Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Walk on Eggshells, Please

Whenever I write about a topic that involves the possibility of sexism -- or even an unambiguous example such as the one I described in a Scientopia post a few weeks ago -- there is almost always at least one comment from a man who is worried about having to "walk on eggshells" all the time to avoid sexist speech or actions, or from someone who wonders whether some women are maybe just a little bit (over)sensitive and therefore too quick to (over)interpret a benign comment as sexist when no offense was intended.

Pretty much any statement can be interpreted in a benign way. Even a seemingly blunt statement like "Women are not as smart as men" could be ironic! Or maybe it is even backed up by data if you define smart in a certain way that can be measured by a certain test on a certain group of people and ignore all other data to the contrary. And then poof! No more sexism. So easy.

I have been thinking about this "walking on eggshells" speech issue lately, and last week I decided to keep my eye out for an example of a statement by someone who apparently did not intend to make a comment that was sexist, homophobic, racist etc., but that nevertheless was (in my opinion). It turned out to be extremely easy. This will not surprise some people.

In a recent post by Scientopian The Meandering Scholar, in an anecdote about evolution, genetics, primate behavior, and the passive-aggressive behavior of men in bars, TMS wrote (on a napkin to be passed to a guy who had been rude about TMS' geeky T-shirt):

..and like your mom they even practice lesbianism

That little phrase took me aback, and I quickly scrolled to the comments and was relieved to find, after a series of "You are so awesome!!!" comments, some criticism of the mom-lesbian quip by ecologist and Zuska, who noted that this statement (and a related one about incest and the rude guy's sister) were inappropriate as insults.

TMS replied "That is neither what I said, what I implied or what I belive" [sic], a statement that seems to involve disputing the specific assertion that he equated incest with lesbianism.

OK, but it is unambiguous that adding the phrase "like your mom" to a statement meant to educate someone about the similarities between humans and primates was gratuitous and a very poor choice of words (even given the context). The phrase "like your mom" was meant to be offensive.

If that is the kind of thing someone is liable to say (or even write on a napkin in a bar), then I have no problem saying: "I think you should walk on eggshells" if that would help you avoid making statements like this.

Is anyone freaking out yet about this extreme opinion of mine? Gosh, I hope not. So let's try to explain it away so that we can all believe that, in fact, the mom-lesbian statement was not offensive to anyone. Perhaps it was even meant as a compliment!

A quick internet search confirms that certain primates, such as the bonobos, are known for their bisexual behavior, particularly the females. Surely this is why TMS made the statement, and perhaps even why he selected the lesbian mom wording instead of saying "and like your dad they even practice homosexuality" or something like that. Therefore, if we wanted to, we could assume that TMS was making a fact-based, educational statement rather than trying for the extra rhetorical punch of mentioning lesbian mom instead of gay dad.

And in fact that may well be the case, and this is another reason why this is such a great example. The statement was made to offend a guy in a bar (and his mom), not a general group of people. And yet.. it managed to do both.

So who cares if a bunch of guys scribble immature notes to each other in a bar? This is trivial. And that's exactly why I picked it as an example to discuss the question: Should people censor their informal speech to the extent of avoiding phrases like this one if at all possible? And my answer is: yes, please do.


Anonymous said...

Firstly, TMS anecdote: Blatant homophobic-offensive, and I can't see how he could possibly even try to argue otherwise.

But that anecdote comes as a bit of a non sequitor, relative to the previous 'eggshells' discussion that you preface it with, where the point put forward was: that a man might well be apprehensive about saying or doing anything about gender issues, and consequently discouraged from even trying to be helpful, in case he screws it up or gets it wrong (because, you know, maybe working against the ingrained culture of sexism doesn't come naturally to him), and gets the 'backlash' in return.

It's not actually an unreasonable concern, when you consider for example the flak that Drugmonkey, who has really been a positive voice regarding the plight of women and other minorities in academia, got last year for not doing ENOUGH. Hell, look at the sentiment on iblamethepatriachy (paraphrased): "the last thing we want to hear is men telling us they agree with us". It is true that that is a fairly extremely positioned blog, but I do think that similar sentiment comes through in (less radical) feminist discussion in the academic blogosphere also.

What amazes me about this is attitudes like one expressed in response to the eggshell comment: "Maybe, but that’s the burden of being privileged."

