Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘feminism’ Category

When I was researching my master’s thesis, I became a Jungian. I didn’t plan to. But my subject was influenced by Jung, so I eventually read the complete works of Carl Jung. Often, I wondered if reading Jung in translation was any easier than reading him in German would be, but the experience left a major mark upon my thinking, especially about gender roles.

I must say that, as a person with artistic aspirations, I found Jung more sympathetic that I ever did Freud. Freud and his disciples usually make very clear that they are the experts, and that they know more about your unconscious than you do. By contrast, Jung considered artists as experts in symbolism, sometimes even as people he could learn from, and his respect made me more inclined to consider his perspectives.

Before long, the idea that people think and act largely in terms of symbols began to make sense to me. I questioned if all the archetypes were universal – although some, like the Mother and the Father probably were, but modern, often feminist, schools of Jungian thought included the possibility that some might be cultural, which made sense to me.

Either way, Jungian thought seemed to do more to map the unconscious than psychoanalysis ever did. The idea that symbols were how the unconscious expressed itself explains why rational argument so rarely changes anybody’s mind – there’s a basic translation problem between the conscious mind’s use of language, and the unconscious mind’s use of symbolism. Moreover, the idea that people project their unconscious symbols on to those around them helps to explain why misunderstanding is so commonplace – much of the time, people are reading from different scripts.

This model has been especially useful for me in understanding gender relations. For example, Jung suggested that one of the most influential archetypes for a man is the Anima, or the female version of himself. As much for symmetry as any other reason, he suggested that a woman is motivated by a similar archetype called the Animus, which is the male version of herself.

The Animus seems so much an after-thought in Jung’s writing that a widespread debate, especially among female Jungians, is whether the archetype exists. Realizing that men tend to define themselves in terms of not being a woman – in fact, to treat women as the archetype of the Shadow – I had no trouble in concluding that the Anima exists.

But the Animus? The evidence for that archetype seems much weaker. Some women go into mental contortions, even enduring abuse, to make themselves over in the image that men want, but – to many men’s intense dislike – women as a whole do not seem to define themselves as being the opposite of men. Men need women to tell them who they are, but women do not seem to need men to the same degree or in the same way.

For me, this difference explains the difficulty that many men have in accepting feminism. Because their identify depends on women’s roles, any change in women’s roles means that men’s own identity is under-mined. Already inclined to see women’s roles as mysterious and even sinister, they move easily to seeing any change as a threat – something that the Shadow is never far from being at the best of time.

To avoid this reaction, a man needs to reject the Anima and Shadow as an influence on his thinking. But the two archetypes are such a fundamental part of male thinking that rejection is difficult, and often impossible.

This reaction is one that most feminist theory seems to have largely overlooked. What Jungian theory suggests to me is that male hostility to feminism is generally not about the threat of a loss of privilege or power. Rather, it is about a loss of identity, about no longer having models to tell men who they are (or, to be more accurate, who they are not).

By contrast, women may not approach changes in gender roles easily. If nothing else, habit remains a strong motivation. But traditional gender roles have less to offer modern women than they do men, because less of their identity is based on not being men. Women may feel unsettled when they try to move beyond tradition, but the average woman is far less likely than men to feel that their entire sense of identity is being destroyed in the process.

What makes the situation all the harder is that, because the problems are played out symbolically, men are frequently unable to express what has happened. They may become angry, depressed, or abusive, but these reactions in themselves only indicate that something is wrong – and not what the exact problem is. At best, the number of men – or women – who understand their symbolic life is always going to be very few.

Jung is not the only way to this perception. In Stiffed!, Susan Faludi comes to a similar analysis simply by hearing the same problems over and over from the men she interviews. But my guide was Jung, and he remains – mistakes and all – one of the foundations of my thinking.

Read Full Post »

An audience’s response has two sources: what is actually said, and what the audience brings to the hearing. In the case of Anita Sarkeesian’s analyses of popular culture, I can only conclude that only a fraction of the hostility comes from what she says, and most of it from those opposing her.

