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In which I tiptoe into a controversy where I might get thwacked

I'm kind of grumbly at a lot of people over this. Basically everyone. I might as well express my thoughts here in detail rather than on twitter, so people can see them expressed in full and respond with as much space as they like.

I've never heard of any of the people involved in this. Nor their company. I'm not a Mac person, and while I love Apple's APIs and a lot of their other software technology, IMO they're a company that's doing shitty things to the computer industry. They've always been a foe to the Opensource community, despite throwing us a bone every now and then. They've almost always tried to lock down hardware, eliminate customer choice, and sanitise the user experience, banning anything that might compete with them or look seedy.

This happened at Macworld 2012. Someone called Violet Blue (a writer for ZDNet and a colourful sex-positive blogger in her own right, but also someone I had not heard of) went there, saw a woman in a booth whom she mistook for a booth babe, and commented that she wasn't doing such a good job at looking sexy and just seemed tired and depressed, then went on to review the rest of the conference. This was in Violet Blue's report.

Some people decided this was some kind of heresy, this Dr Mathochist being an example, tossing around terms like "sexist" for what she said, and claiming that it doesn't matter what the intent was behind her phrasings, the sexism of the act is independent of the intent of the act.

So. There are a few different photos floating around for this. I'm not certain which one is being discussed, so I'm going to not build judgements based on that (even though that might reasonably shape my thoughts if it's relevant).

I've been to a few computer conferences before. I've seen booth babes, and generally felt uncomfortable around them. This is because generally they don't know anything about the products, they're just there to catch the eyes of men, and that feels kind of rude to me; I don't want people trying to engage my sexuality in that kind of context, and it easily makes a tech show feel seedy like some kinds of bars. I would be disturbed to imagine a company I worked for hiring someone to be a token sexyperson to invisibly connect to male sex drives, and I reallly utterly loathe how it makes a lot of men suddenly lose their sophistication and engage in that disgusting (mostly uniquely male in my experience) group sexual appreciation thing. I never have taken part in that group experience, and never will. I find it loathsome. Booth babes also make women uncomfortable (presumably for a lot of reasons, I imagine at least partly because it brings out the scummy side of men with that group-sexual-appreciation-thing) and risk making conventions "malegeek sausage parties where all the interesting intellect is replaced with brutish thoughts because of entertainment" rather than a simply mixedgeek, technical conference. And on the off chance you find someone who you might want to actually flirt a bit with tastefully, you're going to have to do it in the context of a meat market for show. It fails on many levels. Companies should not do booth babes.

Sometimes it's unclear who's a booth babe and who is not. Occasionally people cosplay at these events, sometimes people are a bit exhibitionist, and occasionally companies have scaled-back boothbabes who are actually dressed and nice but still there for show. And there's gradations beyond that; companies don't just send technical people and boothbabes; they often send salesfolk (who also have a less-stated obligation to look nice, whatever their gender, because that helps sales). Companies don't send ugly people if they can help it because it's part of human nature that impressions and associations matter.

Anyhow, from what I gather, Violet Blue mistook someone for a boothbabe who was not. This person is the lead developer for the company she was there to represent, and presumably was tired when Violet Blue wandered by. VioletBlue watched her for a bit with a friend and then wandered on.

This was a mistake. I don't know how Piroska was dressed (multiple photos floating around), but it was the kind of thing that Violet probably should be a bit embarassed about. I can understand why Piroska would be angry about it, even if it was a reasonable mistake (not saying that it was). So long as there are boothbabes and attractive (but often vapid) salespeople who are not far from that, this kind of thing will happen, and it sucks when it does.

But I also reject the idea that it was sexist, at least given what I've read on the topic. Booth Babes exist, and not talking about them or acknowledging their existence is too cheap an out here. If we believe it to be an honest mistake, I don't think we can call VioletBlue's statement, or VioletBlue, sexist (at least without more evidence). And, let me say this very loudly because this is where I think various forms of radical feminism go completely off the rails and should be rejected by other feminists and the general public (and likewise, other radical politics often fail very very hard on this point), Sexism is about intent. Racism is about intent. Fighting sexism, racism, and related forms of injustice require you to draw out that intent through dialogue and confront it directly. There are things that you might consider cousins to sexism or racism that you still might want to fight, but if they're not tied to intent, fighting them cannot be mandatory and you should not demand that others submit to your perspective.

