Gendered names and hurricanes June 5, 2014Posted by Ginny in Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: feminism, science, skepticism, society
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I love me some subconscious gender bias and its hidden malevolent effects on society. So you’d think I’d have been excited when reports came out of a study claiming that female-named hurricanes are more deadly than male-named ones, because people don’t take them as seriously and don’t prepare or evacuate adequately.
Even more than rooting out subconscious gender bias, though, I love critically digging into scientific work and picking apart how strong its data, interpretations, and conclusions are. Especially when they sound fishy to me, and this one sounded a bit fishy. Gender bias is trendy right now, and while I think it can and does have powerful effects, that hurricane-deadliness thing is a huge claim. So as interested as I was in the original study, I didn’t get really excited until I started seeing some critiques.
Even more than both those things? I love names and naming and the psychology of names and name trends and all that. I try to keep that particular love quiet most of the time because it’s boring and weird to most people and not particularly useful. But this vortex of three keen interests of mine amounted to my spending a solid chunk of the last 24 hours reading, analyzing, playing with numbers, and generally geeking out in the worst way.
Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the actual writeup of the study… fortunately, some of the data is available for public view here, which is awesome. So I’m doing the best I can with what I have.
- The authors took data on all hurricanes since 1950, including the hurricane name’s position on a scale from most masculine to most feminine, and number of deaths associated with the hurricane.
- Statistical analysis showed that names that were ranked as more feminine were associated with more deaths.
- To test their hypothesis that the higher death toll was due to social perceptions of a female-named hurricane as milder than a male-named, the authors did a series of experiments where participants predicted the severity of an invented hurricane, or indicated whether they’d evacuate or take other precautions for it. The scenarios were identical except for the gender of the hurricane name: Victor or Victoria, Alexander or Alexandra, as examples. Participants overall took the male-named hurricanes more seriously than the female-named ones.
- The authors take the hypothetical scenario response results as evidence that people in general take female-named hurricanes less seriously, and are less likely to adequately prepare or evacuate, leading to a higher death toll.
Fine so far as it goes. Now let’s look at the critiques:
- Up until 1979, all hurricanes had female names. Over time since 1950, hurricanes have become less deadly, which confounds the study’s data. (The study authors did do a separate analysis of hurricanes from 1950-1978 and 1979-2012, but the results did not reach statistical significance, which the authors say is because each group is too small.)
- None of the six studies on hypothetical scenarios, which the authors used to demonstrate the causal link they’re claiming, used a population that is necessarily representative of the coastal town-dwellers who are actually impacted by hurricanes: three of the studies used undergrads, three used participants recruited via an online platform.
- There are a lot of known major factors that impact a hurricane’s deadliness, and it’s unlikely (and insufficiently demonstrated) that a subconscious gender bias is strong enough to have a significant effect above those other factors. (I know, I worded that vaguely. That’s not the part that I examined, so read the article for more details if you’re interested.)
The first bullet point is huge. If it’s true that hurricanes in earlier decades were more deadly than hurricanes in more recent years, then that’s a major confound that potentially overthrows the whole study. The other issues are relevant and important, but the first one is major.
- The analysis looked not only at male or female designation of names, but at the perceived masculinity or femininity of a name. (For non-hurricane examples, most people likely perceive Angelica as a more feminine name than Jean, and Brock as a more masculine name than Julian.) It was the name’s place on the masculine-to-feminine scale that related to its deadliness, not simply the male/female designation of the name, and those results held true even before 1979 with more feminine female names accompanying more deadly hurricanes.
- Years elapsed since the hurricane (in other words, how long ago the hurricane happened) is not correlated with the hurricane’s deadliness.
They addressed the other critiques, but their commentary amounted to “Well, yeah, that’s an unfortunate feature of the resources we had available, but that doesn’t disprove it.” Which is true.
From reading the articles linked above, I had two major questions:
- Have hurricanes actually become less deadly over time? It seems to me that the study’s authors and its critics are saying directly contradictory things about this, and it makes a huge difference.
- How did the study authors determine the relative masculinity and femininity of names? And how valid was this ranking?
To my delight there is a spreadsheet available giving the hurricane names, ranking on masculinity or femininity, death toll, and lots of other data. So I’ve been able to play around with it a bit myself, and while my stats knowledge is pretty limited, I can do basic math.
To the first question, “have hurricanes become less deadly over time?” there seems to be a direct contradiction between what the study authors say — “how long ago the storm occurred did not predict its death toll” — and what the critics say — “hurricanes have also, on average, been getting less deadly over time.” Of course those sentences have different words in them, and it’s possible for both to be literally correct. And in fact, as far as I can tell, they are. This is why you have to read your science reporting carefully, kids!
I am sure there’s a sophisticated statistical regression thingy one could do with this data, and it might be that I’m doing it completely wrong, but here’s what I got. Using the good ol’ average formula, I came up with these numbers:
- The average death toll of all hurricanes from 1950-1978 (when all hurricanes got female names) was 27.
- The average death toll of all hurricanes from 1979-2012 (when hurricanes got male and female names) was 16.
Thus far, the critics seem to be winning. That’s a pretty substantial difference between the all-female group and the male-female group. Without doing any fancier calculations, this layman’s eye is gleaming with suspicion.
To get a sense of whether the decline was smooth over time, I did the average death toll by decade, and here’s what I got:
- 50s: 24
- 60s: 36
- 70s: 16
- 80s: 6
- 90s: 15
- 00s: 19
- 10s: 68
Two major things jump out: the 80s were a great time to be in a hurricane, and the 10s were terrible. Of course, there were only three years counted in the 10s, 2010-2012, and in fact only three hurricanes happened in those years, so as a decade it should be discounted entirely. And one of those hurricanes was Sandy, which has the third highest death toll on the list (159, after Diane in 1955 with 200 deaths, and Camille in 1969 with 256. Hurricanes Audrey and Katrina were excluded as huge outliers, with death tolls above 400 and 1800.)
