anything particularly constructive. Fair enough, not everything has to further a cause; but expect to get called out by people who care. It's not that surprising that you'll get roasted on the blogosphere for being prejudiced.

Razib is a blogger I like to read: he has a lot of interesting posts, and he's not as sexist as some of the commenters seem to think (read this, for example), but this time he got his ass kicked for a good reason. My hope is for people to get their stereotypes challenged more frequently. It's nothing but a good thing.
Wow, there's something about Razib's post that just seems to make people incapable of reading. Or at least, incapable of reacting to what someone actually said, but instead reacting to parts taken out of context.

Let's be clear on what I said: Razib used all sorts of stereotypes, including gender types. That's pretty obvious. What he didn't do is imply anything about the women's intelligence. My point, then, was that in ignoring the stereotypes that Razib did use, in favor of criticizing him for using one he didn't, they not only missed the opportunity to criticize those stereotypes, but made it more difficult to argue reasonably that the "attractive women are dumb" stereotype is pervasive.

Now, explain to me how this is the "nice guy" response to feminism again?

Also, there's context of which you're clearly not aware: Zuska is completely off her rocker (on her blog and elsewhere). Not because she's a feminist, but because she's just completely fucking bonkers. I want her to shut up because I think she hurts feminism, by being utterly nonsensical. Her criticism of Razib is just one example of that.
I tried to post a comment here earlier, but I guess it didn't go through. The gist of it was that it seems as though Razib's post makes it difficult for people to read, or at least makes them more likely to take pieces of text and ignore the context. Because you didn't respond to anything I said.

Anyway, one thing you definitely got wrong is the "nice guy" part. I'm not one, and wouldn't pretend to be.
Wow, my first comment! I'm so proud. Sorry it took me so long to put it through, though.

Anyway, what I was trying to say with my post was that using stereotypes the way Razib did angers people. Not because what he said was particularly offensive or novel, but simply because of the sheer number of similar comments that people of any minority experience (as Razib himself no doubt has experienced, so I'm kinda surprised that he displayed insensitivity in his post). This is not necessarily about what he has actually said, it's about the tone of the message, which conveys a message of its own. Of course, I took some parts of it out of context: I wanted to focus on those parts specifically.

I like to read both you, Razib and Zuska, and I don't think she's particularly crazy, just quick to anger, and that's not necessarily a bed thing. Anyway, thank you again for the comment.
Interesting post.
Enjoyed reading your blog. Will come by for more...
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