Of Exclusionary Speech and Gender Politics

I suspect that the ick reaction being labeled “objectification” actually has more to do with the sense that the speaker is addressing a closed group that doesn’t include you.

Suppose I wrote a story about a man named Frank, whose twin brother (Frank has learned) is in the process of being framed for murder this very night. Frank is in the middle of a complicated plot to give his brother an alibi. He’s already found the cabdriver and tricked him into waiting outside a certain apartment for an hour. Now all he needs is the last ingredient of his plan—a woman to go home with him (as he poses as his brother). Frank is, with increasing desperation, propositioning ladies at the bar—any girl will do for his plan, it doesn’t matter who she is or what she’s about...

I’d bet I could write that story without triggering the ick reaction, because Frank is an equal-opportunity manipulator—he manipulated the cabdriver, too. The story isn’t about Frank regarding women as things on the way to implementing his plan, it’s about Frank regarding various people, men and women alike, as means to the end of saving his brother.

If a woman reads that story, I think, she won’t get a sense of being excluded from the intended audience.

I suspect that’s what the ick factor being called “objectification” is really about—the sense that someone who says ”...but you’ll still find women alluring” is talking to an audience that doesn’t include you, a woman. It doesn’t matter if you happen to be a bi woman. You still get the sense that it never crossed the writer’s mind that there might be any women in the audience, and so you are excluded.

In general, starting from a perceptual reaction, it is a difficult cognitive task to say in words exactly why that reaction occurred—to accurately state the necessary and sufficient conditions for its triggering. If the reaction is affective, a good or bad reaction, there is an additional danger: You’ll be tempted to zoom in on any bad (good) aspect of the situation, and say, “Ah, that must be the reason it’s bad (good)!” It’s wrong to treat people as means rather than ends, right? People have their own feelings and inner life, and it’s wrong to forget that? Clearly, that’s a problem with saying, “And this is how you get girls...” But is that exactly what went wrong originally—what triggered the original ick reaction?

And this (I say again) is a tricky cognitive problem in general—the introspective jump from the perceptual to the abstract. It is tricky far beyond the realms of gender...

But I do suspect that the real problem is speech that makes a particular gender feel excluded. And if that’s so, then for the purposes of Less Wrong, I think, it may make sense to zoom in on that speech property. Politics of all sorts have always been a dangerous bit of attractive flypaper, and I think we’ve had a sense, on Less Wrong, that we ought to steer clear of it—that politics is the mindkiller. And so I hope that no one will feel that their gender politics are being particularly targeted, if I suggest that, like some other political issues, we might want to steer sort of clear of that.

I’ve previously expressed that to build a rationalist community sustainable over time, the sort of gender imbalance that appears among e.g. computer programmers, is not a good thing to have. And so it may make sense, as rationalists qua rationalists, to target gender-exclusionary speech. To say, “Less Wrong does not want to make any particular gender feel unwelcome.”

But I also think that you can just have a policy like that, without opening the floor to discussion of all gender politics qua gender politics. Without having a position on whether, say, “privilege” is a useful way to think about certain problems, or a harmful one.

And the coin does have two sides. It is possible to make men, and not just women, feel unwelcome as a gender. It is harder, because men have fewer painful memories of exclusion to trigger. A single comment by a woman saying “All men are idiots” won’t do it. But if you’ve got a conversational thread going between many female posters all agreeing that men are privileged idiots, then a man can start to pick up a perceptual impression of “This is not a place where I’m welcome; this is a women’s locker room.” And LW shouldn’t send that message, either.

So if we’re going to do this, then let’s have a policy which says that we don’t want to make either gender feel unwelcome. And that aside from this, we’re not saying anything official about gender politics qua gender politics. And indeed we might even want to discourage gender-political discussion, because it’s probably not going to contribute to our understanding of systematic and general methods of epistemic and instrumental rationality, which is our actual alleged topic around here.

But even if we say we’re just going to have a non-declarative procedural rule to avoid language or behavior that makes a gender feel excluded… it still takes us into thorny waters.

After all, jumping on every tiny hint—say, objecting to the Brennan stories because Brennan is male—will make men feel unwelcome; that this is a blog only for people who agree with feminist politics; that men have to tiptoe while women are allowed to tapdance...

Now with that said: the point is to avoid language that makes someone feel unwelcome. So if someone says that they felt excluded as a gender, pay attention. The issue is not how to prove they’re “wrong”. Just listen to the one who heard you, when they tell you what they heard. We want to avoid any or either gender, feeling excluded and leaving. So it is the impression that is the key thing. You can argue, perhaps, that the one’s threshold for offense was set unforgivably low, that they were listening so hard that no one could whisper softly enough. But not argue that they misunderstood you. For that is still a fact about your speech and its consequences. We shall just try to avoid certain types of misunderstanding, not blame the misunderstander.

And what if someone decides she’s offended by all discussion of evolutionary psychology because that’s a patriarchal plot...?

Well… I think there’s something to be said here, about her having impugned the honor of female rationalists everywhere. But let a female rationalist be the one to say it. And then we can all downvote the comment into oblivion.

And if someone decides that all discussion of the PUA (pickup artist) community, makes her feel excluded...?

Er… I have to say… I sort of get that one. I too can feel the locker-room ambiance rising off it. Now, yes, we have a lot of men here who are operating in gender-imbalanced communities, and we have men here who are nerds; and if you’re the sort of person who reads Less Wrong, there is a certain conditional probability that you will be the sort of person who tries to find a detailed manual that solves your problems...

...while not being quite sane enough to actually notice you’re driving away the very gender you’re trying to seduce from our nascent rationalist community, and consequentially shut up about PUA...

...oh, never mind. Gender relations much resembles the rest of human existence, in that it largely consists of people walking around with shotguns shooting off their own feet. In the end, PUA is not something we need to be talking about here, and if it’s giving one entire gender the wrong vibes on this website, I say the hell with it.

And if someone decides that it’s not enough that a comment has been downvoted to −5; it needs to be banned, or the user needs to be banned, in order to signify that this website is sufficiently friendly...?

Sorry—downvoting to −5 should be enough to show that the community disapproves of this lone commenter.

If someone demands explicit agreement with their-favorite-gender-politics...?

Then they’re probably making the other gender feel unwelcome—the coin does have two sides.

If someone argues against gay marriage...?

Respond not to trolls; downvote to oblivion without a word. That’s not gender politics, it’s kindergarten.

If you just can’t seem to figure out what’s wrong with your speech...?

Then just keep on accepting suggested edits. If you literally don’t understand what you’re doing wrong, then realize that you have a blind spot and need to steer around it. And if you do keep making the suggested edits, I think that’s as much as someone could reasonably ask of you. We need a bit more empathy in all directions here, and that includes empathy for the hapless plight of people who just don’t get it, and who aren’t going to get it, but who are still doing what they can.

If you just can’t get someone to agree with your stance on explicit gender politics...?

Take it elsewhere, both of you, please.

Is it clear from this what sort of general policy I’m driving at? What say you?