Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Context Isn't Everything, But It's Quite A Lot

Context. We can think of it as what separates us from the current generation of machine intelligences, floundering around with no memory. Context is the difference between a definition and a connotation, between an innocuous statement and a sly innuendo.

Part of being human is that we have a shared culture, which serves as a context for all that we do. Thus, a statement which is delivered with only good intentions can, in the context of culture, communicate bigotry instead. Recently, in the particular blogging circles in which I run, this effect has reared it's ugly head quite a disturbing number of times.

This most recent run seems to have been set of by a list of "sexy scientists" published with good intentions. Following this list, I saw some threads on the subject that quickly filled with controversy. One particular thread reached almost 700 comments, a good indication of the original list having struck a nerve.

Before going any further, I'd like to stop for a moment and point out something: despite not ever having named the gender of the scientists on the "sexy" list, you probably know the answer. Indeed, women were the subject of that post. In our cultural context, it is predominantly women who get the label of sexy, and so context lets you fill in that missing information. This is precisely where I think that Luke went wrong in posting the list.

Even though there is nothing inherently wrong with noticing the physical attractiveness of those around us, or even commenting on it, in the context of a society where women are unfairly disadvantaged as a consequence of their gender, Luke's list takes on a different meaning. Were women not already judged more on their physical attractiveness, then the intended celebration of beauty may not have been perverted into just another aspect of life in a patriarchal society.

Similar problems have been occurring in discussions all over the Internet, though, and so I don't want to hone in on what is, in many ways, a done deal. Just look at what happened in the comments following another of PZ Myers' posts on feminism. Here, commenters that I can only assume were well-meaning tried to point out ways in which men are hurt by sexism, but in doing so neglected the context of a discussion of male privilege. In turning a thread on male privilege into a discussion of how men suffer, these commenters perpetuated, however inadvertently, the cultural norm that men's problems are somehow more pressing then those of women. Thus, the context turns a well-meaning discussion of sexism into yet another mechanism to perpetuate sexism.

Cultural context can be a powerful thing, twisting our words and actions. By necessity, this introduces a double-standard, where the same kinds of jokes and statements that are acceptable to make about men turn poisonous when placed against a backdrop colored by sexism of the most vile kinds. Without the cultural context of religious oppression, a veil would be just another cloth. Without the context of a society in which many women live in constant fear of sexual assault, a flirtatious compliment could be seen as innocuous. Without a context of a society that fetishizes youth, a pole-dancing class for children would be just another dance class divorced from its sexual origins (after all, it's not as if ballet or tango have "innocent" origins).

If we want this to change, then we must all-- men and women alike-- be more inviting and inclusive. We must learn to not play into the problems of our culture. We must recognize that there are limits to how much we can make note of a woman's attractiveness before our message becomes one of objectification. For instance, we can't use phrases like "cry into your underwear with nerdlust" when referring to our colleagues and our peers if we want to change this poisonous cultural context.

Likewise, the men among us must be involved in the conversation in ordder for change to really set in. Here, I'll admit that the story gets much more personal for me than I'd like, so please forgive me if I spend a bit longer on this point than is really appropriate. I'm not always perfect at how I express myself, or always the best at communicating about feminism. It's hard for me, as a man, to truly understand what women go through sometime. Despite this, I do try, not out of expectation of reward, but because I feel downright compelled. It makes it hard to try, however, when speaking out means that vile accusations like this get leveled:
As I read more of your posts about this girl, I begin to see what your motivation is. You're the overprotective geek friend/wannabe lover who thinks by defending her honor on some random geek message board, you will curry favor with her and this will somehow lead to her fucking you. I'm sad to inform you this will never happen.
As long as it is so inconceivable that a man may speak up to try and improve their own community, rather than in a single-minded pursuit of sex, sexism will persist. We must all, men and women alike, understand the context in which we exist if we seek to change it so as to respect each other.


Sarah Kavassalis said...

Well said, Chris. It's still hard for me to believe that so many people seem to think that sex must be the primary motivator for one's actions. I suppose it makes sense, evolutionarily, but in today's society, which seems to think of itself so enlightened and (offensively) removed from its genetic ancestors, that we still always jump to a "sex first, person later" attitude towards people (especially strangers).

The internet really dehumanizes us, to use a term I hate. For such a sophisticated thing, it really seems to bring out the most base behaviours in people. It is very nice (and important for my sanity) though, that there are genuinely decent people like you out there to balance some of this out.

cgranade said...

Thank you for the support. I do firmly believe that the best way to get past these kinds of problems is with open conversation, so it's always good to see people speaking up in support when something gets said.

Meg said...

Thank you for this post. It's hard to speak out in geek culture or in any alternative culture because you often expect to encounter more progressive thinking and it's surprising and disappointing when you run across misogyny or ignorance where you least expect it. I think most men assume that flattery is always, in fact flattering, because it feels flattering when *they* receive it. What they don't realize is, as you've pointed out, context is everything. As a woman, no matter who you are, where you live, or what you look like, you're taught - not by just one source, but by multiple sources, including many rooted in your own personal experience of violence, hate and sexism - that your sexual availability trumps any other feature, skill or potential you might have. It takes a lot of work to carve out your own sense of self worth in a culture in which you are frequently dehumanized. And feeling dehumanized is the worst feeling in the world.
The comments about 'nerdlust' and the sexy scientist list bothered me for other reasons, too - the assumption of a male gaze. As a woman, you get reminded all too frequently that you are not the intended reader, user or viewer. It's really meant for mens' eyes. You are there, but you are not being spoken to. Your attention matters less. You are less welcome. Moreover, when the reader's/viewer's attention is drawn to the female's body parts, as a woman you are reminded not only that you don't belong, but that there is where your importance, your significance lies too. Because you identify not with the male consumer, but with the female who is being objectified, you too feel objectified in that moment.

