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.
- We’ll say to mean that “x” is sexist.
- We’ll say to mean that x is bad, and to mean that x is good.
- We’ll have an axiom that bad and good are logical opposites: .
- We’ll have another axiom that sexism is bad: .
- We’ll say means that person does an action .
The key statement that I want to get to is: We believe that people who do bad things are bad people: .
That means that if you do something sexist, you are a bad person:
- is a sexist action: .
- I do something sexist: .
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.