Tags: women

The science of opinion

A while ago, I came across this article on Amazing Stories. I'm not going to discuss it at length; it's essentially a long ramble about why there shouldn't be women soldiers in fantasy, because 'realism' (you know, our very favourite brand of realism, the kind that says that any sort of imaginary world should be all-white, have submissive women and tons of rape and violence, and possibly dragons and wizards as long as they're realistic). Anyway, the comment thread got started off by someone who had apparently studied the subject a little, and who methodically explained why the arguments made in the article (essentially, that women can only serve in the army if there are firearms, otherwise they're not strong enough, and anyway they're needed to work and make children at home) were mostly rubbish if compared to what happened in actual history. The brief exchange ended with this comment from the author:

'I wish I'd done a tenth of your research before shooting my mouth off :D'

Well. I don't mean to be rude or anything, Ms Savage, but you definitely should have. And you might have withdrawn your article after discovering that it was mostly based on flimsy arguments and poor documentation. I don't point this out because I'm some peevish, obsessive geek girl who will fly at the throat of anyone who doesn't get her favourite subject exactly right. I'm pointing this out because it's something that deeply bothers me about geekdom: how people will fetichise tifbits, little nuggets of pseudo-knowledge, while blatantly not giving a single miserable fuck about actual science.

Geeks love science. That's supposed to be one of the defining features of the community. Yet when you dig a little deeper, you soon start to understand that what many of them love is the idea of science. It's knowing stuff other people don't. It's being able to blare out 'It's SCIENCE!' as if that meant anything at all. As for the painstaking aspects of science, the research, the reading, the fact-checking, few people are actually interested in that. That's how you end up with people telling you about this or that little thing they're very proud to know, because knowing it meant you actually took an interest in something else than Facebook and Holywood blockbusters, and don't realise that their precious tidbits are glorified urban legends at best. Did you know Eskimo has over 50 words for 'snow'? (no it doesn't; first because 'eskimo' is not a language, and also some languages don't have the same conception of words as we have, so attempting to count words in them is quite futile) Did you know glass is actually a very viscous liquid? (not quite; there's no clear answer to that one, and I doubt people who present that as fact have an actual opinion on the physics of the problem) And so on, until you've got enough of those half-fictitious nuggets to make you sound like quite the science buff, without having ever touched any actual science with a ten-foot pole. And note that I'm saying 'any' science on purpose: it's useful to remember that there are many of them, and the time when a person could be a Scientist and know everything about every existing scientific subject died with... Kant, I believe.

And this is a problem. It's a problem because while tons of people seem to believe that Science is a big salad of tidbits gleaned on Cracked, they still use the notion of Science as the ultimate authority to justify right about anything, and usually, 'anything' happens to be all the preconceived ideas and stereotypes we've learned in decades of watching TV. The article I linked to quotes a paragraph about the biological differences between men and women, supposedly citing the San Diego Center for Health; if you follow the link, however, you will land on an article from the Washington Times.

This shouln't have to be said, but apparently it does, so let's get a few things straight:

1) You don't quote the Washington Times as a scientific authority, because it's not a bloody science journal.

2) And you don't go around quoting articles that say things like 'men evolved to hunt mammoth and women to raise children' as scientific authority, even if you're not going to quote them on that, because this is proof that the article in question has no scienfic ambition whatsoever.

It goes on: later in the article, another commenter states that of course women are unfit to join the army, because of things he's heard from... Mythbusters. And doesn't get called out on it, of course. Good grief.

It would be so cool if factual knowledge came in the form of punchlines, 3-minutes Youtube videos, pictures with funny captions and strip cartoons. There's a reason scientific journals are not made of Lolcats and memes. The first thing anyone realises when doing actual research is that things are always more complicated than they seem. And very often, they also don't conveniently coincide with the traditional Western stereotypes about the world. That's why opinion and science are two different things--and sometimes it can be useful to get a little bit of the second before forming the first, just to make sure you won't make a fool of yourself by saying things like 'Fantasy can't have Black people because the Middle Ages didn't have them' or 'Women evolved to bear children and men to do all the interesting stuff'.

Now, I'm keenly aware of the problems of establishing a hierarchy of knowledge, with academic knowledge at the top and amateur knowledge at the bottom. Just because you don't have a doctorate doesn't mean you don't have a brain. But that doesn't mean that anyone, blogging about a given subject off the top of their head, will manage to say things that will have as much value as the work of people who have spent months on the same subject, and this goes for people with or without a doctorate. You don't want to be that obnoxious person who systematically crashes conversations without having listened to anything that was said before, and offers pearls of wisdom without realising that they've been discussed, debated and debunked for ages. Well, science is a conversation too. I'm also aware of the fact that if you don't have access to a wealthy university library, a large part of the current academic knowledge will be inaccessible. Still, some very respected venues, like the Frontiers network or PLoS ONE, offer open-access articles. If you want to participate, at least have some respect for your interlocutors and get up to date on the main points that have been discussed.