The authors’ statement, “how long ago the hurricane occurred did not predict its death toll,” may well be true. The weirdly low-fatality 80s plus the highly deadly Sandy coming right in at the end could blur the overall trend. (Please, someone who’s competent with statistics chime in and explain all the things to me!) But that doesn’t change the fact that hurricanes in the three decades of female-only names were, on average, more deadly than hurricanes since male names began being used.
So what about the author’s second rebuttal, that it wasn’t just male or female designation of a name, but ranking on a scale of masculinity to femininity, that predicted deadliness? They argue that even in the all-female era of hurricane names, a Hurricane Angelica would be taken less seriously than a Hurricane Jean, and thus lead to more fatalities. They rated all hurricane names on a scale from 1 to 11, with 1 being extremely masculine and 11 being extremely feminine, and used that rating in their analysis.
I wasn’t able to find out how they assigned the masculinity-femininity ratings to each name, and I’d be much obliged if someone who has access to the article could tell me. Because obviously, the analysis is only as good as the validity of those ratings. And I am — to put it mildly — skeptical of how valid such ratings could possibly be, especially in terms of supporting the authors’ hypothesis.
Name perception is a tricky thing. It’s formed by a lot of factors, sound and association being the biggest. I felt fairly confident that most people reading this would agree that Angelica is a more feminine name than Jean: it’s got more syllables, an ‘a’ ending, and the word ‘angel’ contained in it. Those are three big markers of femininity that add up to a pretty indisputable trend in how we’re likely to perceive it. But what about, say, Flossy and Edith? Alma and Ione? Erin and Sandy? In each of those pairs of names, which do you think is more feminine? How easy is it for you to judge? I’ll put the answers according to the authors in white text: (Edith, Alma, Sandy) Is that what you’d have said?
I did a little quick and dirty experiment on my facebook wall, asking friends to rank five names from the list in order of least to most feminine. The names were Erin, Sandy, Barbara, Cleo, and Ginger. After 13 respondents (I SAID it was quick and dirty) I tallied up my results. One thing I noticed was that absolutely no one ranked all five names the same way. Ginger was always in the top 3, Erin always in the bottom 3, but the others were all over the map. Sandy was particularly interesting: 5 of my respondents ranked it as a 1 (least feminine), and 5 ranked it as a 4 or 5. When the scores were averaged it ended up ranked right in the middle. I was curious about Sandy because I think of it as an androgynous name that’s used mostly for females, and thus on a 1-11 scale of masculinity/femininity, I’d rate it around a 7. The study authors rated it at 9, solidly in the middle of the feminine category, above names like Florence, Jeanne, Connie, and Opal. One person suggested that it’s an association with Sandy from Grease which leads to a more feminine impression of the name. So some people hear “Sandy” and think Olivia Newton-John, while others hear it and think, “Probably a girl but could be a boy.”
Interestingly, when I averaged my respondent’s ranking of each name, I came up with the exact same order that the study’s ratings of each name gave: Erin, Cleo, Sandy, Barbara, Ginger. Although none of my friends ranked them in exactly that order, the average matched neatly with the names’ order in the study. So yes, while individual ratings of a name may differ considerably, the aggregate impression over a large group of people might be stable.
But the question then comes in, which large group of people? If there’s one thing you can say definitively about name perceptions, it’s that they change dramatically over the years. Names like Florence, Mildred, Bertha, and Edith were once considered youthful, fresh, sweet names for a baby girl. Now they conjure up an image of a grandma or great-grandma. I think of Ashley, Stephanie, Jennifer and Samantha as normal feminine, young-woman names, but they’re on the cusp of becoming mom names, the kind of names that Barbara, Carol, and Donna are to me. Our impression of a name is profoundly tied to the generation we were born in. And this is important to assessing the study because the whole argument is based on the assumption that people’s subconscious impressions of a name — and specifically its masculinity or femininity — are shaping their behavior.
I don’t doubt for a minute that the name given to a hurricane gives people a qualitative impression of it, based on how they normally think of that name. Names shape how we see things and people; that’s why I find them so fascinating. But the impression I have of Hurricane Carol now is very different than the impression a community in 1954 would have had of Hurricane Carol. In 1954, most Carols were in their teens and twenties. Carol then was something like Madison today, just in terms of when it became popular and was being commonly used.
I assume that the study authors’ name ratings were obtained by asking a (hopefully large and diverse) sample of people to rate the names on femininity and masculinity. If they did their job right, they also checked their ratings for validity among a few different groups of people. Even if they did, though, that doesn’t mean the ratings are valid when applied to the specific people relevant to their hypothesis: the community of people that was responding to news of an incoming hurricane.
In fact, when it comes to earlier decades, we can be pretty confident that they aren’t: the entire cultural milieu, the people that were associated with a name, and the names that people thought sounded perfect for their baby girls and boys were entirely different.
None of this disproves the study. It’s possible that perceptions of a name’s “femininity” remain stable over time even while the images of what kind of person goes with that name shift decade by decade. But in my view there is not nearly enough evidence that this is the case, and some good reasons to think that it may not be.
