The Bad Logic of Good People Can’t be Sexists

One of my constant off-topic rants around here is about racism and sexism. This is going to be a nice little post that straddles the line. It’s one of those off-topic-ish rants about sexism in our society, but it’s built around a core of bad logic – so there is a tiny little bit of on-topicness.

We live in a culture that embodies a basic conflict. On one hand, racism and sexism are a deeply integrated part of our worldview. But on the other wand, we’ve come to believe that racism and sexism are bad. This puts us into an awkward situation. We don’t want to admit to saying or doing racist things. But there’s so much of it embedded in every facet of our society that it takes a lot of effort and awareness to even begin to avoid saying and doing racist things.

The problem there is that we can’t stop being racist/sexist until we admit that we are. We can’t stop doing sexist and racist things until we admit that we do sexist and racist things.

And here’s where we hit the logic piece. The problem is easiest to explain by looking at it in formal logical terms. We’ll look at it from the viewpoint of sexism, but the same argument applies for racism.

  1. We’ll say \text{Sexist}(x) to mean that “x” is sexist.
  2. We’ll say \text{Bad}(x) to mean that x is bad, and \text{Good}(x) to mean that x is good.
  3. We’ll have an axiom that bad and good are logical opposites: \text{Bad}(x) \Leftrightarrow \lnot \text{Good}(x).
  4. We’ll have another axiom that sexism is bad: \forall x: \text{Sexist}(x) \Rightarrow \text{Bad}(x).
  5. We’ll say \text{Does}(p, x) means that person p does an action x.

The key statement that I want to get to is: We believe that people who do bad things are bad people: \forall p, x: \text{Does}(p, x) \land \text{Bad}(x) \Rightarrow \text{Bad}(p).

That means that if you do something sexist, you are a bad person:

  • s is a sexist action: \text{Sexist}(s).
  • I do something sexist: \text{Does}(\textbf{markcc}, s).
  • By rule 5 above, that means that I am sexist.
  • If I am sexist, then by rule 4 above, I am bad.

We know that we aren’t bad people: I’m a good person, right? So we reject that conclusion. I’m not bad; therefore, I can’t be sexist, therefore whatever I did couldn’t have been sexist.

This looks shallow and silly on the surface. Surely mature adults, mature educated adults couldn’t be quite that foolish!

Now go read this.

If his crime was to use the phrase “boys with toys”, and that is your threshold for sexism worthy of some of the abusive responses above, then ok – stop reading now.

My problem is that I have known Shri for many years, and I don’t believe that he’s even remotely sexist. But in 2015 can one defend someone who’s been labeled sexist without a social media storm?

Are people open to the possibility that actually Kulkarni might be very honourable in his dealings with women?

In an interview a week or so ago, Professor Shri Kulkarni said something stupid and sexist. The author of that piece believes that Professor Kulkarni couldn’t have said something sexist, because he knows him, and he knows that he’s not sexist, because he’s a good guy who treats women well.

The thing is, that doesn’t matter. He messed up, and said something sexist. It’s not a big deal; we all do stupid things from time to time. He’s not a bad person because he said something sexist. He just messed up. People are, correctly, pointing out that he messed up: you can’t fix a problem until you acknowledge that it exists! When you say something stupid, you should expect to get called on it, and when you do, you should accept it, apologize, and move on with your life, using that experience to improve yourself, and not make the mistake again.

The thing about racism and sexism is that we’re immersed in it, day in and day out. It’s part of the background of our lives – it’s inescapable. Living in that society means means that we’ve all absorbed a lot of racism and exism without meaning to. We don’t have to like that, but it’s true. In order to make things better, we need to first acklowledge the reality of the world that we live in, and the influence that it has on us.

In mathematical terms, the problem is that good and bad, sexist and not sexist, are absolutes. When we render them into pure two-valued logic, we’re taking shades of gray, and turning them into black and white.

There are people who are profoundly sexist or racist, and that makes them bad people. Just look at the MRAs involved in Gamergate: they’re utterly disgusting human beings, and the thing that makes them so despicably awful is the awfulness of their sexism. Look at a KKKer, and you find a terrible person, and the thing that makes them so terrible is their racism.

