I got in an internet fight a few days ago.
"But Peter," you cry, "aren't you old enough to know better? Are bad knees, poor lung capacity, addled memory, alcoholism, debt, painful memories, hypochondria, PTSD, several scars, a pending lawsuit, wrinkles, mild arthritis in your hand joints, a bad back, an undiagnosed nerve disorder, anxiety, regret, and a jaded sense of entitlement all you have to show for three misspent decades?"
Well, yeah. But in addition to that, I have a nervous tic that fires when people misrepresent and misinterpret poor bastards I don't even know, to push their own issues and hangups. And sometimes that tic makes me forget the futility of punching the ether.
It started innocently enough. I fell asleep to Deep Space 9 on the couch.1 I woke up at 8:30 Saturday morning, and since a couch is a non-optimal place to try to get back to sleep, I just made coffee and got on with it, a full six hours before I was due to have brunch with my girlfriend. I hit wikipedia and, for no particular reason, decided to catch up on the last seventeen years of the Marvel universe, since 1994 was the last time I picked up a comic. Eventually this led to some articles about floating timelines, which is how comic books keep the same characters going for seventy years without aging.2 This led to some stuff about soap opera relativity and cartoon physics, and by then I was well out of wikipedia and into mainstream blogs with little links on the side of the screen to other articles.
Then I clicked on one of those little links on the side of the screen.3 The link was to and article called Science Fiction That’s Not Only Anti-Woman, It’s Anti-Science. I figured it was probably about Heinlein, who even in death is vying for the title of most misogynistic author of all time.
Nope. It was about Womanspace, an essay published in nature. I read the first article, then clicked through to this alleged affront to women everywhere, fully expecting to be outraged and disgusted by some sexist idiot. I read the article with furious indignation.
I got to the end, strangely unoffended.
That can't be right, I thought. I must have missed something. I read it again.
One more time, really carefully.
Then I was just confused. The original article was "Science Fiction That's Not Only Anti-Woman, It's Anti-Science." But this essay wasn't anti-woman, anti-science, or even science fiction. What the hell was going on?
I went to the comments.4 Here things started to get a little clearer: outrage at the suggestion that women shop differently from men. Then Vegard Farstad5 started a Facebook petition to force the resignation of the editor who published it.
Clearly, I was still missing something, so I started reading the remarkable number of retorts to the essay.
The main problem, I'm guessing, is the title. Any use of the word woman in a non-post-post-feminist context seems to sour all the pre-pre-post-feminists from the get go. The criticism seemed to focus on two passages in particular, when they weren't just lambasting poor Ed Rybicki's writing style. One seems to be the evidence for Ed being a self-absorbed nazi bastard, and I'll just quote one of the comments quoting the original line:
Amid all the open sexism and stereotypes, probably the most hurtful part was the sentence "Have you never had the experience of talking to your significant female other" as if all Nature readers (or maybe all scientists?) were aged men with housewives at home.
"Significant female other" is probably the least loaded term for a wife or girlfriend of all time. It's almost like someone looked at all the terminology in the universe and found the most literal and least suggestive of all possible terms that could refer to one member of a relationship and still communicate any information at all. There is no logical connection between this term and aged men with housewives. The only way this jump could be made is if the offense was already in the reader's mind and bursting out at any mention of a feminine adjective or pronoun.
In fact, they're both in the supermarket, doing the same thing. But, to his present misfortune, Ed suggests they're doing it differently:
At this point I must digress, and mention, for those who are not aware, the profound differences in strategy between Men Going Shopping and Women Going Shopping. In any general shopping situation, men hunt: that is, they go into a complex environment with a few clear objectives, achieve those, and leave. Women, on the other hand, gather: such that any mission to buy just bread and milk could turn into an extended foraging expedition that also snares a to-die-for pair of discounted shoes; a useful new mop; three sorts of new cook-in sauces; and possibly a selection of frozen fish.
This seemed to be when people turned from sour to rabid. I don't personally have this experience with women, since I detest shopping altogether unless I'm depressed, at which point I spend money to feel better.6 The basic outrage is that this essay propagates a stereotype, and makes a joke about it. Well, yeah. Joking about stereotypes is pretty standard. Then somebody said this is the same as all those tired comics who joke about stereotypes. I went and found some of my favorite offensive comics on youtube. None of them seemed tired.7 And they were funny. They were funny in particular because I felt the comic trusted me to know there was a joke, and I was educated enough to know that stereotypes are lazy observations, not facts.
The outrage then seems to get muddled in its understanding of irony, since they accuse him of making a joke about it, but then, somehow, seriously asserting—as science but science fiction but not fiction nor science—that women are actually alien beings who access different universes. So Ed can't escape at this point, because he's being accused of doing several opposing things at once, depending on how his attackers want to critique him or fit his work into whichever argument they're making. It's outrage-fueled sophistry at its best, written by people with no sense of humor and an inability to see across stringent literary categories. Or to see the fact that the original piece has a specific category: personal essay. These days, it's more popularly known as "blog post over three hundred words."