If you don't want to do that? Well, at least you could admit that you're not really interested in fact. You could just admit that you're using Science as a more or less disingenuous way to confirm all the worst stereotypes you've grown up with. You could just say that you're not really willing to learn, because learning implies a measure of unlearning of many pre-formed assumptions, and you're just not interested in doing that; you just want to put a varnish of authority on your prejudice, and you're quoting Science because quoting from the Bible would feel silly. You could come clean and say that what really turns you on about Science is that is makes you one of the boys, that it allows you to loudly voice opinions that are not really grounded in anything, that it's wickedly cool to be able to explain that racism, sexism, homophobia and any excuse exclusion are fine because Evolution, and reading actual evolutionary theory is such a bore anyway. You could admit all this, and I bet there would still be people who can't even be arsed to open Wikipedia and would still call you a savant.

Or I suppose you could get away with 'I wrote a load of crap because I didn't do my research, looool', and not have anyone in an uproar because whatever geeks would like the rest of the world to believe, the majority of them don't really care about facts. And then next time you want a sandwich, you can tell your mum that she should make it because Evolution. Apparently it works, with some people.

Dear rom coms...

I hate you. I’d love to say it’s not personal, but let’s face it. I can’t put up with anymore belittling, condescension and controlling behaviour on your part. It’s completely personal; I want nothing to do with any of you anymore.

Every time it’s the same. There’s a rom com on, and I think ‘Hey, maybe it’s going to be different, the reviews were good,’ and then it’s not. It’s the same pattern, always: a cunning approach (‘Hi my Nice and Girly Viewer! Let’s talk about Girl Stuff and Romance and Lovely Quirky People and let’s have Lot’s of Laughs together with a Fun and Light-Hearted Story!’). And like every single controlling and manipulative asshole out there, you don’t reveal your true colours until much, much later, when I’m already very depressed and I just stay there watching to the end for some reason even if I’d much rather be somewhere nicer like freezing my arse off under the rain waiting for a bus that never comes.

This is over. Here are all the things I don’t want to hear anymore:

I don’t want to hear my life’s rubbish unless I manage to get married. It’s not because it makes me feel inadequate as a single person, because I’m emphatically not single. No; it makes me feel belittled and insulted as a woman. Single or not doesn’t change a thing.

I’m tired of women being presented as ‘special’ because they’re not utterly perfect. Being clumsy is an endearing flaw? Yeah, how about showing us women who can actually hold a glass in their hands without breaking it and needing a man to pick up the pieces?

I don’t want to be lectured on ‘normal’ relationships. Ever. Again. I don’t want to be told what’s acceptable and what’s not, or to be told about when it’s ‘normal’ to get engaged or how cheating is so horrible it justifies any amount of violence (yes, I’m looking at you, Formidably Creepy Silver Linings Playbook) or what’s an acceptable fib and what’s a terrible lie or what length you should go to if you want to get back with someone or that delusional jealousy is okay and endearing. That’s none of your business.

I don’t want to be lectured about ‘normal’ sexuality either. Could we do ourselves a collective favour and ditch ‘normal’ altogether from that area? Especially since ‘normal’ seems to imply no communication at all, enough heteronormativity to make you sick and lovely assumptions about women being natural submissives, men being natural dominants and everybody liking to be ‘pushed’ a little from time to time.

Speaking of being ‘pushed’: ever heard of that little thing called ‘rape culture’? Yeah, we don’t really need reinforcing the belief that it’s less okay to ask than to risk making someone do something they don’t really want. If you think aggressiveness is sexy, it’s your problem. Just please don’t advertise it as the normal thing to like in blockbusters.

I don’t want to hear that violence is not that serious and as long as you’re honest, you can be as aggressive as you like (Silver Linings Playbook, you know, I’m not even sure you should exist at all). In fact, I don’t want to hear ANY excuses for aggressiveness and violence, period. And yes, yelling and breaking things COUNTS as violence. It’s not ‘needing to vent’. It’s imposing your anger on people who may be dealing with their own things, but perhaps just have the decency to do it without yelling at the world for no reason.

Oh, and I’m tired of Youth, Beauty and Wealth as well. Give me a rom com starring Judi Dench and Ron Perlman and perhaps I’ll start paying attention again.

Wait. Perhaps that has something to do with me not wanting to hear about Real Men and Real Women again either. Alpha males and females? Very funny, ha ha ha, oh wait, when people somehow start to believe there must be a grain of truth in that particular urban legend (because if there’s smoke all over the media, there should be a fire somewhere, right?), it seems to make their lives very miserable. Femininity, masculinity? Such an intimate part of our identities is for us to decide, not for some badly informed media to lecture us about (Gail Carriger, you’re a great writer, but all that stuff about glamorous Alphas? Even if it’s tongue-in-cheek, it’s not remotely funny)

And I don’t need to hear any more crap about The One. I’m not particularly keen on being told that everybody I know who ever had a break-up or a divorce made a big mistake and failed at finding Prince Charming, thanks. People break up. They divorce. Fact. And perhaps we should start to accept that lasting forever is not the only condition for a relationship to be successful.

