So it’s an old conversation by now.
Question: Why aren’t more women actively involved in the skeptical community?
Answer: Because of this and this, which is sexist.
Exclamation: How dare you call me sexist! I’ve never done that! You are too rude to listen to.
Whereupon much time is wasted by people (usually men) taking offense at outrageous insult, demanding apologies from women, and generally having to be mollycoddled back into civility so that the conversation about why the aforementioned behaviors are keeping women out of sexism, until somebody (usually a man) hears about another behavior that discourages women from active participation and the histrionics start all over again. It is apparently impossible for some people to hear general advice given to a group without explicit, upfront statements that reassure them that of course they’ve personally done nothing wrong and it only refers to other people in very specific ways. To have their points of view and their thoughts considered, women are asked to walk on eggshells around the feelings of men who–by their own admission–are not the people who the remarks are about.
It’s a very mysterious phenomenon. Somehow it is possible for the exact rhetorical device to be employed in other contexts without individuals taking offense at having to hear it. For example, the following statements have been uttered in the skeptical community without anyone not intended to receive the advice taking offense:
- Don’t drink and drive.
- Don’t use hand sanitizer.
- Don’t buy kittens from pet stores.
- Don’t get an adjustable rate mortgage.
- Don’t make claims without citing your sources.
You know what doesn’t happen when someone who works in finance tells people to not get adjustable rate mortgages? People with fixed rate mortgages don’t take it personally. Why not? Because it isn’t about them. They understand that the advice is for other people who have performed that behavior, and they move on. They don’t react with shock that anyone would offer the advice to not get adjustable rate mortgages without first excusing all the people who have gotten fixed rate mortgages or no mortgage at all and then complimenting those fixed rate/no mortgage people for being so wise and rational. They don’t claim to be sorely offended by being lumped in a group by the finance person with all those people who got adjustable rate mortgages. They don’t demand apologies from the super-rude financier before listening to the arguments about why adjustable rate mortgages are undesirable. They don’t suggest that if the financier wants to be taken seriously he or she better be much more polite to all those people the financier wasn’t talking to.
The financier wasn’t talking to people with fixed rate mortgages. People who get fixed rate mortgages don’t have to change their behavior. Nobody assumes that the financier was talking to people who get fixed rate mortgages when the financier said to not get adjustable rate mortgages. Of course not! Because it isn’t about them, and because the usage of the phrase “people, don’t do that” is never assumed to be directed at anyone who isn’t doing that, with one exception: women telling men to change their behavior.
Women who want to suggest that men change behavior are not allowed to use the same rhetorical device that anyone else telling any other group to change any behavior is allowed to use. For some reason, even men who don’t engage in sexist behaviors take offense at a woman telling other men who do engage in sexist behaviors to not engage in those behaviors. This is very strange, and makes no sense, unless at least one of the following conditions is true:
- Those men think every woman is talking to them all the time.
- Those men are offended when women tell any man to change his behavior.
- Those men don’t want to admit to behaviors women say are sexist.
- Those men want the option of engaging in sexist behaviors in the future.
It’s the only explanation. Otherwise, why would men who do not engage in sexist behaviors be personally offended and demand apologies from women who were given advice to other people? If one of the four items on the list didn’t apply to a particular man, he should not take it personally… unless one of the four items applies to him. In which case he should stop complaining that the woman is unfairly lumping him with other men, unless he thinks the allegiance of men against women is more important than women speaking up about what they want before they join your group.
If someone is critiquing behavior you don’t engage in, don’t make it your problem. If you want to be distanced from the group described as engaging the behavior, don’t claim offense when that group is criticized. If someone fails to exclude you explicitly and with reverence before offering generic advice about male behaviors that you don’t do, treat it as if you were hearing advice about mortgages you don’t have. Don’t take personally what applies to other people just because a woman is bringing up behaviors men do.
If you are so outraged that a woman is critiquing some other guy’s behavior, you have probably already identified with the other guy; she doesn’t have to do the work of lumping you together because you’ve already done it for her. If you are taking criticisms about sexism personally, there might be a reason for it (see the numbered list above). If you know for certain you do not engage in the sexist behaviors a woman has identified, ignore her. Don’t argue just to argue. It doesn’t solve any problems, and it makes those problems last longer. She isn’t talking to you. Don’t make it about you when it’s not, unless it is. And if it is, listen. And don’t demand special treatment from women giving advice about avoiding sexism if you wouldn’t demand it from mortgage advisors about mortgages, or animal advocates about adopting animals, or public service announcements about driving drunk, or doctors about antibiotic resistant bacteria, or skeptics demanding that you have good sources to support your claims.