You Can't Have a Conversation About Sexism at Gunpoint

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Last week, I wrote an essay on women on the Internet in which I argued that the real problem is not the sexualized remarks and threats of violence that people tend to focus on. I've now been blogging for more than a dozen years, and for all the threats and the comments, they have never resulted in so much as a light shove or a pushy pass in the real world. No, the real problem, to me, is that women attract an undue amount of nonsexual rage and denigration from people who don't like the opinions they hold. People are ruder, angrier, more condescending and more dismissive with women who make arguments they don't like.

I tried to make it clear what I was not saying: "Men, you need to clean up your act." This is not just something men do. It is not just something conservatives, or liberals, or nonfeminists do. It is a general rule about how people of all genders and political ideologies interact with women who assert their right to have strong opinions about important issues. I was not issuing dicta; I was trying to start a conversation about how people view women. Most people can see the outsized abuse that the women on their own side of an argument get; I hoped that maybe the next time they got similarly outraged at a woman on the other side, a few of them would think, "Wait, am I angry at her for being stupid and disingenuous, or am I angry at her for being a woman who disagrees with me?"

But while "Here's how guys need to fix their behavior" may not be exactly what I said, that's what a bunch of guys in the comments section heard. Here's what one reader wrote in response:

You've got it entirely backward. Megan. If I trash a white male politician in public, i will not be called either a racist or a sexist. If I trash a minority and / or female politician, I will be, regardless of what I'm saying. Just look at all the leftist whiners who attack every anti-Obama person as being "racist".

This corrosive double standard has effects, one of which is what you're seeing here: "I'm going to be called racist no matter what, might as well be guilty."

Further, those on the left seem to encourage this "racist" / "sexist" "defense" ("you're just attacking me because I'm a women"). Which often causes this reply to come to mind: "no, I'm attacking your ideas because they suck, as I said. I'm attacking you because you're a dishonest whiny feminist who refuses to engage in honest intellectual discussion."

I suspect that the writer and I disagree about the general prevalence of racism and sexism in society. Nonetheless, I think he has a point worth drawing out, though I'm going to confine the discussion to sexism, not race, because that's one where I have some experience of being in the historically disadvantaged group.

I believe that three things are true:

  1. It is quite possible to vehemently disagree with a woman for reasons that have nothing to do with her gender.
  2. Subtle sexism is nonetheless quite widespread.
  3. Therefore, it is generally helpful to discuss sexist patterns in human behavior. However, unless the offense is really quite blatant, it is generally unhelpful in the extreme to accuse specific people, or actions, of being sexist. I mean, if someone says something like "I just don't think women should have opinions on politics because they're too stupid and overemotional to think clearly about anything," then go to town. Otherwise, discretion is the better part of valor.

When you talk about generalities, you're having a conversation. When you talk about specific people, you're making an accusation. And that makes it very hard to have a rational discussion.

I can't count the number of times that I've seen someone level an accusation of sexism, then say "I don't know why he got so mad. I was just trying to have a conversation." (Optional addendum: "I'm not saying he is an evil person; everyone is somewhat sexist, but the way we correct that is by calling out sexist behavior.") If you are someone who has ever had that thought, let me explain it to you, in short words and brief declarative sentences.

As a society, we've decided that sexism is bad, and that with the exception of actresses, models and wet nurses, women should be judged on the content of their work, not the content of their 23rd chromosome. We stigmatize people who are sexist. Sometimes we sue them or fire them.

As I explore in the final chapter of my book, if you're trying to change people's behavior, rather than incapacitate them, lighter punishment is often better. There is a direct trade-off between heavy punishment and our willingness to employ it, or to believe that it is merited. You probably wouldn't have much trouble believing your best friend had had a bad day and snapped at a store clerk, but you'd need some powerful proof that he murdered his wife. That doesn't mean that we've made the wrong trade-off -- in the case of murder, I think we've got it basically right. But we should understand that there is a trade-off.

In our society, accusing a specific person of sexism is now a very, very powerful weapon. And there is no such thing as a "conversation" at gunpoint. You can have a conversation or you can have a forced confession. You cannot have both.

At some level, many of the people who do this have to know that they're trying to have it both ways: They would genuinely like to gently convince people that there is much more subtle structural sexism out there than they understand ... and they would also like to be able to get their political opponents hounded out of office for making sexist remarks. And though I will not name names, for the very reasons stated above, let me point out that many of these people seem to think that this is what a conversation looks like:

Person A: I have a grievance.

Person B: I am so sorry! What is your grievance?

Person A: Your behavior is sexist. Here's why. [Insert description of sexist behavior.]

Person B: I had no idea! I feel terrible. I must be a terrible person. I will assiduously try to eradicate this horrible sexism from my soul.

Person A: You are not necessarily a terrible person. Everyone is a little bit sexist. We must all assiduously try to eradicate this horrible sexism from our souls.

Person B: I am so glad we had this conversation. [Hug.]

Actual conversations mean that the person you're conversing with may have some other reaction than "You're right, I agree, this is wrong." But the power of an accusation of sexism, particularly when a woman is accusing a man, is such that it's very hard to have anything approaching an actual discussion. His side is already scripted, and his lines consist of craven apology.

I think that we need to have a conversation about subtle structural sexism. But it actually needs to be a conversation, because the best hope of changing behavior is for well-meaning people to do a little gut check before they go on a tear against an opinionated woman. And the only way to do that is to actually convince them that this is real.

So really, guys: It's not you, it's me. It's us. It's everyone. But like Smokey Bear says, only you, and me, and everyone else can prevent flame wars.

  1. I'm not saying that this never goes the other way -- to take one trivial example, I can't count the number of times I've turned down a panel, only to have the panel organizer say, "Darn, we were really hoping to get a woman," as if I'd have special woman-opinions on transit regulation or the Federal Reserve. But remember when you complain about that stuff that those women are also getting dinged as being "bitchy" for stuff that in a man would be perceived as being "competent and strong."

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