A borough in the UK posted an innocuous tweet, suggesting that people should go in for cervical screening. They had to take it down because a small minority of haters complained that the words “anyone with a cervix” was offensive to women.
The wording was just fine! It was inclusive and was a message to an appropriate audience. In fact, if you look at the thread, there’s a deluge of support for it, with swarms of people, cis and trans, chiming in to see that the message was good and they appreciated it. There were also, of course, a few indignant assholes whining that only women have cervices, and they were the ones they had to listen to, because Calderdale deleted the tweet.
Those few vicious, mocking tweets are the modern equivalent of this, an ugliness that will stain us all for years to come:
Meanwhile, in the science world, the journal Nature is updating their policies. Language matters.
It is regrettable but true that researchers have used and abused science to justify racist beliefs and practices. As previous editorials have acknowledged, Nature has played its part in perpetuating racism — and has now pledged to play its part in tackling it, together with colleagues in the research community.
As part of this pledge, Nature and the Nature Portfolio journals are updating our advice to authors on reporting research that involves race, ethnicity and other socially constructed characteristics. Specifically, we’re asking that authors exercise care and consideration so that the highest standards of rigour are applied where these attributes are found to be an explanation for an outcome or conclusion. This is part of our ongoing updates to guidance asking authors to describe how demographic characteristics, including sex and gender, are considered in the design of studies — and, more broadly, to consider the research’s potential to cause harm.
They aren’t asking a lot. This is what Nature expects now, and I was a little surprised…shouldn’t this have been standing, routine policy all along?
So, what are we asking authors to do, if their research describes people according to race, ethnicity or other socially constructed categories? Essentially, three things. First, specify the categories used and explain why such classification is needed. Second, explain the methods used to describe people in this way — for example, did study participants self-report, or did the information come from a census, social media or administrative data? Third, we would like authors to describe how they controlled for confounding variables, such as socio-economic status. These requests will be added to a paper’s reporting checklist so it is a part of the usual editorial and publishing workflow.
I’m not going to publish in Nature, and the kind of work I do isn’t going to touch on issues of race and sex (although some will try to force it!), but I would have thought that if you were doing work in those areas of sufficient prestige that it would be published in top-tier journals, those rules would have been already incorporated. You can never underestimate the devious efforts of bigots, though!
The price of liberty is constant vigilance. Someone smart said that I’m sure.
If not, I’m nabbing it. ;-)
Sphinx of Black Quartz says
You’d think by now the professional social media managers would have figured out attempts to placate the political right are pointless: Their whole ideology is based on perpetual outrage at a world they feel has “abandoned” and “betrayed” them, no matter how cushy their lives actually are. Today they’re mad at inclusive language, yesterday they were mad at beer companies wanting to appeal to young folks and trans folks, tomorrow they’ll probably be mad at rainbows for promoting homosexuality.
The best approach is to ignore their temper tantrums, because what they want is to steal the spotlight and force further accommodations for people who are already privileged.
The price of liberty is to…
“Fight them back”
Some a them say them a niggah hayat
an some a them say dem a black beatah
Some a dem say dem a black stabbah
an some a them say dem say dem a paki beatah
Wer’e gonna sm*sh their brains in
Cause they aint got nothink in them
Fascist on di attack
den we counter-attack
Fascist on di attack
den we drive dem back
It isn’t always (conscious) bigotry as such. Our culture and our ways of thinking are so marinated in racism, sexism, etc., that it takes a conscious effort, not to mention a fair amount of consciousness-raising, to keep those ideas from leaking into your research thinking.
Even recognizing that race, etc., are social constructs and not biological laws takes quite a bit of consciousness-raising. And my impression is that the usual STEM (incl. medical) training doesn’t touch on social realities at all. (Social scientist training ought to, since social constructs are kind of the bread-and-butter of social science, but I wouldn’t bet on it.)
To make this even more confusing, a huge number of people in the First World are racial mixes and/or ethnic mixes.
I doubt if you could find too many European-Americans who are just one ethnic group any more.
According to self reports on the census forms, 10% of the US population are multi-racial.
Just about everything we talk about is a social construct at some level. Even in the physical sciences where we blithely talk about objective reality it all boils down to mutually agreed upon criteria, a social construct. It happens to be a social construct that allows us to build moon rockets and MRI machines and computer networks, but those are also socially constructed goals for the human enterprise we call science.
On that note, Ryan North is on point today:
@5 – A number of years ago I had a discussion with Jon Entine who had written “Taboo” where he went on about why black athletes are so dominant in sports. I had critiqued his book because it was a frankly racist screed. He hadn’t intended to be racist (who does) so he was quite defensive, but he couldn’t deny that his entire premise “black athletes” depended on a social construct that didn’t have the biological reality he implied in his book.
Which leaves me wondering what do people even mean when they self-identify as multi-racial? If my 23-and-me says I’m 99% Northern European and 1% Asian, am I multi-racial? But because genes don’t really reflect genealogy it is possible that someone who could document they had a e.g. Cherokee great-grand would still show no genetic markers from that line. Are they multi-racial? And if the social construction mattered, what if you’re a Jewish kid adopted and raised by a Catholic family? Are you multi-racial?
The idea of multi-racial is just so wibbly-wobbly wishy-washy that I think it’s essentially useless without rather more specific parameters than “self-identified,” and I can’t see how someone can come up with parameters that aren’t either begging the question or uselessly arbitrary.
I also suspect that it is a way for certain people to try and erase racism by claiming they can’t be racist because they’re “multi-racial,” kinda like saying they have black friends.
