Archive for the ‘feminism’ Category

Sometimes, I become frustrated with feminists. Not all feminists, you understand (and, yes, that’s meant as a wry reference)– just the ones who have strayed from basic issues and who promote every piece of pop psychology that happens along. Yet my commitment to feminism itself remains as strong as ever, for reasons that I can best explain through two popular songs.

Neither of these songs did anything to form my world view. I had concluded that feminism was a basic necessity years before I heard either. But when I heard each song, I immediately recognized them as expressing the main reasons I supported feminism. Both express essentially the same idea — that the way things are and have been, too many women’s lives are wasted, and too many women live in frustration and desperation. These are observations that I made long ago, but have never been able to express

The first is “Mothers, Daughters, Wives” by Judy Small. These days, Small is a judge in New South Wales, which seems to me like a waste of a perfectly good folk singer, although it reinforces the basic point of the song.

“Mothers, Daughters, Wives” is written by a second wave feminist to her mother’s generation of Australian women. It begins with the observation that the mother’s generation had watched their fathers, husbands, and sons in succession march off to war. Meanwhile,

you never thought to question,
You just went on with your lives,
‘Cause all they taught you who to be,
Was mothers, daughters, wives.

The song describes their experiences as girls, then as adults during World War 2, when they worked in factories and helped behind the lines while raising their families:

But after it was over,
You had to learn again,
To be just wives and mothers,
When you’d done the work of men.
But you learned to help the needy
And you never trod on toes,
And the photos on the piano
Struck a happy family pose.

This, for me is the core of the song: the fact that the mother’s generation had found meaningful work, making a serious contribution to the war effort, only to find that, after the necessity was over, they had to retreat into the narrow roles dictated by convention, hiding their frustrations and pretending nothing was wrong. The fact that anyone should be forced into such a basic denial of their humanity always angers and saddens me.

Yet Small is not quite finished. After describing the mother’s sons marching off to what must be the Vietnam War, where some of them died, Small depicts the mother’s generation in widowhood, watching

How your daughters change their lives,
Seeing more to our existence
Than just mothers, daughters, wives.

Bad enough that their potential should have been wasted. Yet now, when the future looks brighter for their daughters, the change has come too late for them.

The song ends with repetitions of the chorus. Then Small concludes with what for me is the most horrible part of the song:

‘Cause all they taught you who to be,
Was mothers, daughters, wives —
And you believed them.

In others words, they were complicit in all the waste and loss that shaped their lives, because they always did what was expected of them, and never imagined even the possibility of an alternative or a revolt. All I can think when I hear the last four words is what a horrible way that must be to spend your life. Yet that is a description of millions of lives in the mother’s generation, and of billion of women’s lives before.

In fact, as the second song makes clear, the changes of the last few decades haven’t been nearly enough for many women. The song is “All This Useless Beauty,” a song that Elvis Costello wrote for June Tabor, perhaps in the ultimately realized hopes of convincing her to stop being a pub owner and become the singer she was meant to be.

As the title suggests, the song contrasts women as the target of the male gaze — including the artistic one — and how little good that attention does a woman herself. It only leaves her tied to a man who both attracts and repels her, holding him when he has self-doubts and dressing “to impress his associates.”

The song opens on frustration:

It’s at times such as this she’d be tempted to spit
If she wasn’t so ladylike
She imagines how she might have lived
Back when legends and history collide ….
Those days are recalled on the gallery wall
And she’s waiting for passion or humor to strike.

Yet, at the same time, the woman in the song knows that her longing for a heroic past is all about the stereotypes that seem her only option: the movies made from “the great tragic books”

won’t even make sense, but you can bet
If she isn’t a sweetheart or plaything or pet
The film turns her into an unveiled threat.

Evidently married for some years, she can only conclude that all purpose is either an illusion or temporary:

Nonsense prevails, modesty fails,
Grace and virtue turn into stupidity
While the calendar fades almost
All barricades to a pale compromise.

As the song ends, she is reflecting, “If something you missed didn’t even exist / It was just an ideal, is that such a surprise?” The song ends with the chorus, repeating its question over and over: “What shall we do, what shall we do / With all this useless beauty?”

The question has no answer, because the woman is trapped as much as the mother’s generation in “Mothers, Daughters, Wives,” with nothing to lend meaning to a life of living up to the conventions of traditional genre roles.

I have tried many times to express my own perception of such things, but I always end up so abstractly angry that I soon become incoherent with abstract anger, and my writing skills — such as they are — desert me. If I go into both songs in such detail, it is only because they express what I have never been able to say for myself.

Yet I do know one thing, beyond any dispute: so long as such songs correspond to anyone’s reality, I am going to stay a supporter of feminism, no matter how silly or beside the point some of the other supporters sometimes are.

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OK, let’s get it straight: just because a tone argument is invalid does not mean that all discussion of tone is invalid, or that the tone you choose doesn’t matter.

