Riffing on Reprobate Spreadsheet: Womanhood Edition

So, you should read RS for the new post up on the incoherence of TERF philosophy and/or ideology, it’s well done. But I want to single out and emphasize one particular bit. HJ Hornbeck excerpts a Medium article credited to a number of folks1 and proceeds to challenge it on a number of points. While I don’t have more than a few quibbles with what HJ wrote, HJ acknowledges that there is much more that could be challenged than was covered in the Reprobate Spreadsheet analysis. This is a place where a bit more of that challenging will happen.

Here, I want to emphasize a point that HJ made briefly that I believe could use more attention, add a couple of points original to me, and then allow you to get more from HJ’s original analysis. Here is the section I wish to reanalyze, a smaller portion of HJ’s first excerpt2:

the view that the category of ‘woman’ is correctly defined as ‘adult human female’. Biological essentialism is a position about whether certain traits of women are biologically produced by sex category membership. Womanhood itself is not a genetic ‘trait’ and no-one on either side of the dispute thinks it is conceivably biologically produced in the way that, arguably, emotional intelligence or maternal instinct is supposed to be.

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Feminist Perversions: Sea Shanty Edition

Right then. A little while back Cat Mara on WeHuntedTheMammoth came up with the idea of WHTM-themed sea shanties:

[W]hat would a blog’s comment section be but a mutual admiration society? Why else would people come here and leave comments if they didn’t like the other people doing so? One could just lurk, or read the articles posted on the main page passively through an RSS reader. It’s not the Army. We didn’t enlist; we weren’t pressganged…

At least I wasn’t. If David approached any of you in a seedy waterfront bar and said, “aaar, I be formin’ a blog and be in need of trusty hands to work the bilge in the comments, will ye take me shilling?” you’d tell me, right? Are there shanties? Tell me there are shanties!

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“It’s Always Men”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was beat up by a baseball team yesterday, rhetorically. The team’s management wanted to show some right-wing propaganda and show some they did. Displaying a video prepared by others that included shifting images illustrating a Reagan speech, the team’s stadium screen showed pictures of AOC, Kim Jong-Un, and Fidel Castro while the Gipper’s voice said, “Enemies of freedom”. It would, of course, be bad enough if the three faces were all elected officials who belonged to the Democratic Party, but grouping AOC with Kim and Castro was particularly bad.

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Hell is Hope Hicks

As you may already be aware, the NY Times just published an Maggie Haberman essay on Hope Hicks’ most recent dilemma: should she break the law (again) or should she obey the requirements of a congressional subpoena?

The NY Times and Haberman advertised the article on twitter this way:

Now, some took issue with the glamour photo shoot that the Times commissioned for this piece. To the extent that criticism has any validity, it’s not about merely displaying a photo of Hope Hicks, it’s about the fact that they clearly spent significant resources in order to craft an artificial image that comports with Haberman’s editorial depiction of this former Trump aide (and those critiques that mentioned the photo without including this more detailed objection run the risk of communicating an anti-feminist message that what is important in media coverage of women is the photo shot editors choose to run). The lavishing of resources emphasizes the PR function of this effort; it is, in short, not a news story.

And yet, this wasn’t featured in the Times’ lifestyle section. It was featured in “Politics” which, when it is not overt opinion (which should be confined to the OP/ED pages anyway), is supposed to be news. So what is the news story here?

That leads us to the other criticism that many have already made: choosing to comply or not comply with a legal order is not an existential question any more than choosing to print up a few million dollars’ worth of counterfeit bills. Both lawyers and philosophers (mainly ethicists) took issue with this ridiculous and inaccurate description, so it’s not surprise that I, too, found it risible. The philosophers mainly focussed on the misuse of “existential questions” in a way that Sartre would have found condemnably ignorant even if it did tend to validate his assertion, “Hell is other people.” The lawyers had a different take, not so much emphasizing the “existential” part, but focussing rather more on the “question” part. One lawyer, Max Kennerly (@MaxKennerly), put it this way:

Most existential questions have no clear answer. What is my purpose in life? What happens after I die? Is there a higher power guiding my destiny? Does my dog have a soul?