Two points:

  • You are not entitled to live in the best of all possible worlds for your perspective. You can't declare war on anyone who says things that might happen to not be maximally friendly to women, to non-whites, to non-straight people, and so on. What the world owes the repressed, generally speaking, is to live in a world where people are not out to get you. If someone is not out to get you but still isn't being as friendly to your perspectives as you like (either in the set of words they use which might not be whatever's fresh off the gender-theory or race-theory press, or in expressing attitudes that won't result in maximal $whateveryoucareabout), you should have a discussion with them, share your concerns, and maybe if they're sensitive to your concerns and don't have their own concerns leading to the decisions they reach that are more important, you can influence them. Or not.
  • Assertions of Racism, sexism, and the like are a call to censure. The accused is being told they're a bad person. This is appropriate; they are *meant* to be harsh terms, and the deeper forms of racism/sexism/etc really should have people considering shunning the person who really believes in superiority of some race or gender, or separate roles for different castes, or so on. At the very least, we should think less of people who are such. I recently have been involved in long debates on Youtube over Christopher Hitchens, who said enough about separate roles for men and women in society that I think less of him; his intent is clear. If intent is unclear, or absent, you don't get to use those words. If you do, it is shrill and wrong. We are offended by racist and sexist speech because of the mindset behind it. We are offended by this speech because when we hear it we know that the speaker will probably be systemically wasting the potential of people because the speaker thinks those people have a place. We are offended by this speech because the speaker is supporting a power dynamic that invisibly or visibly (and sometimes violently) locks its victims into figurative cages for their entire lives, harming them and harming society. That is why these are heavy words.
I reject the concept of racism without racists. I reject the concept of sexism without sexists. Those radical communities that conflate the two commit a grave error, and I reject them as well; not because I reject their efforts to better society along the lines whose names they bear (anti-sexism, etc etc), but because they misuse our best tools for combatting these problems, they commit injustices of their own in that misuse (one of which is making it very difficult for decent people to talk or joke about things without some asshole showing up to crucify them over their language or use of non-preferred terminology; I have seen radical feminists do this to Gloria Steinem of all people), and they produce a society that's necessarily so self-conscious and picky over language that I don't think any reasonable person outside their narrow community would like to live there.

To someone wanting to fight injustice, yes, look in yourself for it, but look at your feelings and instincts and reactions, not your language habits. Talk however you fucking want to. Make racist jokes. Laugh at yourself, and if you make a mistake and it's not tied to ugly parts of yourself, it's okay. You're still part of making the world a better place if you can deal with the ugliness; being friends with the language police doesn't mean shit, it's simply lame.

That said, if you do find sexism, racism, and the like in your heart, it makes sense to work on that, both to disconnect it to your interactions with others (a good first step) and to then try to fix it. Introspection is a good life-habit to pick up for anyone (within reasonable limits). Also, try to listen to criticism before you dismiss it. While someone may have made a stupid (or a misguided) mistake as to the intent they read in your words, you really should soul-search or have introspected enough to know if they're right or not before you get defensive and fire the cannons back. You might have to tell them to sod off anyhow, but it's gracious to listen and carefully judge first.

Finally, and while this didn't (AFAICT) happen with Violet Blue but did and does often happen in arguments on feminist topics in other forums I frequent, if you are claiming not to be sexist but you are easily provoked into saying actually-undeniably sexist things when criticised, you probably should introspect harder. Claims of sexism/racism are about theory-of-mind; some things are utterly, absolutely clear in what they say about your state of mind.

Example from a recent debate on Youtube (I could dig up countless examples of stuff like this):「I'll agree with the guy, because men talk more sense! Women can talk sense, if they choose to, but when they don't, do not expect me to put up with them. She clearly needs to get shagged or something. She clearly wouldn't be saying these things if she was getting shagged regularly. Fucking bitch! What a bitch! 」

Pretty clear, right? If someone says things like this when people draw out the meaning from their words and start to pin down their beliefs, you can safely ignore their claims to be non-sexist/racist/whatever.



Two quick points -- quick, because I'm not the most educated person to be explaining them clearly, but points nonetheless because I understand them to be important.

1. Xism isn't just about intent, because certain actions can perpetuate Xist norms and attitudes without intending to -- e.g., making implcitly Xist jokes even ironically still encourages people to accept their premises as fundamentally true; I vaguely remember studies demonstrating the harm of such unintentional Xism, but I unfortunately don't have references handy...

