AS131: Hiding From Ideas

This week I want to take a break from interviews. I’ve absolutely loved the interviews I’ve been doing lately, but I recognize that some people come to my podcast for some commentary, or Tommentary, so today I’d like to do that. SO, I picked a doozy of a topic, which is Christina Hoff Sommers. She recently gave a talk at Oberlin, and she was perceived as such a threat by certain students that they gave a very condescending preamble and warning about her talk. What could warrant such a thing? Listen and find out!

Here are some relevant links:

http://www.aauw.org/files/2013/03/Graduating-to-a-Pay-Gap-The-Earnings-of-Women-and-Men-One-Year-after-College-Graduation-Executive-Summary-and-Recommendations.pdf

 

13 thoughts on “AS131: Hiding From Ideas”

  1. Before I listen I wanted to mention I generally enjoy your Tommentary, and agree with it. Even when I don’t agree I find your reasoning sound. I suspect our differences arise as a result of one or the other of us missing critical data.

  2. Hi Thomas,

    Firstly, I apologise as again this is likely to be a long post. If I’m clogging up your blog then let me know and I can send my comments through some other channel if that’s better for you.

    I was interested in seeing how you’d approach this topic as I listened to it back-to-back with Part 2 of the toxicity discussion. Specifically, around the middle of that episode you replied to Ben’s claim that there should be some kind of obligation or expectation to try to understand someone’s position and you seemed to reject this saying that if someone’s position was as ridiculous as the anti-vaxxers’ then it doesn’t make sense to demand a reasoned discussion with them.

    So when I heard you were going to have a reasoned discussion about Christina Hoff Sommers, who is essentially the anti-vaxxer of the social science world, it seemed strange to me.

    Anyway, I think overall the tone of the discussion was good but I did feel that maybe you lacked a lot of context which would have heavily changed your perception of some issues. For example, knowing now that Sommers is essentially the Andrew Wakefield or Deepak Chopra of social science, it should make sense why a university would have a disclaimer before their talk. They do this a lot with people who are known to be promoting incorrect information as the university allows students to request talks from various people but they aren’t obligated to be viewed as supporting the content of those talks (especially when all the evidence is against them). I think there was a similar “controversy” when the crank Food Babe was discredited by a professor at one of her university talks and he welcomed people afterwards to come talk to him for a more accurate view of the facts.

    I think the whole notion that people are “hiding from ideas” is mistaken as well. Minorities aren’t strangers to bigoted opinions. If someone from the KKK or Stormfront give a speech at a university and a black person chooses not to listen to it, they aren’t “hiding from ideas”. They know the idea, they’ve had it spat in their faces their entire lives. The same applies to sexist bigots like Sommers who have a long and rich history of misrepresenting science to suit the needs of their political organisation.

    The reason why people would reject negatively to Sommers’ suggestion that women just “pick better careers” is simply because it is so naive and ignorant of the actual situation that it becomes a meaningless statement. It’s like saying that poor people can have better health outcomes if they pick better health insurers or choose to eat healthier foods. Sure, but the whole problem is why there is a difference there in the first place.

    This leads into her suggestion that asking about causes of choices is being “patronising”. In what other area of science would this be an acceptable thought termination? Unless we believe that people have absolute freedom of choice with no restriction or limitation by the variables of the world, then we have to accept that there can be differences between the ease with which different people can make certain choices. With that we come to understand that certain careers are harder for women to get into for a number of reasons – things like stereotype threat, hostile work environments, series of harassment and discrimination at every level of selection, etc.

    The other problem with Sommers’ suggestion (and something that apply to your comment on the issue) is that the value we assign to a career is at least partly determined by how we view them. When careers are female-dominated, we value them less. We see this when traditionally male careers become dominated by women and the average pay drops significantly. Choosing different careers isn’t going to help women if that trend continues.

    On your comments about the wage gap: first I need to say that we have radically different experiences. I can’t actually recall the last time I’ve seen a feminist (let alone an actual voice in the movement rather than a random internet commenter) suggest that women earn 77c what men do for the exact same work. I recently had a discussion with someone who made this same claim and I asked him to link me to some relevant feminist figure making the claim, and he couldn’t do so. All he could link were journalist headlines implying that. The closest example I can think of was when Obama misspoke by saying women earn 77c for the same work, when he meant 77c for the same kind of work (i.e. fulltime).

    The distinction between the two wage gaps that you were trying to raise is referred to in the literature as the unadjusted wage gap (the raw difference) and the adjusted wage gap (the gap that remains after accounting for a range of variables). The problem many people make is that they think this nullifies or cancels out the sexism issues associated with the unadjusted wage gap. It doesn’t. There’s a decent paper which debunks the myth that the unadjusted gap doesn’t deal with sexism issues here: http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/sites/default/files/ef_files/pubdocs/2010/18/en/2/EF1018EN.pdf.