I also question how valid the correlation is between masculinity-femininity rating and associated deaths based simply on the distribution of names on the masculinity-femininity scale. The names tend to cluster at one end of the scale or the other, with the overwhelming majority lying up at the feminine end. There are 25 names in the bottom half of the scale, rated between 1 and 6: all but 3 of these are rated between 1 and 3. So the bottom half of the scale has fewer names and they’re heavily weighted toward the low end. There are 58 names in the top half of the scale, 46 of which are rated between 8 and 10. So the top half has over twice as many names, and they’re weighted toward the top end but nearer the middle than on the masculine side of things. There is only one name each in the 3, 4, and 5 zones, and only three in the 6. Hopefully the authors did some fancy math to correct for any effects that this grossly uneven distribution might have contributed to, but without seeing the study I don’t know, and I remain skeptical.
As best I can tell from what’s available to me, the criticisms of the original study by Jeff Lazo are sound. Hurricanes did kill more people on average in the era of all-female names than since then. The authors’ counter-argument that they also found an effect of relative femininity of a name depends on fine-tuned rankings of a name’s femininity and masculinity, the validity of which I’m highly skeptical. It is possible that the authors’ contention is true and that the name given to a hurricane impacts people’s preparedness level, to an extent that its effect is noticeable over the other relevant factors (media coverage, economic issues, etc.) but it is not sufficiently demonstrated by the study thus far.
Dan Fincke hits the nail squarely, again June 2, 2014Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
Tags: #notallmen #yesallwomen, Dan Fincke, feminism, Mental Health, mental illness
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I have been reading and thinking about issues surrounding cultural narratives (of misogyny, for example), mental health, and personal responsibility a lot, lately. In the wake of the Elliot Roger mess, the blogosphere is rife with arguments about whether mental illness or misogyny are primarily to blame. Personally, I think that distinguishing these two, clearly, is not always an easy task. Destructive cultural narratives grab a hold of the parts of us consistent with mental disorder, and mental disorder exacerbates those cultural tropes.
I have not had enough motivation to dive in and add my thoughts, and so I have been doing a fair amount of lurking, rather than writing, on this topic. Luckily for me, Dan Fincke is here to help sort it out, because he does so much better than I could. Go and read the whole thing. It’s well written, thoughtful, and even touches some issues I’ve been thinking and writing about concerning mental health, recently.
Here’s a couple of samples that resonated with me:
We need to be much less interested in throwing people in bins of “rational” or “crazy” and deal much more with the complexities of real people’s brains. And the mentally ill and those with other disorders need treatment and compassion and accommodation so that they are as empowered to live as quality lives as possible. They don’t need demonizing and false mental links forged between homicidal rampages and their maladies.
I have been thinking about this myself, recently. Because no, our disorders are not excuses, but they are real phenomenon with causes and effects. When someone is struggling near you and you don’t make any effort to understand, empathize, and accommodate to some extent in order to create a safe, nurturing environment for them, then the struggles we have with mental illness will only be exasperated.
People with mental health concerns don’t need coddling, mere tough love, or demonization. We need empathy, support, truth and we need appropriate space to grow, heal, and thrive. In my experience, too many people are unable to give all of these things. To fail in this regard is to perpetuate the cultural failure of dealing with mental illness appropriately. Individual behavior supervenes into culture, both in terms of the families we create and the societies we share.
This is why Kant’s idea of the categorical imperative is so powerful (even if it is limited); if you want to act in a selfish way which does not make the world better, you are part of the problem. If you defend a philosophical position of selfishness (*cough* Ayn Rand *cough*) and are not willing to give of yourself, to accommodate to those near you,or to really listen, then you are part of the problem. If we seek a world with better mental health, more social justice, and one where groupthink, tribalism, and self-justification are minimized, we must be willing to be compassionate and, in some cases, accommodating.
I especially like Dan’s discussion about Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment in context to all of this.
The worst possible response to this is to suffer ressentiment as our reaction. As Nietzsche characterized the concept of “ressentiment” it’s when you cannot have something good and it makes you so envious and enraged that you attack its very value.
Especially this distinction:
What many men seem to fear in feminism is that it’s “bitter women who adopt a female supremacist ideology based on their bad experiences with a few men”. They accuse it of being an overcorrection based on a man-hating ressentiment. Hence the #notallmen meme. “Not all men are like that” doesn’t serve as a useful reminder not to pathologize all men and all of men’s sexuality in an overcorrection against predatory forms of it, which is a fine and important qualifier in criticisms. Instead “not all men” is often said in such a way as to say, “there is nothing wrong with our culture’s ideas about gender and there is nothing for me to introspect about, a few bad apples don’t spoil the bunch”. This conveniently would get almost all men off the hook from having to learn anything or do anything different in response to the complaints of women. (As an atheist critic of theistic religions, I constantly have to deal with the equivalent “get out of self-criticism free” card “Not all religious people are like that!” waved in my face all the time.)
Arguments against the word “feminism” are often coupled with declarations of egalitarianism. They are essentially saying, “we should just be concerned with equality and not with the needs of women in particular“. Yet, the reason feminists think there’s no contradiction in being focused on women as a means to equality is because there are a number of ways that women are specifically treated as unequal and subordinate socially, morally, and politically in our culture and around the world. There is special attention to women in particular because women’s equality is missing in particular.
which is similar to a point I was making a while back in response to this post by Evid3nc3, which I still disagree with.
And, of course, any time the Stoics are brought in, I swoon a bit. Because, well, I’m a nerd. Shut up!
As the Stoics rightly teach us it is only a source of misery to put our own feelings of self-worth up to the opinions of others to control. If you are dependent on other people liking you in order to like yourself, you’re making yourself vulnerable to something you cannot control. And no amount of raging and domineering towards the people you feel are withholding their approval from you will solve the problem. You need to focus on what true personal excellences look like and cultivate those.