A tone argument, as you probably know, is an effort to derail a discussion by suggesting that a point of view would be better received if expressed more politely. Since tone does not affect the truth of a position, a tone argument is a logical fallacy. It could be classified as a sub-set of an ad hominem argument (an attack on the person rather than their position). Sometimes, it may also be an appeal to personal authority, because claiming the right to define the terms of a discussion implies social dominance.

Either way, the description of a tone argument is a feminist contribution to the study of rhetoric, and offers genuine insight into the tactics of human interaction. Giving tone arguments a name makes them easier to identify and counter, and helps to discredit anyone would would use such an essentially dishonest tactic.

Notice, however, that the description is extremely specific. The problem is not the mention of tone as such, but its use as a distraction from the main topic of a discussion. The fallacy lies in the attempt to derail, not in the mention of tone.

This is a distinction that people often fail to make. For instance, Julie Pagano jumps from tone arguments to a declaration that “Some of the things feminism has to say are hard – there’s no nice way to say them. It’s also not my job to act pleasing and friendly on all occasions. If you regularly find my tone to not match your interests, feel free to find another source – I won’t be mad. I will be frustrated and contemptuous if you use a tone argument on me.”

Even more strongly, in a blog entry entitled, “Dealing with the Tone Police,” Ragen Chastain writes, “We have a right to all of our emotions, including being pissed off. We have a right to all the vocabulary, including swear words. We have a right to all of the types of activism, which includes using anger as a tool. We are not responsible for other people’s feelings and we don’t have to let the tone police dictate the way that we react to, live in, or work to change a messed up world.”

Both these declarations have been widely linked-to, usually with enthusiastic expressions of agreement that suggest that the view expressed by both is widespread.

To some extent, I can share that agreement. Anger is empowering – especially anger in a good cause. I can see, too, how constantly hearing the same tired rationales for sexism and misogyny being trotted out as though they were new would make anyone want to lash out, all the more so if they feel they are being ignored.

At the same time, such statements not only misinterpret the tone argument (at least as I understand it), but fail to consider why tone arguments are such a frequent fallacy. In a world of pure logic, anyone using a tone argument would instantly lose an argument, and be discredited in the eyes of any audience. But any time you have an audience, you are just as likely to be judged by your tone as your logic, and this is a fact that activists can’t afford to ignore.

I feel like I am stating the obvious here, but tone, like every other aspect of debate, has been a concern of rhetoric for over two millennia. And the consensus of this meta-discussion is that anger generally loses arguments so far as public opinion is concerned. In particular, an angry woman hands her opponents cheap labels like “hysterical” and “strident” to discredit what she says.

(Don’t believe me? Then do an online search or two on tone and rhetoric. Hell, do thirty or forty or a hundred. What I’ve summarized is so basic that I doubt you will find any expert in rhetoric or public speaking who says anything different. This consensus is frustrating, and certainly unfair as it applies to women, but it’s the social context in which we exist).

Look, I’m not saying you’re not entitled to your anger. Sometimes, even the most patient of people have had enough of acting sensibly and want to explode. Even though they know they’re not acting in their own best interests, the temptation to lash out sometimes becomes irresistible.

But don’t lie to yourself. Don’t make the mistake of imagining that, because expressing your anger is potentially addictive that you are doing anything to promote your cause when you express it. Far more often than not, you’re only helping people to dismiss what you stand for so that you justify your emotions.

Most of all, don’t make the mistake of justifying yourself by citing tone arguments. A tone argument is an tactic of attack, to be used when your opponents stoop to derailment, not a concept that defends your own expression of emotions.

Be angry, if you can’t resist. But don’t be surprised if self-expression doesn’t work out like you expect – or if a white, middle-class, middle-aged man like me turns out to have a point after all.

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Years ago, I was the fourth person hired at a start-up. I was also the first non-programmer, which meant that I was an outsider, tolerated for a few useful abilities that nobody else wanted to concern themselves about, and often condescended to in an allegedly friendly way as I struggled to increase my spotty knowledge. Perhaps that was why I was sensitive to what happened when the first women were hired.

The other employees were young men in their twenties, some single, others in permanent relationships that were up to several years old. Thrown into an empty office several floors above the parent company, the company had the atmosphere of a locker room – nothing too raunchy, you understand, just a group of young men acting the way they had been taught to act, with a lot of casual talk about women and equally casual squalor of the sort left by men who had never been responsible for picking up after themselves.

By contrast, I was older and long-married, which were other reasons why I was an outsider. As the company slowly grew, continuing all male, I had plenty of confirmations of my belief that men and women tend to civilize each other, and that one-gender groups were about as appealing as an old sock growing mildew at the bottom of the laundry basket.

Then an office manager was hired. In those days, the position was as inevitably filled by women as programming jobs were filled by men, and this new hire was no exception. The all-men’s club was about to change.