No, it's really not. The 'burden' of being privileged is that we men/caucasians/whatever really don't have to give a fuck if we don't want to, because the consequences for us for our inaction are basically negligible. We're in the rather comfortable position of not even having to think about it all if we choose not to, modulo only our own consciences. That's another one of the little perks of privilege.

If you want men to be your allies, you might want to consider easing up on the aversive stimuli. In an ideal world, a man would just take his dressing down and do a better job of being helpful in the future, but in the world we live in, you'd be well advised to consider the factors that encourage or discourage him from being an active ally. Because on one side there may not be a whole lot more than 'doing the right thing', and it doesn't take much unnecessary extra added on the other side before the balance starts to become precarious.

Anonymous said...

Now I have to resist the temptation to print 100 copies of this post and hang them on the walls of my department, one every 10 feet or so at eye level.

Meadow said...

I think the perfect criticism for a sexist male is to attack his mother/wife. Mom and wifey are tolerating that sexist attitude.

Although that particular comment on lesbians didn't make sense to me and isn't one I would make. I would say "his mom/wife is a dumb ass" or "he has only one branch in his family tree"

FSP and I differ on this even though we are both staunchly feminist and I agree with every example FSP of chauvinism provides and have loads of my own.

The difference probably has to do with cultural up bringing. Female power means removing them from the equation and focusing on the woman. It is a matriarchal view of society I suppose. For example, just the other day I was reading what seemed like a nice blog until I happened to notice in the side bar something about "we should be the dependent things we were meant to be and rely on our men" Gah! Pity the woman who has to work with that lady's husband.

Sexist behavior from men stems from the sexist behavior of the women in their lives. So insulting them is fair game.

Allison said...

i'm a woman and a scientist. i think you need to chill out. life is way more pleasant when these things don't bother you. and i don't mean ignore them--that will only allow your anger to build. instead, just realize that they don't matter. if someone intends to insult, that's fine; they're mean. if they don't mean to insult, that's fine, too; they just chose a weird way to express themselves. let it roll. i think you'll find it's a way more happy way to be.

Andrea said...

Personally, it is the unintended offenses that concern me. If someone is intending to slight a group of people, there is probably very little I can do to change them in that moment. Pointing out that "Hey that's sexist" is likely to be responded to with "I know, that's why I said it" so I have never understood the people who say, "I/they didn't mean it that way, why are you so concerned?" The fact that you didn't mean it that way is the problem I am trying to correct (and the same is true for my own speech. I want to know if I am unintentionally offending someone because I have not thought or was not aware of a subtext to a remark I was making)

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I must be slow today. Can someone explain to me why "..and like your mom they even practice lesbianism" is supposed to be an insult. I know several lesbian mothers and their kids---and I can't think how comparing someone to any of them could be anything but a compliment, as they are all nice people that I'm glad to know.

BrooksPhD said...

All true and very regrettable. Certainly food for thought about communications skills, lack there of and a need for thinking about what my words mean, in public and in private, before I put finger to keyboard.

I have sent emails to some offended parties, and left a note on the blog. Not my finest hour - If one of my correspondents is OK with it I'll reproduce the text of my email on the blog (and here if you want to cross post).

LizardBreath said...

Or, you know, don't restrain yourself if restraint is going to cramp your style unbearably, but reconcile yourself to the fact that people are going to evaluate the comments you make as kinda sexist. It's up to the speaker.

former postdoc said...

it's hard to adapt to "being in a PG13 community" or rather not offend people.... then again, work is not "your friends" (who may or may not know you better and therefore you don't have to walk on egg shells). Public is not "your friends.

I think I understand why he cohse that insult - b/c it would hurt the man. Although, I didn't find it especially good... then again, my type of insults are usually too convuluted to be openly rude since I try and avoid fights.

As for the rest of what you are saying; I completely agree!

Anonymous said...

your mom didn't think I should censor my speech LAST NIGHT!

I struggle with this question. And also with using the word "gay" ironically with (gay and straight) friends who use it the same way.

I have one friend in particular who does say some really sexist things (in jest), but he honestly is a good guy. But what if some asshole overheard didn't know what he meant, and started using similar "jokes"?

I think if everyone knows everyone is on the same page, things like your mom jokes are OK. But in mixed company (public), we should definitely censor ourselves a bit - why offend the whole world?

Anonymous said...

Bravo!! Well said!

Anonymous said...