    As discussed above, there are a number of reasons why the raw difference is caused by sexist issues in society. For example, women are more often in part-time work because they are the primary caregivers. Now, don’t get me wrong, people can and do willingly take those positions. But for some it’s not a free choice and they do it because they’re expected to as women to be primary caregivers, or they’re at least expected to take more flexible jobs where they can pick up kids from school, or they’ve chosen to take the part time job because the man earns more so it’s just ‘natural’ that they take the pay hit. Or, as another example, part of the wage gap is caused by negotiation differences in men and women but they negotiate differently because of discrimination (i.e. studies show that women are punished for attempting to negotiate whereas men are rewarded).

    Every feminist organisation I’ve seen understands the science on the issue, and all of them accept that there are differences between men and women. The disagreement on the last issue tends to involve what those differences are and how meaningful they are. Part of the problem with this discussion is that research has looked intensely at differences between men and women because similarities are relatively boring, but the facts show that men and women are far more similar than dissimilar: http://www.careerpioneernetwork.org/wwwroot/userfiles/files/the_gender_similarities_hypothesis.pdf. Even if we accept that some of those differences are innate, biological differences, we still face the fact that there is more variation within a gender than between them – that is, it is practically useless to apply generalised differences of men and women to individuals.

    If you want more information on this topic (and maybe even a guest), then you might want to look at Cordelia Fine’s work. In particular her book “The Gender Delusion” has received a lot of praise.

    Sorry again for the long post but this happens to be a topic that I know a fair bit about and it’s commonly misunderstood so I like to be as thorough as possible to avoid more misunderstanding. Also, if it was a matter of vote, I’d prefer Sommers wasn’t a guest on your show as I think the less of an audience she gets the better the world will be. At the very least I’d love it if you had a second guest at the same time to rebut her made-up “facts”.

    Final point: I noticed you picked up on the difficulty in calling Sommers a feminist when everything she writes is clearly anti-feminist. The best approach I’ve ever heard to this went something along the lines of: she’s free to call herself whatever she likes and I’ll respect that but it’s important to note that in order to call herself a feminist she has to create an entirely new category which only includes her and another new category to place every other feminist that has ever existed. It’s a fancy way of saying that she’s not a feminist.

    1. I think, with respect to one important point, that you’re both right and wrong.

      As atheists, we’ve all experienced the curious dichotomy on the topic of young earth creationism; that aside from a few outliers like Ken Ham, most “serious thinkers” within christianity dismiss a literalistic approach to the Genesis story, and lots of christians and even more moderate atheists will as such be very quick to tut-tut any mention of creationism as a criticism of christianity; after all, no “serious thinkers” in that religion believe in that sort of thing. But then you get into the field and you’ll find that, whatever the “serious thinkers” may believe, there’s vast, VAST numbers of run of the mill christians who genuinely do believe in a literal six day creation story because that’s the very simple, easily-digested version of the story that’s been related to them and they lack the interest or means to dig deeper.

      The 77% wage gap is the same sort of thing within feminism. As you say, none of the major, serious leadership figures within feminist groups will seriously espouse it… but once you get out there among the run of the mill feminists that make up the bulk of those who identify by that term, that statistic is very confidently, very frequently and very uncritically espoused, and anyone who challenges it is treated as a misogynist beast. Because that’s a narrative which is easily-digested, and they lack the interest or means to dig deeper.

      All of which, basically, is to say that simply dismissing the importance of discussing this topic is much akin to simply dismissing the importance of arguing against creationism. Yes, it would be NICE if the argument didn’t matter, it would be NICE if it was too silly to merit this type of talk, but that it is nice does not make it true. It bears addressing, in the sort of factual way that Thomas has done here.

      1. “but once you get out there among the run of the mill feminists that make up the bulk of those who identify by that term, that statistic is very confidently, very frequently and very uncritically espoused, and anyone who challenges it is treated as a misogynist beast. Because that’s a narrative which is easily-digested, and they lack the interest or means to dig deeper.”

        But the point is that it’s very rarely espoused and when it (rarely) is, it’s usually just a simple misunderstanding that people are happy to be corrected on. It’s not like creationism at all which is obviously very widespread. The only people I ever see pushing the myth are actually anti-feminists who think they’re describing feminist views.

        And importantly people like Sommers use it in an attempt to dismiss feminism, which is a specific movement, and so it makes no sense to pick up on the misunderstandings of a tiny minority of people who self-identify as such. Thomas made a similar comment about how he struggles with fully accepting feminism because of beliefs like that when, in my opinion, it doesn’t necessarily follow given that it’s not an accepted part of feminism.

        1. “But the point is that it’s very rarely espoused and when it (rarely) is, it’s usually just a simple misunderstanding that people are happy to be corrected on.”

          Neither of these have been my experience, but perhaps we’re simply speaking to different groups of people on the topic.

          1. Maybe so but if it was at all a significant part of what people believed, I wouldn’t think it’d be so hard to find examples of. Like I say in my initial post above, whenever someone makes this statement I always ask if they can provide me with examples and so far I haven’t really had any replies.

