It’s not sexism that’s wrong, it’s calling something sexist that’s wrong

Uh oh. It’s not just Michael Shermer who is suffering the terrible, scorching aftermath of being witch-hunted and inquisitored for saying something sexist. The poison is spreading. PZ Chris Clarke quotes Jacquelyn Gill’s blog The Contemplative Mammoth. There was a sexist remark on a list-serv. Gill asks a question.

After the sexist comments were made, some did in fact call them out. This was immediately followed up with various responses that fell into two camps: 1) “Saying female graduate students are inferior isn’t sexist” (this has later morphed into “she was really just pointing out poor mentoring!”), and 2) “Calling someone out for a sexist statement on a list-serv is inappropriate.” Some have called for “tolerance” on Ecolog-l; arguably, more real estate in this discussion has gone into chastising the people who called out Jones’ comments. These people are almost universally male. To those people, I ask:

Why is it more wrong to call someone out for saying something sexist than it was to have said the sexist thing in the first place?

Why indeed?


  1. A Hermit says

    I’ve been asking exactly that same question for the last year and a half. Haven’t got an answer yet, but for some reason it seems to end conversations…

  2. jenniferphillips says

    It was actually Chris Clarke (who I grow to love more with every post) who blogged this at Pharyngula. But yeah, it’s not a novel question, but I’ve yet to hear an honest attempt at an answer.

  3. says

    “But it’s rocking the boat to point out someone else rocking the boat” seems to be the tail-chasing answer, which makes me think it’s just an exercise in shifting the blame, every single time.

  4. Your Name's not Bruce? says

    @ Xanthe #3

    More like “it’s rocking the boat to point out that someone else is busy drilling holes in the boat” would be a more accurate description, though the defenders of those engaged in the drilling and or holding the drills wouldn’t likely see it that way. “That’s just a legitimate inquiry in regards to material science and engineering.”

  5. Timothy says

    My guess:

    Speaking truth to power upsets the power dynamics, which is never OK to those who hold power.

  6. STH says

    I suspect what’s so awful about calling out sexism is that it usually involves women speaking up, not just taking shit from men (or the sexist women that enable them). It’s about privilege; only women can be criticized and judged by others.

  7. theoreticalgrrrl says

    Because we guys must overreact to women who attempt to make the tiniest steps toward equality before it gets out of hand. As John Adams said to Abigail Adams,* we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Depend upon that, bitch.
    Give ’em an inch and they’ll take a mile.
    Also keep ’em barefoot in the winter and pregnant in the summer and in the kitchen where they belong.


  8. Tessa says

    It’s not just the original sexist statement that’s “less wrong,” calling out the people who called out the sexism is also fine apparently.
    Making a sexist statement-OK
    Calling out that statement-BAAAAD
    Calling out the calling out-OK again.

  9. Bjarte Foshaug says

    Why is it more wrong to call someone out for saying something sexist than it was to have said the sexist thing in the first place?

    Because it might give women a reasonably accurate picture of what to expect if they join The Skeptic Movement™, and some may be put off unless they’re ignorant of the treatment that awaits them.

  10. murci3lag0 says

    And back again to the same problem. I think all the skeptic community is losing an opportunity here: there is a cohabitation problem that requires a rational solution. I think that we are culturally patriarchal and moving away from that position is difficult… like moving away from religion. In one hand, those making misogynist statements are quick to defend their position from criticism, they feel threatened and react, mainly because they really think that their position comes from skepticism, a “superior” way of thinking. On the other hand, those who defend against sexism are too quick to demonize the offender without offering them an escape opportunity from their wrong position. While in the religion debate this is funny, in the skepticism case this is tiresome, and new dialog approaches should be explored (even if I myself still don’t understand why these people just don’t shut up and listen to what women have to say)

  11. great1american1satan says

    Ooh, ooh, as #2 points out, you have an opportunity to pull a Radford and do another post where you properly attribute the quote without mentioning you had ever been in error! Let’s do this thing!

  12. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    “Why is it more wrong to call someone out for saying something sexist than it was to have said the sexist thing in the first place?”
    Why indeed?

    Simple answer – it isn’t.

    Sexism should be noted and called out.
    Sexism is wrong, calling it out is not.
    Not calling sexism out, letting sexism stand unchallenged and accepted, is the worse evil by Astronomical Units.

    But then we all really know that don’t we?
    Don’t we?
    Decent humans do anyhow.

