The worst sexism ever

Back in 2011, Skepchick founder Rebecca Watson made some really mild comments about a dude’s inappropriate behaviour at a conference. Things blew up, especially once the prince of Internet Atheism, Richard Dawkins, left a comment mocking Watson for making such a fuss over such a small thing. His argument, in a scathing “satire”, boiled down to: how dare you talk about this bad experience, things are so much worse for oppressed Muslim women.

(Being Richard Dawkins, he said it as offensively and gratuitously as possible.)

And that was Elevatorgate. Neither the first, nor the last, but definitely one of the premiere cases of the thing I’m blogging about today.

Again and again, when women (or any other group of people pointing out the ways their lives are constrained and affected by oppression) speak out about something – no matter how “calmly” or “reasonably” they put it – we’re scoffed at. “Oh, like this is the worst sexism that ever happened *eyeroll*” or “Things are way worse for women in Syria, you know“. The only possible inference is: “you shouldn’t talk about this, because this isn’t really serious.”

As I wrote in my post about the myth of language policing:

It’s never just one word. Women aren’t walking around living practically perfect lives, taking it all for granted, until one poor guy says one bad word, at which point we descend upon him like harpies and rend the flesh from his bones.

It’s one guy saying “chicks” … after another guy called you a “cheerleader“, after another guy referred to you as “the office girl”, after another guy joked that you’re “more than just a pretty face”, after another guy asked if your husband was going to sign off on the kitchen quote, after another guy got praised for repeating something you’d said 5 minutes earlier, after another guy assumed you were the nurse not the surgeon, after another guy assumed you couldn’t do basic math.

That’s what sexism is like. This omnipresent state of “being a woman in a patriarchy” is manifested in a hundred different ways. Yes, most of them, if they were “the only” thing happening, would be trivial, easily brushed off and forgotten. But they’re not. They’re constant. And sometimes women complain about them.

And when we do, it seems to just be a matter of time before someone jumps up to point out that, well, this isn’t the worst sexism ever so stop complaining.

Whatever your intention, however you phrase it, you’re effectively telling women to stop talking. That their concerns aren’t valid – and that you are the person who gets to decide whether or not they are, largely based on being (usually) white, or male, or cisgendered, or wealthy, or famous – or any other of the characteristics which our society infuses with credibility. We don’t get to decide what’s important for us, what harms us or what we want to tweet about. You do.

And when we women say “hang on, this feels a bit like you want me to shut up”, the response is: “I don’t want to silence women! I love women! I was just making a point, I never said you shouldn’t have an opinion at all!”

Every single time: this issue is trivial and that experience is all in our heads and this problem is just a misunderstanding and why, oh why, are we talking about it at all?

As I get older and theoretically wiser, and see the same “well-intentioned” calls to sit down and stop making a fuss made over and over, I stop believing that this isn’t malicious. It’s too easy to make women shut up about everything this way – because nothing is as bad as The Sum Total Of Patriarchy. And The Sum Total of Patriarchy is so massive and pervasive that there’s no practical way to attack it directly. So what option do we have but to sit down and stop making a fuss?

We’re told to “pick our battles” on pretty much every battle there is – and we already have a list that’s too long of the battles we’ve already surrendered.

Well, to end on a note of high drama, here’s the battle I’m picking: I won’t be quiet about sexism. Sometimes I’ll talk about the big issues. Sometimes I’ll talk about the small ones. And if you desperately need to try to tell me whether the things I talk about are or aren’t important, I’ll probably be talking about you next.

wednesday-addams-smiling

Inspiration for the day: Dame Helen Mirren

On why she wishes she’d told people to “f*** off” more:

She explained that the phrase is empowering to women especially because we’re so often taught to be polite in every circumstance. “We were sort of brought up to be polite and sometimes politeness, in certain circumstances, is not what’s required,” she said. “You’ve got to have the courage to stand up for yourself occasionally when it’s needed.”

And just check out the archive of Helen Mirren-related posts on Tom & Lorenzo. Pure awesome.

The myth of language policing

This post has been sitting in draft for a while, but it’s one of those topics which comes up again and again, and will continue to do so for eternity: the idea that people who are interested in social justice, and point out bigoted or offensive language, are being bullies, or trying to silence everyone who doesn’t agree with them, or have nothing better to do with their time.

First off, I obviously have to link to the canonical xkcd cartoon on the subject of free speech.