Then, of course, having murkily wandered over the possible interpretations of Ed's psyche, they get into the gritty stuff, like income inequality between the sexes and how women are discouraged from science and math, and start citing all the horrors of sexism in the modern world, then, like rabid dogs do, started frothing over everything in sight, moving on to racism and xenophobia in general, and now Ed is a storm trooper in armies of hate.
I started simply enough with a comment about "Humorlessspace"9 where people with personal issues turn them inward and it comes out as internet comments. This wasn't enough, however, because this was a sudden hot-button issue and I figured I could satisfy my inner dick, showcase my hypocritical self-righteous attitude toward self-righteousness, and pimp my blog in one fell swoop, so I went through the blogs until I found one that had a space to put my website in the comment and got into it proper.
I failed myself. I got replies so vapid, non-sensical, and presumptuous, I started appealing to some kind of social logic, when I really should have come clean and admitted I was trolling, partly to defend Ed, but mostly for simple, potentially lucrative attention.10
Here's one of the replies to my initial "you're all humorless and insane" posts:
Then maybe you should check out some of the links to male privilege I so handily provided to Ed. Or the very well-thought-out critiques I posted above. You should definitely click the link to "antifeminist bingo," too– the "you can't take a joke" schtick is pretty tired.
I will save you the trouble of investigating the critiques,11 and let you know that they are not well thought out. They are reactionary, accusatory, and packed full of free-association anger weakly linking Ed's work to the long hard history of misogyny.
Is it that men are only sexist if they say they are, but they never are if someone else says they are? And any woman can speak for all other women (just as we apparently all shop the same way) and therefore if only one woman is not offended, sexism doesn’t exist, even if many women (and men) were offended? That is, sexism can never exist, it can only not exist?
The person who wrote that is a professor, apparently. Professors say things like that. I didn't dig that quote out of the article, by the way, someone else quoted that for the other side, because they weren't thinking straight, and thought that this kind of rhetorical and hyperbolic nonsense qualifies as argument.
Apparently, this is a sex-given talent that has nothing to do with any sort of responsibilities or duties or practice or missing choices—it is inexplicable why women are able to find the cheese and the milk, also known as the female astrophysics. And clearly, "female domains," such as supermarkets, are parallel universes that look like lots of intertwined fallopian tubes, and only women know their way around those, as we all know—why would any man even bother to board that rollercoaster?
This is a weakly ironic presentation of the message everybody inferred, the problem being that Ed didn't imply it. Not because he's privileged, but because he's just commenting on something that happens to him. To claim that the women in his life are better shoppers is not the same as approving, implicitly or unknowingly, of a history of subjugation. I expect if he'd turned it around and said men go into a manspace that deprives them of the navigational abilities upon entering a mall, not a word or comment would have been posted to the contrary, since it would have had the ironic suggestion that men are less than human instead of the ironic suggestion women are more than human, and that's always okay, despite it saying exactly the same thing once you take it to the level of debating social inequality. I also expect to receive angry emails from people telling me they would be just as upset about it, and they'll be deluding themselves, and some emails from people saying it is different, and they'll be wrong. It's only different because it doesn't push their buttons. Also sort of implies that if a woman is good at shopping, it's because she didn't have enough choices in her life. I'd be offended by that if I had a worldview that got offended by inferring nonexistent subtext.
Those women, they just aren’t like us real members of the academic world, right? Good thing they take care of our needs so we menfolk can do the hard thinking, eh?
Also nonsense. There is no suggestion that his wife isn't a physicist. This is the writer's hangup, not some slight Ed gave. It reminds me of a recent science article that started with "Neutrinos may have moved faster than light" and ended with "This proves that humans can travel back in time and change the past." Makes you blink.
After reducing women to a stereotyped shopping monolith, cheekily analogizing women’s behaviors as a parallel universe (can someone finally kill the astronomic analogies for men vs women, please? This book is almost 20 years old), and expressing fear over the empowerment of women, he now marginalizes women into superficiality, hazarding that given our newfound knowledge, we will exercise it to get rid of ugly men and select "better-looking" versions.
This is a particularly slanderous implication. "He now marginalizes women into superficiality" is an amazing example of having a preconceived notion of a mechanism and interpreting everything through it. In a college, people would call it over-thinking. Nowadays, I call it conspiracy-theory thinking, which I also call insane.
I took a class on black history my freshman year in college, in which I read a lot of good books on race and failed to do the class project and dropped out midway through the semester. Besides my copy of Why Black People Tend to Shout, the only thing I retain from this class is the memory of the teacher showing us an advertisement in pieces. At first, she just showed us the back half of the ad, of a well-muscled black arm gripping the torso of a white woman. It looked like bad news. Then she showed the rest of the ad, revealing a smiling black man teaching a smiling white woman how to play pool. There was a lot more going on in this ad than race relations, having to do with all the complexities of sex, aggression, and advertising. It was not just a jeans company promoting interracial rape. That limited interpretation came from her predisposition to look for it. My predispositions led me to infer that I should be teaching more girls how to play pool, and to think that the ad represented some progress in mainstream advertising, since being a black man and touching a white woman will still get you killed in some places.
