Thursday, 4 December 2014

Everyday sexism (that I am guilty of)

I was walking across campus on Monday and it so happened that the person in front of me on the path was female and attractive. I made a conscious effort not to ogle, and yet, when she was greeted by a group of her classmates waiting outside a lecture hall, I still had this weird moment of cognitive dissonance. Suddenly, she was a human being interacting with human beings, rather than a shape taking up a central chunk of my visual field.

Was this entirely a sexist response? I don't know - it was, after all, Monday morning and I'd just been giving a lecture on semantics for quantificational logic, so I was a bit spaced out, and maybe there's an argument that I was just startled by the intrusion of voices in what had been a quiet environment - but I think I can tell the difference between sensory and cognitive startlement. My point is this: it's that easy (for me as a man) to dehumanise a woman, even despite a conscious effort not to. That's how insidious sexism can be.

Another example, this one perhaps a little less everyday, but more stark. Over the last couple of days, Crash, the dog belonging to game developer and favourite gamergate target Brianna Wu, took severely ill and died. Wu mentioned this on Twitter and was barraged with abuse in the form of mockery of Crash, photos of mutilated dog corpses, and at least one fake account for Crash proclaiming 'lol I'm going to die soon'.

All of which is horrible and reprehensible, but that shouldn't need saying. What does need saying is this: I felt a new level of shock and outrage at this kind of abuse, compared to the 'usual' abuse Wu has been receiving (threats of rape and murder against her, her family and friends, and her business, which among other things drove her from her home).

To put it bluntly: abuse aimed at the dog had more emotional impact with me than abuse aimed at the woman.

Perhaps it's tempting to say something along the lines of 'well, yes, but the dog's innocent, gamergate shouldn't be dragging a pet into this'. That's stupid, though, because it implies that Wu is in some way not innocent. That she deserves some part of what's happened to her, which is bullshit.

My point, guys (and I do mean guys) is this: these subconscious psychological mechanisms don't go away when we decide to try to care about other people. I don't know whether these two responses are things I've learned or are innate in some way, but they're habits of thought so deep that even when trying to be conscious of them I miss them working.

And they are responses I am responsible for. Even if I was born with the tendency to think about women this way, as long as it has the power to affect my behaviour, I am responsible for making sure that it doesn't. I am responsible for making sure that my poisonous habits of thought don't spill out into the real world.

That requires an effort of constant vigilance, regardless of whether it's Monday morning and I've just come from lecturing on difficult logic. And it really matters, because (for example) a huge part of the problem of stopping gamergate, and of taking it seriously as something that must be stopped, is a lack of empathetic understanding of what life is like for gamergate targets - of how damaging harrassment can be.

It's exactly the kind of empathy that I've failed at (at least) twice in the last week which we (men) most need in order to recognise, understand and tackle this problem.

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