Sarkeesian’s critiques are easily identified as being grounded in mainstream feminism. Her perspective is nothing new, nothing bizarrely novel. She says nothing that has not been said constantly for the past three decades. So far as theory goes, her main contribution has been the relatively minor one of naming tropes, which is useful, but hardly revolutionary. In fact, although I might have missed something – the anti-Sarkeesian responses being far too numerous for anyone to be familiar with all of them – even her opponents adopt her coinings without objecting to them. Her opponents may refer ironically to Damsels in the Refrigerator or Ms Male, but they use the terms all the same, helping them to become part of the accepted terminology for talking about women in popular culture. Nor should that be surprising, because most of the names she gives tropes are colorful and instantly identifiable.

However, essentially, Sarkeesian is a popularist. She is less notable for adding to feminist theory than for taking academic discourse and translating it for a general audience. This is a difficult accomplishment, and should not be under-estimated, especially since few people are capable of it. Except in some of her conclusions, Sarkeesian generally minimizes jargon, and, when she does use an academic term, she is careful to explain and illustrate it before developing her argument.

Personally, as a former writer of software documentation, I find the ability to explain important, yet it seems, in itself, an unlikely source of controversy. After all, she is only giving a specific examples of a critique whose general outline is familiar in contemporary culture.

Ordinarily, the responses you would expect from work like Sarkeesian’s are queries about her interpretations, and the pointing out of omissions and inaccuracies in her analysis. For instance, her Straw Feminists video can be criticized for its characterization of the third season of the cult TV show Veronica Mars, which mistakes the depiction of feminist activists as flawed and opportunistic – a perfectly appropriate depiction for the show’s noir world where everybody is untrustworthy – as anti-feminism.

Yet this is rarely the kind of criticism she receives. More often, reactions to Sarkeesian are intense and hostile out of all proportion to anything she says.
Perhaps, part of this reaction is due to her critics feeling that something important to them is under scrutiny. This uneasiness is probably all the stronger because Sarkeesian is hardly a participant observer in the best sociological fashion. Even though she is a popularizer, the fact that she speaks from an academic background tends to cast her as an outsider, noisily entering the scene and dispersing judgment from a superior position.

But, whatever the reason, the responses to Sarkeesian are almost never examples of valid arguments. Much of the time, they are personal attacks, accusing her of being a front for a behind-the-scenes lover, or the public figure for some unfolding conspiracy, and at times accompanied by threats and personal, even sexual insults. She is faulted for having a Kickstarter campaigner that resulted in twenty-five times what she asked (as though success was proof of dishonesty), for not being a “real gamer” (as though only a member of the gaming sub-culture can observe it), for turning off comments on her postings (as though the Internet doesn’t have plenty of room elsewhere for responses), and for turning her harassment to some advantage (as though she should simply endure it). Less specifically, she is accused of lying or being evasive. Yet even if some or all of these accusations could be proved, none of them have anything to do with the validity of her arguments. The accusations express hostility, and nothing more.

In fact, attempts to address Sarkeesian’s observations are rare. When they are made, they generally fall short of logic. For example, while she is often accused of cherry-picking her evidence, her attackers fail to explain what else someone with as narrow a topic as Women in Video games is supposed to do. Similarly, complaints that she does not mention the broader context – for example, that only a minority of a popular game’s missions take place in a strip club – fail to address Sarkessian’s basic point of why such missions are included at all.

At other times, efforts to address Sarkeesian’s argument can only be described as willfully blind. One critic, for instance, faults Sarkeesian for mentioning a scene in which players can kill strippers and hide their bodies on the grounds that the game penalizes players for doing so. Yet how many gamers do not carefully save so that they go back and explore the paths not taken? Although the scene is not part of the main storyline, it is still part of the game.

The critics do have one point: Sarkeesian can be careless about citing sources. In response, Sarkeesian cites fair use, and I would add that popular and informal works (including this one) are more casual about sources than equivalent academic works. However, even the validity of this accusation is soon overshadowed by the quickness with which it is inflated to proofs of duplicity. Someone without a grudge would be more likely to attribute careless citing to nothing more sinister than inexperience.

