Faithlessness, Skepticism

“What About Teh Menz?” asked Socrates

In this lengthy post, I want to defend myself against the charge that in referring to men’s problems during a conversation about women’s problems I am diminishing the importance of the woman’s problem or that I therefore think men’s problems are more important. The attitude I am opposing is neatly summed up in this cartoon:

“Somewhere out there is a conversation that isn’t about dude problems, yet”

In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates questions people in such a way that they end up providing the very answers that refute their opinions. At every stage of these exchanges, Socrates could be shown to be wrong if any of the answers to his questions did not go his way. The conversations went something like this:

Person: I think Z is true
Socrates: But do you agree that X is true?
Person: Yes
Socrates: If X is true then you would agree that Y is therefore True?
Person: Yes
Socrates: If Y is true then how can Z be true?
Person: Ah yes

Socrates would get people to change their minds of their own accord, rather than just asserting that he was right and that anyone that disagreed was stupid or evil. Socrates doesn’t seem to have been interested in being right as a way of showing his superiority. He wanted people to think things through so that together they could approach a better, more complete understanding of reality. By using questions to do this, Socrates gave the other person numerous opportunities to show that his assumptions were wrong.

Here’s part of his exchange with Polus, from Gorgias

Polus: You’re a hard man to get the better of, Socrates, but even a child could prove that you are mistaken here.
Socrates: Then I shall be very grateful to the child, and equally so to you, if you will show me my mistake and cure me of my silliness. Don’t be backward in doing a kindness to a friend. Prove me wrong.

His technique is almost passive and completely enriched with sincere humility at every stage.

Over the years, I have had a lot of conversations and arguments about sexism, feminism and gender. Many of these conversations have resulted in me realising I had been seriously mistaken in my views, especially about gender and transgender issues (my opinions on transgender stuff had been well meaning but simplistic and frankly stupid). I sincerely love it when I am forced to change my mind on a subject as I feel that my understanding of the world is improved each time it happens. However, the vast majority of my conversations on these subjects end when the arguments become intractable or where one or other of us storms off in a huff.

I Despise Sexism

I usually enter these conversations from the position of an equality fundamentalist; I believe strongly that men and women have equal potential in everything, apart from the obvious physical restrictions. I am animated and enthusiastic in my opposition to sexism and I always try to tackle it wherever I encounter it. I feel that we live in a culture that is addicted to emphasising the differences between men and women. We allow crude generalisations about the the genders to dominate our perception.

(To be clear, when I refer to men and women, that includes trans men and women too)

Although much of my opposition to sexism manifests itself as arguments against the anti-woman type of sexism, I have been surprised at how many arguments I have ended up having in order to oppose anti-men sexism too. My own hypothesis is that anti-woman and anti-man sexism are not separate phenomena. I think that treating them as separate problems is to miss a deeper cause of the sexist behaviour. My view is that sexism of all types emerges from an underlying ignorance and lack of empathy in people and can happen for many reasons.

So, those are my views on sexism. I wanted to make that all clear before getting on to the next bit.

Using the Right Tools to Combat Sexism

As well as understanding the causes of sexist behaviour, I think it is equally important to be accurate about what constitutes an act of sexism in every case. This is for the simple reason that sexism is already important enough and common enough for its existence to be beyond doubt. I think there are enough instances of sexism to fully occupy our finite resources of time and energy in combating it. When we identify a sexist incident, we engage our finely-tuned, intellectual, anti-sexism machinery against it – it is certainly the best machinery for that job. When we see an incident of racism, we engage our anti-racism machinery to combat that; for it is the best tool we have for doing so. We would not deploy our anti-racism machinery to combat an incident of sexism because there are better tools available to do the job i.e. our anti-sexism machinery.

If a man drunkenly punches a man down the pub and then comes home and drunkenly punches his wife and then his son, we would not identify this as an incident of sexism. We would deploy our anti-alcohol abuse machinery to most effectively combat the man’s problem. If we deployed our anti-sexism machinery to deal with it, we would clearly be missing the underlying problem which had led to his assault of his wife, son and bloke down the pub.

