Am I a sexist ? August 30, 2007Posted by dorigo in Blogroll, humor, language, personal, physics, politics, science, social life.
It seems that my description of the speaker and the audience in a CERN seminar yesterday raised some eyebrows, and the comments column of that post got filled with a discussion that has little to do with the physics. I prefer to answer some of the comments in an independent post, i.e. here. For other columns discussing the issue, see what Kea (an often discriminated woman physicist) or Clifford (if you are sexophobic) have to say.
I am not an extraterrestrial, and no human being is happy to be criticized, nor is any blogger happy to hear from a reader “I won’t be reading much of this blog in the future, I don’t think“. I will not try to feign unconcern. But by far the strongest feeling today, as I checked my blog comments - mostly concentrated in the column under yesterday’s post on Lisa Randall‘s seminar , and the incoming links, was amusement.
And as usual when I find myself amused by the criticism I receive, my first reaction is to beg for more. Hannibal Lektar, interviewed in his cell in “Silence of the Lambs“, replies to the shock of the investigator at the display of the monster’s personality by mentioning how he once ate a man’s liver with a bottle of Chianti, and showing how the thought of it makes him drool. Likewise, my impulse would be to drop a casual, really sexist remark which would only drive a larger wedge between me and my detractors, like “My next grad student in CMS is quite skilled, and she is also quite sexy – I’m working to exploit the latter feature”. (She will laugh at you all when I show this to her).
Instead, let me disciplined here. I will try to answer to the criticism by taking it seriously, but bear with me: this will not be totally devoid of the occasional sarcasm which is part of my writing style. You had a taste of it just above…
1) First of all, a call to keep a perspective. Maybe you never cared to read the fine print, but the subtitle of this blog is “private thoughts of a physicist and chessplayer“. That is right, private. And indeed, in my blog you will be just as likely to find a discussion of physics issues as a chess game or a report of an observing session under the stars, or a picture of my kids. Did you get the message ? If I venture in a description of a person I meet – be it a woman, a man, whatever – it is because this is my diary, and I want to keep a record of my ideas, my feelings, my thoughts.
Moreover, I write posts here as I would write a book, or a novel, and not an essay on particle physics: I like to describe the characters, and I am better at describing women than men. You, dear reader, are the ultimate judge of the quality of the output, and you are perfectly entitled to decide it is not of your liking. What you cannot do, I think, is criticize the contents because they are at odds with the way you would have written things, or because they do not fit with your personal idea of what is kosher content in the internet. I of course love to be read, but maybe this blog is just not for you. And that stil does not entitle you to criticize it as sexist: these are personal thoughts.
Maybe you can criticize me as a sex maniac, but that would be a little bit over the edge for having written “left the arms exposed“, don’t you think ?
2) Related to the above, is a general lack of perspective in some of the comments I got to read today. The internet is full of child porn, home-made bomb manuals, neonazist sites, climate change skeptics. And the world, too, is full of maniacs who bomb countries for their personal gain, serial rapists, killers, readers of New Scientist.
You feel I have not done a good service to the cause of reducing sexism in academia with my post of yesterday ? Maybe you have a point, but is it such a big deal ? Did it really require your royal, thought over intervention ? This blog is visited less than a thousand times a day (maybe by the same people over and over). By attacking a paragraph which even carried a initial disclaimer (“if I am allowed a slip…“), and which was clearly only meant at giving the atmosphere of the seminar (as a few readers of both sexes seem to have understood without guidance), you show concern for this blog content and that is fine, but you also show the kind of random, compulsive 360-degree action that is typical of fundamentalists. One cannot argue with fundamentalists, so what am I doing here ?
3) Perhaps what I am doing here is trying to explain that I, too, hate the situation a pretty girl faces when she starts an academic career. But the whole world works the same way. By applying restraint, censorship, and dogged control inside your institution, in the behavior of your colleagues, in what you read in blogs, you may be successful in creating an apparently sexism-free environment. But the people the girl will meet in his academic life are human beings, with their own pulsions, their fallacies, their sexism – even if covert. You may walk in your neat corridor devoid of pics of busty girls, but you will not have purged the mind of Dr. Brown three doors down – he has those pics hung on his garage walls.
I guess the point I am making is: bombing Iraq is not the way to eradicate fundamentalism and arab terrorism. Quite the opposite.
4) Finally, I deeply regret the level of paranoia we have reached with the whole issue in academia. The world is changing, thank god. In some ways it is even getting better.
Let’s take JoAnne Hewett‘s comment as an example. She starts off by writing “You started off on a sexual tone“. Excuse me, what is a sexual tone, describing a dress ? Describing jewelry ? Saying somebody looks nice and fit ? I have to exercise restraint to avoid saying what I think here. I know a sex maniac could smell sex in that sentence, and in a way, that is exactly what annoys me in the criticism: the people who criticize are those most obsessed with sex, not the other way round! Get a life, folks!
But then things get worse: “And then brought in a Southpark reference to penises ? Got sex on your mind while writing this post, do you ?“… What can I say ? She really does not understand, but she is excused because she probably does not usually read this blog, which is full of the same stuff. One example (the first that springs to my mind because of the similarity of the topic, but there are dozens) is from a post of mid-May this year, when I talk about back-of-the envelope calculations as opposed to theoretical calculations with too many digits of accuracy: “we need it about as much as a man needs a two-feet-long penis – great for bragging, but ineffective and redundant“.
JoAnne concludes “why make the point that she was not intimidated by the questions…? Think the girl can’t take tough questions, do you ?“. Good lord. Is that sexist ? JoAnne, that is insulting, and I think you meant to insult me. You managed to do it. I might excuse you if you wrote the comment out of an impulse, but that requires your apologies. Otherwise, please walk away, you have crossed the line.