The thing is, these incidents are always presented in isolation. One guy gets criticised because he used “chicks” to refer to “women” and suddenly the accusations are flying: you’re overreacting! You’re taking this too seriously! It’s just one word!

That’s the problem right there. It’s never just one word. Women aren’t walking around living practically perfect lives, taking it all for granted, until one poor guy says one bad word, at which point we descend upon him like harpies and rend the flesh from his bones.

It’s one guy saying “chicks” … after another guy called you a “cheerleader“, after another guy referred to you as “the office girl”, after another guy joked that you’re “more than just a pretty face”, after another guy asked if your husband was going to sign off on the kitchen quote, after another guy got praised for repeating something you’d said 5 minutes earlier, after another guy assumed you were the nurse not the surgeon, after another guy assumed you couldn’t do basic math.

And yes, it’s not just men saying those things, because all of us are swimming in patriarchy. We’ve all internalized the language and the attitudes, and yes: sometimes women are even worse. It’s not a surprise. It doesn’t disprove the existence of sexism. It just shows how much we’re forced to act against our own interests in order to survive. (Those on the left may consider the comparison with working people who get offered lump sum bonuses if they leave their union. Yes, it’s anti-solidarity – but your kids have to eat.)

The point is, it’s never just one guy saying just one thing. And if you think it’s terrible having half-a-dozen people on Twitter saying your wording was wrong this one time, imagine what it’s like having an entire society telling you your existence is wrong every day of your life.

~

Note: everything in this post will apply to other forms of oppression like racism and homophobia, but as I experience neither, I don’t want to speak for those who do.

Don’t meet the people where they are

It has been a ridiculously busy week, dear readers. On Wednesday we celebrated the launch of E tū, the new union formed from the merger of the EPMU and SFWU. And Thursday and Friday I had the great privilege of attending a workshop with Anat Shenker-Osorio, the author of Don’t Buy It and a thoroughly inspiring speaker on progressive politics and communication.

She’s on Q&A this Sunday, 9am on TV One, and I highly recommend tuning in. Here’s some tasters of her style and thinking.

On trying to capture the middle (which may make it obvious why I’m a fangirl):

 

On education and the language of investment:

 

On how we deal with inequality:

No, YOU get a sense of humour

Henry Denton: You Brits really don’t have a sense of humor do you?
Elsie: We do if something’s funny, sir.

– Gosford Park

Two stories popped up on my Twitter feed simultaneously yesterday: a defence of Tim Hunt’s sexist “jokes” about women in science, and the news that Eagle Technology felt compelled to apologise to the attendees of an event it sponsored after guest speaker Maurice Williamson made unspecified sexist “jokes”.

I had some thoughts on the matter which I tweeted out, but wanted to record the ideas here for posterity!

If you’re part of an oppressed group, you’re used to being the butt of the joke. You know it’s a joke. It’s still about you, and it’s mean.

Privileged douchebags already get plenty of passes for their privilege and douchebaggery. They don’t need another pass.

Stop making it the duty of people who are already oppressed to burn mental energy ~being okay~ with your terrible jokes.

And stop demonizing our anger/upset/contempt/exasperation at shitty jokes just bc we express it on Twitter or Facebook. (The defence of Tim Hunt in particular complained of “Twitter outrage”, as though modern social media is the only place people have ever got together to express their anger collectively in the history of human communication.)

Also, understand when marginalized people DO laugh at your shitty oppressive jokes, it’s a survival mechanism. And you’re not really funny.

I spoke at a National Council of Women meeting the night before last about sexism and discrimination in the workplace, and one of the points I really hammered is that there’s a hell of a lot of pressure on marginalized people – particularly women, because we’re meant to be nurturing and caring and emotional – to carry the burden of other people’s behaviour.

In the context of work, that’s about your “Lean In” school of thought: “just stand up for yourself and make some noise (and hope you aren’t blacklisted as too abrasive)”. In any context, when somebody – especially an older dude – tells terrible, hackneyed sexist jokes about women crying too much or having PMS, the burden isn’t on him to just not tell the joke in the first place. It’s on us to either not get offended too easily or accept his apology and let it go.

Even when, like Maurice Williamson, he has form for telling terrible hackneyed jokes about marginalized groups of people.

Here’s a radical notion: if privileged white dudes want people to stop ~taking offence~ at their pitiful attempts at humour, they could try telling jokes which don’t punch down on women or ethnic minorities or people’s sexual orientation.

Or just accept that you’re not really that funny, chaps.