Earlier this summer, a famous cheesesteak purveyor here in Philadelphia put up a sign in his establishment that read “This is America: When Ordering, Speak English”, thus touching off a controversy that raged for weeks. Owner Joey Vento was eventually served with a complaint claiming he was in violation of two sections of the city’s anti-discrimination laws.
Vento’s sign was just one manifestation of the xenophobia sweeping the nation these days, politely euphemized as “immigration controversy”. It’s also a stark illustration of how the dominant group (in this case, moneyed Republican xenophobic English-speaking U.S. citizens) feels free to exercise its power and set the terms of discourse for the subordinate group (in this case, anyone in the U.S. who doesn’t speak perfect English – visiting tourists, newly arrived [legal or illegal] immigrants, or even, possibly, Vento’s own Mexican immigrant employees).
Another example of a dominant group that feels free to dictate the terms of discourse to the subordinate group might be described as “nice men in science and engineering”. If only women would be polite, civil, rational! Present their issues in a calm and reasonable manner! Speak in a civil tone to the nice men, and the nice men will surely see what they are talking about, and agree to consider the reasonableness of their entreaties.
Certainly this approach has been recommended by many. Mary Wollstonecraft put forth the argument, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, that a reasoned, rational approach would convince men of women’s equality and lead them to grant women their rights. Of course, Wollstonecraft made that argument in 1792, and many of us women are still waiting for that reasonable, rational approach to take effect, but I suppose one must never give up hope. Perhaps if we mail copies of Wollstonecraft’s book to all the nice men in science and engineering…?
In my post, Who’s NOT a Leader?, I criticized what fellow Sb’er Chad wrote about the so-called pipeline problem. I also said Chad had his head up his ass when he wrote that post. I did not speak in a civil tone, even though Chad clearly said in his post that he is a nice guy.
Fortunately for Chad, Rob, Colst, Koray, NJ, SMC, and Lab Lemming rushed to Chad’s defense. What a lovely world it would be if we all had so many people to rush to our defense each time we were attacked! You know, when we bring up an instance of sex discrimination in a reasonable and rational manner, and have it brushed off or dismissed, or are told that we should lighten up or not take things so seriously or can’t we take a joke or if we can’t stand the heat we should get out of the kitchen or…well, wouldn’t it be nifty if each of us women had 6 men rush into the breach to defend and support us every time that happened? A girl can dream.
Tonyl and Rob, in particular, have taken me to task for not being polite. Not using a civil tone. Not being courteous. Rob said:
When it’s always general, it’s easy to believe that it’s not in your department; if stuff is going [on] in your department, then everybody in that department needs to know that it happens there. And not in a screaming, kill-the-bastards kind of way, but just in the light of revelation and honesty.
Awww…”the light of revelation and honesty.” That is so touching. Well, Rob, Zuska is here to shine a great big fucking searchlight of revelation and honesty upon all the crap that goes on that nobody wants to look at or admit goes on. Revelation and honesty are not pretty. I am not here to hold your hand and soothe your ego. I don’t know you, and I don’t know Chad. You may both be perfectly nice guys; it’s irrelevant.
You will find plenty of women in your department and on your campus at large with whom you can engage in a polite and civil discourse about the issues facing women in science and engineering, and not just in a general sense – you can talk with them about the specific issues on your campus and in your department, and you can generally expect them to be polite, civil, courteous. They have jobs and careers to protect, and they can’t afford to be rude and obnoxious to people in power. And believe me, no matter what your position in the official hierarchy, as a man in science and engineering, you have power over them. Any man can say to any other man, “god, she’s such a bitch. Always complaining, causing trouble. I hate to be on committees with her.” And the other man will take your word for it, because, of course, you have a penis and penises don’t lie.
I, on the other hand, have no job, and no career, because I am disabled. I can say whatever the hell I want to pretty much without fear of any kind of repercussion, apart from some really pissed-off man deciding to turn stalker, hunt me down, and attack or kill me. Which wouldn’t be unheard of. I can’t think of any discipline in which men were shot and killed just for being men in that discipline. I never forget, however, that Marc LePine shot and killed 14 women because they were engineering students. You can refuse to engage with what I am saying because I’m not saying it nicely enough. Just don’t fool yourself about what you are doing. You are saying “I don’t have to listen to you because I’m a man and you’re a woman and you aren’t talking the way I want you to.” That is what you are doing.
Or, as Greg put it:
Authority does always act blind and deaf./ Until the petitioner in frustration starts shouting. / Then authority says he doesn’t need to listen to anyone so abusive.
The problems that women in science and engineering face are long-standing and well-established, and they are due to long-standing and well-established factors. Men who are not part of the solution, even very nice men, will be co-opted into being part of the problem, though they may be completely unaware of it. In fact, their co-optation depends upon their remaining unaware.
In Chad’s post, he is exonerating himself – as is Rob, in many of his comments. “I am nice, my intentions are good, therefore I am not part of the problem, therefore you should not be criticizing me or speaking discourteously to me. I am your ally.” Well-meaning men react this way all the time, as do well-meaning white people or well-meaning straight people when confronted with their unthinking participation in systemic racism or homophobia. Ostensible allies who can’t do much more than be nice are sometimes more frustrating and difficult to deal with than outright obnoxious sexist bastards; with them, at least, it’s pretty clear where you stand. With the “nice” allies, it’s very, very difficult to move them beyond seeing that while they are not engaging in individual acts of sexism, they are in many ways participating in and shoring up structural inequalities.
Ilikathechemicals posted this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Tellingly, not a one of Chad’s defenders responded to it.
First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.
I have no patience for allies who ask me to be polite. I have encountered precious few men in science and engineering who, when I brought up a concern or issue – no matter how polite or civil I was – did not attempt to explain away, dismiss, deny, rebut, or excuse the behavior or action I described. In over a quarter century in science and engineering, I can count on one hand the number of men who reacted to me as if they actually believed me on first hearing. Always, always, the men side with the men first, if only in their attempt to find an alternate explanation for sexist behavior; a woman’s word is never sufficient.
If I sound angry and pissed-off to you, it’s because I am. Stop taking it so fucking personally and start trying to figure out more about how systemic inequality functions in the university to produce death by a thousand paper cuts for women faculty – and how your blissful ignorance perpetuates the situation. If you are not actively educating yourself then you are functioning as part of the institutionalized system that confers advantage on men and disadvantage on women. Read the Policy Perspectives article on Gender Intelligence as a nice start. This should help you see that, yes indeedy, there’s plenty of work to be done at the level of the professoriate.