This is especially relevant to my disorder, and this point is brought up repeatedly in writing about BPD. I will do what I can to take these words to heart. For me, a consistent self-worth is hard to maintain. I need to remind myself, every day, that people love me. In time, I will be able to do this on my own (and I will hope to receive it from others as well), but when times are tough, I rely on validation from others quite often.
And, of course, the payoff:
In a secular culture we need to take active responsibility for shaping our own norms and values rationally. We shouldn’t be deferring to common sense–it’s riddled with harmful prejudices. We shouldn’t be dangerously rehearsing outmoded and unfair biases. We should all feel ourselves to be actively responsible for exactly what values and norms we perpetuate. We should all scrutinize them for flaws and work to fix them. We all need to feel responsible to do this. We all need to feel responsible to have constructive discussions with other people we influence and who influence others. Yes, all men need to do this.
I cannot agree more. Thanks Dan!
Tags: feminism, Mental Health, philosophy, privilege, relationships, society
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been circling back repeatedly to the questions around the intersections of anger, marginalization, oppression, and social justice. I came to it with a knee-jerk, “Of course it’s better to restrain your anger and express yourself calmly and civilly no matter the provocation” stance, born out of my own Stoic Peacekeeper personality and the cultural values I picked up from my white educated middle-class environment. I did a lot of listening to the arguments that challenge that stance, and because this is the way I develop my understanding of knotty ethical problems, I threw myself as completely as possible into the “an oppressed person should get to express themselves however they feel like, even if it sounds unreasonably hostile and aggressive to others” viewpoint. I argued that side to others and put myself into communities where it was the rule, to see what the outcomes of having that rule are.
Based primarily on those experiences, I’ve pulled back a little and am working on settling myself somewhere in the territory between those two stances. I’m still working on where, exactly, that will be. But it’s distressing to me that the majority of the conversation I hear about the issue is pretty much either “How dare you say hostile things you mean meanyface!” or “How dare you silence someone’s expression of anger, whatever [verbal] form it took!” So I loved this post by Aoife over at Consider the Tea Cosy, which had a practical and nuanced view, affirming the right of marginalized people to express anger, allowing that the anger is not always going to be contained to the immediate oppressors, and exhorting people on all sides to be aware of how much they don’t know about the people who are in the immediate vicinity.
Bits I particularly appreciated:
When the status quo is oppressive (it is), then staying neutral just keeps things as they are.
The status quo needs shaking up. Anger- even messy outbursts of I CAN’T FUCKING DEAL WITH THIS SHIT ANYMORE WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU PEOPLE DOING- shakes things up. Anger is a sign that someone’s been stressed to a breaking point. Anger reminds us that something is rotten. It knocks away a little of our complacency.
It has taken me a long time to really grasp that staying calm and absorbing emotional strain doesn’t always help situations. Sometimes it just allows really bad situations to linger far longer than they needed to. I will likely continue to struggle with this — stoic peacekeeper, over here. But I’ve been in enough situations where just quietly coping turned out to be a maladaptive strategy, and some anger, even messy and poorly-targeted anger, would have driven us much more quickly toward solutions.
While as oppressed people it’s often a good idea to focus our anger at appropriate targets when we can, when we are privileged it’s our responsibility to.. deal with it. Take some breaths. If we need to stew and simmer (we’re only human!), be careful about where we direct that hurt. Understand that whatever anger we’re receiving is magnified many times by the other crap the person has had to deal with. Accept that it’s not fair. It’s not fair for anyone involved.
I really like that she handles both sides of the coin here. The hurt I, as a privileged person (in a hypothetical scenario) feel from being lashed out at unfairly, is real. It counts. It’s not nothing. But it’s also (in this same hypothetical scenario) way less than the person doing the lashing-out has had to deal with, so it’s my responsibility to suck it up and cope in a way that doesn’t create more hurt for that person.
And then there’s the cases where maybe the hurt I feel isn’t way less, because of whatever shit I’ve got going on:
If the world were divided neatly into privileged and oppressed, we could all portion out how much anger we can take (and from who) and how much venting we get to do. It’s not, though. It’s messy- messier than our anger, messier than the hurt that leads to that anger or that results from it.
As people who are hurt and angry, intersectionality, I think, reminds us that other people could be dealing with things as opaque to us as our experiences are to them. There’s no such thing as the Last Acceptable Prejudice. All prejudices are the Last Acceptable Prejudices. While they all hurt us in different ways, the fact of that harm is always there. Vent if we need to, but understand that not-in-my-group doesn’t equal never-hurt, that not all things are visible to bystanders, and that this person might have a load of microaggressions of their own tipping them over an edge you never knew existed.
This is the piece of things that had me tearing my hair out when I was active in a heavily social-justice-oriented community. Situations would arise where one person’s hurt and anger and oppression redounded on another person in a way that aggravated that person’s hurt and anger and oppression, and trying to adjudicate those situations was frankly more than I was able to cope with, especially when I was one of the people being hurt.
Read the whole piece, it’s great.
Shock absorption: a model for looking at hurt and response
There are two different ways I’ve seen people look at anger, hurt, and response. The first is what I’ll call the “conflagration” model. People who love and trust each other, and have the right temperament for it, can get into screaming fights, yelling all over each other and maybe even breaking a dinner plate or two, and then once they’ve expressed themselves as loudly and fully as possible the anger dies down and they can hug and laugh and be close again. As far as I can tell (and I really don’t know, because this is an alien dynamic to me) the things each person said get filed away under “things I say when I’m angry” and both people know that they weren’t really meant, and don’t have a lasting hurtful impact. Maybe both people just grok that those are feelings expressed but not endorsed? The point is, in that model both people’s anger and hurt flares up like a bonfire, feeding on itself and growing for a while, and then naturally burning itself out and leaving very little residue to deal with.