(This could be said for problems that are attributed to patriarchy too.We still need to be certain that patriarchy was the cause of the incident before we use our anti-patriarchy tools to fight it. If it was patriarchy, then lets get after it. If it was not patriarchy, the sooner we determine that the sooner we can get after the real cause.)

Misidentifying an incident as one of sexism when it is not and deploying our finite anti-sexism resources to combat it, results in two things:

Firstly, instances of actual sexism are not being combated while our machinery is dealing with the non-sexism problem. Real fires rage on while fire engines are called to faulty fire alarms and cats up trees.

Secondly, when it emerges that the incident was not caused by sexism, anti-sexist people will be less inclined to divert their resources to tackling future incidents reported by the same source in case it turns out that those too are false alarms. The existence of misidentified sexism and patriarchy dilutes the potency of our response to actual sexism and patriarchy.

Both of these reasons are why I think it is very important that sexism is correctly identified. And I will repeat; I am very strongly opposed to sexism. It just takes more than an assertion to convince me that something is true.

Wasting Happiness Because of False Perceptions

A further reason for sexism to be correctly identified is this: If the perception of a threat is greater than the actual extent of that threat, lives are affected by a misplaced sense of fear. I want us to wring as much happiness out of this world as we possibly can, but if the perception of a danger is greater than its actual extent, we are wasting valuable peace of mind, causing fear that otherwise would not exist. Of course, we must not deny the existence of such problems and we must not underestimate their effect either. Whichever way you get it wrong, there are consequences, so let’s strive for accuracy.

The general perception of the extent of sexism in our society is spread culturally, through what we hear and what we read. We are all too aware that when the fear of a problem outgrows the problem itself, people make mistakes and those mistakes spread culturally – particularly if the stakes are high.

Take the MMR vaccine controversy as an example. At the time, we heard that there was something seriously wrong with the jab; that there was a real threat to the health of our children if they were vaccinated. The perception of this threat was of course far, far greater than the reality of it but real lives were affected by the decisions people made while under its influence. Not only was our protection against preventable diseases diminished but people lost their trust in their doctors and in conventional, mainstream medicine. Many people still live in the belief that they were lied to or that there is a conspiracy or cover up over the whole affair. Their children are still in danger because of this perception error.

Such real life effects of wrongly perceived problems are commonplace. We know that humans are prone to such errors of judgement and that these errors materially diminish our total happiness.

The same goes for social issues too. Take the common perception that immigration to the UK is a burden on the economy when in fact it provides a nett contribution to it. This perception has real-life effects on politics, culture and on the lives of individuals. The perception is accepted as fact. Decisions are made as if the perception were correct. The battle is lost. No social issue is immune to the overstatement of a problem and its subsequent cost in terms of happiness. That includes the perception of the extent of sexism or misogyny.

My fear is that when the perception of a problem such as anti-woman sexism is greater than the problem itself, this perception will be accepted as fact. Lives will be lived as if it were fact and this will influence the culture, seeping into the minds of more and more people until the perception replaces the reality and becomes a greater problem in itself. The problem grows to fill the intellectual space cleared as the perception inflates into our culture.

Why Do I Challenge Assumptions of Sexism/Patriarchy?

I have seen many, many cases where the motivation for someone’s awful behaviour towards a woman was wrongly attributed to sexism. Sometimes these instances are clear and sometimes they are not. When one has doubts that a problem was caused by sexism, I think it is our responsibility to raise our concern. If we remain silent, despite suspecting sexism was not the cause, then we allow the perception of sexism to grow to be a little bit larger than sexism itself. Our fear of sexism is then based on that perception rather than on the reality. Some peace of mind is wasted. Note that raising a doubt about an assumed sexist motive does not mean one is denying the existence of sexism.

As someone who cares deeply about the issue of sexism, and who makes a real effort to tackle it wherever I see it, I find it very upsetting when I am told that my contribution is not welcome to the conversation because I am a man, or because I am privileged. I am saddened when people whose side I am on dismiss me because they think that in asking a question about how this incident would be perceived if it happened to a man, that I am diverting attention from their important issue, or even trying to diminish the importance of the incident. I am not casting doubt on the importance of the victims experience, I just want to be certain that we are not attributing sexism where there was no sexism; that we are not diluting our efforts to combat sexism by tilting at misogynist windmills.

