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.