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?