Other “existential questions,” however, are answered by 2 U.S.C. §§ 192 & 194. Compliance is mandatory.

Yet, despite my laughter when I read that and my sympathy to those who would call out the Times for bad philosophy and bad law, my most significant problem with this story and the promotional tweet is neither of those. Instead, read this tweet from Sam Wang @SamWangPhd:

“Should a federal employee obey a lawful order, or stay loyal to an individual? Here at @nytpolitics, we can’t say. It’s just all a partisan game! We’re not going to make a value judgment! We have great portrait photographers though.”

The NY Times isn’t doing something new in this story. They are treating compliance with the law as entirely optional for the rich and well connected even as other stories, say, stories about a famous woman who went to jail for defying a subpoena, don’t include the same PR efforts or gosh, who can say whether it’s fair that someone obey a subpoena support for lawlessness as the Hope Hicks profile.

The Times is doing what the times always does: it’s opposing accountability for the rich and powerful who have the most motive and opportunity to destroy US democracy, while insisting on strict accountability for those who break the law in a principled stand on behalf of what they believe to be a necessary resistance to the subversion or destruction of democracy. Thoreau-like, I can believe that Manning subscribes to the maxim

“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

But the proper response for those of us on the outside is not to scream, “Yeah, lock her up!” at democracy’s defenders and, “Let’s all sympathize with the lawless,” as they attack that democracy. Believing that we have reached the point where the true place for a just trans person is in prison is not to believe we have accomplished something wonderful that must be perpetuated.

The anti-democratic limits on acceptable discourse accepted and propounded by the Times must be opposed. The Times and Haberman and her editors are not worthless and thus irrelevant. The magnitude of this mess is only appreciated by accepting that the Times has an impact on the policies and practices of justice (and other things) and have great value to those that benefit from advancing the Times’ skewed view of proper accountability. Ignoring the Times is not a principled and logical and effective way to deal with their anti-democratic trolling. Instead, the Times must be countered each and every time they embrace the ideology of an accountability-free elite. We must never forget that the Times isn’t portraying the Trump administration as wise and sympathetic philosophers because they are working honestly or even diligently to divine the best possible response to problems of Gordian convolution and unsolvability. The upper ranks of the Times (including Haberman and her editors) are portraying the Trump administration as wise and sympathetic philosophers because they, too, believe themselves better off in a world without accountability for the US elite.

This ideology must be opposed wherever it presents itself.

 


Although I originally titled this “Hell is Hope Hicks” I later thought that perhaps it would be better titled, “Hell is the New York Times”. Ultimately I decided not to change it, though there are certainly reasonable critiques of making Hicks the focus of the title when the main critique is not of Hicks’ disdain for the law (which exists and is critiqued in passing), but instead the NY Times advocacy of disdain for the law – or at least advocacy for the idea that we must consider disdain for the law to be a reasonable position which might be reasonably held by reasonable people in a democracy.

A lack of ability in the upper echelons

PZ has frequently written about how sexism affects the number of women taking degrees in certain fields, and the smaller percentage of degree takers who go on to the next level of academic activity (a higher degree, a research fellowship, a teaching position, etc.). While you inevitably have a large number of men insisting that meritocracy has everything to do with this, on the face of it such hypotheses are very hard to justify. After all, if women are graduating with the same degrees and the same grades, why shouldn’t the same percentage be welcomed into the next stage of professional development. One popular theory has been, and continues to be, the idea that men have more variability – the bell curve of merit is flatter for men than for women, with larger numbers of truly incompetent and large numbers of genius men compared to incompetent and genius women. PZ has been tackling this myth for a long time.

