Mind The Straw, Sam

16 Sep
September 16, 2014

straw-bale-on-field

(Let me just apologize up front to the folk who visit this blog for the sporadic updates about game development. You’ll probably find this bewildering and/or irrelevant. Feel free to skip it, by all means. But I had a long-form thought I wanted to get down, twitter isn’t the best medium, and it seemed a bit much to hurl out randomly amoungst my friends and family on Facebook. So I thought to myself “you know, you do have a blog…”)

A couple of people in the skeptical community have been sharing this piece by well-known atheist writer Sam Harris, posted in response to…well, you should read the piece for the proper context, in his own words. I’m just going to critique it. He says some unfortunate things, in my opinion, and then falls prey to a common pitfall when discussing gender. It bugged me to the point where I felt like I needed to get down my thoughts.

(Let me say up front that I mostly like Harris and find him to be fairly clear-headed. Mostly.)

The first problem is that Sam reaches for an easy straw man counterargument in response to the charge of sexism. In fairness, misunderstandings arise, and these kinds of off-the-cuff remarks can be more poorly phrased than something carefully mulled over and written down. But still.

Here is where it starts. Harris relays their conversation to us.

She: Okay, let’s forget what you said about Sarah Palin. What you said about women in the atheist community was totally denigrating to women and irresponsible. Women can think just as critically as men. And men can be just as nurturing as women.

Me: Of course they can! But if you think there are no differences, in the aggregate, between people who have Y chromosomes and people who don’t; if you think testosterone has no psychological effects on human minds in general; if you think we can’t say anything about the differences between two bell curves that describe whole populations of men and women, whether these differences come from biology or from culture, we’re not going to get very far in this conversation.

She: I’m not saying that women and men are the same.

Me: Okay, great. So I think you misunderstood the intent of what I was saying. I was just acknowledging that some differences in the general tendencies of men and women might explain why 84 percent of my followers on Twitter are men. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to get into this, because there are 200 people standing behind you in line patiently waiting to have their books signed.

She: You should just know that what you said was incredibly sexist and very damaging, and you should apologize.

Me: You really are determined to be offended, aren’t you? It’s like you have installed a tripwire in your mind, and you’re just waiting for people to cross it.

If it’s not obvious, here, let me summarize the gist of the exchange :

Her: What you said is sexist.

Sam: Are you saying you think there aren’t any differences between men and women? If you think that, this conversation is over before it started!

You see it?

Sam’s response is an attack on a position that the other person didn’t state, a straw man argument. It is not the case that saying a particular generalization is harmful or biased means that you think the 2 genders are completely identical. It’s a huge reach to infer that from that comment, but it IS a great deal easier to knock down, as arguments go.

Sam then continues to build his pile of straw later, on his blog. Inviting us, his readers, to join him in laughing at the idea of someone denying that sex differences play even a small role in skewed gender representation in the management of powerful companies.

However, they are not the only factors that explain differences in social status between men and women. For instance, only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. How much of this is the result of sexism? How much is due to the disproportionate (and heroic) sacrifices women make in their 20’s or 30’s to have families? How much is explained by normally distributed psychological differences between the sexes? I have no idea, but I am confident that each of these factors plays a role. Anyone who thinks disparities of this kind must be entirely a product of sexism hasn’t thought about these issues very deeply.

I’ve read the piece multiple times now, and I’m quite at a loss as to when either of the women claimed to hold that position. Again, it’s a straw man that Sam sets up, just to knock down. It’s very easy to seem intellectually superior when you make a show of knocking down exaggerated claims you’ve pinned on your opponent.

Anyway, Harris spends a lot of time talking about how he knows and respects women etc, and even points out that he recognizes the danger of skirting the “some of my best friends are black” style defense against accusations of sexism.

But simply pointing out that you’re aware of the pit looming in front of you isn’t enough. You have to actually change course to avoid it.

Personally, I would have hoped that if Sam had so much respect for and interaction with women, he might have picked up by now how many of them find comments about their “nurturing” natures to be patronizing as all hell, especially when reached for glibly as an explanation of why they are underrepresented in various fields or careers.