I was responsible for bring the new hire up to speed, since she would be taking over tasks that I had been doing for lack of anyone else to do them. Tentatively, before she arrived, I suggested a few changes in daily behavior, like removing the soft-core anime screen-savers, and maybe making an extra effort to make her welcome. My suggestions were mocked, although, to be fair, when the time came some of the other male employees did seem to make a bit of an effort.

The trouble was, those efforts were nowhere near enough to overcome the habits of several unsupervised months. The new office manager was barely out of college, and visibly nervous about stepping into this atmosphere. Not only did she have no experience exercising the authority she was supposed to have, but many of the other staff members talked to her breasts more often than her face. Once or twice, she almost certainly heard her body being evaluated by some of the men.

Watching this, I felt like apologizing on behalf of the company, but I was equally unsure of how to use authority. I worried, too, that bringing the topic into the open would only add to everyone’s discomfort, especially since I am a man myself.

However, I soon concluded that, as annoying as my treatment had been, it was trivial compared to the office manager’s. After all, while not a programmer, I was quickly learning enough to hold my own. I had also discovered that, short of being familiar with the technology, the next best thing was to show a willingness to learn. Over time, I was gaining limited acceptance, at least among some of the programmers.

At best, though, the office manager had only a professional interest in the technology. But even if she had been willing to learn, I realized that she would never be fully accepted, simply because she was a woman. Too many of her fellow employees were asking her out – and none of these suitors had the maturity to accept the authority of a woman they hoped to date.

The second woman had the advantage of being a bit older and a bit tougher. Also, she was a technical writer, and the male programmers were only too glad to have private conversations with her. But her situation was similar, and she was too different from the office manager for either to support the other.

Another woman, hired to help with the Japanese translation of the company’s products, was even more isolated because of her limited English. Still another, hired as a receptionist, had to endure the graphic designer moving his computer so he could sit with her. She already had a boy-friend, but had no idea to handle the situation – and neither the office manager nor I had enough support from the company founder to get the designer to change his behavior. If anything, many of the programmers applauded his chutzpah.

The only woman who held her own was the finance clerk, whose expertise nobody disputed. About sixty, she could also assume a motherly role, treating the rest of the staff as children. But if she ever helped the other women cope, I never observed it.

For myself, I never did figure out how to intervene effectively, and after ten months at the company, I realized it would eventually fail and moved on. But I wonder, sometimes, if I would ever have noticed the difficulties of the women if I hadn’t been in a position to empathize, or felt partly responsible for them. Certainly, I was the only man who ever expressed concerns, even if I were too inexperienced to do anything.

However, what bothers me most about that situation is how routine it was. Few of the programmers were ogres of sexism. They were nothing worse than young men, and, while they were conditioned the way that most young men are in our culture, most of them were too introverted and polite to be the worst representatives of that conditioning.

Nor were the female employees particularly sheltered. Yet, despite being constantly thwarted in their efforts to carry out their jobs, none complained or made any effort to improve their situation. Instead, the women simply acted as though such difficulties were nothing new – which, of course, they weren’t.

Long before this experience, I had counted myself a feminist. Yet somehow I had managed to miss how ordinary this systemic sexism actually is. But since then, this reality has been like a bad smell that, once noticed, spoils all the other smells. It is a perception that I have no way of turning off. And, ever since, I have wondered frequently at the crassness of many men and the patience of most women, and worried about how much I contribute to the problem and whether I do enough to help solve it.

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Sadly, I’ve come to believe that most groups working for social change are dragged down by those I call lifestyle activists – people who believe the right principles, but who have no belief or interest in the possibility of change. Instead, their main interest is to define themselves and denigrate others by expressing activist beliefs.

For example, I recently read a conversation on Twitter about the shortage of women in technology. One lifestyle activist suggested that the problem was not that women weren’t in the field already. A man with a history of support for women in computing commented, “it’s a little more complicated, isn’t it? It’s systemic. It’s not like we just discard all the women resumes,” and the lifestyle activist accused him of patronizing her. He responded mildly, saying he was trying to understand, and she replied that she wasn’t “someone who gives a fuck about helping you.” After he politely bowed out of the conversation, she continued to make sarcastic comments aimed at what he had said.

It’s not surprising, of course, that an advocate for women in technology should get tired of continually hearing the same questions. Repetition of basic questions is rarely endearing. Nor should she be expected to welcome mansplaining – men telling her what she already knows first hand far better than they should.

Yet, at the same time, from the context, the man was obviously an ally. If he asked questions that were too common, he seemed open enough that – unlike most men with similar questions – he could probably be taught something. However, instead of taking the chance to educate him, the lifestyle activist leaped to the conclusion that he was as clueless as other men she had encountered and attacked him.

