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.
7 years ago