More than a week ago, Razib wrote an unfortunate little post in which he displayed all sorts of poor judgment. Since it’s short, I’m going to quote the entire post here, including his updates.
The virginity thread generated a lot of response. The virgin lot of the nerd, ah, so cliche. And yet now I’m having a really weird moment, I’m at the local wine bar and a very attractive hostess1 is recommending books in the science fiction genre to another (far less attractive) hostess. So far I’ve heard Ender’s Game, Hyperion and Snow Crash tossed off as appropriate for a “newbie.” Is this the Twlight Zone??? Am I a freak to think this is freaky? I haven’t had a sip of wine, so it isn’t the alcohol.
Update: She’s reading American Gods I notice (taking a break).
Update II: Smokin’ ScienceBlogger Shelley comments. For the record, the key issue for me was the intersection of science fiction && female physical hotitude.
Update III: On second thought, I think the Princess Bride era Robin Wright Penn is probably a better description of the “Hot Girl.” And another tidbit for those wanting to make this about science & women, I am to understand that this individual (I am a regular) is a history major.
Here are the examples of poor judgments that I see:
- The Title: “Hot chicks are different today.” If you start out with misogyny (“chicks”), it’s going to be hard to defend anything else you say.
- Objectification: I can understand pointing out that a woman is attractive. People are going to notice extremely attractive members of their preferred sex, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But when he then describes the other hostess as much less attractive, it’s impossible not to get the feeling that Razib’s having trouble seeing much more than sexual objects when he looks at these women.
- There’s the implicit stereotype of science fiction fans. Specifically, science fiction fans are ugly. Now, this is a pretty common stereotype (just pick any movie or TV representation of sci fi fans), but it’s an unfortunate one.
- The history major thing. While Razib uses this in an update to respond to anyone “wanting to make this about science & women” (a sign that he realizes he’s treading on dangerous ground), Razib is clearly not surprised that an attractive woman is a history major. This reveals that stereotypes about the interests of women, or at least attractive women, are definitely at play.
The first response to Razib’s post was Shelley’s, at Retrospectacle. She lists three stereotypes that she sees in Razib’s post:
- “Smart women aren’t hot (and vice versa)”
- “Hot women don’t like sci fi”
- “Sci fi somehow denotes intelligence”
The second is obviously in Razib’s post (I listed it, too), but the first and third are more difficult to find there. Two pieces of evidence speak strongly against the interpretation that Razib is saying anything about intelligence. The first is that Razib thinks the books the “hot’ woman recommends are books generally read by teenage boys (here we get more gender stereotypes, but again, not about intelligence), and second, he’s not surprised that she’s studying history. Perhaps Razib believes that history requires less intelligence than science fiction, but he’s told us nothing to allow us assume that.
After reading Shelley’s post (and perhaps, though it’s not entirely clear, Razib’s), Tara at Aetiology, and Zuska at Thus Spake Zarathustra, piled on, focusing almost exclusively on the idea that Razib believes science fiction implies intelligence, and was therefore surprised to find a “hot” woman who reads sci fi because he thinks “hot” women aren’t smart. Zuska’s post is particularly interesting, because it doesn’t seem to refer to anything Razib actually said (again, it’s not clear she’d read Razib’s post before commenting on it). When asked to justify the logic behind the assertion that Razib is saying attractive women aren’t smart (Zuska actually implies that he believes all women are stupid, at one point, but once you’ve left the text you’re responding to entirely, there’s no reason to limit yourself to semi-reasonable interpretations), Zuska responds with a second post that, instead of actually describing that logic, “teaches” us that stereotypes are everywhere, even if they’re not on the surface. In the process of doing so, she does give us her version of Razib’s post, but again, without referring to anything Razib actually said, and without responding in any way to the evidence that he wasn’t saying anything about intelligence.
After Zuska’s “contribution,” the discussion moved off of ScienceBlogs, to Sharp Blue and I… Am a Scientist!, for example, and has taken on a life of its own. The first post defends Razib, though again, focusing on intelligence, and the second criticizes those who disagreed with Zuska (including yours truly). As of yet, though, no one (except Shelley in her stereotype #2) has written a post criticizing, or even commenting on the stereotypes and sexism actually present in Razib’s post.
As I’ve said over and over in discussions of debates with creationists, one of the most important things to do when criticizing well-entrenched ideas, be they stereotypes, scientific misconceptions, or what have you, is to make sure you stick to the facts. As soon as you step outside of them, you lose credibility, and since you are in a weak rhetorical position already, because you have to argue against existing representations with information that contradicts them, and may even threaten the well-entrenched and often highly-valued world views that those representations serve, you will have lost any chance of convincing most people that they are in the wrong. And my assertion is that that’s exactly what Tara, Zuska, and Zuska’s defenders have done. By attacking a stereotype that is not actually in Razib’s post, they’ve lost the ability to effectively criticize the stereotypes that are actually in that post. Zuska’s posts are particularly unfortunate in this regard, because when her interpretation is challenged, she displays a complete inability to respond to the specifics of those challenges, making her look all the more dogmatic and irrational.
Two more points. First, it’s quite clear that Razib’s post does invoke the “smart women are stupid” stereotype in some, if not most of those who read his post. This is another reason to criticize Razib’s post. While he may not have had that stereotype in mind, either consciously or unconsciously, the fact that his post activates that stereotype in others makes the post irresponsible. But this is not the point that Tara and Zuska are making. They are claiming, quite clearly, that the “smart women are stupid ” stereotype is the one with which Razib himself is operating. Since it’s obvious to many that he’s not operating with that stereotype (based on what Razib actually said), but with orthogonal gender stereotypes, arguing that Razib himself is using it again makes it difficult to effectively criticize what’s actually wrong with his post. Any criticism of those stereotypes will get completely lost in the shuffle, as the remarks of even Razib’s defenders clearly shows (as far as I can tell, only one commenter has actually criticized Razib for saying something other than “attractive women are stupid,” and none of his defenders have said anything about the other stereotypes he invokes).
Second, most of Razib readers are probably pretty bright. He writes about stuff that you have to be smart to get, much less enjoy reading about. This means that it’s likely still possible to convince those of his readers who see nothing wrong with his short little post about the “hot” science fiction fan that there are many things wrong with it, despite the fact that some of Razib’s critics have lost the rhetorical high ground. But to do so, it will be necessary to drop the non sequitur critiques of Razib’s posts, and start criticizing what’s actually there right now.
Oh, and one more thing. Simulating racism, even as a form of satire, is not a good rhetorical move, unless what you’re going for is the sense that those criticizing what Razib has said are as creepy, or creepier, than Razib.