  13. bad Jim says

    It’s the same with racism. Democrats are always accused of “playing the race card”. Calling someone racist is an unpardonable affront.

    There seems to be a tacit assumption (compulsive centrism?) that in the twenty first century we’re all beyond racism and sexism, and that it’s obviously offensive to suggest otherwise, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

  14. Ruth says

    I think it’s called “shooting the messenger’.

    Basically, if you can ignore something, then it doesn’t exist. Someone who draws attention to something is preventing you from ignoring it, so they’re MAKING it exist.

    By this logic, the people pointing out bad stuff are the ones responsible for the bad stuff existing, rather than the people who are actually doing the bad stuff.

  15. bad Jim says

    That said, I have to admit that as an aging straight white male, a third generation liberal, I can’t claim I’m completely cognizant of my own racism and sexism (or classism, ableism, sizeism). I try; I may have related the malicious pleasure I took when someone asked about the last doctor to visit my mother, “So what did he say?” and I was able to reply, “Well, she …”

    Piet Hein is, as usual, pithy:

    The road to wisdom? — Well, it’s plain
    and simple to express:
    and err
    and err again
    but less
    and less
    and less.

  16. kevinalexander says

    I think Ruth @13 is right. When someone says something sexist or racist or whateverist and some angerpedant responds I go ‘Ah shit does this ever end?’

  17. Jeremy Shaffer says

    Sadly, the accuracy and value of the question is hardly limited to sexism. It applies just as well to any form of discrimination and prejudice but also pointing out someone is being generally rude or advocating irrationalities.

  18. doubtthat says

    I think the calculation goes more like this:

    Sexist comment = funny, can’t you take a joke, baby?

    Calling out the sexist comment = killjoy, (jeez, some needs to give it to her to get her to mellow down a bit, know what I’m sayin’? *high fives*)

    Blogging about the inherent wrongness of calling out sexist comments that were clearly jokes, baby = skepticism

    Blogging about how it’s weird that pointing out a bad act is worse than the bad act = you are an evil, shrill, humorless harpy

    I will say, though, that at least this dynamic isn’t unique to feminist backlash. Bradley Manning is still sitting in prison while the people involved in, say, the at-the-time secret drone bombings in Yemen are skipping about in the sunlight based on that same dynamic.

    I think it’s the basis for the “no snitching” stuff, as well. Don’t ruin our fun, damnit.

  19. F [nucular nyandrothol] says

    Because you are never allowed to point out what is really happening. I almost no circumstance is this considered appropriate by a loud and sizable fraction of society. How distasteful! Speaking truth to power and anything falling under the same rubric.

  20. eric says

    @1 and @2 – IMO its not really new. This is just the sexim version of the Emporer’s New Clothes problem, which is at least 180 years old. People have recognized for long time that, when you’ve got a social norm and people invested in following it, they are going to take offense and get upset if anyone points out that the norm is leading to ridiculous results.

  21. freemage says

    Because penis vagina hormones evolution, that’s why.

    At least, that’s about as close as I ever get to hearing an intelligible answer from that crowd.

  22. tonyinbatavia says

    (Didn’t know where else to do this, but the latest post regarding sexism will most likely be the spot where this bully-troll would land on your page, right?)

    On behalf of the scum-sucking low-lifer @SteveWCoA on Twitter, I have thrown a few more bucks into Ophelia’s coffers. Because: You hate, Ophelia profits. Copy-and-paste that, ya’ asswipe.

  23. says

    Thanks (again) Tony!

    Ha ha ha HA ha, Steve.

    (One of the funniest/most ironic/something things about Steve’s tweet is that he added #TAM2013. Oh, brilliant! The TAM people will just love having the hashtag flooded with shit like that. That’s totally what it’s for.)

  24. theoreticalgrrrl says

    Saying that female graduate students are inferior isn’t sexist, it’s being a brave anti-PC trailblazer.

  25. Feline says

    I find it quite amusing that there was some apprehension about Chris starting co-blogging at Pharyngula when he came aboard, and now mis-attributing things at Pharyngula is starting to be a thing. Feels like he’s a fairly good fit, after all.

    But apart from my amusement at that, I wish to point out that while I’m currently unable to be part of the “Piss pitters off, donate” movement I keep a tally which I will redeem once I’m gainfully employed again.
    You have a large support base, much larger than it might seem.

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