But most people aren’t that extreme. We’ve just absorbed a whole lot of racism and sexism from the world we’ve lived our lives in, and that influences us. We’re a little bit racist, and that makes us a little bit bad – we have room for improvement. But we’re still, mostly, good people. The two-valued logic creates an apparent conflict where none really exists.

Where do these sexist/racist attitudes come from? Picture a scientist. What do you see in your minds eye? It’s almost certainly a white guy. It is for me. Why is that?

  1. In school, from the time that I got into a grade where we had a dedicated science teacher, every science teacher that I had was a white guy. I can still name ’em: Mr. Fidele, Mr. Schwartz, Mr. Remoli, Mr. Laurie, Dr. Braun, Mr. Hicken, etc.
  2. On into college, in my undergrad days, where I took a ton of physics and chemistry (I started out as an EE major), every science professor that I had was a white guy.
  3. My brother and I used to watch a ton of trashy sci-fi movie some free movie apps from the internet. In those movies, every time there was a character who was a scientist, he was a white guy.
  4. My father was a physicist working in semiconductor manufacturing for satellites and military applications. From the time I was a little kid until they day he retired, he had exactly one coworker who wasn’t a white man. (And everyone on his team complained bitterly that the black guy wasn’t any good, that he only got and kept the job because he was black, and if they tried to fire him, he’d sue them. I really don’t believe that my dad was a terrible racist person; I think he was a wonderful guy, the person who is a role model for so much of my life. But looking back at this? He didn’t mean to be racist, but I think that he was.)

In short, in all of my exposure to science, from kindergarten to graduate school, scientists were white men. (For some reason, I encountered a lot of women in math and comp sci, but not in the traditional sciences.) So when I picture a scientist, it’s just natural that I picture a man. There’s a similar story for most of us who’ve grown up in the current American culture.

When you consider that, it’s both an explanation of why we’ve got such a deeply embedded sexist sense about who can be a scientist, and an explanation how, despite the fact that we’re not deliberately being sexist, our subconscious sexism has a real impact.

I’ve told this story a thousand times, but during the time I worked at IBM, I ran the intership program for my department one summer. We had a deparmental quota of how many interns each department could pay for. But we had a second program that paid for interns that were women or minority – so they didn’t count against the quota. The first choice intern candidate of everyone in the department was a guy. When we ran out of slots, the guy across the hall from me ranted and raved about how unfair it was. We were discriminating against male candidates! It was reverse sexism! On and on. But the budget was what the budget was. Two days later, he showed up with a resume for a young woman, all excited – he’d found a candidate who was a woman, and she was even better than the guy he’d originally wanted to hire. We hired her, and she was brilliant, and did a great job that summer.

The question that I asked my office-neighbor afterwards was: Why didn’t he find the woman the first time through the resumes? He went through the resumes of all of the candidates before picking the original guy. The woman that he eventually hired had a resume that was clearly better than the guy. Why’d he pass her resume to settle on the guy? He didn’t know.

That little story demonstrates two things. One, it demonstrates the kind of subconscious bias we have. We don’t have to be mustache-twirling black-hatted villains to be sexists or racists. We just have to be human. Two, it demonstrates the way that these low-level biases actually harm people. Without our secondary budget for women/minority hires, that brilliant young woman would never have gotten an internship at IBM; without that internship, she probably wouldn’t have gotten a permanent job at IBM after graduation.

Professor Kulkarni said something silly. He knew he was saying something he shouldn’t have, but he went ahead and did it anyway, because it was normal and funny and harmless.

It’s not harmless. It reinforces that constant flood of experience that says that all scientists are men. If we want to change the culture of science to get rid of the sexism, we have to start with changing the deep attitudes that we aren’t even really aware of, but that influence our thoughts and decisions. That means that when someone says we did something sexist or racist, we need to be called on it. And when we get called on it, we need to admit that we did something wrong, apologize, and try not to make the same mistake again.

We can’t let the black and white reasoning blind us. Good people can be sexists or racists. Good people can do bad things without meaning to. We can’t allow our belief in our essential goodness prevent us from recognizing it when we do wrong, and making the choices that will allow us to become better people.

