Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Cool Kids are acting Less Cool

Sam Harris put his foot in his mouth, if you believe all of the #Estrogenvibe outrage that it stirred up. Greta Christina took exceptional offense to it: "Fuck you, you sexist, patronizing asshole.” Ophelia Benson contributes her hearty “No. And fuck you." Heina Dadabhoy also weighed in with a much more light-hearted take that includes sex toys.

I will get lost if I try to analyze all that’s been said in the past few days, but I can draw an analogy.

The Cool Kids Have a Fight

I’m in junior high school. Cool Kid #1 gives a stupid answer to a simple question posed by a member of the Journalism Club. Cool Kid #2 reads about it in the school newspaper and responds with cursing and anger. Cool Kid #3 chimes in with more cursing and anger. Cool Kid #4 responds with humor and sexual innuendo. The school hallways are abuzz. You can’t help but hear about it between classes.

The Cool Kids

Cool Kid #1 tries to clarify his remarks. Cool Kid #3 is having none of it. The Philosophy Club, the Science Club and other Journalism Club members chime in. Jocks, Nerds, other Cool Kids and even Nobodies like me are choosing up sides. The Cool Kids don’t look so cool any more.

What was accomplished?

Cool Kid #1 (Sam Harris, in case there was any doubt) said a Bad Thing that makes him look like he’s sexist. I’ll admit that I found what he said pretty mild - worthy of a stern rebuke, unquestionably, but making a generalization about the willingness of women to engage in his style of discourse is not the worst thing ever said. Greta, Ophelia, Heina (Cool Kids 2 through 4) and others appeared to take what he said to be a blanket denigration of women’s attitudes and/or aptitudes for engaging in critical thought and/or discourse across the board. If this is what he meant, then they are right. And they were right to call him out. And he should have responded, and they should have pressed him on anything that they were unclear and or unhappy about in his response.

What happened was a bit different. Both Greta and Ophelia cursed him. Greta had some good criticisms to offer, but had wrapped it in her “Fuck you...” packaging that made it difficult to get to her core criticism. I had to reread her post 3 times before I was able to pick out 3 or 4 paragraphs that were constructive. They were good paragraphs, but they were lost in the cursing and anger.

I believe that Greta, Ophelia and Heina, to name the involved bloggers that I read occasionally, deal with sexism, oppression and the threat of violence on a frequent, maybe even constant basis. And it’s clear that Ophelia dislikes Harris, even before last week’s episode. They don’t need approval from anyone to express outrage. But what is it that’s being achieved here? Harris gets exposed for expressing a (overt? covert?) sexist dismissal of women. Greta and Ophelia get to expose Harris. Have minds changed? Are results achieved?

If I were Harris, I’d spin on my heels and keep walking. Maybe, in some way, he’ll be more thoughtful with his words and actions. Maybe he’ll tune out his detractors. Who knows? His fans won’t desert him. He may not get new fans from the Greta/Ophelia camp. Is that important to him? I’m sure he’d like whatever increase in readership he can garner, but does that maximize his flourishing?

If I were Greta, I’d probably still be pissed. I don’t know if she was predisposed to dislike Harris, but, so far, this controversy won’t have warmed her up to him. I look forward to hearing her thoughts on Harris’ clarification, but I suspect that the best we can hope for is for her to recap her last few paragraphs of her original response:

... It has nothing to do with estrogen or ladybrains.

So Sam Harris, and anyone else who says this sexist, patronizing bullshit — knock it the hell off.

Heina’s take was actually pretty funny. If you could take the best of what Greta wrote and interleave it with Heina’s post, it would really speak to people like my white, middle-aged, privileged, American, male self.

Two passages posted by non-participants struck me.

Andrew Sullivan made a good point about these types of conflicts in general:

People have to be free to make mistakes, even ones that we find offensive.

...and Dan Finke provided this crystallization of Feminism:

Feminism is not just an emotionalistic kind of moral idealism, it’s a more rational position than its competitors. It’s one that looks at women’s potential and says, “Women actually and demonstrably have more abilities than just those required to be mothers and wives and, therefore, it’s only best for them, and for an overall culture, that women be maximally empowered according to their abilities.” Why shouldn’t people with aptitudes in a range of skills be encouraged to thrive according to all that potential? How does it benefit them not to? How does it benefit society to arbitrarily waste potential because it happens to reside in women, rather than men? There’s nothing rational about that. It’s only logical to say that a being’s good is in maximizing her potential in her abilities. It’s only logical for a society to take a vested interest in empowering its members to perform as many of their abilities as well as they can if they are going to maximally benefit from the abundant resource of human potential within a society. These are rational positions even before looking at the empirical situation.

Then, when looking empirically, it should be obvious that millennia worth of demonstrable subordination of women socially and mentally would have deep cultural impact. It’s obvious that denying a group of people equal access to education and political power and religious power for millennia is going to shape society and its biases in ways that implicitly perpetuate disadvantages to that group of people. All that cultural, linguistic, political, and mental anti-woman structure won’t just vanish into thin air just because we now mouth some new words about equality and change the formal law to be different. Only when there is a root to branch transformation of all our personal and institutional assumptions, habits, practices, etc. could all this social structuring of our reality get out of the way of women’s demonstrable, biological, natural potential.

Until that happens, there shouldn’t be an a priori assumption that men’s disproportionate successes in numerous areas are owed to “natural differences”. Such assumptions are not unvarnished, politically-incorrect truth-telling. They reflect an irrational bias towards the cultural status quo as natural fate. When we know that in principle there’s no reason women cannot be far more equally successful in outcomes than men are, when we see that they’re not coming out as successful our focus should be on how we can proactively change the culture.