2. Labeling someone's remarks Xist doesn't make them a bad person -- sometimes we do bad things without realizing it, and we should be able to redeem ourselves by realizing the harm our actions cause and changing them accordingly. Studies have demonstrated unintentional and subconscious sexism, for instance: see the reference to Sandler and Hall, 1986, quoted at the top of http://dynamic.uoregon.edu/~jjf/chillyclimate.html

Granted, there are more overt and intentional forms of Xism, and they are perhaps more despicable, but they are not the whole of the problem: the problem is ingrained attitudes and assumptions, ones that even the "good" people hold.

Hopefully someone else can post a more fully referenced critique. I'm out of town right now on a thin pipe, but I can try to better this weekend!
I understand the first point; I have read it many times, but I reject it. I don't think it's appropriate to criticise those jokes using these terms; anything that seems to be normative merits criticism, but other things are not strong enough, if they have any strength at all as an argument (such studies might give them some strength) to counterbalance a general respect for diversity of perspectives, opinions, and expressions we should have. Attacking expression beyond the normative costs us too much.

On the second point, I think introspection is vital to help us differentiate things that flow from a sexist/racist nature and those that do not.

None of this is new to me (except the Xism term, which is kind of cool and I believe I will probably use it in future discourse). I (and others who have a similar take on these topics) have considered and rejected the intent-is-not-the-whole-of-it line of argument for years. I wish I could claim my arguments are actually novel, but they're just another reasonably-known perspective on these matters; I bring it up because if we don't talk about our perspectives on these matters, the only voices out there will be those who hold what I consider to be an excessively-controlling, hypersensitive, culturally-narrowing view that has good people constantly looking over their shoulder for fear of offending someone. I don't want that to happen. Just as others want *their* feminism (and their philosophy) to win and speak out on its behalf, I'm doing so here; when inspired by others pushing the faction they belong to, I push mine.

I'm not saying that language that does not come from a "sexist heart" or "racist heart" doesn't bear investigating, nor that political conclusions that are not maximally awesome for minorities are always great, but they're a different issue, they're not necessarily a problem, they don't necessarily demand a solution (non-normative jokes definitely do not), and they need a different term and radically different treatment.

The parts of feminism that have stepped away from intent are treading on bad ground. I want to see those parts replaced with other parts of the feminist movement.

Edit: I'm not meaning this to dismiss your statements/perspective; the latter bits here are meant to note that we're butting heads on foundational commitments rather than substantially challenging each other's views. I would be comfortable, for example, in offering the initial post as a response to your reply. At the foundations of certain types of philosophical disagreements, one finds both sides primarily making aesthetic arguments for their differing foundations, and I suspect that's where we are (if you think not, feel free to surprise me).

Edited at 2012-02-03 08:43 am (UTC)
It's true that it's not observable, and that means we engage in speculation on what's in another's heart when discussing these things. I think that's unavoidable, and we have to try to tell the difference between things that actually suggest an Xist attitude and those that just arn't maximally awesome for avoiding making someone unhappy. We don't get to start a crusade without thinking. That's not a bad thing!

The problem of clear cut lines is that even if we succeed in the easily-evaluated form, we've cut away far too much if we've won. Some weeks back, I linked to a rather lame article by a disabled person who disliked the term "lame". Are we to crusade to wipe that out? The "Dr Mathochist" guy above happened to mention that the developer for that iPad software company had done quite well for a woman. Do we need to shout at him for that? I don't want to chuck all our humour in the rubbish bin when most of it is non-normative, nor to have people constantly self-monitor speech; it is far too oppressive, and the gains are too limited, and it encourages hypersensitivity.

This is not a scientific matter, and it never will be. It's social shaping, and that's always a tricky, messy matter. Any direct social shaping should, IMO, be done with a light hand and nearby goals whenever possible.
I'm not really bothered by the notion of social shaping - it's something I see as a prerequisite for socialism, and is largely a "course correction" for the normal process of inculturation. It's the job of parents to imprint some set of values and perspective onto the next generation, and we keep doing that (but mutually) at some lesser rate as adults through arguments, shaming, putting beautiful ideas to the world, church, etc. It's not always a bad thing, it just needs to be done without excessive gusto.

I don't think decency usually comes from language. I think decency comes from action. People being reasonably tough when it comes to speech being used around them is something we should take as a given; it is the only way we can be comfortable speaking freely, joking, and poking at lighter faults.