And yet, the disparity exists. So it’s worth taking the time to attack the problem when another report comes out to verify its persistence. That Pharyngula post I linked showed that the disparity in entering science professions is cultural rather than genetic (in large part by showing that the disparity is stable and reproducibly consistent over time, institution, and location within a country, but varies widely when crossing over a border into a different country). So cultural factors are driving this … but which cultural factors?

It can’t be said enough that you can’t predict the psychology or motivations or life circumstances of a single individual from aggregate data, but quantitative research can still be informative. With all that in mind, I bring up the most recent bit of research to tackle one aspect of the enduring myth that men deserve their science positions and women just … don’t. It comes from ScienceMag.org. Study investigator Lauren Aycock and her peers gave a questionaire about sexualization and sexual harassment in academic spaces to 455 undergraduate women physics students. 74.3% (338/455)
reported behaviors that form core aspects of sexual harassment. THREE IN FOUR.

Now, it must be said that for something to meet the definition and to have the effects we normally describe as sexual harassment the behavior must repeat. The authors do not gloss over this, but instead make a strong case that most if not quite all of these 338 respondents are experiencing sexual harassment as defined in the case law surrounding Title IX. Read the entire journal article yourself and you will understand just how serious and compelling this research is – far more serious and compelling, and far different qualitatively, than asking students if anyone has ever called them pretty. I bring this up because many sexist jerks use the fact that the full effects of sexual harassment cannot be understood without putting the rare assaults in the contest of quotidian sexualizing and sexist behaviors. When a single report addresses both, as they are justified in doing and likely to do, the defenders of the harassing status quo will strip individual sexualizing comments from the context of harassment and insist that they didn’t know it was wrong to compliment women on their appearances. The work from Aycock, et. al. is exactly of the kind and quality we need to keep up the pressure on institutions to create academic, research, and professional pipelines open to all qualified persons.

I am pleased to note that the publishers of the Aycock, et. al. paper (Physical Review: Physics Education Research) publish an editorial comment as well. That comment is written by a woman scientist at Michigan State University, Julie Libarkin. While I mention her name merely because she deserves credit for her writing and her advocacy, I mention her affiliation because MSU is where I majored in physics … for a year and a half. Although the reasons for leaving MSU were complicated and had a lot to do with my personal history that included abuse experienced years before college, it also had quite a lot to do with the atmosphere of sexism and general gender rigidity that made it difficult for me as a closeted trans* woman to find community or a sense of belonging. Aycock’s paper itself addresses sense of belonging and imposter syndrome as important factors in why people discontinue work – either in the middle of a degree, as I did, or when considering whether or not to take the next step after completing a degree or fellowship.

I’m glad to know that Libarkin is at MSU today and using her voice for the betterment of physics education, but the problem has persisted for too long already. Too many people that might once have chosen to be scientists made other choices because of changeable conditions of cultural climate.

And that’s why we have to ask if the people at the top of the science education pyramid, the tenured professors, the department chairs, the university presidents, actually have the ability to lead. When I reported harassment, lack of belonging, and imposter syndrome at MSU, I was sent to student counseling, as if my psychology was the only problem. And yes, while there I talked about other things, things that made me uniquely vulnerable. I was diagnosed with depression (not for the first time) and with PTSD (also not for the first time). But here’s the thing: the presence of those things made it less likely that I would be able to overcome the hostile cultural climate at MSU, but they did not render the cultural climate magically irrelevant. It’s possible that even a wounded child could, with the right support, start and finish university in one go. Sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, and ableism combined to make what I told the MSU physics department meaningless. As affected as I am and was and have been by mental illness, I’m not without insight into the human condition or the ability to express it.

And so I wonder, do the people we place in positions of academic power really have upper-echelon ability to lead an educational department? Let me answer that question with another question: Do we graduate fewer people and do more of the people we graduate avoid certain sciences, certain departments because of ongoing oppression? I think that answer is clearly yes. It was yes when I left MSU and Aycock, et. al. make a convincing case that the same is true today. I know MSU had this information in 1990 – I know because I told them. But it’s certain that they had this information decades before that. And if I didn’t personally inform professors or ombuds in other universities around the world, I don’t doubt that they, too, had the same information available on roughly the same timeframe. In fact, many disciplines have done a better job rooting out gender bias than physics and some other sciences have.