Not being a total stranger to activism myself, I’m tempted to ask the lifestyle activist what she expects. If you take positions that are outside the social norm, you shouldn’t exactly be shocked that people want to talk about them. You need to set borders so that you don’t spend more time answering questions than you care to and you may grumble in private about ignorant questions and even more ignorant outsiders – but the one thing you should never do is forget that, for other people, when you speak you represent your cause. If you are rude, what outsiders will remember is not that you personaly were rude, but that people who support your cause in general are rude. Those who want to help bring about change can never afford to forget the fact that, by being an activist, you invite others to view you as a teacher.

Sadly, though, the woman in this example was not motivated by any such understanding. Instead, the tenets of feminism were weapons for her personal use. She used them to lash out at a stranger in revenge for past encounters with others. If the idea that she might be hurting her own cause occurred to her, it had no visible effect on her behavior. Her reaction was so far beyond anything justified by the exchange that it looks like nothing except an expression of ego. If the man or anyone reading the exchange didn’t become hostile to feminism in technology, the reason has more to do with them than with her.

This kind of lifestyle activism is not new. George Orwell noted in the 1930s and 1940s that the English left had been out of power so long that most of its members were incapable of suggesting responsible policy alternatives. All they could do was condemn existing policies and reinforce their identity as leftists. You can can see the same sort of reaction today on the left, or in environmentalism or any other cause intended to create change.

Lifestyle activism is so prevalent that I think it explains why society as a whole is so slow to change. Too many of those who appear to be working for change are really busy feeling good about themselves at the expense of their alleged causes.

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A recent study of hand prints in prehistoric caves shows that many of the hands were women’s. The media played up this fact as if it were surprising, although why it should be, I’m not sure, considering that we know almost nothing of the cultures responsible for the hand prints. But what caught my attention was a passing comment that a comparison of ancient and modern hand prints shows that the sexual dimorphism of humans was greater 40,000 years ago than today. In other words, men and women look more alike today than they once did.

This comment is interesting to me for several reasons. To start with, it is an example of how short a time is needed for evolution to take place. Forty millennia is a longer time than fifteen, which is about how long humans have been retaining the ability to digest milk into adulthood, but we tend to think of evolution in terms of millions of years – perhaps because establishing that the earth was ancient was a necessary part of proving the fact of evolution in the nineteenth century.

Just as importantly, this tidbit helps to answer those who suggest that civilization has stopped human evolution. Usually, the argument is that, because urban life and medical advances have decreased infant mortality, they have canceled out natural selection, the main mechanism of evolution. However, living to adulthood is only one aspect of natural selection. If nothing else, health and opportunity to reproduce are also part of natural selection.

In fact, it is often forgotten that sexual selection may be as important a mechanism for evolution in its own right. Since culture can determine all these things, it seems more reasonable that it simply because another set of criteria for adaptation, especially since such pieces of information are starting to accumulate to prove that evolution is still shaping humanity.

As to how humans are evolving, the greatest sexual dimorphism usually occurs in polygamous animals. Among gorillas, for instance, males are almost twice the size of females, and multiple mates are the norm for the males. By contrast, species that show little sexual dimorphism are usually monogamous or female-dominated. Given that humans show moderate sexual dimorphism, which seems to be decreasing, the natural conclusion is that we are descended from polygamous species, but evolving towards monogamy or egalitarianism, or perhaps female domination.

(In fact, although a couple of centuries would be an extremely short time for any evolutionary changes to be observable, I sometimes wonder if increased urbanism explains why each of the last few generations of women has been taller than the last, while men’s heights have increased less dramatically. Or perhaps the increased height of women is due to the fact than we have been moving away from societies based on hard labor. In such societies, men are often fed first so that they can continue to work, which opens the possibility that historically women were often underfed or even starved sometimes – an aspect of inequality that, so far as I am aware, has never been acknowledged or studied).

But if humans are becoming less sexually dimorphic, what does that imply for the future? I think I can suggest some answers, because, for much of my adult life, I have lived with a species of parrot that has so little sexual dimorphism that humans can only distinguish male from female reliably by surgical sexing or DNA samples. There are no external sex organs, and even sexual behavior is reliable, since homosexuality does exist.

I like to think that the lives of my parrots are a foretaste of what humans might be becoming. In my parrots, monogamy is the norm, and a hen is as likely to dominate as a cock. The sole exception is male territorial fights, which the hens generally ignore aside from being vaguely supportive of their mates (which amounts to the vague supportive chirp unless another male gets too close to their nests). Egg-sitting is largely, but not entirely the hen’s concern, but most males are supportive spouses and share in the care of chicks, especially immediately after they leave the nest.

The lives of my parrots are not completlye egalitarian, but they’re closer to that goal than anything the living generations of humans can boast. And as a supporter, I am tickled by the idea that feminists can probably state – with much more accuracy than evolutionary psychology usually manages – that evolution appears to be on their side.

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I consider myself pro-feminist. I was one of the first professional journalists to talk about sexism in free software, and I make a point of mentioning newsworthy women whenever possible. However, my position does not mean that I support every argument in its favor. I am particularly hesitant about the argument that free software is missing something if its developers are mostly male, and that having a more equitable proportion of women will automatically make free software better.

