Sunday, 2 September 2012

What's the Evidence-Based Cure for Sexism?

For improved gender equality, swallow one
capsule twice a day, with or after meals.

Seriously though, does anyone have a clue about this yet? Despite many centuries of discussion about the best way to organise a society composed of examples of two distinct physical types, we don't seem to be getting much closer to a definitive answer. The jury's still out on whether medieval codes of chivalry existed to protect women or to restrict the spectrum of possible gender roles. The debate still rages over whether women's suffrage groups achieved their aims or if World War One did the trick either in tandem with or in spite of some branches' tactics. Anyone who's tried to have a conversation either online or in person about the exact nature, history, aims, successes and possible continuing relevance of 'feminism' will have experienced the feeling that they're trying to pin a liquid tail on a gaseous donkey while sinking into a mire of rapidly-thrown shit. That's the feeling I get as a woman, discussing something I supposedly have an innate understanding of; I pity any man trying to make an informed and well-intentioned contribution. If we're ever going to rationally assess the best way to rid the world of sexism in all its forms, as it adversely effects the lives of both men and women, then we need to be aware of and try to eliminate those barriers to debate which have left us going round in angry, shouty circles. Particularly for those of us who call ourselves skeptics or rationalists, the principles of evidence-based reasoning must be respected:

We as humans are very bad at assessing what is important, at accurately weighing up the relative merits of arguments, and at forming truly unbiased opinions. Our personal experience or that of people we know is not sufficient basis for an opinion; on the other hand, personal anecdotes make up most of the data we have regarding the effects of sexism. We need to bear in mind at all times that we are having this debate within a heavily flawed social order, using language which is not ideal for the purpose, referring to a woefully inadequate amount of reliable information. Everyone in the conversation, including you, will be wrong in some way. The point is therefore not to win the argument, but to become slightly less wrong together.

It is not possible to have a productive conversation while simultaneously trying to change the way in which the conversation can be had. It is therefore best to assume that everyone in the conversation is trying to work towards better mutual understanding, no matter how much you may take issue with the way they express particular contributions or questions. Aim to criticise less, while both requesting and providing more context for what is being said.

Men can be victims of sexism too. More importantly, almost nobody needs to be told this at any point of the conversation and almost nobody claims otherwise. It would however be fair to say that men tend to experience it less often and in less severe forms than women do, and that they therefore don't suffer quite the same cumulative effects that 'everyday sexism' can have over time. That said, the gender of the speaker is not a reliable indicator of the validity of their opinion, or their ability to understand and relate to your argument. I'm one of those lucky females who has not experienced anything like the level of sexism most women in the world are facing. Reading the examples collected by the Everyday Sexism project has made me realise how much I have been happily spared, by chance alone. I think that makes me less able to effectively relate to an argument about the nature and effects of sexism than a man who has experienced it or any other kind of discrimination. For example, I can't recall ever having handed my card to a waiter, only to have him hand the card reader to a male companion; if this ever has happened, I probably put it down to a lapse in concentration rather than conscious or subconscious sexism. I have never personally experienced the feelings of frustration and supposed dependence that this could cause when encountered often, but I expect that a male who has been frequently made aware that society as a whole expects him to pay for female companions would be every bit as keen to see attitudes change. It is easy to both over-exaggerate the significance of individual incidents, and to disregard them if they happen to a member of a group which suffers less discrimination on the whole. Both of these tendencies, and the ways in which we try to compensate for them, serve to skew our understanding and impair our progress to an evidence-based solution.

Every example, however small or easily dismissed, is part of a larger, interconnected structure. Unfortunately, trying to treat every symptom of sexism could, hypothetically, make it harder to cure the underlying disease. As with the arguments about maintaining herd-immunity to diseases through universal vaccination or preventing the overuse of antibiotics, it is very difficult to tell people to suffer minor side-effects so that a more serious but less personal problem can be solved. I try not to look or sound annoyed when asked at a beer festival if I'd prefer something more 'girly' because I think that happily and enthusiastically chatting to the server about my preferences is more likely to have a positive, lasting effect on their assumptions. That's how I aim to approach most disagreements (though I usually fall far short of that goal) and, being human, I think my strategy is probably best. However, I don't blame other people for not smiling when told to do so by a stranger for the tenth time in a morning, or being all sweetness and light when groped on the bus, or staying perfectly calm while being told that they are the wrong gender for their chosen profession. Somehow it should be possible to establish whether a calm, positive approach within the overall public debate is more effective, without denying people the right to defend themselves or to release their frustration when they feel that the situation they are in at that moment demands it.

Perhaps more than any other area of debate, effective discussion of sexism stamps all over things which are personal and emotive. Everyone involved needs to be aware of this; if you or the person you are talking to is clearly getting upset, then take a step back, clearly indicate that you are doing so, and only carry on once you have re-established the aim and parameters of the conversation. Be aware that accusations of being emotional are commonly misused to dismiss people's opinions, but also be aware that there will likely be some truth to the accusation. Think I'm being unfair? Go and read RULE ONE again.

And, perhaps the most important rule for all debates:

Data collected for one specific purpose cannot be used for another purpose entirely unproblematically. Arguments put forward by the defence in a specific rape trial are just that. The character flaws of Emmeline Pankhurst are just that. By all means have a discussion about whether a particular feminist has argued a particular point in the best possible way, or discuss the flaws in anti-sexist discourse as a whole, but make it absolutely clear at the outset which question you are answering and with what data. Don't be the person who tries to turn a call for boys to feature in adverts for toy prams into a discussion about the child support system. Don't assume that someone's opinion about the VAT on sanitary towels or their attitude towards nudity on Page Three is indicative of their stance on equal rights as a whole.

The success of all fields of research rests on a cycle of collecting and weighing up accurate information, finding reliable answers to small questions, establishing likely rules and models to answer big questions, and testing these rules with specific examples. Zoom in, zoom out, and zoom in again; all the while maintaining a clear idea of what you are trying to achieve. There's no reason why the problem of sexism can't be treated in the same way, apart from the fact that everyone involved, as established in RULE ONE, is always mostly wrong and is really bad at being told why.