16 thoughts on “The Bad Logic of Good People Can’t be Sexists

  1. Matthew

    I have a logic quibble and a non-logic quibble:
    The logic quibble is that while I think your premises imply your conclusion, you make some statements along the way that don’t follow. Specifically, you assume
    forall p,x , Sexist(x) AND Does(p,x) IMPLIES Sexist(p)
    but you only state this for Bad, not Sexist, and I don’t see what you have stated that it would follow from.

    The non-logic quibble is that I think you’re oversimplifying the thought process here. I think part of the issue is the consequences often demanded of “a little bit of sexism.” Making a reference to “boys with toys” is worthy of a lot of abuse online. Making a joke about “dongles” is worthy of an Internet campaign to get you fired. The people who think like this don’t just come up with the idea that any amount of sexism makes you a bad person from the get-go, they get it from “Action s is worthy of Consequence y,” and “Consequence y is pretty harsh.”

    1. markcc Post author

      Except that things like the dongles joke leading to a campaign to get someone fired is… Something that *never* happened.

      If you go back and look at reality, a woman named Adria Richards tweeted saying “these guys are making dongle jokes, not cool”. That’s the absolute total extent of what she did. The only campaign to get someone fired was the retaliation, when there was a massive, organized DDOS attack against Richards employer demanding that she be fired.

      Similarly, lots of people are whining about the horrible, horrible consequences that the professor suffered for his boys with toys comment. Those consequences? People on twitter said that he said something sexist. That’s the total price that he paid, the total dreaded consequences. He’s not at risk of losing his job. He’s not being driven out of his home. He’s not even particularly having his reputation harmed. He said something stupid – he admitted as he way saying it that it was a dumb thing to say, and he’s had people agree that it was a stupid thing to say, and explain why it was so bad.

      This is a constant theme in these discussions. Women speak up, and they get denied jobs, threatened with loss of jobs, threatened with violence of various kinds. Men say stupidly sexist things, and get called on it, and then portray themselves as the *real* victims.

      1. Matthew

        I don’t disagree with any of that. I’m not saying “No, these people are justified.” I’m saying “The actual thought process is more complicated than what you’ve presented in this article.”

        And I’d add that while that’s not relevant to all conversations about the ‘boys with toys’ comment, I think it is relevant to a post that wants to lay out the logic that leads people to these incorrect conclusions, and explain why that logic is wrong.

          1. Matthew

            He said the only campaign to get someone fired was the one against the woman who tweeted the initial complaint. I responded “I don’t disagree with any of that.” You then replied to my response by reiterating in all caps a thing that I already said I don’t disagree with.

            I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take from that.

  2. markcc Post author

    My point was that the problems that you brought up largely do not exist.

    We’re constantly told stories about women that are not true, and we accept them, and pass them on.

    There’s a ton of people who heard the story of Adria Richards at that long-ago PyCon. One of the versions of that story, which is believed by a lot of people – apparently including you! – which says that what Ms. Richards did was start a twitter campaign to have the jokers fired. That story is then used to show how violating the code of sexism results in an unreasonable uproar from the feminist hoard.

    The problem is, it never happened. There was no campaign at all to have the gentleman in question fired. The only campaign to have anyone fired was the one against Ms. Richards.

    That basic storyline keeps on happening, again and again. People make up stories about terrible consequences for saying something sexist or racist. And then when someone tries to talk about the real problems caused by sexism, the real consequences faced by women, the discussion gets derailed by people who want to, in some way, say “both sides do it”.

    I’m not saying that I think you’re knowingly telling a lie. But you’re passing on a story that you heard somewhere, from someone that you believe is credible – and he passed it on from someone that he believed is credible, and so on, until you get to the source, which was either someone who misunderstood what happened, or who deliberately wanted to inflame the situation. But with nothing but good intentions, you’re continuing to propagate a lie that’s been really, seriously hurting someone.

    That’s a perfect example of the basic problem that I was trying to talk about here. We make excuses for the people who we’ve been taught to trust, and justify the elimination of consequences for their errors, because we know that they’re good people, and they don’t deserve the grief.

    But if we don’t acknowledge that even good people can say bad things, harmful things without bad intentions, without being bad people – then we’ll never fix the problem. If we can’t tell a good person that they did something hurtful without meaning to; if we can’t point out that something said by a famous, prominent person was hurtful and harmful – then nothing will ever change.

