Pat Gunn (dachte) wrote,
Pat Gunn

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.

Tags: feminism

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