Ian Bicking: the old part of his blog

Re: Respecting the whole person

What's basically wrong with PJs position is encapsulated in the following paragraphs :

[quote] See, the difference between me and the people who are talking about how we should fix this "problem", is that they believe that it's possible to reform the attitudes of the uncivilized en masse, and I don't. Instead of trying to reform them, I simply don't hire them in the first place. No amount of technical competence is enough to make up for somebody being an a**hole, and it's not my job to teach somebody how to be a decent human being. I'm running a place of business, not a charm school or etiquette academy.

...

If women aren't applying because they aren't interested in IT, is that really a problem? If they're not applying because they're being discouraged by society in general, well, perhaps that's a problem, but it's not especially actionable on an individual level, so why worry?

[/quote]

In other words, individualistically oriented PJ doesn't believe that problems due to "society in general" can be actioned on an individual level.

But society-wide behaviour is nothing but the sum of all the little actions. To re-use the other quote you posted (I assume, approvingly) "Is living your life in an individually responsible way enough to bring about the kind of change that you would hope for? I think the answer is no. It takes collective action."

We all know that individually driving our cars doesn't hurt the environment. It's only because we all do it, so much of the time, that it becomes a problem. So does that mean this isn't "actionable" individually?

Maybe. And, if so, only concerted political power can have an effect. Maybe not.

What's the difference in the case of women discouraged from certain life-possibilities by society?

An individual joking reference to soft-porn means nothing on it's own, and every man or woman who thinks about it logically knows this. But cumulatively, we live in an atmosphere polluted by certain conceptions of the appropriate and inappropriate roles for women and men. Women are to be soft, caring, emotional, certainly not abstract, rational and detached from their bodies. Women are told by society, via institutions like Playboy, to be thin, pert, sensuous, concerned about their appearance. And we're surprised they don't embrace a culture that celebrates 24 hour hackathons fueled by pizza and Jolt-Cola?

Showing stats from playboy is not "insulting" - which is a meaningless idea, easy to dismiss - but it is another release into the memeosphere of contaminated ideas. Playboy is in the same position as a factory pumping out sulfur-dioxide. It makes it harder for everyone to breath an air free of these stereotypes.

But it's not impossible to "action" this on an individual level. You can do it by a) choosing not to promote, even with sympathetic humour, this kind of stereotyping publication, b) reminding everyone that this kind of publication is problematic and hoping that they agree with you and do the same. That's not "authoritarian" or creating an even more hostile environment.

Eventually, in the very long term, you hope that less of this propaganda => women feel less pressurized to conform to these social norms => women with more freedom to explore the possible space of career opportunities => more women in IT. (Not because more women in IT is necessarily an important goal, but because their absensce is likely to be a symptom of their lack of freedom.)

BTW : the "protecting women == insulting women" argument is crap. Harm is harm. Whether it's "wrong" to harm someone or not is independent of their capacity to absorb your attack. We wouldn't argue that I can rob your house because it's insulting to assume you don't have the economic capability to recover from the loss. Or that racist language shouldn't be discouraged because it's insulting to assume that blacks can't rise above being called "nigger". (Or maybe there are people who argue that second.)

Systematic problems need collective action to resolve. Education may not be sufficient, but it's hard to see how to get started other than by talking and suggesting that it's everyone's "job" or responsibility to try to teach others how to be decent human beings.

PS : Obviously, all causal hypotheses are open to criticism. Maybe Playboy doesn't have any causal effect on the way women see themselves. But I don't see arguments like yours or Eby's being grounded in actual engagement with that debate. They just assume, axiomatically, that there's no case to answer here.

Comment on Respecting the whole person
by phil jones

Comments:

You wrote:

In other words, individualistically oriented PJ doesn't believe that problems due to "society in general" can be actioned on an individual level.

That's not quite correct. I'm saying that my individual action isn't going to change everybody else's. That's not the same thing as saying it's not actionable, period. I'm just saying that if I'm already hiring 50% females, there's not a whole lot more I can do to improve the industry at large.

# Phillip J. Eby

An individual joking reference to soft-porn means nothing on it's own, and every man or woman who thinks about it logically knows this. But cumulatively, we live in an atmosphere polluted by certain conceptions of the appropriate and inappropriate roles for women and men. Women are to be soft, caring, emotional, certainly not abstract, rational and detached from their bodies. Women are told by society, via institutions like Playboy, to be thin, pert, sensuous, concerned about their appearance. And we're surprised they don't embrace a culture that celebrates 24 hour hackathons fueled by pizza and Jolt-Cola?