The idea is probably true in the sense that more women in free software means more developers. Perhaps, too, more testing with female users might affect usability to a degree.

But unless I’m mistaken, the people making this claim mean more than that. Without actually saying so, they seem to be hinting that there is a female sensibility or perspective that is currently missing in free software. That seems a valid argument in literature or other arts, but I can’t help suspecting that there are only so many use-cases in software development, and that few – if any – are related to gender.

The argument isn’t helped by the vagueness with which it always seems to be made. How, exactly, does a database become better because a larger percentage of woman wrote its code? How might more women improve the features of a word processor? I am ready to consider such arguments, but, aside from an issue with name changes in Git,  I have never heard any made except in the most general terms. The main exception, as Anita Sarkeesian continues to document, is video games – but games fall into the category of story-telling, in which gender issues are self-evident.

Anyway, the argument has been made at least a couple of times before. Some suffragettes claimed that giving women the vote would eliminate war and poverty – a claim that we now know to be untrue. Eco-feminists made similar claims about innate nurturing tendencies a couple of decades ago, but their arguments from alleged evolutionary fact are no more solid than the biological arguments that misogynists use to prove female inferiority.

As Cordelia Fine relates in the wonderfully titled Delusions of Gender, the differences between male and female intellectual capacity are simply too minimal for them to be taken seriously. Given a coding project to a group composed entirely of women, and statistically the result is as likely to be as satisfying – or as messed up – as what is produced by an all-male group.

However, my real objection to the argument is the fact it is utilitarian, which seems a dangerous way to argue what comes down to a matter or rights. The trouble with a utilitarian argument in such matters is that, at least in theory, it can work both ways.

For instance, when the question of women serving in combat is raised, most of the arguments against the idea claim to be firmly grounded in the practical. The claims are made, for instance, that women lack the necessary strength, or that male soldiers would be distracted by their wish to protect their female peers. Yet even if these claims were true – and I believe they are not – would that stop anyone insisting that women should have the chance to serve in combat? I know that it would not change my opinion.

In the same way, women’s greater participation in free software is a right, a possibility that should be open to any woman who proves her competence. It seems to me that to lose sight of that basic fact is to risk being distracted by arguments that can just as easily work against the cause as for it. Argue that everyone deserves a chance, that everyone should be able to fulfill their potential – but don’t argue that the result will be noticeably different in other ways, because the odds are that it won’t be.

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When I was a teaching assistant and sessional instructor, I spent a lot of time worrying about fairness in my marking. I didn’t have much problem at the start of a semester, because I hadn’t put names and faces together. However, by the second and third week, I knew all the students, and how they behaved in class would start affecting how I marked their essays. Those I liked would get the benefit of the doubt, while I could never be sure if I was marking fairly those who disrupted their classes or skipped them. Worrying about such biases, I came up with an obvious but effective way of making marking fairer that I believe would also go a long way towards increasing the gender and ethnic diversity in hiring.

My solution was simple: early in the semester, I distributed a formatting guide. Besides the usual suggestions for font selection and citation methods, and a suggestion that students should not waste their time adjusting margins and fonts to fit each assignment’s page count, I asked students to provide a title page. I asked that the title page include their name and contact information, but no other part of the assignment. When students submitted papers, I asked that the title pages be folded back.

In this way, I had no idea whose paper I was marking, and could feel confident that I was marking the contents alone. Only after I had assigned a grade and made a final comment did I turn to the title page so I could enter the grade in my mark book.

I pride myself on fairness, and the ability to put personalities aside when considering an issue. Yet the first times I marked blindly, some of my worst suspicions about myself were confirmed. Before I started marking blindly, by the semester’s second or third assignment, I often would save certain student’s work to cheer me up after a dismal run of papers, or put off marking another student’s work because I knew it would likely challenge my patience. Naturally, my expectations tended to be confirmed, although if I had the time (which I rarely did), I would check the best and the worst and sometimes change my marks.

However, after marking blindly, I would often be surprised by the results. The students I judged as talented were still at the top of the class, but often their ranking was lower. Similarly, the students I disliked sometimes ranked higher than before.

But the real difference was in the middle. Students I had little sense of because they rarely contributed in class almost always received higher marks when I marked blindly – occasionally, as much as two or three grades higher. Even more so than the students at the extreme, I had been short changing those in the middle, due entirely to my personal reactions or perhaps their lack of social skills.

What I had been doing was no different from what other instructors were doing. In fact, in the department common room, I regularly heard professors and instructors exchanging stories about students. Sometimes, they even spoke with vindictive glee about how they would punish students with bad marks. I had generally keep aloof from such discussions, but now I was forced to admit that my sole saving grace was that I believed I should try to be fair. Too many of the other department members didn’t seem to care about fairness at all.

