Men Commenting on Women’s Issues

A lecture at LCA 2011 which included some inappropriate slides was followed by long discussions on mailing lists. In February 2011 I wrote a blog post debunking some of the bogus arguments in two lists [1]. One of the noteworthy incidents in the mailing list discussion concerned Ted Ts’o (an influential member of the Linux community) debating the definition of rape. My main point on that issue in Feb 2011 was that it’s insensitive to needlessly debate the statistics.

Recently Valerie Aurora wrote about another aspect of this on The Ada Initiative blog [2] and on her personal blog. Some of her significant points are that conference harassment doesn’t end when the conference ends (it can continue on mailing lists etc), that good people shouldn’t do nothing when bad things happen, and that free speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences or the freedom to use private resources (such as conference mailing lists) without restriction.

Craig Sanders wrote a very misguided post about the Ted Ts’o situation [3]. One of the many things wrong with his post is his statement “I’m particularly disgusted by the men who intervene way too early – without an explicit invitation or request for help or a clear need such as an immediate threat of violence – in womens’ issues“.

I believe that as a general rule when any group of people are involved in causing a problem they should be involved in fixing it. So when we have problems that are broadly based around men treating women badly the prime responsibility should be upon men to fix them. It seems very clear that no matter what scope is chosen for fixing the problems (whether it be lobbying for new legislation, sociological research, blogging, or directly discussing issues with people to change their attitudes) women are doing considerably more than half the work. I believe that this is an indication that overall men are failing.

Asking for Help

I don’t believe that members of minority groups should have to ask for help. Asking isn’t easy, having someone spontaneously offer help because it’s the right thing to do can be a lot easier to accept psychologically than having to beg for help. There is a book named “Women Don’t Ask” which has a page on the geek feminism Wiki [4]. I think the fact that so many women relate to a book named “Women Don’t Ask” is an indication that we shouldn’t expect women to ask directly, particularly in times of stress. The Wiki page notes a criticism of the book that some specific requests are framed as “complaining”, so I think we should consider a “complaint” from a woman as a direct request to do something.

The geek feminism blog has an article titled “How To Exclude Women Without Really Trying” which covers many aspects of one incident [5]. Near the end of the article is a direct call for men to be involved in dealing with such problems. The geek feminism Wiki has a page on “Allies” which includes “Even a blog post helps” [6]. It seems clear from public web sites run by women that women really want men to be involved.

Finally when I get blog comments and private email from women who thank me for my posts I take it as an implied request to do more of the same.

One thing that we really don’t want is to have men wait and do nothing until there is an immediate threat of violence. There are two massive problems with that plan, one is that being saved from a violent situation isn’t a fun experience, the other is that an immediate threat of violence is most likely to happen when there is no-one around to intervene.

Men Don’t Listen to Women

Rebecca Solnit wrote an article about being ignored by men titled “Men Explain Things to Me” [7]. When discussing women’s issues the term “Mansplaining” is often used for that sort of thing, the geek feminism Wiki has some background [8]. It seems obvious that the men who have the greatest need to be taught some things related to women’s issues are the ones who are least likely to listen to women. This implies that other men have to teach them.

Craig says that women need “space to discover and practice their own strength and their own voices“. I think that the best way to achieve that goal is to listen when women speak. Of course that doesn’t preclude speaking as well, just listen first, listen carefully, and listen more than you speak.

Craig claims that when men like me and Matthew Garrett comment on such issues we are making “women’s spaces more comfortable, more palatable, for men“. From all the discussion on this it seems quite obvious that what would make things more comfortable for men would be for the issue to never be discussed at all. It seems to me that two of the ways of making such discussions uncomfortable for most men are to discuss sexual assault and to discuss what should be done when you have a friend who treats women in a way that you don’t like. Matthew has covered both of those so it seems that he’s doing a good job of making men uncomfortable – I think that this is a good thing, a discussion that is “comfortable and palatable” for the people in power is not going to be any good for the people who aren’t in power.