If only women would be nicer and let men say whatever they want, sexism would go away because everyone would just chill out about discrimination and all that.

Arlenna said...

The 'burden' of being privileged is that we men/caucasians/whatever really don't have to give a fuck if we don't want to, because the consequences for us for our inaction are basically negligible.

Ummmm... dude, the whole point here? What I quoted above is not a BURDEN at all. It IS the privilege. A burden is something uncomfortable you have to deal with. The burden of being privileged means sometimes you'll have to feel uncomfortable if people don't pat you on the back for saying you understand.

Arlenna said...

I have one friend in particular who does say some really sexist things (in jest), but he honestly is a good guy. But what if some asshole overheard didn't know what he meant, and started using similar "jokes"?

The problem is not so much that someone else might wield his witty weapons for their own nefarious purposes, but rather that anyone who doesn't get a twinge of shittiness from saying things like that, no matter the context or environment, fundamentally DOESN'T. GET. IT. and hasn't matured themselves into the "good guy" that you think of him as.

Anonymous said...

Walk on eggshells? How about think about what you are saying?

The problem is this attitude some have of "I don't want to examine my actions because surely I am right and everyone else is wrong"

Saying something others find offensive is not the worst thing in the world. Not that I am encouraging it, but it gives you an opportunity to think about how what you say is interpreted by other people. Particularly people who may have a different perspective than you. If after actual reflection (and not just knee-jerk denial) you conclude that what you said wasn't that bad, then fine. People can disagree about these things. If what you said maybe was offensive, apologize if needed, then think about why if may have been offensive and try to minimize such things in the future. It's not that hard.

It just bothers me when people think they are immune to saying offensive things because they are a "nice person". I know plenty of nice people who have said offensive things (including myself).

(That wasn't at anyone in particular, just a generalized rant)

KBHC said...

Thanks for writing this, FSP. I can't help but see some correlations with this conversation and the one that has erupted (positively, happily) after Science Online 2011 that you can find here: (It's a link round-up of a number of posts that have been written in just the last few days on sexism in the science blogosphere.)

Some great points have already been made in the comment thread. The only thing I want to add is that I don't think we should underestimate how damaging overhearing sexist comments can be. They contribute to a world where women feel THEY are walking on eggshells all the time: dress pretty but not too pretty, be confident but not bitchy, etc. When I overhear sexist remarks I feel sick, and I imagine I'm not the only one.

So it's damaging in the moment, but it's damaging beyond the sphere of people upon whom you're inflicting your remarks.

Anonymous said...

Ironically, some of the most sexist statements/attitudes we (my wife and I) have encountered personally has come from women. Two instances come to mind. First, my wife was admonished in public by an older woman for "letting me" feed our infant son at a party, insinuating that it was her job. Needless to say it left her seething. Second, I have received back-handed complements from the teachers at our son's daycare for taking care of our son when my wife is away for a few days on business; the insinuation is that the default is incompetence and said son seems to be doing rather well with me. I was mildly annoyed.

The point is that it will take a generation to get rid of sexism - provided we make sure that the kids now are not brainwashed into believing stereotypes.

a. b. said...

First off, anonymous people, when you post as 'anonymous' my first reaction is to assume you're a troll, especially in discussions such as this.

Style is cramped because the world's style is people saying whatever they want about women and that's ok, because that's the style. Well, the style is changing, and those people aren't being funny or cute, they're saying dumbass shit.

So, it's not walking on eggshells-- it's being decent and not using someone's gender/sexuality as an insult. Too bad if that's ingrained in our culture. So I have to stop making "your mom" jokes? I don't think my life is ruined.

FSP-- rock on, lady. Throw down those eggshells like a gauntlet.

Ms.PhD said...

Hmm. I had trouble following this post, maybe because I haven't read the TMS reference you cited. I agree with the first anon who said this is not a good example of "walking on eggshells". The rest seemed like disorganized ranting. Not your best.

Having said that, I think these kinds of jokes are rooted in the history of comedy. Comedy is traditionally male-dominated and extremely sexist: "your mama" jokes are still considered a classic form. Homophobia is still common and offensive, but I don't think we should mix it up with the kind of sexism that ALL women, regardless of sexual orientation, deal with daily in this country - especially in scientific careers.

My advice: revise and resubmit. I think the original hypothesis re: walking on eggshells is worthy of further investigation.

Alex said...