            To try to find my own examples I did a google search of Tumblr (as that’s the stereotypical “SJW” hangout where I imagine we’d expect such comments to be common) and I’m still searching through each page of google results without finding a hit. Practically every single response is from an anti-feminist who claims to be describing the feminist position.

            Originally I thought it was a common misunderstanding that needs to be corrected but after having these conversations with people arguing how common it is without them ever being able to find any evidence, I’m beginning to wonder if maybe it’s one of those myths that gets spread because it’s easy to believe even though it has no real basis in reality.

        2. I think it is largely a misunderstanding of how statistics work that that number gets described incorrectly so often. I remember hearing the wage gap described incorrectly a couple times on MSNBC a few years ago and I was confused when they first said it but the second time a guest was on to correct the person. With the internet allowing for misinformation to spread and the news outlets not being perfect on facts I can understand how this is described incorrectly by a lot of random people, and because it is a stat about sexism the mythical stat gets attributed to feminism.

          But I totally agree with you that any feminist who has bothered to look into the stats doesn’t misrepresent the facts that way. I don’t know Sommers outside of a rough idea about the book she wrote and I found your above comment fairly informative for why the students were talking about her speech that way. And I’ll chime in with you that stuff like this especially shouldn’t make Thomas feel put off about the feminist movement.

          1. Thanks, and yeah you definitely make some good points there. I find the worst offender of the bad stat is just sensationalist media headlines but generally the articles themselves or the discussion in the segments (as you say) corrects that title.

  3. If an opinion from a woman, active in feminism since 1971, would help here goes: Bravo on this episode. I think you handled it well. It may be that I appreciate Sommers because she represents “my” feminism, and it may be a generational thing. In old-school feminism where I come from, women have agency, we demand the right to make our own decisions (just try telling us to go into ‘woman’ careers. Just try.) and we’re prepared and able to accept the benefits or the consequences. The idea that we might need a “safe space” to “decompress” after hearing ideas we disagree with is beyond offensive. It’s demeaning to women.

    In contrast, the newer feminism restores the stereotype of the emotion-driven, hypersensitive, fragile, illogical, unstable, irrational woman, devoid of agency, dependent on men and society at large to shield her from the consequences of her decisions and from the big bad world entirely. (See: ‘I Love Lucy’)

    I ain’t going back there. We worked too hard to get out and open the doors for other women who want to get out. I don’t care what vile names I get called or what threats, no force on earth is getting me back there.

    Women who do want to go back to the old ways are welcome to it. Nobody’s stopping them. There will always be men to white knight them and shelter them in the nursery or on the fainting couch. Not all men – or women – have caught up to the idea of independent women with agency, and for some it’s still a threat. Many men and women find the old gender roles familiar and comfortable, so it works out for all concerned. Woman = Damsel In Distress. If they have to make up or cherry-pick or misinterpret statistics to support the fantasy, great. They can even call it feminism if it makes them happy. But they can’t expect everyone to play along.

    1. “In old-school feminism where I come from, women have agency, we demand the right to make our own decisions (just try telling us to go into ‘woman’ careers. Just try.) and we’re prepared and able to accept the benefits or the consequences.”

      Don’t worry, that’s not “old school feminism” but pretty much every form of feminism. No feminist position takes away a woman’s agency and they are expected to be accountable for their decisions and actions. The only difference is that the feminist position is grounded in science so it accepts that environmental variables will affect the choices that women make. For example, if one field systematically denies women from entering it then less women will bother wasting time on an avenue that is unlikely to pay off.

      It’s all well and good saying, “If women really wanted those jobs then they’d fight for them!” and sure, that’s true. But feminism is pointing out that having to jump over unnecessary hurdles that are created through pure bigotry and discrimination isn’t a good thing and we should work to remove those unfair hurdles.

      “The idea that we might need a “safe space” to “decompress” after hearing ideas we disagree with is beyond offensive. It’s demeaning to women.”

      Nobody has said that women “need” a safe space but just that one is available if they want it. I’m not sure what kind of feminism you ascribe to which argues that minority groups facing harassment shouldn’t receive any kind of support or community..

      “In contrast, the newer feminism restores the stereotype of the emotion-driven, hypersensitive, fragile, illogical, unstable, irrational woman, devoid of agency, dependent on men and society at large to shield her from the consequences of her decisions and from the big bad world entirely. (See: ‘I Love Lucy’)”

      …This just isn’t true at all. Can you cite some feminist works that make these arguments?

      “Many men and women find the old gender roles familiar and comfortable, so it works out for all concerned.”

      Just to be clear, there’s nothing “unfeminist” about choosing a path that follows traditional gender roles. If a woman wants to be a housewife and spend the rest of her days barefoot and pregnant, that’s awesome and she’s still a feminist furthering the cause of women being independent, autonomous people.

      “If they have to make up or cherry-pick or misinterpret statistics to support the fantasy, great. They can even call it feminism if it makes them happy. ”

      I assume this is probably aimed at Sommers’ position as she’s the one frequently called out by scientists for her warping of statistics and for creating a form of “feminism” that is probably better termed “anti-feminism” (or just misogyny for short).

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