Then there is what I’ll call the “shock absorption” model. In this one, hurtful things that were said and done while angry (or irritated or sleep-deprived or distracted) don’t go away… they react and rebound like shock waves. Jo, coming home from a shitty day at work, says something carelessly hurtful to Sal, who then has to do something with that hurt. Ze can bounce it right back to Jo, snapping back at hir, or ze can take it out on someone else, or ze can hold onto it and let it stew and fester, where it will likely gain momentum and fly out later at Jo or someone else with even more force. Any of these actions are going to cause an echoing effect, where the person who got hit by the rebound will then bounce it back to someone else, and on it goes. (If it’s just Jo and Sal volleying back and forth, hey presto! you have a fight.)
Sal can also do some conscious shock absorption, where ze thinks, “I know Jo is having a terrible time at work. I know Jo loves me and didn’t want to hurt me. I’m going to let that slide, and maybe bring it up later when Jo is in a better place to have a conversation about it.” This kind of shock absorption — reacting to hurt with understanding and patience — is what stops the endless cycle of hurt and anger rebounding all over the place. In the shock absorption model (which I think applies to any relationship where love, trust, and/or conflict-friendly temperaments are not firmly established, including nearly all the interactions social justice is concerned with) somebody, somewhere, has to do this before things will calm down. Often multiple people need to, as everybody takes deep breaths and works to get to a place of understanding and kindness.
A person’s ability to act as a shock absorber in this way is limited: by their temperament, by their maturity, and by the level of stress they’re currently under, including how much shock-absorption they’ve already been doing in the recent past. Once your shock pads are worn down, you’re back to Sal’s original choices in response to hurt: lash out (at the person who hurt you or someone else) or let it fester inside you, where it will only get worse and eventually emerge to do more damage. I didn’t mention it above, but sometimes if you go the “let it fester” route, the damage it does is to yourself and your own self-esteem. Taking on a lot of hurt and never dealing with or expressing it can eventually have you believing that you deserve to be treated badly, that you can’t expect any different in relationships, that this is just how things are.
When we’re talking about anger and social justice, asking a more privileged person to suck it up and deal with the occasional misdirected outburst is essentially saying, “The person who lashed out at you is likely near the end of their shock-absorption capacity. You have plenty left, so use it.” It’s saying, “One of the hazards of dealing with constant micro-aggressions is internalizing that sense of inferiority, starting to believe that you don’t deserve better. The person who lashed out at you is protecting themselves against that outcome; let them.” As long as you have some shock-absorption capacity left, it’s best to use it in those situations.
This is complicated by the fact that the apparently privileged person might also be at the end of their shock-absorption capacity, for any of a number of reasons (including having some invisible sources of marginalization.) This is what the third quote I pulled from Aoife’s post touches on. Saying, “you have to be the shock absorber here because you haven’t been hurt the way the other person has” is really, really upsetting — not to mention sometimes impossible to grant — when you’re staggering under the weight of your own stress and hurt.
And on the flip side, a lot of people who have the capacity to absorb hurt choose to rebound it instead. Absorption takes work, lashing back is easy. This is one reason I’m wary of the extreme “marginalized people get to express themselves however they want!” position. In some cases, I think it can turn into an abdication of any responsibility for acting as a shock absorber when you do have the capacity. This especially happens with people who are somewhere in the middle of the privilege ladder (assuming such a thing is a sensical concept, which it’s not, but it’ll do for the moment.) It is impossible to know what’s going on from outside: whether the person lashing out is doing so because their shocks are worn too thin, or just because they feel entitled to lash out. But I will say, that of the many and varied outbursts I’ve seen, statistically some of them are almost certainly being perpetrated by people who could have healthily chosen to absorb the hurt instead, and that just increases the strain on the system for everyone.
It’s even further complicated by the fact that, if you’re an internalizer, it can be hard to tell the difference between internalizing the hurt so that it festers, and absorbing it so that it dissipates. Impossible to tell the difference from the outside, and not always easy from the inside. If you’ve gone through most of your life acting as a shock absorber for other people, you can slide from “productively exercising patience and understanding” to “self-destructively internalizing hurt” without even noticing it. Another dynamic I’ve seen play out in social justice circles is that a bunch of people who tend to externalize are loudly rebounding hurt all over the place, while the people who tend to internalize are just getting quieter and quieter and eventually slip away from the circle, when they realize they’ve crossed that line and participation is becoming self-destructive. The people who externalize hurt are not always the ones most deeply hurt, but this tends not to get recognized in the conversations about anger and social justice.
Sometimes a situation is so tense that there’s just not enough shock absorption capacity to handle the level of hurt that’s bouncing around. When things get to this point, there’s nothing to be done except back away; any interaction is going to cause more damage, whether it’s internalized or externalized. If the connection is valuable enough, and the parties involved are able to replenish themselves elsewhere, they may be able to regroup and try again. But maybe not. I’m convinced that the main reason many relationships and communities fall apart is that the total shock absorption capacity of the group is worn too thin to handle the next wave of stressors.
Implications of the shock absorption model
What does this mean, both for social justice circles and for relationships? The guidelines I’m tentatively staking out are these:
- In most situations, if you can be a shock absorber, do. If you can react to being hurt with patience, understanding, and kindness, and do so without damaging your own sense of self-worth, do that, because there are likely plenty of people in the situation whose capacity is lower than yours.
- Recognize that for some people in some circumstances, letting hurt rebound so that it strikes someone else is the healthiest option. That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing, per se, but it’s the best way to deal with a bad situation. It also doesn’t mean that you personally deserve the attack that was sent your way. Draw a line between, “this person needed to vent their hurt toward me” and “I deserved what they said/did.” You don’t have to draw it publicly, in fact you shouldn’t. Just note that it’s true, and go seek reassurance and comfort somewhere else if you need to.