You see, and this really gets to the heart of what Harris missed here, these kinds of benevolent-seeming comments are often used to justify the differences created by deeply-entrenched structural sexism. You’ll hear things like women are too delicate for sports, too sensitive to go to war, they don’t like to get dirty, they’re more naturally inclined to soft skills like caring for children, they’re more supportive and less competitive than men, and so on and so forth.

These words, plotted out visually, would form a mental map around the core stereotypes of motherhood and femininity, the idealized archetype of woman (in the eyes of a lot of men). And these ideas have frequently been used to oppress women throughout history.

These kinds of things are examples of benevolent sexism, sexist concepts that, on surface examination, sound positive. Women are more caring, women are nicer, women aren’t as dirty. Isn’t that a nice thing to say about someone? How could anyone protest being called “the fairer sex”?!?!

But they straightjacket women and the ways they can express themselves in the world. They send signals to women about how they’re expected to behave and which careers they are expected to go into, and they have been used, over and over and over, to justify the inequality caused by deep-seated misogyny. No, we hear, it’s not sexism that keeps women out of certain careers, certain spaces, it’s because they’re just not inclined toward those kinds of things in the first place! It’s not that we’re keeping women out, it’s that they don’t even want to come in!

Which brings us back to Harris’s contentious comment.

There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women,” he said. “The atheist variable just has this—it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”

Well, obviously, if women don’t want to participate, the likely explanation is because they’re just not inclined to this kind of thing, this man-thing. This rough-and-tumble back-and-forth intellectual pugilism. Women are more gentle, you see. Softer. Nurturing.

Harris doesn’t want to acknowledge the (likely unintentional) sexism in this comment, but he doesn’t have real evidence that critical thought is more “intrinsically male”, more a part of our natures. And it’s unfortunate that Harris can’t see his quick, off-the-cuff reaching for that particular explanation first as part of a larger, problematic pattern experienced regularly by women in society.

And it’s doubly unfortunate that many of the prominent males in the community are, as we speak, closing ranks and working to discredit the sources and communities where the strongest feminist critique is coming from. It would be nice if they’d try to listen and understand instead of getting defensive. If I hadn’t already unfollowed Dawkins a long time ago, I would have had to, now. People you look up to, intellectually, making cringe-worthy comments is a fairly painful experience.

The ending paragraph slips from what could still be considered to be an honest mistake to an unfortunate bit of vindictiveness. I understand that he’s taking heavy flak and the urge to punch back is probably strong. Hell, I’m an argumentative guy, I get the urge to strike back.

Pretending to want to keep the harmony while taking the opportunity to throw some less-than-subtle kicks at whoever it was he was debating with is a shit move. It’s like firing a few tank shells across the border at a neighboring nation and waiting for a counter-attack, all while loudly proclaiming that you’re trying to keep the peace. That is not what the moral high ground looks like.

Start a fight or don’t, whatever, but just own it, Sam. And clear up all this the bloody straw.

3 replies
  1. KrankyBoy says:

    Hmm this is a tough one. I too had read Sam’s response, and I was a little surprised at his comment.s One thing you failed to mention was the context of his comments. The journalist he was talking with had written up his comments in a way that made them look WAY worse than they were meant to be. Now I think he still does not dismiss them 100% in his rebuttal, but she was out to make him look badly which is why acquaintances are flocking to discredit her.

    I think he is a bit stuck on “intent” and not on how his comment will be/have been taken. Overall I love this guy. One of the few out there that really understands how things are IMHO. Good piece Gareth.

    Reply
  2. gareth says:

    Yeah, look, I do sympathize with that. The first woman was attempting to make him look bad, so I cut him a bit of slack there.

    Still, would have been good for him to try to understand the issue people have with his comments rather than build straw men.

    Reply
  3. MaximillionMiles says:

    Man, these feminism debates are really tiring me out…

    Which is a bad thing, I will admit. The issue is important and worthy of discussion. But it feels like both sides have drawn lines in the sand and started shooting at anyone not on their side. Both sides have very aggressive and confrontational people who hold a “with me or against me” mentality that really pushes me away and I end up with no side to take.

    Bleh. My own personal rant that does not have much to do with the topic. Bottom line, I believe people should be able to follow whatever career or interest they want, without society screwing them over. But what do I know?

    Reply

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