Recently, an esteemed colleague posted a comment on Facebook about a response to a talk on STEM education for girls. A woman had responded something like this: “I applauded the speaker’s efforts because, at that age, all girls are interested in is boys and makeup”. My colleague felt bad at staying silent and not “calling out the woman” for gender stereotyping. She asked advice from her fellow (liberal) friends and, indeed, they seemed, by and large, to think that it was their duty to call out this sort of person in public.
I responded that “calling people out” might not be the best or, at least, the only way forward in our deeply vexed society. I advocated seeking to understand whatever sense might be behind the woman’s comment and then working, through discussion, to find a better, “truer” formulation that might become common ground for mutual progress.
I was promptly told by one of the other respondents to the Facebook post that, as a white male who has never faced oppression, I was not one to tell women that they should “go easy” on gender stereotyping comments. Of course, the respondent has no idea whatsoever what prejudices I have faced in my life, so, ironically, she is stereotyping just like the woman at the conference. [For the record, from my birth I have had as much hatred and anger towards another group as this woman has towards patriarchy.]
This respondent’s response is an activist response. I applaud activist responses. They are “fighting responses” meant to protect, advocate, and defend oneself or others. Another type of response is to say nothing. This is a flight response or the choice to choose one’s battles. What I was advocating was a third response, neither fight nor flight, but reasoned, evidence-centered debate in a common search for better formulations that get us closer to “truth” (a goal, not a destination) and a better world. I would argue that this is the point of academics but concede that things can get so bad that only activism (or outright war) is appropriate.
The idea that we can try to understand the sense that someone is trying to make and then work, via discussion, to move to better sense-making and some degree of convergence (in the name of a vexed coalition that gives us some chance of withstanding the powerful forces ruining our common world today) is also at the heart of one form of discourse analysis. This form is based on what has been called the “principle of charity.” This principle says we first work to understand what a person meant, assuming until proven otherwise, they are not stupid or evil, and then engage in further sense-making that might lead to, at worse, each of us understanding our own views better, and, at best, converging a bit on the long journey to a better world and better people in it.
In this spirit, one thing we could do with the woman’s comment is to seek to understand it and reformulate it in ways that she might accept or, at least, see as an emerging framework for better sense-making:
- At that age, all girls are interested in is boys and makeup.
“All” is too strong; even many girls interested in boys and make up have other interests.
Sounds like the speaker is assuming that boys and makeup are inherent, biologically-determined interests. However, girls’ interests and the ways they express them at different ages differ across cultures.
2. At that age, many girls are only interested in boys and makeup.
Again, “only” is too strong; even girls interested in boys and makeup often have other interests.
3. At that age, many girls are interested in boys and makeup.
Need to stipulate what culture and even what context the
girls are in.
4. At that age, many girls are led by cultural forces to pay a lot of attention to boys and makeup.
Many feminists correctly say that women have the right to choose what they do with their own bodies and selfrepresentations, so who has the right to say their choice is wrong or that they are “dupes” of culture?
5. At that age, many girls choose to pay a lot of attention to boys and makeup.
While this formulation allows the girls their right to choose, it leaves some people bothered by the positioning of young girls into today’s social media practices and gender dynamics.
6. At that age, many girls choose to pay attention to boys and makeup in part because larger cultural forces seek to direct or attract their attention in these ways and because some other choices—such as science and mathematics—are so poorly presented as to be quite unenticing to many girls and even boys.
Perhaps, this is getting better, but like all the other formulations above this one takes for granted that what the girls being talked about are really interested in are boys and makeup, but this may not be true.
7. At that age, many girls choose to seek status, respect, and mattering to others (something all humans want) via social media practices that stress physical beauty, social standing partly determined by the interest of males and peer pressure, rather than seeking status in other areas like science and math, areas which cultural stereotypes and poor teaching practices have rendered less accessible and less enticing for many girls and, indeed, many boys as well.
Damn it’s hard. This may be getting better, but now we have to really think hard about the nature of humans, gender, society, education, media, and today’s very changed and high-risk world. Short of that, even this formulation is way too quick and dirty.
And there is the problem now that even making girls the topic of this discussion is gender stereotyping, because both girls and boys, in different ways, face the easy accessibility of social practices that are less good for them—and less life enhancing—that other less readily accessible ones. And, now, of course, we are in the realm of values and would need to defend STEM in terms of how it enhances life and not just in terms of its role in future employment.
We end here, it must be mentioned, in humility. Things are complicated. We are all frail, prone to error, cherish beliefs we do not want to give up come what may, and prone to ignore evidence that challenges our cherished beliefs.
Yet, now, we face a serious problem. Each of us will encounter beliefs or people so odious we cannot bring ourselves, under any circumstances, to apply the principle of charity. Each of us draws the line here differently, based on our own lives, experiences, and oppressions. We can draw the line so tightly that all that is left is a fight to the death in a winner-take-all battle. Or we can draw the line so loosely that we always go along to get along in flight from any and every conflict. Both spell the death of a civil society and a public sphere in a pluralistic (diverse) society.
I fully acknowledge that the time has come in our society and in our world where activism and engaging in the “good fight” to the death may be the only choice left. The public sphere is, probably, tattered beyond repair. If this is so—and it may well be so—it is time to stop bothering with conferences and academics.
Neither people who stereotype at Education conferences, nor the people who decry them, nor we discourse analysts, have much impact on the world and its millions upon millions of desperate victims of dislocation, pollution, violence, hatred, and poverty. Children die on trash heaps every day across the world; people live out their whole lives on trash heaps every day across the world.
Women are killed every day across the world just because they are women.
Let me end with Yeats: “And what rough beast, its hour come roud at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” The bell has tolled for the bare ruined tower in which I have spent my adult life. Perhaps, “war” is on the horizon. We “on the left” will come to the battlefield tattered, divided, “calling each out,” cannon fodder for the beast.