I'm not surprised either, but I don't think women avoid a culture of hackathons because they are watching their weight. Let's be serious -- there are a huge number of societal factors in how a person chooses their profession, and the relation between body image and computer science is not at the top of that list. Is it discriminatory not to offer healthy snacks at user group meetings? Would healthy snacks help bring in more women? This line of thinking is silly.

Body issues are important to women's role in society at large, but it's really not important to this discussion.

Showing stats from playboy is not "insulting" - which is a meaningless idea, easy to dismiss - but it is another release into the memeosphere of contaminated ideas. Playboy is in the same position as a factory pumping out sulfur-dioxide. It makes it harder for everyone to breath an air free of these stereotypes.

[...]

BTW : the "protecting women == insulting women" argument is crap. Harm is harm. Whether it's "wrong" to harm someone or not is independent of their capacity to absorb your attack. We wouldn't argue that I can rob your house because it's insulting to assume you don't have the economic capability to recover from the loss. Or that racist language shouldn't be discouraged because it's insulting to assume that blacks can't rise above being called "nigger". (Or maybe there are people who argue that second.)

Showing a naked woman is not the same as being racist. Again, this is where the argument becomes unreasonable. If someone made misogynist jokes or statements in their presentation, people should walk out, and they should be very angry at the person. Porn is not hate. I would be bothered if someone was racist or misogynistic even if they didn't express their opinion, or if they couched their language in ways to make it seem acceptable. I am not bothered that someone looks at porn. I'm not going to be offended if someone says that they themselves look at porn. You still shouldn't put actual porn up on the screen, but it's a reasonable item of discussion anywhere where the internet or the web is being discussed.

Eventually, in the very long term, you hope that less of this propaganda => women feel less pressurized to conform to these social norms => women with more freedom to explore the possible space of career opportunities => more women in IT. (Not because more women in IT is necessarily an important goal, but because their absensce is likely to be a symptom of their lack of freedom.)

It's a different issue, but I don't entirely believe this line of thinking. Women aren't in IT because women choose not to be in IT. That is a choice they make as individuals -- sometimes for bad reasons (e.g. fear or pressure), but often for completely reasonable reasons (they don't want to sit in front of a computer screen for eight hours a day). That women and men make very different choices does not necessarily imply that there is coercion involved. That women on the whole tend not to go into certain professions does not necessarily mean that they are victims of any societal injustice.

# Ian Bicking

[quote]

Showing a naked woman is not the same as being racist. Again, this is where the argument becomes unreasonable. If someone made misogynist jokes or statements in their presentation, people should walk out, and they should be very angry at the person. Porn is not hate. I would be bothered if someone was racist or misogynistic even if they didn't express their opinion, or if they couched their language in ways to make it seem acceptable. I am not bothered that someone looks at porn. I'm not going to be offended if someone says that they themselves look at porn. You still shouldn't put actual porn up on the screen, but it's a reasonable item of discussion anywhere where the internet or the web is being discussed.

[/quote]

Ian, the reason I'm pushing the pollution analogy here is to get away from terminology like "hate" and "insult". Sure, porn is not hate. But it may nevertheless be harmful.

Your assumption seems to be that if there's no malign intention behind something then it's OK. But there's no malign intention behind pumping out sulphur-dioxide into the atmosphere either. It's just a side-effect of a perfectly acceptable intention : wanting to make more widgets. The same can be true of pornography; we just want to stimulate ourselves. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have malign consequences.

[quote]
Eventually, in the very long term, you hope that less of this propaganda => women feel less pressurized to conform to these social norms => women with more freedom to explore the possible space of career opportunities => more women in IT. (Not because more women in IT is necessarily an important goal, but because their absensce is likely to be a symptom of their lack of freedom.)

It's a different issue, but I don't entirely believe this line of thinking. Women aren't in IT because women choose not to be in IT. That is a choice they make as individuals -- sometimes for bad reasons (e.g. fear or pressure), but often for completely reasonable reasons (they don't want to sit in front of a computer screen for eight hours a day). That women and men make very different choices does not necessarily imply that there is coercion involved. That women on the whole tend not to go into certain professions does not necessarily mean that they are victims of any societal injustice.

