I’m fond of starting my posts with a hypothetical scenario for demonstration purposes, so let’s have another one here.
Woman: I am making a complaint about sexism and misogyny in skepticism.
Man: I am making a disproportionate response.
I am noticing more and more often in reading the blogs (and probably in following the videos, although I don’t generally participate in the videosphere but have heard plenty about it) that whenever a woman makes a pretty straightforward point about sexism, there are predictably people–usually men, but not always–who show up to shut her down by flooding her with words. Written words, spoken words, short statements by lots of other people saying the same kind of thing… you’ve seen it. A woman makes a point that is met with a disproportionate response so often that you can almost bank on the inverse relationship between worthiness of the response and its word count. It’s like some sort of Feminist Godwin’s Law without Nazis: The longer the blog comment, the less likely the commenter has anything productive to contribute or is even directly engaging in the point.
Let’s get the exception out of the way so we don’t have to play gotcha in the comments section. Here is an example of a proportionate response:
Woman: I am writing a 1500-word blog post about sexism I have experienced.
Man: I am writing a 1500-word blog post in response to your blog post about sexism you have experienced.
But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about protesting too much, which takes many forms:
Gaslighting is a term that has come into my awareness rather recently, and it refers to a specific attempt at psychological manipulation based on the events in a movie titled Gas Light. It takes lots and lots of effort to make a person doubt their own perceptions, but I’ve seen it plenty of times when a woman describes an experience and receive in response long explanations for how she’s the one with the problem–not the perpetrators of sexism she’s complaining about–or how she’s become so irrational you can’t trust what she says, or how she’s just unable to comprehend the magnitude of what she’s saying, et cetera. Gaslighting requires creating entire frameworks of how to view a situation from scratch (whereas most skeptics would apply Occam’s Razor and go with the idea that the skeptical woman they are talking to is just as capable of being objective as they are), and has to contain recruitment language, too, for the audience watching at home, in order that this gaslighting point of view be understood as the correct one and that the woman’s point of view is unreliable.
If you can make a woman look unreliable, nobody has to act on her wild and unreasonable complaints. Voila! Status quo preserved.
Skeptics ought to know all about the Gish Gallop, but there are always people new to the identity, so here’s a definition from Rational Wiki: “the debating technique of drowning the opponent in such a torrent of half-truths, lies, and straw-man arguments that the opponent cannot possibly answer every falsehood in real time”
Within a Gish Gallop on sexism or misogyny, you’ll find points taken to ridiculous extremes (a la if guys can’t corner women in elevators to ask them for sex the human race will die out), demands that one woman explain something another woman said (perhaps even at a different blog), accusations of various types (logical fallacies being particularly popular), deliberate misunderstandings (such as claiming the original etymological meaning of a word isn’t offensive), outrageous claims (like nobody in skepticism likes you), and general ruckus in lieu of arguments. A Gish Gallop is too convoluted to give a response to, would take too long to give a response to, and yet someone invariably will try—which wastes a lot of women’s time–or else they’ll disdain it–which leaves a wall of text sitting there as if it meant something important.
If you can Gish Gallop successfully, you can show how a woman’s complaints are unsupportable because she can’t even keep up with basic arguments, and you can have the last word.
Someone Is Wrong on the Internet
Beautifully illustrated at xkcd here. A woman has said something a man disagrees with, and it is more important than tending to health itself to make sure she knows she’s wrong and that he wins the point. It’s a full commitment to shutting down an argument that precludes actually reflecting on the points being made for any length of time. It’s a public display of rightness and it devalues the actual conversation in favor of crowing victorious about whatever at the end. It requires exhausting the other person until they go to bed first, thus proving that persistence makes truth or something (and thus cementing this point of view more firmly in your mind).
If you win SIWOTI, it proves that Reason was on your side. Bad arguments wear themselves out; only rationality remains.
Mansplaining–which I covered here, in my Bonus Content–does not always take a lot of words, but it can, particularly when someone steps around the actual problem to expound at length all his thoughts about this, that, and the other thing, throughout history or from his personal point of view, or what women should do different, almost entirely without listening to what the woman has already said. Her input is just a jumping off point, not a point to consider, and once he gets going the essay just starts writing itself. All of which might be perfectly interesting at some other time, but serves as a big dismissal of what anyone has had to say but him.
If you resort to mansplaining, it’s only because man’s perspective is the most important thing to hear and no one was listening properly.
Do not use a hatchet to remove a fly from your friend’s forehead.
Or, to quip again: Do not ride an elephant to catch grasshoppers. Rule of thumb: If you have to scroll through the page to finish reading the your comment, it’s probably too long. You’re probably overwhelming the argument because you think for some reason or another that what you have to say is the most important thing. You probably have, as my mother would put it, an I problem. And women skeptics understand the I problem very well. Whatever observation/argument/recommendation the woman had to make, in an effort to help improve their sense of fully belonging to the skeptical community, has been sacrificed to the I problem, and at some point they are going to disengage.
It is at this point that you can congratulate yourself for shutting down dialogue completely, and for reinforcing the barriers to participating women were trying to erode. And you maybe never intended to do that. So try this next time:
Mind your word count. Think about what point you are contesting before you start to write or record or speak. Address that point. Generally, your response should be no longer than the original comment you are contesting. If you are responding to a blog post in kind, publish your response somewhere else. If you have to scroll through an entire computer screen to read your comment, start over. Better yet, don’t start at all. If all you have to talk about is yourself, stay out of it. If all you have to say to a woman in skepticism is that she’s doing it wrong, or misunderstands what’s happening, turn that around and realize that you have just demonstrated that YOU are doing it wrong and misunderstanding what is happening. If someone throws a TL;DR your way (teal deer! Ha! just stumbled over that phrase today and laughed and laughed), get the hint. If your comment was that long, it wasn’t worth reading. And if you are accused of gaslighting, mansplaining, Gish Galloping, or fighting for no purpose other than to win, your accuser is probably right.
Nothing you have to say is four or six or ten times more important than what a woman has to say about her own experience in skepticism. Nothing. Chances are, what you have to say about a woman’s experience in sexism is not important at all, or helpful, or illuminating, and if you are protesting too much when they speak up you are definitely not listening enough and you are learning nothing. Nothing about yourself, nothing about how women experience your community, nothing about solving the problem of bringing more of them on board. You might even be driving away the ones who have stuck around so far. And however personally fulfilling it might be to see your words alive on screen somewhere, it’s not going to help you meet your goal of growing your community.