Boys gone wild

Boys gone wild

When will men who ought to know better outgrow their sexism?

IN BUSINESS news last month was the sacking of Business Insider’s Chief Technology Officer, Pax Dickinson. Business Insider’s CEO issued a short statement:

A Business Insider executive has made some comments on Twitter that do not reflect our values and have no place at our company. The executive has left the company, effective immediately. Business Insider’s team is composed of more than 100 talented men and women of many backgrounds, and we highly value this diversity.

If you look at Pax Dickinson’s Twitter account you find that last month he tweeted (among other things):

feminism in tech remains the champion topic for my block list. my finger is getting tired.

A tweet from last year was even more blunt:

Tech managers spend as much time worrying about how to hire talented female developers as they do worrying about how to hire a unicorn.

The problem seems obvious. It’s well known that there’s a shortage of women in tech fields, and that most tech companies would like to do better in this area. Having a tech executive tweeting his contempt for the very idea is not likely to help draw more women to the field.

I like to keep a fresh, dewy-eyed, hopeful view of the world; maybe that’s why it keeps surprising me that everybody doesn’t already know this. But everybody doesn’t. The place is crawling with unrepentant sexists and creepers and get-her-drunk-ers, who somehow were all out sick the day everyone learned about sexual harassment on the job and what “hostile work environment” means.

Take the philosopher Colin McGinn as another example. He resigned from the University of Miami in the wake of allegations of sexually harassing emails. McGinn insists it was all a misunderstanding and he left simply because he didn’t want to deal with the fuss, but then he will keep blogging about it.

Colin McGinn

Colin McGinn

The item that has probably done the most to make him a joke in philosophy departments everywhere is his explanation of a “hand job” reference. It was a play on words, you see. Similarly, a professional glass blower might remark to his co-worker with a lopsided grin:

Will you do a blow job for me while I eat this sandwich?

The co-worker will interpret the speaker as indulging in crude glass blower’s humor and might reply:

Sure, but I’ll need you to do a blow job for me in return.

McGinn explains:

These reflections take care of certain false allegations that have been made about me recently (graduate students are not what they used to be).

This is a grown man, a professor of philosophy and author of many books, yet he thought it was a good idea to write that.

How does this happen? How do people who are apparently intelligent and educated manage to treat underlings with such contempt and then make such terrible justifications for doing so?

One answer lies in dissonance theory: that our pressing need to continue to think well of ourselves, no matter what we do, motivates us to find self-serving explanations for actions that to onlookers are obviously selfish or brutal. Carol Tavris and Elliott Aronson, in their book Mistakes Were Made (but
not by me), explain how that works with aggression:

Children learn to justify their aggressive actions early. They hit a younger sibling, who starts to cry, and immediately claim, ‘But he started it! He deserved it!’

Most parents find these childish self-justifications to be of no great consequence, and usually they aren’t. But it is sobering to realize that the same mechanism underlies the behavior of gangs who bully weaker children, employers who mistreat workers, lovers who abuse each other, police officers who continue beating a suspect who has surrendered, tyrants who imprison and torture ethnic minorities, and soldiers who commit atrocities against civilians.

In all these cases, a vicious circle is created: Aggression begets self-justification, which begets more aggression.

There’s another factor at work in these two cases and in many others we read of in science fiction, gaming, computer science – and, alas, in atheism and skepticism: a self-image as rebellious and contrarian and heroically non-conformist. McGinn wrote another blog post that made this embarrassingly
clear in his case.

My cultural heroes are: Oscar Wilde, Bertrand Russell, Vladimir Nabokov, Jean-Paul Sartre, Philip Larkin, Kingsley and Martin Amis, Peter Cook, John Lennon, and Larry David (among many others). What they all have in common is the quality captured by the French phrase “epater les bourgeois”, which the OED defines as ‘shock people regarded as conventional or complacent’. We might paraphrase this in a number of ways: taunt the prudish and prim, ridicule
the conventional and boring, outrage the pious and conformist.

Naughty Boys versus The Prudish Prim Laydeez. The appeal is obvious, but so is the fact that it’s crude and simplistic, as well as sexist, and that one ought to outgrow it. That, however, is clearly going to take a long, long time. Climate change may sweep us all off the board before that happens.

Freethinker, October 2013

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