In fact, some tenured professors seemed to regard punitive marking as one of the perqs of their position. One even marked me down in a grad seminar because he had a longstanding feud with my mother, who lived near him. When I described my efforts to mark blindly, these professors were surprised that I would take such concerns for people who only students, after all.

All I knew for sure was that marking blindly made living with myself much easier. I was proud of the procedure, and, having discovered it, inevitably followed it.

Years later, I learned that I was not the only person to make such a discovery. I remember seeing one study in which the number of women in orchestras rose considerably when auditioners could hear the music, but not see the musician.

Why, I wonder, should employment policies not be required to be similarly blind? Obviously, a time comes when interviewers have to see the job candidates face to face. But we regularly hear that male or English-sounding names have an advantage in the initial screenings, so resumes, at least, could be screened blindly.

I can easily imagine other procedures, such as one person doing the interview and the decision-maker reading the transcripts. But such steps, although fairer, would make the arduous process of hirer harder yet, and perhaps are not essential.

After all, it is the initial selection that seems to be the main bottleneck for women and minorities. Discrimination is much easier when exercised against a name than a person on the other side of the table, and many women and minority members acquit themselves well enough in interviews if they can only get one in the first place.

In fact, I sometimes think that blind assessment would accomplish as much as affirmative action, but with less resentment. Arguments can be made against affirmative action, although I believe that I can disprove them. But what can anyone say about procedures that are fairer for everyone? Give everyone the chance to be judged on their accomplishments rather than their background, and equal hiring practices might follow naturally and unobtrusively.

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George Orwell’s legacy includes dozens of memorable phrases. They include “Big Brother is watching you,” “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” and “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever,” all of which are more chilling for seeming all too probable. But if anything, he is even better known for the words he coined, like “doublethink” and “thoughtcrime.” However, one Orwellian coining that I’ve always wished had become a part of English is “duckspeak.”

According to Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, “duckspeak” means superficially different things depending to whom it is applied. When used of a speaker who follows the current orthodoxy, it is a word of approval. However, when applied to an enemy, it’s an insult;.

In its vividness, the word reminds me of some the great invective of the eighteenth century, including “toady,” “bootlicker” and “lickspittle.” And now I think, the eighteenth century developed a near-synonym for duckspeak, too – “cant.”

Both cant and duckspeak refer to a bland and unthinking expression of conventional ideas, often with enthusiasm and stubbornness. The difference is that cant was usually applied to statements that the speaker disagreed with. Duckspeak retains that application, but becomes a compliment when you agree with the statement, because speaking in cliches implies an unthinking loyalty. The implication is that a person who is a duckspeaker is unlikely to be disloyal, because they have no original thoughts.

Essentially, duckspeakers are those who break every rule for clear expression that George Orwell summarized in “Politics and the English Language.” They don’t use short, effective words; they use long, vague ones that obscure their meaning. They frown on original thought, and prefer instead to string cliches together into an approximation of meaning.

Rather than communication, their goals are inter-personal. They may hope that a flow of empty phrases will silence the opposition and impress bystanders into a silent admiration of their eloquence. However, their main purpose – quite unconsciously – is to show themselves orthodox followers of whatever line of thinking they happen to support.

The idea that speech or writing might be used to get things done is foreign to their actions, although when you point out the fact, they are likely to stare at you and wonder why you are stating the obvious – thereby proving that they are also engaged in what Orwell termed “doublethink,” the holding of two completely contradictory ideas at the same time.

Examples of duckspeak are everywhere. You might say that it is the dialect of modern industrial culture. But what got me thinking about duckspeak was the incident at PyCon that people call Donglegate. Hearing two men behind her joking about big dongles, Adria Richards posted a picture of them on Twitter to shame them, and complained to the conference organizers, who reprimanded the men. Richards later blogged about the incident with what can only be called a triumphant tone, suggesting she had struck a blow for women in technology. Soon after, others started giving their opinion of what happened. Richards and one of the jokers lost their jobs, and anti-feminists sent her death and rape threats.

Anybody with a claim to impartiality might have seen these events as evidence that feminism has come to high-tech, and that exactly how it will fit into that sub-culture needs to be discussed. However, with few exceptions, people on both sides could only respond with duckspeak.

The anti-feminists attacked Richards for the joker’s loss of his job, while openly rejoicing when she lost hers. They labeled her a stereotypical feminist – dictatorial, humorless, and erratic – and suggested that she deserved what happened to her. Rather than trying to analyze the memes that might have caused Donglegate, they used it as an excuse for the same old invective, ignoring the fact that many things need to change.

But to my dismay, the feminists – the women and men I support – responded as badly.. They excused Richards’ actions on the grounds that talking to the jokers one-on- one might be difficult for a woman, ignoring the fact Richards is articulate and capable. They petitioned for Richards’ employer to rehire her, while showing little sympathy for the fired joker, suggesting that he deserved what happened to him. They painted her as the victim of racism and misogyny (which she was), but made little mention of her arrogance and carelessness.