What Ms PhD. Walking on eggshells around important topics is different from refraining from simple insults. It is of course possible for even a well-meaning person to insult people unintentionally during a dialogue on an important topic, and I'm not saying that good intentions should be a free pass there. However, that is still different from the person who is just pissed and says something offensive with intent to offend.

spfspart said...

Thank you. I was having a hard time putting my finger on what was wrong with that post, but you nailed it.

As a woman who someday dreams of being a professor, you've been a bit of an inspiration to me; and, I'm getting a much better idea of at least a little of what I'll be up against, should I ever actually manage to land a job in academia.

Anonymous said...

Try clicking on the link, YFS. I found the post to be quite clear.

K said...

I don't get it. And here I thought I was pretty (over)sensitive to these kind of things.

akajb said...

So far, in grad school, I have come across a few instances that left me seething.

1) I was chatting with fellow (male) grad student at the time (we started the same year) and was asked what I was there and shouldn't I be looking for a husband? I wasn't very friendly to him after this...

2) Recently, on a trip to a conference, I was one for about 10 from my department (and only female). People were constantly making sure "I was okay" and "can I carry that" etc. I'm probably in better shape then every single one of them. It drove me nuts. I'd much rather be treated as "one of the guys." (I'm in CS - very very male dominated).

I've also been in the situation where I was at a friends place for a party, and happened to be in the kitchen with the two other females present. One guy was like, "oh, I have the best joke but I shouldn't say it." So, of course, everyone convinced him to say it and it was along the lines of "the woman are in the kitchen like they're suppose to be." In this case, this is more annoying in that he could've saved himself from looking like a sexist pig by just not mentioning what came to mind.

I actually find some of the more offensive (but not blatant) issues are things like the fact I can't have a private conversation with my supervisor since I'm female and he's male, it's an unwritten rule (or maybe it's written, who knows) that door must always be open. This means that others can (and have) listened in. Not a great way to feel confident and like you can discuss anything.

I wish guys (and girls) didn't have to walk on eggshells. But, considering how many people can't seem to sensor themselves and do a reality check of their environment, I think some people really need to.

(Sorry this seems to ramble...)

Anonymous said...

"like the fact I can't have a private conversation with my supervisor since I'm female and he's male, it's an unwritten rule (or maybe it's written, who knows) that door must always be open."

You need to insist that if your boss isn't going to close the door, he 1) leave it open with everyone so it's equal or 2) he takes you to get coffee for your meetings so you can have some privacy from your labmates.

Liz said...

I think akajb's 2nd anecdote is a much better example of "walking on eggshells" than the lesbian mother quote. A man who is trying to be polite and curtious asks a woman if she needs help carrying her bag and the woman feels offended because she is not being treated as an equal. I find that disheartening and it does make it challenging to know how to be a decent man, I would think.

Anonymous said...

Some of you are focusing too much on the "eggshells" thing. The main point is that there are things people say in passing and the question is: should they self-censor to the extent of not saying even these stupid things, even in a bar as part of an over-the-top uber-guy smackdown in a bar? And the answer is yes, they should. That is the point.

Grumpy Lurker said...

Since we are talking about walking on eggshells, I can't help but share a related example. My son, who was ~9 at a time, was hit by a kid in the playground, and, annoyed, yelled "What the hell?!" A teacher standing close by heard him and sent him straight to the principal's because he had cursed (i.e. used the word "hell"). My family is not religious by any stretch of imagination and this was the first time I had heard that "hell" is a curse word -- I still don't consider it to be and I thought my son was unduly disciplined. But, apparently there are a lot of religious people here and they get offended by the use of the word. So should my son be instructed to think of "hell" as a swear word, same as "shit" or "ass", because certain other people are sensitive to it, even though it goes against all that we believe? In this case, I am still peeved that my kid got a disciplinary action for violating the sensibility of a group of people to whom I don't belong, whereby the enforcement of the disciplinary action also clearly indicated that the sensibilities of religious people are more important than my right to teach my child about appropriate language. So in this case, walking on eggshells versus freedom of speech?

Bagelsan said...

In this case, I am still peeved that my kid got a disciplinary action for violating the sensibility of a group of people to whom I don't belong, whereby the enforcement of the disciplinary action also clearly indicated that the sensibilities of religious people are more important than my right to teach my child about appropriate language.