    Professor Kulkarni said something that even he knew he shouldn’t say. And people are calling him on that. There’s no unfair, or unreasonable consequences. You passed on a story that you believed – and it’s not true. I’m calling you on it. I understand that you trusted whoever told you that story – but it’s still not true, and that needs to be said.

    1. Simon Farnsworth

      See also GamerGate; the origin story is a man (Eron Gjoni) getting upset with his girlfriend over her behaviour before the couple broke up, and establishing a mob to get revenge on her.

      That gets twisted quite quickly into the “ethics in games journalism” explanation for GamerGate, and the idea that the early mob (which was about revenge on an ex-girlfriend) is somehow justified by the later explanation (with a weak link to her relationship with a games journalist).

      As a result, an overtly sexist campaign (“my girlfriend broke up with me; get her, boys!”) gets a degree of whitewashing from a less sexist group (“games journalists seem to lack ethics”). This second group then falls into the trap your article describes – supporting a movement whose origins are sexist would be bad, they support GamerGate, therefore GamerGate’s origins cannot be sexist, therefore the attacks on the girlfriend must have been justified by more than just her breakup with Eron Gjoni.

  3. Scott

    The internship story is interesting for another reason: The optimal strategy may be to ignore all the women for the first set, since you can get them paid for with the second budget…

    (At least given the dysfunctional-but-common goal of a manager to have as many direct+indirect reports as possible.)

    1. markcc Post author

      Yes, it was highly gamble, but we considered that a positive thing at the time.

      The problem was, the previous summer, my department had zero women as interns. I don’t remember the exact figures (this was more than 10 years ago now!), but the research lab as a hole had well under 10% women interns, despite the applicant pool being in the 60% men/40% women range. So *anything* that brought qualified women into the lab as interns was seen as a net positive, even if the managers were just doing it to get more free labor for the summer.

    2. Simon Farnsworth

      If that did happen, there are ways to compensate – e.g. bring both budgets in line timewise, and say that your women interns come out of the second budget regardless of when you pick them.

      There are more complex schemes – for example, you get extra places for any gender in the second round based on the number of women you picked up in the first round, so someone who picks 1 man and 2 women finds themselves with an extra free pick for a fourth intern, while someone who picked 3 women gets two free picks for interns four and five, yet someone who picked 3 men gets told they can only pick two women at most.

      1. markcc Post author

        Yeah, of course there are workarounds… the problem with that kind of scheme, though, is that in general, the more complicated the rules are, the more likely it is that there’s some obscure interaction that can be exploited by a min/max analysis.

        In the specific instance that I was talking about, this worked fine; and even if someone gamed it, it didn’t hurt anything. The goal was to get more qualified women and minorities into the internship program, and it was a huge success.

  4. collin237

    I think you’re reading too much into it. Couldn’t it be simply that the list was too long for one person to read through without getting mental fatigue, and they could just hire more readers so each one had a smaller list?

    1. markcc Post author

      I assume you’re talking about the resume reading?

      If so, doesn’t it seem odd that the “mental fatigue” resulted in uniformly selecting resumes belonging to male candidates? There was a huge difference between the percentage of female candidates, and the percentage of female resumes selected by screening.

      Further, there’s been a lot of research on this. When you run a screening experiment including resumes that are identical except for the name of the candidate, you find a significant bias in favor of candidates with male names.

      Finally, in the real event: for the summer program at IBM Research, they didn’t hire resume readers to screen the candidates. They allowed researchers who wanted to mentor summer students to search the resume database themselves to select candidates. There was no one hired to be a resume reader/screener: there were just individual researchers.

      And to be abundantly clear: I don’t think that my fellow researchers were deliberately trying to eliminate female candidates. I don’t think that they were consciously being sexists. That’s the whole point: a group of intelligent, educated people, motivated to find the best person to work with for the summer, without any desire to be discriminatory, acted in a way that turned out to be extremely discriminatory, because of biases that are so ingrained as a part of our cultural background that we’re not consciously aware of.

      We’ve all got strong racial and sexual biases. The only way to fix that is to admit that the problem exists, and then take steps to combat it.

      1. collin237

        In your article, you didn’t clarify, as you did here, that overlooking specifically women is a known trend among resume readers. Likewise, your article didn’t explain how resume readers are chosen.


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