[/quote]

Actually, I'd say this is the core issue. Sure, you don't believe that there's a causal connection between soft-porn in culture and women not wanting to go into IT, or any other constraints on women's freedom to choose a career. I don't know if there is or not. But isn't this the main point worth discussing? Is there or isn't there?

Personally, I think we can hypothesize many causal paths (of which my hackathon is a slightly frivolous, but not entirely absurd example) which can't be dismissed out-of-hand. Even Eby believes, and has written a lot, that the mind is hackable, that we can train ourselves in new patterns of thought and behaviour. If you believe that, it shouldn't be hard to accept that we get a lot of default configuration from watching how other people parse the world within our culture. And that should be enough to make us sceptical of some naive picture of women "making a choice" independent of any external influence. Is this injustice? It depends. I think if the space of options appears larger to men than to women, and that's due to our cultural defaults rather than real insurmountable physical constraints, then, yes, there's a kind of injustice there.

# phil jones

"""Even Eby believes, and has written a lot, that the mind is hackable, that we can train ourselves in new patterns of thought and behaviour."""

That's a major oversimplification. A big part of what I write about is that there's quite a lot of the mind that is not open to direct extension or hacking, that requires "workarounds" at the conscious or extraconscious (e.g. external systems) level.

An example of this is the idea that men looking at porn are "objectifying" women. The notion of "objectifying" presumes that women are seen as persons first, and then treated as objects. However, this is based on an erroneous assumption about the level on which images are processed. Men have hard-wired pleasure responses to certain visual stimuli, so it's erroneous to attribute any sort of intention to men's response to those images. It simply feels good to look, and it doesn't matter what the man thinks. The most a man can do about the response is to berate himself or feel guilty about the fact of pleasure; there is no way to turn that pleasure response off, only to create various forms of other responses that occur after the fact.

Thus, it makes no sense to me to talk about objectification as if there was some intention on the part of men to "treat women as objects", and this produces non-useful assumptions and behaviors on the part of people whose intention is for men to treat women better. It's more useful for men to learn to accept their pleasure responses and let them go, than to have to spend time fighting them or blaming themselves as bad people for having "objectified" a woman by their response to visual stimuli.

This is really only the tip of the iceberg with respect to non-conscious hardwired responses men have towards women. It's not just pleasure that's activated by the image of an attractive woman, studies have shown that greater helpfulness and risk-taking behavior are also enabled, as well as protectiveness to the female in question. These responses are unconscious and involuntary; they do not require the man's awareness or consent, and are unrelated to the man or woman's availability as a sex partner. The testosterone level of men exposed to the pheromones of ovulating women are also automatically elevated for about 30 minutes, which affects behavior on many levels.

Unfortunately, many branches of feminist thought begin with an assumption that all of these behaviors and responses are voluntary. That is, they attribute to men's actions the intentions that a woman would have to have in order to display the same behaviors, and come to erroneous conclusions. It's this kind of thought that leads to the idea that porn is in some way harmful or toxic because it "encourages men to objectify women". But the reality is that men have their own ability to separate impulse and behavior, and porn is neutral with respect to that. Jerks will be jerks, with or without porn. Likewise, gentlemen will be gentlemen. Porn is 100% a red herring that distracts from the real issue, which is helping men learn empathy.

See, it's not that most jerks are malicious (to women or men), it's that they don't know how any other people feel, because they project their own feelings on to everybody else. A jerk plays mean practical jokes on people, because they're funny to him. A jerk feels arousal in the presence of a woman, and projects that arousal as being shared by the woman, leading to harassment and even rape.

These things aren't because the jerk is "objectifying"; it's because he lacks actual empathy. And today's "sensitivity" training and sexual harassment workshops are piss-poor at actually teaching it to anyone. To be honest, I'm not sure to what extent it can be taught, because to learn it, you'd have to want to. And if you're a jerk, you just go through life wondering why everybody else is so uptight, can't take a joke, etc.

This is why I treat some basic empathy as being essential for hiring into a team. I don't know if it's teachable even in theory, let alone in practice, so from a business perspective I can't afford to hire people without it.

# Phillip J. Eby