Thanks for sharing your views. I completely share the sentiment that men need to take an active role in the discussion. The angry comments towards you are indicative of a culture that does not support male feminists. But you know, I also wish that more women were educated in their own rights, because I read a lot of ignorant comments coming from women, too, who are oblivious to the ways in which they themselves have grown up a product of a male dominant and privileged culture.

cgranade said...

Honestly, I don't get the flattery thing, as it's not really always comforting when I receive flattery about my looks. The ambiguity of intent makes it a paralyzing experience for me, so I can only imagine how much worse it is if that kind of flattery is the norm, especially with the sexual charge it so often takes. At least for me, flattery is exceedingly rare.

As for the issue of physical attractiveness, that is one that I find to be hairy, as it's hard for me to understand just how objectifying it is to women. I am, as I've said before, a straight male, and as such have pointed out to other men about physical attractiveness, but I really have to remind myself of the male gaze issue and other such aspects of sexism. There's so much that I'm just unaware of, and I'm sure that I hurt others with that obliviousness.

Perhaps that is why I share my views as I do. To learn through criticism, to explore what it means to be male in a male-privileged culture. I hope that people like you, being as supportive as you are when I speak out, can be seen as a positive example of how the conversation can keep going.

Luke said...


This link http://www.reddit.com/r/Physics/comments/cu18n/this_week_in_the_universe_july_20th_july_26th/ is also useful (I mentioned it to you earlier). I e-mailed Sarah about this and I know she was none too happy. Frankly, I was quite pissed off at this. I think Sarah is doing an excellent job and I really like her posts for their content since it gives me some articles to read. For an interesting comparison, look at Sabine's blog. I've never seen people comment on her looks before despite having a picture of her in the Penrose diagram on the front page.

As for the Slashdot post, that gets me really upset. Apparently us men cannot defend females who are intelligent without it becoming, to put it bluntly, a fuck contest. I suppose the only reason why you tried to defend Sarah was so you could have sex. Yes, that's entirely the reason right? Not related to the fact you are friends and you feel she is being mistreated? Heck no, it's about sex! But if it were a male friend, ahh, then of course it's not about sex, it's about helping out a friend!

One thing that I am quite happy with about PI is that the number of females they have in their programme. The PSI programme had what, 6 or 7 out of 30? I've heard this year has 12 out of 30. Even the ISSYP had an equal number of females to males. Of course, whether they stay in physics and mathematics is another thing. My GR course (4th year applied mathematics / physics course) had about 25-30 people in it and three girls. What I want to know is why the females are leaving the programmes and what can be done to keep them in physics and mathematics.


Samantha said...

I can give you an answer from one person:

I dropped out of math after my first year because none of my classmates would talk to me (white and female is not a good combination at UW), two of my four profs wouldn't help me when I went to office hours, and three of the four TAs I talked to were quick to dismiss me and my questions because they thought helping me was a "waste of time because girls aren't good at math".

My experience seems to be a bit unusual, but it's not entirely so. I also admit to having left partly because I had a preferable back-up plan ready in my intended double major and so could make the move with only a minor set-back. Still, the terrible attitudes of what seemed to be the majority of the faculty towards white female students definitely was the final straw when I was already disillusioned with the negative attitudes towards studying in other faculties.

PS: Lest you think I was terrible at math... well, I might have been, but I was good enough to win the Bernoulli Trials as a first-year student in 2007, so I don't think I was THAT bad.

cgranade said...

It is truly unfortunate that you received that kind of treatment in response to your admirable curiosity and drive to learn. I can only hope that because you and other people speak up about your experiences, those of us who will go on to teach in the next generation can prevent others from being similarly discouraged.

That's one part of why I go out of my way to speak out about issues of feminism, etc. Society depends on mathematical and scientific ability, and so we do ourselves a great disservice with every person turned away from STEM by prejudice and bigotry.

Samantha said...

I definitely agree that turning anyone away from the "scientific fields" is foolish, regardless of their sex, gender, race, age or pretty much anything outside of pure ability. I'm one of the lucky ones in a way because I had a back-up plan which I actually liked far more than doing just Math and leaving the Math faculty didn't really change my plans at all (I always planned to be a teacher, so I just decided on a different way to make myself look like a good choice). Still, it was definitely discouraging after having had a number of very encouraging teachers in elementary and high schools. Actually, the heads of the Math department in both of the high schools I attended were female and quite eager to get me doing the UW Math contests (with good reason, seeing as I ended up being invited to the week long math seminar when I was in grade 10 based on my score). Having profs and TAs look askance at me because I was no part of any stereotype of a good mathematician (asian, male, nerdy looking)... well, it was definitely a shock to the system.

Still, from what I know from the friends that stuck with it, I would have been miserable even without that additional unpleasantness. The Math faculty at UW is far too focused on being the absolute best for me, and even though I probably could have achieved well enough, I wouldn't have wanted to give that much of myself over to it when my greatest interest was in English. In all likelihood, I would have had to choose between one or the other by the end of my second year and I would still have chosen English. The sexist/racist attitudes of the people I was around simply made that choice happen earlier.