Guest post by Lady Mondegreen (aka Stacy).
It’s happened again. Feminists of the atheoskeptisphere have pointed out that one of our Famous Men said something sexist; the assertion has been met with intense defensiveness and downright rage. The defensiveness is understandable, but the rage baffled me until I realized that it comes, at least in part, from a profound misconception about what sexism is and how it works.
To start with, here’s a statement from a comment by Folie Deuce, on Ophelia’s post #EstrogenVibe
If everyone is sexist than nobody is sexist.
No. Category error.
The wrongness there can be understood by substituting a few other words for the word “sexism”:
If everyone is affected by cognitive biases, then nobody is affected by cognitive biases.
See the problem? Everybody IS affected by cognitive biases. They’re implicit. Same with sexist biases, and racist biases, and other out-group biases. We all share them, to varying degrees–even those of us who belong to the groups in question. We’ve internalized them. If you react with outrage when you or one of your heroes is criticized for a cognitive bias lurking behind your/their thinking on a subject, you’re being defensive, not skeptical. Since none of us is ammune to implicit bias, you should at least consider the possibility that the critic is right. Most skeptics familiar with critical thinking (or its language, at least,) will grant that in the abstract, but many can’t acknowledge it when the subject is sexism.
Like cognitive biases, sexist and other out-group biases are implicit. Their content is dependent on culture and varies to some degree from place to place (I’ve read–I can’t vouch for the truth of this–that in Japan, the notion that women are less intelligent than men isn’t common. There are other stereotypes about women to be found there, but not that particular one,) but if you’ve grown up in a culture steeped in stereotypes and biases against Group X, you’ve internalized those stereotypes and biases. Yes, even you, Mr. Big Stuff. You’re not a brain in a vat. You grew up with the same implicit assumptions as everyone else in your society.
When Sam Harris insists “I’m not the sexist pig you’re looking for,” he’s assuming that “you said something sexist,” translates into/as “you think that men are better than women,” or even “you are a male supremacist.” But that’s not what “you said something sexist” means. That’s not what it means at all.
Does this seem obvious to you, reader? If you’re a regular reader of this blog, it probably does. But there are lots of people, some very smart ones among them, who haven’t thought this through.
Ian Cromwell, aka The Crommunist, has argued against using the word “racist” as a noun. We shouldn’t characterize anyone as “a racist,” he thinks, in part because of confusions like the one I’m discussing here. I wouldn’t go quite that far–I think it’s fair and useful to call a person who holds explicit white supremacist views a racist, and a person who thinks it a shame women ever won the right to vote, a sexist. Sam Harris, on the other hand, is correct that he’s not a “sexist pig.” He is, however, sexist–along with me, and you, and everyone else. How nice if he could acknowledge that fact, and turn his attention from defending himself to examining the content of actual claims made by and about women, even–dare we hope–the implicit ones.