What is troubling about such responses is not that they attack Sarkeesian. She is not, and should not be immune from criticism. However, when the responses attack Sarkeesian as often as her arguments, and employ such tormented logic the few times that they do discuss her arguments, they can hardly be called responses in good faith. They are not interested in discussing her argument to get closer to the truth, and would probably not concede that she was valid on any point whatsoever. Their goal is to deny or silence by any means at hand, no matter how irrelevant or illogical.

Add a sneering tone, and overt sexism, and they can hardly be called responses to Sarkeesian at all. Instead, they seem more projections of what the commenters bring to viewing Sarkeesian’s work.

Fear of feminism or women? Denial and doubts about what effects video games may have? Not being telepathic, I cannot presume to say. But, to all appearances, if Sarkeesian did not exist, at least some of her attackers would need to invent her.

Read Full Post »

In 1989, Ursula K. Le Guin spoke at Simon Fraser University. During the question period, amid a lively discussion of feminism, a young woman – probably a grad student – asked with an intense earnestness, “But, Ursula, where do men fit in?”

I’ll never forget Le Guin’s answer. With a shrug that gently but firmly dismissed the entire question, she said, “Why, where ever they want.”

She had nothing against men, she went on to explain. There were many men in her life, including in her family, and she would never dream of telling them what to do.

However, what stays with me is that initial response. At the time, I noted that the questioner had forgotten that, although Le Guin was a feminist, she was also an anarchist.

More recently, however, I find myself remembering Le Guin’s comment as a contrast to the comments on certain modern feminist blogs that seem all too eager to tell male supporters exactly what they must do.

I am not talking, of course, about the common sense changes that a male sympathizer needs to make if their convictions are to be taken seriously. So far as I am concerned, learning how to avoid monopolizing the conversation is not only a sign of feminist sympathies in a man, but a sign of maturity in anyone. It seems only common sense, as well, that having a man as a representative of a feminist group is poor tactics and creates credibility problems.

What I am referring to is the viewpoint that implicitly excludes the idea of male feminism by referring to male supporters as allies. In the circles I am talking about, you can be homosexual, transsexual, or queer and not have your feminist credentials questioned, but only men need to be referred to by a euphemism – a habit that marks them permanently as outsiders.

Allies, this school of thought makes clear, are supposed to be well-disciplined subordinates, accepting instruction in the proper way to be supportive, and never questioning or criticizing feminist perspectives. “You’re not being a good ally when you’re telling members of the oppressed group you’re supposedly allied with how to behave,” Julie Pagano states, but, at the same time, “Being an ally does not shield you from criticism when you make mistakes.” The fear seems to be that allies have no sense of discretion, and, if left unchecked for a moment, every single one of them would burst into an opera of mansplaining and interrupting their betters.

Allies are good for swelling crowd shots, and for giving money, but any sense that they might belong is never considered. As for the idea that they could make any intellectual contribution – that is an absurdity dismissed out of hand.

Whether Le Guin today would reply in the same way to that long-ago question, I have no idea. Nor do I particularly care. What matters to me is that it reminds me that I have had an emotional and ethical stake in feminism since I was fourteen, and that I am long past the need to twist myself into an obedient ally to meet someone else’s standard.

It reminds me, too, that you can’t associate with any activist group without realizing that everyone who supposedly shares your views is not necessarily likable. No doubt the circles I am talking about suppose that their lectures on being an ally will produce better supporters, when their real result is likely to force potential supporters to the conclusion that nothing they do will ever be good enough. But who cares? Feminism has survived eco-feminism, so it can certainly survive the idea that allies can be controlled. Such things simply happen from time to time. Besides, there are still plenty of other feminist individuals and causes I am happy to support.

At any rate, I am not dependent on belonging to a group to make a contribution. As a writer, my most immediate contributions to a feminist future are to be an observer of women in computing, and to do what I can to see that the accomplishments of women get the reporting they deserve. These are tasks that not many people are doing, and ones that I do well, so I am proud to continue doing them.

So call me a partner if you like. Call me a supporter, a sympathizer, or even a fellow-traveler. If your world view allows, call me a male feminist.

But, whatever you do, don’t call me a feminist ally. I’m here for a cause, and that cause is not to obey you.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »