Where I was wrong

Blizzard, the company that owns the World of Warcraft game, has made a very stupid decision.

The first and most significant change is that in the near future, anyone posting or replying to a post on official Blizzard forums will be doing so using their Real ID — that is, their real-life first and last name — with the option to also display the name of their primary in-game character alongside it. These changes will go into effect on all StarCraft II forums with the launch of the new community site prior to the July 27 release of the game, with the World of Warcraft site and forums following suit near the launch of Cataclysm. Certain classic forums, including the classic Battle.net forums, will remain unchanged.

This is a dumb move that puts people in real, physical danger. The Internet is not filled with a bunch of sunny, happy gamers. A lot of people are dicks. They get pretty crazy about this stuff.

But I don’t play any of those sort of games. I don’t care for them. What I care about comes from PZ (indirectly).

There’s a good discussion going on at Shakesville — this decision is an exercise in privilege by Blizzard. There are a fair number of female gamers who would rather not advertise the fact…because many male gamers are jerks.

I disagree that this is an exercise in privilege. That to me suggests a malicious intent on the part of Blizzard. In reality, the company is trying to cut down on douchebaggery. Its intention is not to adversely affect women – though that’s what will happen. (But this is semantic. I know PZ doesn’t mean Blizzard is targeting or intentionally ignoring women, and I further know the word “exercise” can be understood to mean that. But the connotations suggest something far more negative on the part of Blizzard. If PZ said example, I wouldn’t disagree.)

But PZ has a second post about the fast-paced failure of Blizzard’s experiment. In this one he talks about how this will harm many women, increasing the sexual harassment they will endure in their gaming experience. He links to this article by Jessica Valenti.

One website, run by law professor and occasional New York Times columnist Ann Althouse, devoted an entire article to how I was “posing” [in a picture with Bill Clinton] so as to “make [my] breasts as obvious as possible”. The post, titled “Let’s take a closer look at those breasts,” ended up with over 500 comments. Most were about my body, my perceived whorishness, and how I couldn’t possibly be a good feminist because I had the gall to show up to a meeting with my breasts in tow. One commenter even created a limerick about me giving oral sex. Althouse herself said that I should have “worn a beret . . . a blue dress would have been good too”. All this on the basis of a photograph of me in a crew-neck sweater from Gap.

I won’t even get into the hundreds of other blogs and websites that linked to the “controversy.” It was, without doubt, the most humiliating experience of my life – all because I dared be photographed with a political figure.

In March of 2009, I made a post about Sheril Kirshenbaum. In it I defended some comments by male posters which pointed out her looks.

Let’s keep in mind what the original post was all about. It was an introduction. Is there a specific, pre-approved, politically correct response expected? I see an intro to a new blog, a short description, and a picture – the most prominent thing about the post – and not much else. It is entirely reasonable to comment on the picture.

No, it isn’t.

It is reasonable to expect comments on pictures of attractive women, but it is not reasonable to focus merely on that. Reading over that post makes me cringe. I’m embarrassed.

Some of that embarrassment only comes from the fact that hindsight shows me how easy it is to misunderstand many of my points. In a couple of places, I point out minutiae simply for the sake of accuracy.

First of all, I prefer accuracy so let’s augment that last statement a tad. It’s never acceptable to judge anyone based on appearances and number X chromosomes, in most instances.

That’s true – and virtually everyone agrees with it. No one ought to expect people to go on dates, for example, without any physical standards. Part of a good relationship is attraction, and that comes in much more than a mere intellectual form.

But there I go again. It sounds like I’m saying it’s okay to publicly pass judgement on Kirshenbaum’s looks in the given context. I’m not. At least not now. But unfortunately, for specific comments (i.e., the more benign ones), I was saying it was okay. That was wrong.

This doesn’t mean I’m embarrassed in the least about my response to caricature feminists who think a picture of fat women accompanying an article about fat women is sexist. My response was correct there. Obesity was being objectified, not women. And sexism is not defined as a one-way street.

But, again, I am embarrassed about my response to Kirshenbaum. I’ll stand by some of the details of my post – if it’s sexist to comment on Kirshenbaum’s looks, then it’s sexist when female guests do the same to Sean Hannity – but I do not stand by the primary point I was making. No. It was objectification when those users honed in on Kirshenbaum’s looks.

I was wrong.

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Women and science

The mooks over at Conservapedia love to parade out old studies that show statistically insignificant leads for boy over girls in math and science. Despite this heavy dose of misogynistic idiocy, it’s no secret men outnumber women in science. Go one step further: famous men outnumber famous women by a longshot. In thinking of just 10 scientists, Lynn Margulis is the only female that comes to mind.

So when commenters focused on the looks of Sheril Kirshenbaum, she became understandably annoyed.

Now folks, I’m not naive. I recognize everyone forms preconceived notions based on visual and nonverbal cues. As it happens, my next book deals with science and sexuality, so this is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately off the blog. Naturally, attention to physical appearance has been hardwired into our neural circuitry over a few millenia, however, you better believe it’s never acceptable judge anyone based on appearances and number of X chromosomes. And of course I’ve noticed the science blogosphere is buzzing over some neanderthal comments from Monday about my photo. After Phil was kind enough to welcome Chris and I to Discover Blogs, I was disappointed to read several of the responses. For example:

    as a living breathing male of the species, I look forward to any article with Sherils picture attached.

Or even less articulate:

    mmmmmmmm……….. wo-man

Okay, I get it. People are focusing on her looks rather than her credentials. But let’s take a look at that first quote. In full.

Having not read any of their material, I am supremely unqualified to comment on any of their writings.

But, as a living breathing male of the species, I look forward to any article with Sherils picture attached.

That’s just bad practice. While Kirshenbaum has a valid overall point, she misquotes a person. I thought reasoned people had left that up to creationists and other stupid conservatives.

Let’s keep in mind what the original post was all about. It was an introduction. Is there a specific, pre-approved, politically correct response expected? I see an intro to a new blog, a short description, and a picture – the most prominent thing about the post – and not much else. It is entirely reasonable to comment on the picture. Naturally, some level of respect should be given. The above, misquoted commenter did that. He wasn’t vulgar, he noted that he cannot speak of Kirshenbaum’s science credentials, and only then did he say, “Hey, she’s pretty”. Kirshenbaum extends this to a broader point.

I doubt any of the aforementioned anecdotes–or the now infamous comments–were intended to be insulting, but they each highlight a broader social issue. Several female colleagues have similar stories of receiving sexually explicit emails and poetry, while I’ve yet to hear the fellows complain of unwanted advances (though surely that happens occasionally too). This is not an isolated problem, nor is it specific to me as an individual, rather it demonstrates that no matter how much the nature of science has changed, it continues to be very much a ‘boys club.’

This is somewhat inappropriate. Of course, science is a “boys club”. It is a field that is dominated by men, shown to the public through male spokespeople, and probably has a good deal of misogyny running amok. That cannot be extrapolated from a few posts that say “I am attracted to this person”. Let’s drive this home. Here’s another quote from that original post.

Is it just me, or do they look YOUNG? It must just be me getting old I guess. I look forward to reading what they post.

WHOA! WHOA! What’s with all the ageism? Come on, people! Science is such an ‘old persons club’. It’s ridiculous. How about some common respect for the young members of the field?

Don’t miss the point. Please.

Kirshenbaum has valid points and she makes them shine through her other anecdotes. The comments about her being attractive, however, do not illustrate her point. If they do, then I just equally illustrated a point about ageism.

From Kirshenbaum:

Now folks, I’m not naive. I recognize everyone forms preconceived notions based on visual and nonverbal cues. As it happens, my next book deals with science and sexuality, so this is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately off the blog. Naturally, attention to physical appearance has been hardwired into our neural circuitry over a few millenia, however, you better believe it’s never acceptable [to] judge anyone based on appearances and number of X chromosomes.

First of all, I prefer accuracy so let’s augment that last statement a tad. It’s never acceptable to judge anyone based on appearances and number X chromosomes, in most instances. If I’m looking for someone to date, I’m definitely going to find a person to whom I am attracted. If that isn’t physical judgement, I don’t know what is. Second, from the comments I read, there was judgement being passed on Kirshenbaum’s looks, not her quality of science. One cannot necessarily take such comments to be outright ignoring her scientific credentials. The prettiest creationist in the world can open up a blog, but I’m not going to give it any praise for that reason. If I say, “Hey, that creationist is sure pretty, but she’s also pretty dumb”, the first part of my comment may be irrelevant, but it is not harmful and it says nothing of the creationists’ credentials – the latter part of the comment does that. Take out that latter part, and no comment was made on scientific credentials. In other words, no credentials were demeaned. If the post was about Kirshenbaum’s research on a particular topic and people focused on her looks, then, yes, that would be inappropriate and demeaning.

Hell, take the mook Sean Hannity. Torture yourself with just a few interviews. Women will often make the point that while he is attractive, his points are awful and misguided. In other words, “here’s a compliment, but it has no bearing on what I think about what you’re saying.”

Of course, not everyone is so innocent with their compliments. Some people are just saying it for the sake of saying it. If that’s all they’re saying, give ’em hell. If they’re saying it in response to a picture accompanied by little more than a generic intro, it’s difficult to see a problem.

I really want to drive this home and I keep coming up with examples how. Take, for instance, a blogger who has a butt-ugly blog layout. Maybe some gross looking color scheme or whathaveyou. Even simply an ugly avatar. Would it be unreasonable for someone to say “I don’t know anything about John Doe’s science, but that is one ugly avatar/layout/whatever he has”?