In other words, all nuance was lost in the discussion, and with it any hope for serious discussion. Both sides were too busy proving their orthodoxy to manage anything constructive.

Aside from a possible emotional catharsis, all that came out of the affair was the tendency of some anti-feminists to quote their opponents in squeaky voices. To a reader of Orwell like me, they seemed to have independently re-invented duckspeak in the most literal sense. But of course, what they never noticed is their verbal manifestos could have been lampooned in exactly the same. way.

Most people didn’t even get that much from the affair. We are all so used to public discussion degenerating in this way that most of us forget that it could be conducted in any other way.

That’s probably why duckspeak, like cant before it, has become obsolete. You don’t need a word for the norm. It’s just how people behave.

Still, watching episodes like Donglegate unfold, I conclude that a revival at least of duckspeak, with its ambiguous meanings, would be a useful way to improve public thought. Watching the anti-feminists and feminists demonstrate their separate orthodoxies, I couldn’t help thinking of the end of Animal Farm, in which humans and pigs are mingling, and the watching animals are having an increasingly hard time telling the two apart.

That’s where duckspeak leads. And if, by any chance I’m guilty of it here, then all I can say is – quack to you, too.

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I’m surprised – and more than a little sad – to learn that women are still being pressured to change their names when they marry. I had hoped that my generation had put an end to the entire issue and it was now entirely a matter of personal choice.

When Trish and I proposed to each other simultaneously in my dorm room at Simon Fraser University, we both had a condition: she wouldn’t change her name. We both considered ourselves feminists, so it wasn’t even a question we needed to discuss. We would stand firm on the decision, and be example for couples in the future – or so we imagined in our naivety.

What we hadn’t imagined is how much we would be pressured to change our minds. “It is a woman’s pride and privilege to take her husband’s name,” a female co-worker told Trish, and stalked away angrily when Trish said she was marrying a partner, not a husband.

“Can’t you change her mind?” Family and friends asked me repeatedly, apparently unable to believe that the condition had been mine as much as hers.

“Won’t your children be confused?” Everyone said to both of us. Then they accused us of flippancy when we suggested that any children would somehow muddle through.

In the months between our engagement and marriage, we must have heard every argument imaginable against our decision. It showed a lack of commitment, we were told. It showed that Trish had reservations about becoming part of my family. We would have trouble checking into hotel rooms. It would be awkward socially. People would assume we were immoral. People would talk.

Of course, the reaction was worse because Trish had been married before, and had already changed her name. She had been reluctant, but the idea of continuing the family name was important to her first spouse, so she had gone along with it. But after he had died in an epileptic seizure, she had never got around to reverting to her original name because the paperwork was a nuisance. She had come of age with her married name, and it was something to remember him by, and she was not going to accustom herself to another name when she had become comfortable with the one she was using.

For reasons I have never understood, I was supposed to find her decision a deeply personal insult. Her first spouse and I might have been rivals had we ever met, but we hadn’t. We obviously had similar tastes in women, and Trish’s ten months with him had helped turn her into the woman I met, so why should I care if she kept her name as a memento? I don’t believe in existence after death, but I was so comfortable with the fact of him that I even had a dream in which he encouraged Trish and I to marry.

I couldn’t help noticing, too, that, her first husband’s family welcomed our marriage more than either of ours did. I couldn’t help but sympathize with him after Trish’s mother told me, somewhat grudgingly, “Well, I like her second choice of husband better than her first.”

But throughout all this, we kept to our original intention. By the rehearsal dinner the night before the wedding, we thought we had weathered the worst.. Then, after the dinner, family members on both sides told us privately that, if Trish didn’t change her name, scandal would result, and we would never be accepted by anyone – never mind that we were legally married.

I spent a sleepless night before the wedding, not worrying about whether I was making the right decision, or about the ceremony, but about the emotional blackmail with which we had been ambushed. Finally, I gave up trying to sleep and wrote a long letter explaining out decision which I planned to ask the priest to give to our parents at the reception after we had left.

To this day, I don’t know whether he ever did as he asked. But he was a bit of a diplomat regardless. As we left the church, he announced us as, “Mr and Mrs Byfield,” a form of address that gave both of us a start, but which he rightly judged wouldn’t disturb us unduly and would placate the families long enough for us to get away on our honeymoon.

Soon enough, everyone found out that we had done as we had planned all along. And for a few years, the conversation got a little frosty any time Trish’s last name was about to become relevant. But the families grew used to her choice of names, and none of the prophesied inconveniences or disasters came anywhere near to happening.

At the most, some strangers might have disapproved of us, but, if they did, we never heard their disapproval. Most likely, even such passing disapproval was rare, because by that time common-law relationships were becoming acceptable.