So here’s the deal. I’ll start paying attention again when someone gives me a light-hearted, funny, romantic comedy about people who don’t look like much but have great personalities, who don’t care about Happily Ever After, who have lives, who are not dying to fit into the heteronormative Alpha Male/Ideal Woman model, who have imperfect bodies, who can screw up their sex lives and then have an honest talk about it and convert awkwardness into giggles and make it okay, who want things beside living in a fairytale and who manage to be happy nonetheless.

Until then, we’re done.

Words of wisdom from a little girl

I recently travelled North for a fantasy convention, and on that occasion, I visited an old friend from the university in Alsace. I hadn't seen him with his family in two years, and seeing how much his little girl had grown was a bit of a shock. It feels a bit stupid to realise that you've been treating babies as if they were a separate species and it's a shock to see them turn into children, but there you are. When I met this little blond ball of energy, I had trouble figuring out how the baby she was had morphed into this.

My friend may frighten the occasional school child with his shaved head and athletic looks, but he's one of the kindest, sweetest persons I know, and his girlfriend is well-assorted to him in this department. I wasn't very surprised that their three-year-old daughter had grown so confident and relaxed. She also happens to speak French and Estonian quite fluently (and I suspect, better than most children her age), sings a lot the rest of the time, and she kindly offered me the leftover breadcrumbs from the bread bag after breakfast so I wouldn't walk out hungry. Needless to say, I liked her a lot after very little time.

She also has a sense of the witty repartee. According to her parents, when a doctor asked her the usual "What do you want to do when you grow up?", she gave the best answer ever: "When I grow up, I want to do whatever I like!"

You don't always have to look very far, do you? It's a good answer when you're three, and it would remain a great answer at any age if only we would accept it. That's a great life lesson to take from a toddler, a little girl who can run around with enough energy to power a nuclear plant, howl like a wolf with her dad, show off her cute necklaces then the next moment tell you she wants to be a boy, look wide-eyed with realisation at being told that nowadays girls can marry other girls if they like, sing songs, make dreadful puns at dinner and tell you at length that she's not afraid of spiders, of dragons, and not even of crocodiles for that matter. And all of this is fine, when you don't have to decide if you want to be a princess or a boy or a baby wolf when you grow up. And I hope she'll hold on to that answer for a while. It's much harder for the world to push you into a neat little box, if you know deep down that what you are is no one else's decision but yours.

The world is your oyster, little girl!

Al Gore's frog

Knock on the door. An answer, this time. Now I have approximately three seconds to phrase the difficult buisness I've come about in a way that's not going to be shocking.

"We heard a noise upstairs last night, when we came back from our friend's house. Then we heard a guy talking very loud in an aggressive way. You sounded like you were almost crying. I really wanted to make sure you were okay."

"Oh... yeah. Don't worry. He just has a temper. Everything's all right."

"That's quite a temper!"

"Yeah, he does that. It won't happen again, though. We won't disturb you anymore."

"Hey, it's not about the noise!"

She doesn't seem to understand. She raises her eyebrows politely.

"Look, I really don't want you to think it's about the noise, all right? I came up here because I was worried. I've had some friends, they had trouble with their partners. You sounded like you were crying. We almost busted your door to check on you."

At last she looks like she just caught my wavelenght. She doesn't know what to say. She mumbles a few thanks, and another "he does that". I have to insist, don't I?

"I really hope he doesn't do it too often," I say.

"Well in that case, I'm not stupid, you know. I'd be gone by now."

Same old, same old. I try to explain that it's not about stupid. Those girls I knew were not blockheads either. And one of them ended up wondering vaguely if she ought to leave her man, who slapped her when they argued and locked her inside their flat when he went out, so she wouldn't leave him. I told her all that. She looked impressed. Her expression talked by itself: well, such a terrible situation, I'm glad this is not happening to me. Poor girl. And maybe--if I'm just a little good at face-reading--are you absolutely sure she was not a tad stupid?

Al Gore's frog, everyone. When you put it in hot water, it feels the pain and jumps out. If cold water is heated little by little, it won't feel anything is wrong until it's too late. I'm pretty sure I heard right, and I don't feel it's normal to shout at your girfriend when she's starting to cry instead of arguing back. Just the midday sun kissing the water, you may say. Not stupidity, not at all. Just the first step with an unconscious willingness towards something very unpleasant. 

Yeah, he does that. How can we make them understand he just shouldn't?