The Voting Aspect

It seems to me that when certain issues are discussed we have a social process that is some form of vote. If one person complains then they are portrayed as crazy. When other people agree with the complaint then their comments are marginalised to try and preserve the narrative of one crazy person. It seems that in the case of the discussion about Rape Apology and LCA2011 most men who comment regard it as one person (either Valeria Aurora or Matthew Garrett) causing a dispute. There is even some commentary which references my blog post about Rape Apology [9] but somehow manages to ignore me when it comes to counting more than one person agreeing with Valerie. For reference David Zanetti was the first person to use the term “apologist for rapists” in connection with the LCA 2011 discussion [10]. So we have a count of at least three men already.

These same patterns always happen so making a comment in support makes a difference. It doesn’t have to be insightful, long, or well written, merely “I agree” and a link to a web page will help. Note that a blog post is much better than a comment in this regard, comments are much like conversation while a blog post is a stronger commitment to a position.

I don’t believe that the majority is necessarily correct. But an opinion which is supported by too small a minority isn’t going to be considered much by most people.

The Cost of Commenting

The Internet is a hostile environment, when you comment on a contentious issue there will be people who demonstrate their disagreement in uncivilised and even criminal ways. S. E. Smith wrote an informative post for Tiger Beatdown about the terrorism that feminist bloggers face [11]. I believe that men face fewer threats than women when they write about such things and the threats are less credible. I don’t believe that any of the men who have threatened me have the ability to carry out their threats but I expect that many women who receive such threats will consider them to be credible.

The difference in the frequency and nature of the terrorism (and there is no other word for what S. E. Smith describes) experienced by men and women gives a vastly different cost to commenting. So when men fail to address issues related to the behavior of other men that isn’t helping women in any way. It’s imposing a significant cost on women for covering issues which could be addressed by men for minimal cost.

It’s interesting to note that there are men who consider themselves to be brave because they write things which will cause women to criticise them or even accuse them of misogyny. I think that the women who write about such issues even though they will receive threats of significant violence are the brave ones.

Not Being Patronising

Craig raises the issue of not being patronising, which is of course very important. I think that the first thing to do to avoid being perceived as patronising in a blog post is to cite adequate references. I’ve spent a lot of time reading what women have written about such issues and cited the articles that seem most useful in describing the issues. I’m sure that some women will disagree with my choice of references and some will disagree with some of my conclusions, but I think that most women will appreciate that I read what women write (it seems that most men don’t).

It seems to me that a significant part of feminism is about women not having men tell them what to do. So when men offer advice on how to go about feminist advocacy it’s likely to be taken badly. It’s not just that women don’t want advice from men, but that advice from men is usually wrong. There are patterns in communication which mean that the effective strategies for women communicating with men are different from the effective strategies for men communicating with men (see my previous section on men not listening to women). Also there’s a common trend of men offering simplistic advice on how to solve problems, one thing to keep in mind is that any problem which affects many people and is easy to solve has probably been solved a long time ago.

Often when social issues are discussed there is some background in the life experience of the people involved. For example Rookie Mag has an article about the street harassment women face which includes many disturbing anecdotes (some of which concern primary school students) [12]. Obviously anyone who has lived through that sort of thing (which means most women) will instinctively understand some issues related to threatening sexual behavior that I can’t easily understand even when I spend some time considering the matter. So there will be things which don’t immediately appear to be serious problems to me but which are interpreted very differently by women. The non-patronising approach to such things is to accept the concerns women express as legitimate, to try to understand them, and not to argue about it. For example the issue that Valerie recently raised wasn’t something that seemed significant when I first read the email in question, but I carefully considered it when I saw her posts explaining the issue and what she wrote makes sense to me.

I don’t think it’s possible for a man to make a useful comment on any issue related to the treatment of women without consulting multiple women first. I suggest a pre-requisite for any man who wants to write any sort of long article about the treatment of women is to have conversations with multiple women who have relevant knowledge. I’ve had some long discussions with more than a few women who are involved with the FOSS community. This has given me a reasonable understanding of some of the issues (I won’t claim to be any sort of expert). I think that if you just go and imagine things about a group of people who have a significantly different life-experience then you will be wrong in many ways and often offensively wrong. Just reading isn’t enough, you need to have conversations with multiple people so that they can point out the things you don’t understand.

This isn’t any sort of comprehensive list of ways to avoid being patronising, but it’s a few things which seem like common mistakes.

Anne Onne wrote a detailed post advising men who want to comment on feminist blogs etc [13], most of it applies to any situation where men comment on women’s issues.

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