And so the truth is this: while we’ve disproved the idea that women are underrepresented in science faculties because women are simply underrepresented in the upper ranks of ability, I believe that the evidence is also sufficient to prove that women are underrepresented in physics programs and faculties in significant part because physics department chairs are underrepresented in the upper ranks of educational ability.

Someone needs to start kicking out the people who have been tolerating the harassment of 3/8ths of humanity in the hope that somehow we’ll get better science from 4/8ths.

Sometimes you just have to be understanding of a little rape.

In Madison, Wisconsin two students confronted another in a bathroom after the regular school day had ended on April 10th. The first two raped the third. Not to fear, however, the school district’s head of safety and security is here to put it all in perspective:

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Useless Vanity. Or Not.

Over on the PZ post “Let’s Smoke Out Some More TERFs” a discussion developed in which Susan Stryker & Sandy Stone were mentioned. In that thread, I mentioned being one person of, I am sure, many who were forced independently to coin “transfeminism” when the “trans-” prefix trend was emerging. From people like Sandy Stone and Sylvia Rivera who were adult activists while I was too young to control my bladder to youngsters like, well, me, a lot of work had been done incorporating feminism into trans* activism by the 1990s. However, it was always in a haphazard, highly individualized way. There wasn’t a broader and explicit call to make our trans* activism feminist or our feminism trans* inclusive. The movements were largely separate, both nominally and functionally, even if philosophically they were closely related in myriad ways.

In response to this observation that I was doing transfeminism before there was a word (or at least a publicly recognized word) for transfeminism, HJ Hornbeck asked if I was involved in the early transfeminist movement, even if neither I nor anyone else could ever be called a single originator or even indispensable to the movement. In response, I wrote a small personal history that after some thinking I decided I might want to be able to find again. So, I’m preserving it here in its own post even though both of my readers have probably already seen it on Pharyngula. Call it an exercise in personal vanity. Or call it oral history of an interesting time of transition. Call it whatever you like, but if you haven’t read it, here it is.

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The Best Thing Yet Written About Captain Marvel

SyFy has a brilliant piece about the feminism in Captain Marvel and how her antagonists’ tactics recapitulate anti-feminist tropes. What makes Captain Marvel bad? She’s too emotional:

Carol, like so many women, is told repeatedly throughout the film that she must “fight fair.” And “fair,” in the case of the men she encounters both human and alien, means “void of emotion.” … [W]e’re led to believe that detachment is necessary for any Kree warrior. … Nobility, honor, these are the things that matter most. That might be true, but it’s also a guise for a more sinister reality, one in which a man in power tries to stifle the abilities of a woman by equating her emotions with something negative, something shameful.

There are very minor spoilers, but I doubt, as vague and/or peripheral as they are, that they would actually ruin anyone’s enjoyment of the movie. So I recommend that everyone read the piece. Following Jessica Toomer on general principles isn’t a bad idea either.

 

 

Ed Brayton’s Good Cause

Friend of FtB Ed Brayton is trying to help a victim of domestic violence and her 3 year old child move across the country (Arizona to Michigan) to escape an abuser and reach family members who can help her til she gets on her feet.

Go read his original post, and if you are able and feel inclined, please donate. Moving cross country can be expensive and the “just rough it” strategies for saving money are dramatically less possible when you have a 3 year old child who would have to rough it with you.

Also, anti-domestic violence used to be my field before I went into law, so if you need attention to a particular anti-violence cause or have particular questions related to anti-sexual violence or anti-domestic violence that you want to ask, please feel free to let me know in the comments or even send me an e-mail (though I don’t check this account daily) at my nym, cripdyke, on the google mail domain (.com, of course).