How about the claim that just about everything is a social construct? Is that a social construct? Or is it objective reality? Meanwhile, inhaling a sufficiently high concentration of chlorine will kill you, however hard you try to socially construct it not to.
I don’t think that that’ll work. How to you shame those who are shameless?
The photo in the post is powerful, not because anyone in it magically became ashamed of themselves, which I suspect that they didn’t, but because it showed folks who might not have known it that such horrible people exist.
I would have thought that Nature, as one of the most prestigious journals it is possible to be published in, would insist that ‘authors exercise care and consideration so that the highest standards of rigour are applied’ for every paper.
I support this statement by Nature and wish them success, but it raises an obvious red flag, doesn’t it? Why weren’t these standards applied in the first place? It should be an absolute foundation-level expectation of a paper to describe how any variable was measured (not just socially constructed variables), why this variable needed to be measured, and possible confounders. There are several hard-physics papers in this week’s Nature, and I am confident that all of these matters are discussed with painstaking precision within the papers themselves. Why were papers with racist/sexist inferences not held to this very basic minimum standard? If a paper doesn’t describe these things, I’m not even sure it deserves to be called scientific!
You’re right about the hardest of the bigots — but there’s always a spectrum.
Akira MacKenzie says
Bold of you to assume these bootlickers are capable of shame.
” . . . a few indignant assholes whining that only women have cervices . . . ”
Such people don’t see that they’ve got it wrong. This mistake goes way, way back, so far back that they’re not aware of it. When you’re transgender, e.g., you see that you’re living in a world that was set up in such a way as to erase you. It’s a world that was not organized with trans people in mind, as if there weren’t any of us. And now I often feel there’s simply no place for me. Sometimes I tell myself I’m living in “the cracks in society”.
There are relay races that started up I don’t know when, a number of years ago, a race for 4-person teams, 2 men, 2 women. Fabulous races that I really enjoy watching, but where would I fit in (assuming that I was a runner, which I’m not)? Nowhere, that’s where I’d fit in, at least not without a huge argument that I might well lose. There’s no automatic assumption that there’s a place for me in a race like that.
What you do is, you define the world in cisgender terms. E.g., women have cervices and men don’t. But you leave out of your definition other people, such as transmen, certain NB people and so on, who also have cervices. You just ignore them as if they don’t exist. And then when at long last after many, many generations they start saying, “Hey, what about us?”, the anti-transers get pissed off at them as if they’re causing a problem. They’re not causing a problem. The problem arose when the world was misdefined.
Which leads to one of the haters’ favorite arguments: “Look, we’ve always defined you out of existence. That’s what justifies us in continuing to define you out of existence.” Which is why we can’t have, e.g., same-sex marriage. “We’ve always ignored your sort. So now we’re justified in continuing to ignore you. Don’t be such assholes.”
“How about the claim that just about everything is a social construct? Is that a social construct? Or is it objective reality? Meanwhile, inhaling a sufficiently high concentration of chlorine will kill you, however hard you try to socially construct it not to. KG@9”
I would agree that an objective reality exists. My point is that how we frame that reality, how we talk about it, and how we experience it, is socially constructed. I mean you point out correctly that poison gas is not good for us, but in what way is doing things that are bad for us objectively bad? The thing Hume said, you can’t get from is to ought, applies not just to moral reasoning but to everything we value.
To add to Helge’s last comment–
Yes, some things are hard physical facts — in KG’s example, breathing air with a high proportion of chlorine gas will kill you — but the only people at risk of chlorine gas poisoning are those in contact with a modern industrial society that has (i) disregard for military ethics and/or (ii) disregard for workplace or public safety. Even hard physical facts have important socially constructed entailments.
Yes, this entire ‘argument’ is nothing more than transphobes and extreme social conservatives interfering with well-considered public health outreach strategies in order to stir up their base. Even if someone is determined to believe that only women have cervices, it is still appropriate for HPV screening to be advertised as for people with cervices rather than women generally.
Nature’s new policy demonstrates that social awareness leads to better science.
Bigotry is a spectrum too. The greatest problem are not the overtly trans haters but the majority of people who are unaware of the cisgender-centeredness of our culture. They may even feel sympathetic to trans people but they still think “of course people with cervices are women, that is a fact” because that is what they have been hearing their whole lives. Unfortunately, the trans haters can use this to their advantage, while the trans advocates can not.
@ 10. billseymour : “I don’t think that that’ll work. How to you shame those who are shameless?
You show them that there hate is rejected by the rest of society and shun them and have social consequences for the haters that force them to keep their hate to themselves maybe?
They may not feel shame internally but at least the rest of society can make it clear that their bigotry will be called out for what it is and treated with the disgust, contempt and firm clear rejection it deserves.
Also as noted there is a spectrumof bigotry from thsoe merely steeped in the stereotypes and old-fashioned beleifs to the real haters. We probly all have some racism, homophobia, etc .. tosome degree unless we actively fightand work to make sure we don’t.
StevoR @ 20
Yes, we all have the potential for bigotry, it is a constant struggle to push it back as social animals seem to have this instinct to sort individuals into “us” and “them”.
As for the minority of incorrigible bigots, I am reminded of a facetious comment about a monster film by Eli Bosnick:
“look, we can all agree it was a bad idea to make wolf-sized killer rabbits, but have we considered the idea of the international Jew?”
Implicit in your critique is the idea that social constructs are not real, or less real. But “race” is used and misused in a wide variety of ways, by people who believe that it’s real and by people who know that it isn’t, but who must use systems designed by those who do. A house is a construct, but that doesn’t mean that you can just decide to walk through a wall.