If it turns out that the victims experience was not due to sexism but to a lack of empathy, it is still an important issue but we will tackle it with our lack-of-empathy fighting equipment, which is the best thing for the job. This will make it more likely that the issue will be addressed efficiently and less likely that the perception of sexism will be falsely inflated.

I ask the question because I want an answer and whatever the answer is will determine either my next question or my conclusion. When I substitute a man for a woman in a theoretical case of sexism, I do so because I want to see if it would still be called sexism if a man were the victim, and if not why not. Surely these answers are worth obtaining?

All this is not to even mention my dismay when intelligent people say:

“Boo hoo what about teh menz! I really feel sorry for the poor, oppressed men!”
-actual quote

Why should one’s gender determine whether you are shown compassion or not? Such responses are why I feel that “Humanist” is a better description of my views than “Feminist”.

I am saddened that women face sexism. I am also saddened that many women see the problem as being bigger than it is; that they would even interpret my behaviour as anti-woman, when it is not. I am allowed to defend myself against this assumption but I fear in doing so I will be labelled as sexist, ignorant, privileged and maybe even misogynist.

I hope I have shown why I think it is important for us to accurately identify the causes of problems and not just to settle for the first plausible theory that enters our heads. We are all subject to the effects of confirmation bias. We are all prone to believe plausible theories that support our existing views more readily than those that do not.

Comparing Apples and Oranges or Comparing Fruit?

When it comes to comparing the experiences of humans so that we can more deeply analyse them, we don’t have many options. If something happens to a man we can compare it to a situation that affected another man, or we can compare it to a situation that affected a woman if it is relevant. There aren’t any other options because the experiences of other species are not usually comparable. People don’t often complain when examples of incidents affecting someone of the same gender are used as a comparison, like this.

Typical conversation:

Person 1: My boss treats me like a slave. I think it is  because I am a woman.

Person 2: I know another woman at your company who is treated like a slave by him too

Person 1: See, sexism is very common.

You don’t see this:

Person 1: My boss treats me like a slave. I think it is  because I am a woman.

Person 2: I know another woman at your company who is treated like a slave by him too

Person 1: I thought we were talking about my problem, not hers!

But you do see this:

Person 1: My boss treats me like a slave. I think it is  because I am a woman.

Person 2: I know a man at your company who is treated like a slave by him too

Person 1: Boohoohoo what about teh menz?

I wonder what I can do to avoid this response. My own belief in absolute equality does not seem to be enough. Declaring explicitly that I am pro-equality is not enough. When I do my little bit to help the pro-equality people by trying to see if there are any flaws in our assumptions, I am dismissed as someone who thinks men’s problems are more important and should be discussed instead of women’s problems. So the only ways I can show that I am on the pro-equality side are to either declare that I agree with them or to say nothing at all.

You can imagine how frustrating and demoralising it can be when people whose side you are on see you as an opponent. Why don’t these people want me to be their ally? I think we’d be a better anti-sexism team if we got together.

Back Off, Man. I’m an Engineer.

Part of my job as a civil engineer is to identify problems accurately so that the right solution can be implemented. This is a ruthless process but it is one that brings us closest to the best solution as quickly as possible. I can’t afford to just accept another engineer’s interpretation of a problem if I have doubts – it is my responsibility to challenge their interpretation so that we can quickly determine where the truth lies. Sometimes it turns out they were right, sometimes it turns out that I was right. Either way, our knowledge of the problem is sharpened and our proposed solution will be all the more robust.

If a building is being flooded, seemingly by a nearby river, it is important that we check this assumption before implementing a solution. If we accept the assumption that the flooding is caused by the river but don’t check to see if the building’s drains are blocked, we risk implementing the wrong solution. We could end up widening the river to stop it ever overflowing, but if the drains remain blocked the building will just flood next time it rains.

We have to ask the question; are we sure the water is coming from the river or is something else happening? Whatever the answer is the important thing is that we explore the possibilities.

I find the the simplest way to establish if something was motivated by sexism or patriarchy is to ask “would this have been judged to be sexism if it was directed against the other gender?”. I don’t mind what the answer is, I just want us all to end up being less wrong about stuff.

