Thursday, 12 June 2008

am I a man who explains things?

Two months ago, the LA Times ran a piece on men who explain things. Specifically, men who explain things patronisingly. To women.

Solnit describes an experience she had at a party some years ago.
"So? I hear you've written a couple of books," [says the host of the party.]

I replied, "Several, actually."

He said, in the way you encourage your friend's 7-year-old to describe flute practice, "And what are they about?"

They were actually about quite a few different things, the six or seven out by then, but I began to speak only of the most recent on that summer day in 2003, my book on Eadweard Muybridge, the annihilation of time and space and the industrialization of everyday life.

He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. "And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?"
The book, of course, was Solnit's own. But this would never have occurred to the patron. When that fact finally sank in,
as if in a 19th century novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn't read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless -- for a moment, before he began holding forth again. Being women, we were politely out of earshot before we started laughing.
I have been worrying over this anecdote for some time, but so far have avoided writing about it, because to do so would seem to implicate me in precisely the sort of crime described. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I am certainly guilty of the crime of holding forth on subjects about which I know little. But am I patronising about it? Or at least, am I equally patronising to men and women?

I like to think so. The trouble seems to be that women are more sensitive to patronising behavior. For good reason: women really are subject to it more. But given 'equal' treatment, is a different response an overreaction? Or is it justified? It's not an empty question. Patronising behavior has consequences for our basic assumptions about what goes on in the world:
One Christmas, [a nuclear physicist] was telling -- as though it were a light and amusing subject -- how a neighbor's wife in his suburban bomb-making community had come running out of her house naked in the middle of the night screaming that her husband was trying to kill her. How, I asked the physicist, did you know that he wasn't trying to kill her? He explained, patiently, that they were respectable middle-class people. Therefore, her-husband-trying-to-kill-her was simply not a credible explanation for why she was fleeing the house yelling that her husband was trying to kill her. That she was crazy, on the other hand....
Ha ha! Those crazy women!

Combating the lasting foolishness of patronisers is what feminism is all about. It's just too bad that the lessons grate so on those who (think they) have learned the lesson. Being combative, unfortunately, is part of the problem. Solnit describes the aftermath of making a point in dinner conversation:
His scorn was so withering, his confidence so aggressive, that arguing with him seemed a scary exercise in futility and an invitation to more insult.

Ironically, in the course of discussions of feminism, I have gained firsthand knowledge of this feeling (with the genders reversed). I make an observation questioning what I take to be a dogma, and receive a withering, emasculating glare--for, in virtue of being male, I have no authority in this arena. (This reaction is by no means universal, but it does happen.) Solnit complains that
Men explain things to me, still. And no man has ever apologized for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don't.
Of this, I am surely guilty. I'm not sure I've ever apologized for being wrong. But that's the wrong thing to be up in arms about. For to me, an explanation is a hypothesis--a reasoned inference from what I do know. Sometimes I am quite sure of things before I open my mouth, and my task is to recall the relevant supporting details. Other times, I am posing something quite tentative, in the hopes of gathering alternative views and further information. I don't think the difference is always (or even usually) entirely clear to anyone but me (that provides me deniability when I turn out to be wrong). My preference is to make declarative statements about states of affairs rather than about my beliefs. I rarely use phrases like "I think" or "I believe" except in clarification. This distinction--between states of affairs and beliefs--is at root of the ongoing dispute about the cause for the gender disparity in science and engineering.

Jake Young asks the question: does the machismo of scientific culture exclude women from scientific or technical careers, or do women's preferences for working with others (rather than tools) explain the difference? According to one of the studies, another traditional explanation, fertility decisions, is a factor in delayed acheivement, but not career choice. After quickly rejecting a fourth hypothesis (that there is gender disparity in innate ability), Jake notes that
A group populated largely by men is more likely to be chauvinistic because there is no one there to call them on their bullshit. Thus, the situation can become self-perpetuating.
Over on Cosmic Variance, Sean relays a story about Richard Feynman, a charming sexist if ever there was one. When it came time for lunch, he would turn to any woman who was about and ask her to fetch his sandwich. But he would also explain quantum physics to the same woman without any fuss about whether she would understand.

Once caught in the cycle, how do we get out?


Zachary Miner said...

It's interesting that you mention feminism being an area in which the roles might be reversed, as I was recently writing a lecture on gender and sexuality and felt much the same way as you describe when talking with other grad students about specific issues. I think that my unease comes from another area, however: I worry that I may personally offend someone if I say something super-stereotypical about *their* individual gender identity, which makes me come across not only as a Man Who Is Gender-Insensitive, but also as a Man Who Hates You Personally, Or At Least Has Stereotypical Views About People Exactly Like You.

The tricky thing with gender studies, though, is that everything is becoming so fluid that you almost can't help but say something that someone doesn't agree with (while, at the same time, saying something that other people do agree with). The key - I guess - is to get to a point where all of those views are valid. And, as a Scientific Man, that goes against what I have been lead to believe is the point of argumentation - to determine which side of an argument has better points.

But, then again, I am a man (and sometimes a Man) ... so what do I know?

Anavrin Stange Quark said...

Tricky tricky stuff.
The situation of Solnit is both really annoying (when it is, broadly speaking, happening to you in one way or another) and yet it is rather funny (in retrospective) because it happens rather often.

As a person, I find getting explanations when you don't even ask for them a bit condescending, but maybe that is just my personality. However, explanations that are condescending do often (in my experience) come from men, specially in "science" or "philosophy" topics. I've heard the explanation of the same phenomenon given once to me and once to a guy by someone who in general I had not considered condescending, and then realized (silently) the difference.

What caught my attention the most is how explanation often comes trough as condescending. I myself struggle and pay strong attention to not being condescending when I explain something, specially if it is something "complicated". Oddly enough, I know I have to be extra careful with this when I explain GRW or something like that to a guy, because they react in a more "sensitive" way than when I explain to women this sort of thing. If a guy "feels" during an explanation that you are being condescending, he will become defensive in an offensive manner, and that will just make the attempt at offering a clear explanation a failure.
So, it is better to drop in a few "I think"'s from the begining in the mode of presentation of the explanation along with some mild rhetorical questions for him to give small inputs to show that he is in fact understanding. Also talk with more pauses and eye contact.
I find that with women I need to do this much much less with "complicated" topics.

Could it be that sexes, broadly speaking, in fact "perceive" condescending-ness in different ways? And try to not be (or to be) condescending differently? Hence both women and men talk about how over-sensitive yet condescending the other sex is. However, this is not to say that there are not clear cut cases, as your example, of condescending-ness of man towards women.

I think man can be -and I apologize for the word, but I can't think of a better one right now- trained in the arts of not sounding condescending if they are more often evaluated in their "explanation giving" by women, by this I mean: Most our teachers in "science" and "philosophy" stuff are men, rarely in the process of learning "hard stuff" are the teachers women. I do think this makes a difference in the long run.


Anavrin Stange Quark said...

oups! My apologies for the "men" "man" mistakes...