Rediscovering Misogyny, With the Encouragement of the New York Times

It seems the logic of the lawyer is the standard logic of our time: if you fling enough mud, perhaps some of it will stick. That is, in relations between the sexes, as in so many other areas of life, apparently the first task of the educated person is to browbeat, insinuate against, cheat, and denigrate the other side. Because it’s not about learning or coexisting; it’s about winning.

Whatever the merits of that mentality in litigation, it’s a lousy way to live one’s life, and it’s a poor way to treat others. Call it self-respect, call it fairness: by whatever name, I hope and believe that a good number of us still know that’s just not right, and I think most of us won’t ultimately prefer it.

I lead off with those remarks because, in this post, I want to take a different approach. This blog already presents a number of posts highlighting the meanness and stupidity of various feminist attacks on men in mainstream media. This time, instead of merely refuting another such attack, I would like to retrace some of my mental steps, upon encountering another instance of that sort of journalism. I would like to describe what happened, for me, after I read another one of those meanspirited articles.

A Bad Start

In this case, the piece in question was a New York Times article by Niraj Chokshi (April 7, 2018) titled “Are Men Smarter Than Their Peers at Science? Men Certainly Think So, Study Shows.”

That caught my attention because I am a man, and I didn’t think I was smarter than my peers at science. I only took the minimum number of required science courses in college, and I was a mediocre student. I knew what it was like to be good at something and, for me, science was not it. I probably could have done a better job in those first-year courses in introductory biology and chemistry, if they had seemed at all relevant to my interests, but they didn’t.

So Chokshi’s article was wrong from the start. Of course, the reader is supposed to understand that, in a periodical like the Times, the title of a science-related article may be a sort of joke. You may be expected to fill in the scientific details yourself — to assume that this would just be a limited study, applying only to certain men in certain situations. The Times would not dream of publishing a news article whose headline read, “Donald Trump Found to Be a Serial Murderer,” and expecting the reader to understand that this was just the usual exaggerated way of phrasing the fact that Trump’s orders did result in the deaths of soldiers in war, perhaps, or in an increase in the number of untreated cardiac patients. But in science, of all fields, the Times apparently encouraged its writers to exaggerate.

If I wanted a more accurate title, it seemed, I would have to turn to the source cited in Chokshi’s Times article. Except that, oops, the source he cited was not the journal article presenting the actual research report, but rather a promotional blurb from Arizona State University, where the research was conducted. That blurb explained where Chokshi got the idea: its own title was, “Who’s smarter in the classroom — men or women?” Again, a gross overgeneralization based on, as it turned out, a study of just one single biology class. The actual research article, by Cooper, Krieg, and Brownell (2018), used a much more circumspect title: “Who perceives they are smarter? Exploring the influence of student characteristics on student academic self-concept in physiology.”

In other words, the researchers chose a title clearly indicating that theirs was only an exploration; their study did not purport to provide a definitive answer. Remarkably, Chokshi chose the more dramatic title even when, in his own words, “The researchers cautioned against overgeneralizing the findings until the study could be replicated in different classes and schools.”

Why did Chokshi do exactly what the researchers warned against — why did his title overgeneralize to make a claim about “men” overall? His article offers an explanation: “The findings contribute to a growing body of evidence that points to a large gender gap in fields related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known collectively as STEM fields.” By “gender gap,” Chokshi evidently meant there are more men than women in such fields. He said, “It’s no secret that men are overrepresented in certain technical disciplines. So is their self-confidence, a new study suggests.” Except that, as he admits, in this case the study was conducted in biology, “one of the few scientific disciplines where women are overrepresented.” So why talk about male overrepresentation in STEM, when it had no apparent relevance to this study?

At about this point, I clicked on Chokshi’s byline, to see what sort of person I was dealing with. I wasn’t familiar with the gender (if any) of Chokshi’s first name, Niraj. With this sort of writing, I expected that this would be another among the many female writers who used STEM-related studies as an excuse to attack men. Following the link, however, I saw that my surmise was mistaken: Chokshi was a male. In my mind, that put him into a different yet still familiar category: he seemed to be another one of those liberal males who tried to position themselves, for female approval, by looking for ways to characterize other males as being less sensitive and informed, and thus less worthy of favor. In other words, Chokshi seemed to be preening, rather like the male science students he was so eager to deprecate.

Turning to Other Venues

Plainly, Chokshi was disparaging men in a way that the Times would not tolerate toward women. I did not recall ever seeing a Times article headlining beliefs that women were overconfident in any field, or that their style, or discriminatory institutional supports, made it difficult for men to enter and succeed. That sort of thing certainly did happen: for instance, it was exactly what I had experienced in the overwhelmingly female field of social work. But the Times didn’t seem to be acknowledging anything of that nature.

I was getting tired of pointing out sexism in the Times with no apparent effect. This time, I decided, I wouldn’t bother writing a post about Chokshi’s article. I decided, instead, to just post a reader’s comment on it. But then I saw that the Times didn’t offer a space for reader comments in response to this sort of opinion piece — or, I guess, they wanted to believe that it was actually news, and apparently felt there was no room for divergent perspectives on their concept of news.

That made me wonder whether perhaps people were talking about this research article elsewhere. I ran a search and found that, indeed, there was a Reddit-like discussion on a website known as 4plebs, which I had not heard of. It turned out that 4plebs was an archive of 4chan, which I had heard of but didn’t know much about.

According to the Washington Post (Dewey, 2014), the anonymity on 4chan was such that “participants can say and do virtually anything they want with only the most remote threat of accountability.” 4chan’s advertising statistics said it was 70% male, largely in the 18-34 age group, half in the U.S. and the other half scattered mostly around other Western nations. In short, it did seem like a good place to get a sense of what young guys would say if they felt free from monitoring or censorship. As another Post article observed, “users are free to post the profane, the hurtful, the evil.”