Much sympathy to your kid... but I think it is important that we distinguish between instances of "offending sensibilities" and actually harming people (I think the example you gave is the former, but FSP's posts generally deal with the latter.) By yelling "what the hell?" your son didn't damage the employment prospects of the kids around him, or deny them medical care, or keep them out of politics like sexist speech can do (and does.)

If he yelled "you're a bitch!" or some racial slur, etc. at another kid, would that cross the line for you? It would for me, because that's targeting some person or group for actual damage -- you aren't just offending their sensibilities but actually attacking them.

A kid yelling curses somewhat-unwisely in your general vicinity is very different than having someone yell at or about you. Having to watch one's language in the first case is like walking on eggshells; in the latter case, it's more like chucking eggs at someone and then whining about all the shell fragments now surrounding you. The sexist asses complaining about all the "eggshells" they have to walk on conveniently leave out the fact that they're stepping on these eggshells because they are trying to egg someone.

akajb said...

@Liz - I will say that I didn't show or tell them I was offended. In fact, I haven't thought about it since.

But, what bugged me in the situation, was the fact that they were treating me different because of my gender. Like all of a sudden since we were no longer on campus, I was fragile. I just insisted that I was fine and carried on.

This was extra odd, because I'd gone to a conference with a few of them a couple of months earlier and I had to pretty much be the one who said "Okay, now let's do x, and we need to find a taxi for y" and pretty much run the show since they were all (unfortunately) either unwilling or incompetent (I lean towards the later, but hope it was the former).

Male Humanist said...

I agree completely with Ms. PhD. The joke was obviously homophobic, but not sexist. Are you thinking that it would have been okay if it had been an "and like your dad..." insult instead of "and like your mom..."? Or is homophobia intrinsically sexist?

Like Ms. PhD., I think the general issue is really important and badly underestimated by men (esp. in academia), but this is not a good example.

Anonymous said...

The post never said the phrase was sexist, just offensive. Are you guys getting hung up on that?

Male Humanist said...

Anon 12:58, the posting *appears* to be about "walking on eggshells", which *appears* to mean taking extreme, burdensome care to avoid *sexist* speech or actions. My point is only that the example isn't a good illustration of a sexist comment. (I also wonder what you make of what FSP says is "the extra rhetorical punch of mentioning lesbian mom instead of gay dad." That doesn't suggest that the remark was sexist?)

If the idea is only that the remark was offensive, and not that it was sexist, then I'm not "hung up" at all. Of course it was offensive. As FSP notes, it was intended to be offensive.

Anonymous said...

Does it have to be classified into a neat category? It was offensive; homophobic if intended as an insult, possibly sexist if 'mom' was picked for a particular reason. It doesn't matter. The example was chosen for being minor and offensive. You can like or dislike the example of course, but I don't get it why some commenters are so emphatic about expressing their opinion, as if that's that (except that's how some people are in the blogosphere and maybe IRL?): "I don't agree so FSP should rewrite the post". How is that not obnoxious?

Anonymous said...

Oh, who said FSP had to rewrite the post? I must have missed that comment.

Minos said...

I find that this video:

is one of the wisest things on these here internets for thinking about how to respond to a racist/sexist/homophobic piece of idiocy.

Alice said...

I am so shocked and saddened to read people think FSP to be too sensitive. I know we live on the same planet! Perhaps if you don't drink the kool-aid life is too hard for some people?

I thought the your mama joke was clearly and plainly offensive - no ambiguity. I mean it's a your mama joke that's how they work!

And regartdless, the post was not that brilliant... Then again I'm not in those cliques so I did not think so anyway.

Go on FSP, you are my rock of sanity in this strange, denialville everyone else seems to be living in...

Alice said...

Oh and I never perceived FSP to be unhappy. Just because some deal better by ignoring things and claiming they don't matter (and they do, drops add up, feathers get heavy) doesn't mean FSP's not happy! Some of us prefer to be aware and speak up. And I for one am glad FSP speaks for those who may not be able to.

A happy feminist professor

Anonymous said...

For instance, women are perceived as sluts if they sexually harass or rape men and deserve harsher treatment because it's not appropriate for women to be sexually aggressive and that it emasculates men.

And also, according to KBHC, women can't be attractive to others. They must be attractive to one man only. Women must be less assertive, less intelligent, less confident, less sociable, and less outgoing. Another anonymous poster said that women should be silent because men feel better that way and they like that.