For me, feminism/social justice/anti-racism and the like are about helping people meet their potential, and to eliminate so much as is possible the gender-roles and racial-judgements that act as barriers to that.

Kindness is a great thing too, but it has nothing to do with that, and there's reasonable disagreement over what a kind society looks like. My notion takes the form of everybody being fairly thick-skinned, often poking at each other's faults, joking about pretty much everything, and introspecting enough to keep themselves clean of actual racism/sexism. The kindness comes from a willingness to help each other, either through social structures (socialism) or generosity with time and resources (yes, you can stay with me while looking for an apartment I would actually enjoy it, yes I will drive you to the hospital for the third time in a week, yes I will help you out). That's what kindness is. Irrascible-but-loving.
I reject attaching strong oughts to other people's use of language, unless and to the extent that that language is normative of sexism, racism, or a few other strong social harms. If it does not stem from a racist or sexist core in them, it, at the very most, deserves just a light mention.

The above is probably the most condensed form of this post.
but if they're not tied to intent, fighting them cannot be mandatory and you should not demand that others submit to your perspective.

I'm glad you said this.

overall, I think the two points of "intent is what matters" and "without intent, bad actions can still perpetuate bad intent" are complementary warnings of different ways things can go wrong, and both should only be used responsibly in argument.

I reject the concept of racism without racists. I reject the concept of sexism without sexists.

hmm. you don't think it can persist of its own inertia? how does this article (which seems to blame a design problem of the system, and explicitly not blame any individuals, for sexism) fit into your claim?
On the topics raised in the article, there are two bits that I'd like to bring up:
1) Economic mobility between generations in families is an issue
2) Cultural acceptance/interest in certain fields is also an issue. This ranges from "that career is not cool for our ethnic self-image" to "I am not vested in society and the leadership/good jobs are simply unavailable to me". This has its form on the other side too.

I do believe in affirmative action, as a short-to-medium-term way to deal with both.

I would say though that some of the things mentioned in the article would go under the notion of intent (and sexism and racism) I'm talking about here. If one can draw out, either through introspection or through a careful conversation, ties to a racist/sexist "heart" in one's actions, then one is being racist/sexist.

My main point is that there's a broad swathe of behaviour that is not tied to an "Xist heart" that will still make people grumbly, and that that stuff should be handled way differently.
Speech is different, and this goes a bit beyond speech. If you're baking ham and happen to be near a mosque or synagogue and they don't like the smell, it's rude of them to even ask you to never cook ham. If you're stepping on an elevator with a pair of people of the opposite gender and they decide they don't want you on, it's rude of them to even ask you to step back off. If you're black and biking through a white neighbourhood and people ask you to cut it out because they feel threatened, it's rude of them to even ask you not to do so.

The question here is what is the legitimate scope of kindness. It is not simply "I feel bad, other person is therefore being inconsiderate". People are not entitled to push very hard to shape other people's language if it is just language. If it is normative and racist/sexist/whatever, go ahead. But if it is not, maybe mention it (sometimes not even that if your foundation is very weak), but it stops there. Hurt feelings are not harm, and a thick skin is a good thing.

The last thing we should encourage is people trying to figure out new ways to be offended at common speech. Some time ago I made a friend (through the atheist movement) at Chatham, and she initially was really, really easy to offend. Apparently the institutions at Chatham were pretty solidly pushing the form of feminism you seem to be moving towards. It made it very difficult for me (or others, in the cross-campus atheist group we were setting up) to relate to her; initially we all looked like racists, sexists, and the like and she was constantly trying to correct our speech. I think it was hard for her to interact with the feminists from Pitt because I imagine she found it easier to consider me and the others in the group to be quietly complicit in racism/sexism/the like, as we didn't seem to be a very diverse lot (and the misapplication of the idea of intersectionality), but Pitt is both crazy-diverse and political and it's harder to dismiss entire groups of people visibly devoted to these causes.

Point is, this is not just me you're arguing with and I think you're taking a radical position. This is a fairly normal argument between differences in the feminist/anti-racist/so-on movements.

In general, to close and return to your examples, we should judge physical acts differently than words. The food example is reasonable; everyone has food preferences and things they won't eat. Everyone needs to sleep at times, and few people like having their toes stomped. These are all reasonable sensitivities. Requiring (or pressuring) of others that they avoid certain terms or cross the street is different in nature and not cool.