- Work on being self-aware about when you absorb and when you don’t. If you’re an internalizer, get smart about the signs that you’re unhealthily internalizing rather than productively absorbing, and find ways to express your anger when you’ve hit the limit of your absorption capacity. If you’re an externalizer, don’t take “I get to express anger however I want” as carte blanche to throw your hurt around. Again, if you can be a shock absorber, do, because the fewer shock absorbers there are in a situation the more likely the whole group is to reach critical dissolution point.
- Be wary of making judgements about how much absorption capacity the people around you have. The less you know them, the less clue you have about what’s going on with them and how thick their shock pads are at the moment. What matters (to you) is your hurt and how much you can take. You get to draw boundaries to protect yourself whether someone is willfully and carelessly throwing hurt around, or reacting in the only way possible to them.
- When everybody’s shocks are wearing thin, the best thing to do is back away. Let everybody go off and replenish their emotional reserves. Sometimes, getting a situation resolved right now is not going to happen, and continued attempts are just going to wear everybody down even further. One of the sucky things about certain kinds of oppression is that it becomes very hard to find a retreat space where you’re not constantly being worn down by new stressors and microaggressions. This is part of why “safe spaces” are so important, and why people shouldn’t complain about being excluded from them. Having a space to vent and express and restore makes it easier for someone to come back and have a conversation that will be productive and healthy on both sides.
- And my overall, foundational principle for these kinds of discussions: Be excellent to each other. We’re all hurting, in various ways and at various times. Wherever it’s possible, let’s do what we can to make less hurt, not more.
So You Want to Try Polyamory (post at everyday feminism) April 7, 2014Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory.
Tags: everyday feminism, feminism, polyamory
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Ginny sometimes writes elsewhere besides PolySkeptic.com, and when she does I think it’s a good idea to inform our readers of that. Today, Ginny posted this article on everyday feminism about what to think about when considering opening up and possibly becoming polyamorous, which is a question that more and more people are doing these days.
Here’s the post:
Tags: #shutupandlisten, #WiScfi, Amanda Marcotte, feminism, privilege, Rebecca Watson, religion, Ron Lindsay, Zen
OK, so I’m a man. I am going to preempt this post by saying that his is an attempt to explain my understanding of an issue which I may be completely wrong about. But I think it’s valuable to express it anyway, just in case I might flick on a light bulb for some people.
Ex-theists and perspective:
Many atheists used to be theists. If this is true for you, then there was a time when they were involved in questioning your beliefs, and during that time you probably had conversations with atheists who were attempting to provide evidence, logic, etc in order to get you to see a point. For whatever cognitive reasons, your past self was just not seeing it. But over time, you started to digest the ideas, have them incorporate themselves into your mind, and one day it just sort of clicked. It just made sense, perhaps suddenly, perhaps a little at a time, but one day it just made sense that belief in a god is not rational nor justified. You were not necessarily exposed to a new idea, but you were exposed to a new perspective that shifted how you saw the issue.
I am willing to bet that a lot of what delayed this ‘getting it’ was trying to engage with the information. A theist hears a logical point from an atheist, and they have to try and employ their current worldview against it; their mind has to address it with what content it already has. In short, they are trying to respond to it as part of an intellectual conversation.
Privilege is a tricky concept. One of the important aspects of it is that if you have it, it works to blind you against seeing it. In our culture, belief in god, mostly the God of Abraham, is widespread and the tradition called “Christianity” has a privileged position. I’ll bet that most ex-Christians didn’t understand the privilege that theism and Christianity had before they started living as out-of-the-closet atheists. And now that they are out of the closet (I hope, anyway), they start to understand that privilege because they see it from a new perspective.
Just like the theist could not understand the atheist position, intellectually or in terms of the cultural privilege such belief comes with, many men are struggling with the concept of male privilege right now, and the relationship between these two phenomena should be enlightening.
Male privilege as a perspective
A few women have told me that the ideas that some men are trying to communicate, in regards to feminism, sexism, and “Men’s rights” are ideas they are well-aware of. On the other hand, many of the messages that many women are trying to communicate to such men, especially right now in the atheist community, are not being understood. Feminist criticisms are based on ideas that are not part of the mainstream and which are marginalized in comparison with the ideas some men tend to make in such conversations. So when some men respond, rather than listen, they are repeating the mainstream view which the feminist criticism is responding to in the first place. It’s like a theist responding to an atheist claim by saying “but god really exists. Just ask anyone!”
For our purposes here, the (mostly Christian) theistic ideas that many ex-theists are familiar with are analogous to the anti-feminist ideas which many of those same atheists still defend. Similarly, atheist arguments are analogous to feminist criticisms of mainstream gender concepts and behaviors. The atheist talking to the clueless theist (clueless in the sense that they do not yet understand either their privilege or the superiority of the atheist position) is therefore also analogous to the feminist talking to the MRA or someone like Ron Lindsay (also see Amanda Marcotte’s open letter to CFI) who simply is not getting why they are being told to shut up and listen.
This is not about free speech. This is NOT about silencing dissent or quelling men’s place in the conversation.
I will repeat. #ShutUpAndListen is not about silencing dissent, conversation, or about bullying forward an ideology. It’s about the fact that if you are not listening, you may not be in a cognitive position to understand because your mind is oriented along the lines of the mainstream idea being criticized. In this specific case of male privilege, it’s about how one’s position as a male in our society gives that person unconscious, automatic, and unintended advantages that they will not see by trying to engage by using it.