The point of this little blog post is not to claim that I am always right or that my questions will always show my opponents to be wrong. I want to defend myself against the accusation that in introducing man problems to the conversation I am belittling the experience of victims. I want to help the victims too and the only way I know I can help is in asking these irritating questions. We ask such questions all the time, in our arguments against religion, against quack medical claims and even in civil engineering. My reasons for asking these questions in those fields are entirely honourable. Please don’t assume that when I ask them in relation to sexism and feminism that my reasons are dishonourable.

5 Comments

  1. January 28, 2013    

    I enjoyed that piece very much, Simon.

    Amidst all of hysteria, one very basic thing seems to have been forgotten: feminism is the quest for women to pull alongside men in terms of gender equality. I, for one, think that is how it should be.

    But there are differences between schools of feminist thought. What’s acceptable to one is misogynistic sell-out to another. And people are people, having different views on what they want from life, what is acceptable and what isn’t, being inconsistent with their reasoning. Differences will occur and how they are handled can make a major difference.

    I shudder when I hear accusations of misogyny made against men because they have dare raised a male issue. And they are real: what can I do if I was to split with my partner, she moved overseas and took the children with her? Why do so many middle aged men from disadvantaged backgrounds end up taking their own lives? And so on…

    I can imagine, with poetic licence, one of the usual online suspects saying ‘Huh, like dude, that’s so like sad about your kids moving overseas and your brother killing himself, huh, but, like that’s just personal issues we all, like, have. Check yo privilege and look at the rape culture, like dude, I live in. Misogynist.’ But if they were your kids? Your brother?

    These are not problems to be brushed under the carpet. But seeking to have them resolved, because they are of particular self-interest, does not make one a misogynist, a woman hater, an enforcer of rape culture or whatever the current buzz term is. We are all part of different interest groups based around gender, race, class, mobility, political outlook, employment status, postcode, access to transport and services etc.

    I know women who count themselves as radical feminist-atheists-skeptics yet remain largely unheard of because they don’t need to rave and shout wildly, flapping their arms around as they head bang the keyboard. They don’t immediately dismiss men’s issues as being irrelevant. They recognise the different interests different people have. They work quietly and with next to no publicity at a grass roots level. They are the individuals who deserve to succeed; the more good work they do, the more other women are coming on board with them. And, importantly, they are not alienating the individuals they could be working with.

  2. January 28, 2013    

    Sort of related, here’s a blog called “Shut up and Listen” which exhibits some of the problems I mention above http://freethoughtblogs.com/nearearthobject/2013/01/26/shut-up-and-listen/
    My response to that post is as follows:

    1. I am happy to shut up and listen and to be as empathetic as I possibly can be. I would expect others to grant me this courtesy too.

    2. If I have any observations, queries or doubts remaining, I will voice them. I would expect others to do this about any claims I make too.

    3. If that makes me insensitive and bigoted, rather than sincerely inquisitive then I despair.

  3. January 27, 2013    

    What I originally set out to write as a comment grew too long, so I’ve addressed a few points in a blog post here: http://heresyclub.com/2013/01/why-sexism-isnt-simple/

    • January 27, 2013    

      I read your reply to this but found one part of it somewhat confusing.
      You gave the example of comparing the way in which we label men and women who have had many sexual partners and how women tend to get viewed by society in a much more negative light than men in this aspect.
      Now there was nothing I really disagreed with in your analysis of that, accepted it is sexist (though i loathe the overuse of the term ‘misogynistic’) but didn’t this example simply serve to justify exactly what Simon was saying here, that comparing experiences helps to signpost genuine instances of sexist thinking (such as it does here)?

  4. chris clack
    January 27, 2013    

    I might be wrong but the flaw in your question

    “would this have been judged to be sexism if it was directed against the other gender?”.
    Is to do with the history of the whole thing and this as a context.
    Sexism has not been a problem for men in our culture, its women who have lacked various rights and equalities in our society , because of this context an action directed at a woman carries with it a whole lot of stuff that would not have the same meaning when directed at a man. I think if we thought about it in terms of racism it would be even clearer.
    “Would this have been judged to be racism if it were directed against a white European”
    again I think the history of racism may cause us to interpret the event other then racist

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