Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Language of Sex(ism)

"None of those things are funny. They have never been funny."
Roger Ebert

Here's a scene featuring Jean Pierre Bergeron and Tom Smothers from the otherwise forgettable and essentially forgotten third installment in the Cannonball Run franchise, Speed Zone:

I think it is an important scene to bring into our conversation about sexism in science, especially the sort of sexism that expresses itself through so-called "microaggressions" and is interpreted as "implicit bias". It's the sort of "sexism" that Tim Hunt was accused of channeling in his remark about "the trouble with girls" and, I would argue, the sort of "sexism" that got Geoff Marcy into trouble with Sarah Ballard.

The gag in the scene is simple (I will leave it to you and Roger Ebert to decide whether it's funny). Smothers misunderstands Bergeron's French-inflected attempt to say "peanuts" as "penis". Worse, since Bergeron is also struggling with English grammar, Smothers hears him say, "You would like my penis," instead of what Bergeron clearly meant, namely, "Would you like my peanuts?" Not only a question rather than a statement, but an entirely appropriate response to Smothers' introductory "I'm hungry. I wonder if they're going to feed us on this flight."

I bring it up as a continuation of my last post, in which I discussed Ramón Barthelemy, Melinda McCormick and Charles Henderson's "demonstrat[ion of] a language for physicists and astronomers to discuss sexism in their departments". We can easily imagine this scene played out between two astronomers on their way to or from an academic conference. And we can easily imagine replacing Smothers with a woman.

What troubles me in the way sexism is discussed in the sciences is that this story might well end up as a "typical" anecdote about "sexual harassment". Consider that in the cases of both Hunt and Marcy, the offended woman did not go through the minimal embarrassment that Smothers goes through before the misunderstanding is cleared up. In today's world of live-tweeting instant outrage, Bergeron's "harassment" would probably have gone viral before he had a chance to show Smothers his nuts.

It's interesting that even back 1989 it was possible to make this scene without the taint of homophobia. Smothers is only as uncomfortable as a married woman might be with what he takes to be Bergeron's proposition. The difference, of course, is that a woman, certainly today, would not only be uncomfortable, but likely also find the proposition to be "harmful". That is, if a colleague on a plane after a conference said, "You would like my penis," the woman would not merely say, "I'm not interested. It's not my thing." Depending on her ideological training, she might very well contact the flight crew and report an exercise of "male privilege". In today's climate, we can easily imagine her claiming to have been harassed. (Indeed, as far as I can tell, Barthelemy et al. would not hesitate to code the incident, if unresolved, as overtly "hostile".)

It's likely, like I say, that she wouldn't continue the conversation. She might simply turn away and give him a cold shoulder for the rest of the flight; more likely, she'd find a man to change seats with. But if interviewed or surveyed, she might very well bring up the story of how a colleague presumed that she "would like his penis".

To me, there doesn't seem to be any real attempt among those who are trying to draw attention to the problem of sexual harassment in the sciences to control for these kinds of misunderstandings. This is true both in research and in policy, as well as in the investigation of individual cases and in journalistic reporting of them. Interestingly, in the Bergeron/Smothers scene the language barrier is set up very explicitly. As far as I can tell, "zero tolerance" for sexual harassment in American astronomy also involves zero tolerance for cultural miscommunication. That's of course ironic given how often the same activists tout the importance of being inclusive.

It is often said that feminists have no sense of humor. I don't know how true that is as a generalization. But they do seem insensitive to the ambiguities of communication that make humor possible. This, I think, will be an enormous barrier to the construction of a "language to discuss sexism" in the scientific community.


Anonymous said...

The first time a man offered to show me his penises I was 11. And he immediately proceeded to show it to me. Since then, I have been propositioned, grabbed, poked and hassled by men constantly. I was even propositioned when I was at the hospital at 32 weeks of pregnancy. I'm now 40 and nobody grabs and pokes me anymore, so that's a plus. But the unneeded and unwelcome comments don't cease.

I'm sure you are very much capable of exercising your imagination to ask ourself how likely one is to approach yet another unwelcome penises comment with a mind that's entirely open to the possibility of a miscommunication. Yes, one or two such comments I might have misheard. But the other one million eleven I didn't. Everything happens in a context, and a reaction to such a comment that might seem exaggerated to you is the most logical thing for somebody who comes from a different reality and a different history.

Thomas said...

Yes, I think everyone understands the cause of the insensitivity to ambiguity. I have absolutely no doubt that it is as you say. But that does not make either Tim Hunt or Geoff Marcy guilty of sexism. Nor does banishing them from science even begin to solve the problem.

My point is that these insensitivities, however honestly they are come by, appear to be destroying our capacity for nuance. So your story definitely has to be part of it. But, in particular cases, we have to let the man expose the penis or peanuts he intended before either (a) we banish him or (b) the woman exiles herself. That means we have to have those uncomfortable moments when we're not quite sure what he means, even if we suspect the worst.

Unless you really mean that French men should be very careful what they say to women at conferences, even when their intentions are perfectly innocent, I don't think we disagree.