You can reason your way to any interpretation, and people forget that they usually have an end in mind, then they forget that they are reifying their chain of inference into an inherent quality of the impetus for their thinking. It's all very complicated and subjective. The effect of the kind of mass attack being made on Ed is to make people think it's obvious and objective, thus setting the stage for future mass idiocies.
Also, in case you missed it, the book the writer is talking about is Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, and it's worth reading,12 though I recommend anything by Warren Farrell13 over it.
I fear for my female students' welfare as I send them off to university each September, and hope that their enthusiasm and optimism for their future isn't eroded away too quickly.
This is the righteous shield that excuses posting all this junk, and I find it particularly offensive. I don't deny there is systemic sexism in our culture, but one of the suggestions behind all this is that 90% of the world can't think for themselves and will be wounded by even illusionary suggestions of sexism. Thank God we're maintaining a culture of fear and blame to protect them.
As a woman scientist reading this article, it seems in every way designed to make me feel othered and excluded from the scientific academy.
"Seems in every way designed" is the key bit here. This just exemplifies all the other points. It was in no way designed to other and exclude; the commenter already feels excluded and built the weapon before the fight.
Enough. The writer of the you-can't-take-a-joke-schtick-is-tired schtick told both me and Ed that we should examine our male privilege before we can have a conversation with her. I'm not going to have this conversation with her because she sounds like a terrible date, but I am fully aware of my male privilege, as how else could I a) say it's wrong, and b) revel in it as blatantly as I do? I also revel in being tall, white, and middle-class. I do all of these things as publicly and ludicrously as possible. Because taking your privileges and treating them like the arbitrary luck they are does a lot more to undermine the notion that they're somehow earned or deserved than finding something new to be upset about. There are social consequences to the physical features we're born with, and that absurd fact alone is the enemy. The only two weapons against it are humor and law. What is not a weapon against it is attacking somebody who dares touch upon a dimly related subject in a droll personal essay. What that does is create a fight, and make the attackers look like touchy people unreasonably jumping down the throat of anybody who dares to suggest the whole issue isn't black and white or enemy and friend. This hurts the attackers. This hurts the cause of anybody who wants to move forward.
There are probably a hundred essays on the internet right now about how Ed's piece was not innocuous, but harmful. But it was innocuous. It was an offhand, not bad piece about how in Ed's life, men and women shop differently. The response to this essay has made it not innocuous, not because of anything Ed wrote, but because a bunch of people dealing with common issues decided to throw a witch hunting party to push their own fame and ego at the expense of someone who did nothing wrong.14 A few people who were already so upset about inequality they snap at any imagined slight started a crusade that swept the weak and bleating sheep into another assault on reason in the hopes that nobody will be able to get on with their lives without feeling angry or guilty.
I've never touched on shopping differences, but I'm the first to point out that men and women are different, as does every other relaxed, healthy, liberal and egalitarian man or woman in my life.15 We all make sexist and racist jokes at each other's expense because we have a culture of respect instead of a culture of fear and anger. And we talk openly and evenly about the effects of people assuming my Asian friends can do math, my black friends can play basketball, the women are supposed to be size zero and able to cook, and that I'm supposed to work myself to death for six figures to raise two kids and buy diamonds yet still be emotionally available and make time for family. It's an insane situation we approach with a sense of humor, as opposed to, say, creating insane situations because we have no sense of humor.
As all internet quarrels inevitably do, the whole thing has devolved into the impotent recycling of links and jabs. It will end as another useless war that made everybody dig a few extra trenches.
That which you fear enslaves your mind. So lighten up. And have some wine.
1 Many people told me I should watch this show, and that it gets really good later on, so I'm struggling through the second season now. I will say it's really good at putting me to sleep, and I'm getting the first half-hour of most of the episodes.
2 You can see this in Calvin and Hobbes, too. There are references to "last summer" and the year before, but never to a specific year, and Calvin has no birthdays.
3 After this and the Bieber incident, I may have to investigate aversion therapy. Clearly, I'm sick, and can't help myself.
4 My second mistake.
5 Whom I nominate for biggest douche in the universe.
6 Interestingly, many of my girlfriends have told me this is very female behavior. Clearly, I date a bunch of sexist bitches.
7 Except for George Burns.
8 Actually, I could have, but here we are.
9 Which would have been the title of this essay if not for the awkward number of s's.
10 Turning tricks ain't easy.
12 Edit + sigh: It's not worth reading.
13 After some recent investigation, I can no longer recommend this, pending further investigation which I'm sure will be horrible.
14 I do this too, but I admit it and I don't pretend it's in the interest of a greater good. Except this time, I actually think I'm better than these people, and you should listen to me and not them. Because I'm a white male. And tall.
15 In fact, figuring this out is the first step toward having healthy relationships. Hormone levels shouldn't have the economic impact they do, but you damn well better recognize in an intimate situation.