Our story amuses more than angers me now, although enduring it was an exercise in self-control while I lived it.. But when I remember the unfairness of the reactions to what we considered a rationally reached conclusion, I want to leap up and shout at any new couples facing the same pressures today to hold firm. None of the difficulties predicted for you will actually happen, and you’ll have the advantage of starting your lives together by having stood up together to emotional bullying. You’ll have learned that you can trust each other, and that will help your relationship to be a long one.

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I have been lucky enough to witness several social revolutions in my time. The most obvious is the personal computer; I only regret that it didn’t happen twenty years earlier. But the one that is most important to me personally is the acceptance of women into the literary canons.

Art being the record of human experience, this change did as much as any friendship or relationship to help me understand that women’s experiences were human experience, and therefore were something I needed to know.

When I started studying literature in Grade 12, women were severely under-represented in the works studied in academia. Except for those who might be hidden under the name of Anonymous, the first female writer mentioned was usually Jane Austen. She was too important a novelist to ignore, but for the rest of the nineteenth and twentieth century, women’s representation was limited. Charlotte Bronte was credited with having written one worthwhile novel. Elizabeth Barrett Browning had written a collection of soppy sonnets to her husband. Christina Rossetti had written a few children’s poems and minor lyrics. Emily Dickinson was a decided eccentric.

And so it went, with women consistently written out of the literary history whenever possible, and presented as minor if they had to be mentioned at all. Even George Eliot was known for only three novels, one of which, Silas Marner, was taught mainly because it had the virtue of being short enough for undergraduate’s attention spans.

The only exception was contemporary literature, especially science fiction. There, you could find female authors in something close to the percentages that you might expect from random chance, and I read writers like Ursula K. LeGuin and James Tiptree, Jr. (actually, Alice Sheldon) as eagerly as their male peers. But even these pioneers sometimes had little to say about women as women, as Le Guin would come to acknowledge later in her career.

Anyway, there was something daring about asserting the worth of writers who were still living. Somehow, they were not taken with quite the same seriousness as writers in the canon.

By contrast, by the time I finished my bachelor’s degree, the canon had been drastically revised. In those pre-Internet days, the main reason for this change was the feminist-inspired publication of more female writers, often by small, painfully non-profit imprints.

Suddenly, Charlotte Bronte, Christina Rossetti, and George Eliots were revealed to have had not just the occasional success, but entire writing careers. Other writers were suddenly being talked about – people like Aphra Behn, Mary Shelley, Ann Radcliffe, Zora Neale Hurston, and dozens of others.

I viewed this change with a mixture of enthusiasm and confusion. On the one hand, here was enough fresh reading to keep me busy for years (which it has). On the other hand, just what had I been taught?

More importantly, who were these women? As a science fiction reader, I already knew that all worthy works were not contained in the canon, and reading Robert Graves’ literary criticism had taught me that exercising my own judgment on the canon was not only permissible, but necessary for independence of thought.

Yet if these women were any good, then surely I would have been taught something about them. I suspected that the promotion of some of these writers was as much the result of academics creating careers for themselves as it was of negligence. And, aside from the occasional exception for historical reasons, why should I bother with mediocrity?

Gradually, though, I realized I was being unreasonable. How could I possibly learn who was worth reading unless a wide variety of works were available? Besides, while most of the work of Elizabeth Gaskell (for example) struck me as uninspired back then, so did that of accepted male members of the canon, such as Anthony Trollope or William Thackeray. If mediocre men were accepted, there was no reason not to accept mediocre women as well. If nothing else, tastes differ, not only between person and also occasions.

At any rate, the newly available work had enough masterpieces to justify the era of rediscovery in general. Without it, I might never have discovered the slippery mind of Aphra Behn, or learned as a non-Christian to appreciate the quirky thoughts of Christina Rossetti. I would have enjoyed Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss, but not have had Eliot’s other books to put them into context.

Just as importantly, I found myself reading works by women differently once a critical mass of their work became easily available. Being a young man and as egocentric as most young men, I had always read Jane Austen’s novels about courtship and marriage or Jane Eyre‘s story of love and indendence as exceptions – interesting in their own way but somehow trivial compared to the concerns of male writers.

However, discovering dozens of female writers changed my perception. Newly able to place their subject matter in context, I realized that such topics were not exceptions. For a very long time, they were the concerns of half the human race. If I were to be fully human myself, I needed to understand these concerns, and appreciate them – and in a matter of months, I did.

I like to think that ordinary life was leading me to similar conclusions, and perhaps it was. But I think that, without the rewriting of the canon, the process would have taken me years, instead of months. I might not have even been ready for love and marriage when they came my way near the end of my readjustment.

People often talk about how feminism transforms women’s lives. But, if my personal example is any indication, its effect on men’s lives can be just as great. Throughout my life, my outlook has been broader – more mature – because of the simple fact that, when I was in my late teens, suddenly I could read about women’s lives and learn to appreciate them as the material of art.

The lesson remains one of the most valuable ones that I have ever had.

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