One’s intellect is not in question here per se, but it is partially your intellect—your ability to engage with and converse about ideas—that is the cause of the blindness. By engaging by use of your perspective, which is privileged, you are using your privilege rather than trying to see it. There is a paradox at work here, in other words.
If you try and use your intellect only to understand Zen, you will never understand the concept of Zen. Zen is about transcending ourselves, consciousness-raising, etc. It is about allowing you to take yourself out of yourself so you can see yourself from another perspective. Once you see it, your perspectives shifts in a way that you could not have understood, or predicted, before the shift. After you see the shift, you can engage with it intellectually, but not before.
Privilege is about perspective, perception, and is entwined with the very foundations of how we understand ourselves in relationship with other things. It is not an objective concept to be apprehended, it is a way we see such concepts. It is a method, not a fact.
Think about how it changed the way you understand the world to understand that your previous religious worldview (for those that had one) was fundamentally wrong. Was it conceivable to understand what you understand now, then? When I first saw the shift of my own privilege (which happened much too late, when it comes to male privilege), it changed the conversation for me. And so now talking with men who do not get it yet is much like talking with a fundamentalist Christian. I simply cannot show either of those interlocutors either my atheist or feminist perspective, but I can talk around it. I can describe it and hope that they are listening to me, rather than thinking about their reply, but I cannot force them to.
All ex-theists had to spend some time really listening, whether live or via reflection, to what an atheist has said to them about belief. Some may do this on their own and without external argumentation, through genuine introspection and self-doubt, but it amounts to the same. Understanding privilege is more about introspection than it is about understanding a concept. it’s about understanding how our mind works (or, more correctly, how it doesn’t).
And that’s why we all, at some times, need to shut up and listen. It’s like meditation; we have to shut down our privilege engines, our verbal and intellectual powers, and watch the mind in action to see how it’s skewing the world for us. By insisting upon verbalizing it—by talking rather than listening or watching—we are not able to see the machine in action, and to fix it.
So, whether it comes to gender, race, etc, shut up and listen. Sometimes, it’s the only way to understand.
It’s a Women in Secularism anniversary! May 16, 2013Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: feminism, religion, Women in Secularism
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One more day!
Tomorrow morning, Ginny and I will be getting in the car and driving down to Washington DC to attend the Women in Secularism conference. And on Sunday, Ginny and I will be celebrating our one year anniversary! In fact, the reason we didn’t make it to the first Women in Secularism conference was because our wedding was the same weekend last year. And while I considered skipping out on my own wedding for a conference, ultimately I decided it would not be a good decision. Plus, our wedding rocked.
I’m looking forward to seeing some old friends, meeting some new ones, and generally having a great weekend. I may be blogging, or at least tweeting, from the conference (@polyskeptic), but if I don’t I will certainly have something to say after I get back.
I do hope to avoid any and all potential absurdity from some certain persons who will be attending, and broadcasting, from the conference while there. I will reiterate that I am really not interested in interacting, socially or for the sake of
argument discussion, with people who perpetually fail to comprehend the intersectionality of social issues as they relate to the drive that pushes atheists to be active. The same motivations I have to be active in this community lead me to care, and act, about other issues. And since (with atheism and feminism, for example) there are overlapping concepts and goals, having a space for people who contain the multitudes of social justice concerns makes sense. Again, nobody is claiming any necessary logical relationship between atheism and gender equality as envisioned by feminists such as myself. The point is that the desire to be an activist for one set of concerns—such as the separation of church and state, education and theocracy, and atheist civil right protection—is related to the desire to see other issues dealt with in society. And since these different issues have some overlapping concepts (like privilege), experiences (like discrimination and misunderstanding), and similar goals (general human rights) it makes sense that some people talk, write, and act on their intersectionality. The whole point of intersectionality is that various cultural concerns have overlapping affects and experiences, and some of us care about how atheism, skepticism, gender issues, racism, ableism, etc intersect.
The problem, for many critics of this view, is that they don’t agree with or care about the kind of feminism that we espouse. That’s fine. They have the legal protection of believing whatever they want, and they can still do pure skepticism/atheism, if they want (I think that’s getting old and boring, personally). On the other hand, this critical view has nothing to do with the fact that we we plussers and other atheist advocates for third wave feminism comprehend, care about, and argue for the active intersection of these issues. Nobody is forcing anyone else to contribute or cooperate, and nobody is redefining atheism or trying to enforce community standards.
Why the fuck can’t some people comprehend that?
In any case, I will be there and I expect it to be a great weekend.
Will you be there? If you are reading this and plan on being there, feel free to come say hello to either of us. I will likely be wearing the blog shirt or something equally offensive to mainstream sensibilities.
Confessions Of A Former Misogynist (re-blogged) February 15, 2013Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
Tags: feminism, misogyny, patriarchy
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While reading the post, I saw some similarities to my own transformation, not from misogyny to being a feminist per se (I did recognize some of what he said in my own past, before I had a more solid understanding of feminism), but from being generally emotionally reactive and defensive to forcing myself to be more open, transparent, and self-reflective.
I highly urge everyone to read and share the post.
Ben concludes with this important paragraph:
This process took decades with me, though. Debunking a feminist conspiracy in your head is a little bit like deprogramming yourself from a religion. It takes years of self-reflection and asking some really uncomfortable questions about yourself, but you do come out of it a better person. [my emphasis]
I think this is important because with the recent splits in the atheist/skeptic community, pointing out that this transformation is so similar to leaving a religion, many atheists who are ‘skeptical’ of the recent attention to (‘radical”) feminism may start to understand that just as many of them took years to leave religion, they may still need years to leave the misogynistic and patriarchal worldview they still live in.
Tags: feminism, FtBullies, politics, society
This, ladies and gentlemen, will be a rant of sorts. I’m not happy with humanity today, and it’s my own damned fault for reading blogs!
So, I’m a feminist of a specific kind. I have evolving but ideologically-leaning views about the relationship between gender, history, and culture. I think there are things that we should be focused on as a society to improve the world related to those feminist ideas. I think that we need to become familiar with concepts which will be consciousness-raising and will shift our perspectives on how to behave.
The details of what specific kind of feminist I am, what ideologies I prefer, and what changes in perspectives we should work towards are almost not worth explaining, because all I have to say is that I read Freethought Blogs and Skepchick and I agree with them more often than not. I think Greta Christina is an excellent advocate for both atheism and feminism. I think Rebecca Watson had something to teach me in talking about a guy in an elevator. I miss Jen McCreight’s contributions to the conversation. I have learned lots about race and privilege from Ian Cromwell. I think PZ Myers is witty, intelligent, and sometimes wrong (actually, he’s mostly right there).
So, now you know where I stand right?
Here’s the thing. If you read any blogs who have a dog in this fight (you know, the fight about the role of feminism, if any, in the atheist/skeptic community) then you will either think that Rebecca Watson, PZ Myers, etc are generally right and are fighting for a worthy cause within the community or you will think they are bullies (FtBullies, if you would) who have a view based upon “garbage feminist scholarship” and who are creating a division in the community with their, well, bullying and such. Some, such as my good friend Staks, have given up reading any FtB posts at all. I think he’s missing out on a lot by doing so, and I’m not sure if he will change his mind.
It has gotten so bad that I am not even sure what the philosophical differences are, most of the time. Most of the posts I see now are not substantive philosophical critiques of a point of view, they are an attack on the other side. This has become a polarized, party-line division, much like what exists in politics.
And this is no surprise to me. Tribal mentalities exist in all communities, so the fact that this happens in the atheist community is to be expected. I would like skeptics to be better, but I’m too cynical to really believe that will happen even among those who should, ideally, know better. Humans are emotional and irrational (which they then rationalize, in most cases), so all I can do is be both frustrated and amused at it all.
Take this post by Maria Maltseva called A World Without Dogma. it starts off OK, but then you immediately see that PZ Myers, Rebecca Watson, and Richard Carrier are all Marxist feminists who may endanger us with their terrible Marxist ways. I really thought I had run into a Republican blog by accident, for a moment there.
The arguments there are straw men. There is no attempt to take seriously the problem of how to address feminism as a skeptic (and yes, I know there are people who do take this issue seriously from some of them I also read), but rather the point is to show how untrustworthy, unskeptical, and how bad the other side is.
And yes, some at Freethought Blogs do the same thing, and I will admit that I am less annoyed when I agree with the one doing the mocking than when I disagree, even though I also do get annoyed, occasionally, by some I agree with (especially Amanda Marcotte, who I agree with more often than not but I find her writing to be abrasive, so I don’t generally read her stuff anymore, except in rare cases).
So, let’s spell it out; there are people on both sides of this issue being snarky, using mockery, and who dislike each other greatly. I want to see people who are able to see that snark and let it roll off of them. I don’t want the emotion, passion, and even humor to go away, I want it to be waved off and for us to be able to actually have a substantive discussion about things like feminism without it turning into politics as usual. I want people to be able to hear mockery, snark, etc and let it roll off them and pay attention to the message, but often there is little actual message to sink one’s teeth into.
Yes, some people I will talk to will be wrong (painfully wrong), but can’t we drop the meta-debate? Can’t we stop talking about elevatorgate and talk about the philosophical disagreements which underlie why elevatorgate was such a big deal? Can’t we address privilege, safe spaces, and the concerns that men have all while we recognize that understanding the perspective of others is part of the process of making it all better for all of us?
I know I’m biased, but I think that is precisely what people such as Greta Christina have been doing. I want a world where the complaints that men have with our culture are solved. I want a world where the complaints that women have about our culture are solved. I want a world where tribalism and petty interpersonal squabbling don’t dominate philosophical debate. Mostly what I see now is that PZ Myers and Thunderf00t don’t like each other anymore, Rebecca Watson is (supposedly) an ugly bitch, and my view of feminism is a totalitarian dictatorship in the making.
I want to put aside petty interpersonal squabbles, platitudes, and deal with real issues. But I won’t get what I want; the battle-lines will be drawn more vividly and I will be forced to be a combatant even if I try and avoid perpetuating the divisions. And the effect of this is that I will inevitably become further removed from any real dialogue between people on different sides of this issue. I will have less exposure to views different from mine, despite my desire to understand their point of view, because the conversation will become meta-, rather than substantive.
I can try to keep it away from here, but the simple fact is that I do think that one side of this debate is mostly right. It’s just like PZ Myers said some time back, compromise with crazy is half-way to crazy town. I think that FtB, despite some of their poor behavior from time to time, is mostly right, and I find Maria Maltseva mostly wrong, but still worth listening to in case something good comes through.
Not saying so would be inauthentic, so I will be placed on one side of the battle lines, and when I take a step across to try and understand, I will be shot at because I’m perceived to be wearing the uniform of the person seen as the leader on my “side.”
It’s absurd. I’m interested in the truth, if such a thing exists, and I will hope that these stupid squabbles evaporate into a truly skeptical conversation.
Recommended Reading: Feminism January 14, 2013Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: atheist community, feminism
On “Equity Feminism” and “Gender Feminism” (Love, Joy, Feminism)
An excellent critique of a post by vjack about how to talk about feminism. I think Libby Anne nails this one.