That’s what I learned later. I wasn’t aware of all that, when I first arrived at the 4plebs site. Like most people, I suppose, I just clicked on the Google search hit and saw the discussion. And, I must say, it was gratifying to read the comments. I had to get past the seemingly inevitable accusations of Jews, apparently based on the observation that some prominent feminists were Jewish; I had to skip over some comments I didn’t understand; but there were also many comments directly on topic, and some echoed my own feelings.

What I saw was that some of these participants seemed to be suitably educated — commenting on, for instance, the size of the sample used in Cooper’s study — and I also saw that her study provoked some of those men (or in some cases, perhaps, women) to express hostility toward feminism, or toward women generally. Here are some excerpts from that 4plebs site:

Women are weak because they can afford to be, because men created civilization to compensate for their weakness.

Feminism is a scam to brainwash you into selling yourself as free labor, slave labor, to random women unrelated to you who are not the grandmother who took care of you, the mother who fed and clothed you, the wife/GF who loves you, the sister who is bonded to you by blood. They are instead crazy bitches who either look down upon you or hate you like most feminists, or parasites looking to suck your limited lifespan and energy to their benefits when you could be doing better things with the limited lifespan you have.

(白左 )baizuo is used generally to describe those who “only care about topics such as immigration, minorities, LGBT and the environment” and “have no sense of real problems in the real world”; they are hypocritical humanitarians who advocate for peace and equality only to “satisfy their own feeling of moral superiority”; they are “obsessed with political correctness” to the extent that they “tolerate backwards Islamic values for the sake of multiculturalism”; they believe in the welfare state that “benefits only the idle and the free riders”; they are the “ignorant and arrogant westerners” who “pity the rest of the world and think they are saviours”.

We need to stop listening to women and start hearing them. They are making if very clear that workplace environments are “toxic”, “manly”, and “unsafe” for women. The obvious solution is to put roasties back in the kitchen where they belong and where they can be safe and protected by the patriarchy (husbands and fathers and brothers). Protect women by keeping them out of the workforce because they can’t handle the bantz and problem is solved.

There was more where that came from. I was sure there was much more elsewhere.

Obviously, I knew, by now, how feminists would react to this sort of thing, having myself endured my share of accusation, scorn, and dismissal. These guys on 4chan may have been browbeaten or threatened into staying silent about that in daily life; if so, their real views were coming out only here.

I admit, some of this stuff was refreshing. I could see how it could draw a guy in. Just stop caring what women think. Here in the anonymity of 4chan, at least, you could compare notes with other guys who are sick of the bitching. Play along on the job or at home, maybe, but wait for your turn; hope there will be an opportunity to be back on top, to pay back those abusive women who had made life so unpleasant for so many guys who really weren’t looking for a fight.

So, to review, I started by reading the daily news. I encountered an offensive and poorly conceived Times article that pretended to be a science writeup. The Times offered no way of expressing dissent, so I turned elsewhere. My search led to material critiquing the Cooper research, adjacent to other material expressing complaints against feminists and against women generally. It seemed to me that, in my case and apparently for these other people as well, the combination of poor writing and nonexistent recourse at places like the New York Times encouraged dissenters to use other means and, in the process, to become exposed to potentially plausible material taking hard stances against women and feminism.

My Interpretation

(After viewing that 4chan discussion, I wrote the first version of this post. It concluded by expressing my reaction to this situation in which mainstream media continued to celebrate the sexism of second-wave feminism. The following paragraphs of this section come from that conclusion.)

In writing these posts, in this blog, I had so far largely been attempting to identify specific issues or complaints about feminist abuses, present what seemed wrong about them, use that effort to move my thinking forward to whatever the next step might be, and hope for intelligent and non-nasty responses from readers, especially females who might add some perspective, share some sources, or otherwise broaden and inform my thinking.

And this effort was succeeding, on all points except the last one. I was indeed articulating my reactions; I was learning things; I felt that I was refining a sense of key issues, maybe even building toward some larger or more comprehensive work that I might undertake later.

The missing component was that women weren’t seeing this as an opportunity to engage in discussion. Of course, I had a small readership. But the readership was well north of zero. I could see the statistics; I had had some brief discussions with female acquaintances; I had steered any number of other women to various posts in this blog; I had sent notices of my posts to some of the (mostly) female authors responsible for the anti-male publications I had critiqued. And in response to all that, I had received almost nothing.

It seemed that, if women responded at all, they responded in two ways. If they agreed with you, they would tell you; if they disagreed with you, they would tell someone else. It seemed that women with college degrees — even women with PhDs, who considered themselves leaders and/or thinkers — somehow managed to conclude that it would be inappropriate to attempt any dialogue with a man who questioned feminist dogma. It felt like I was swimming upstream, wasting my breath in attempts to talk to women about their endorsement of nastiness toward men.

If this was happening to me, when I could make time to think about things that people were saying and doing, and work through my own reactions while writing about them, what was it like for guys who were damn busy, who tried to explain themselves, and felt like they were getting nowhere, and didn’t have time to sit down and blog and think about it? The impression I was getting was that this was like arguing religion with a true believer. If I wanted to say things that weren’t what women already believed, it was a waste of effort to even try.

(At that point, I closed this post with approximately these words:) I hope this behavior is gratifying to someone somewhere, because otherwise it just doesn’t seem to make much sense — and in terms of what I always thought women wanted to be, it sure is a disappointment. I honestly believed the propaganda about female pro-social strengths. The propaganda was in line with most of what I had experienced in my childhood and youth. I really expected better. I don’t know why it took me so many years to see how things actually are. I guess I didn’t want this to be the way it is.

A Second Look

The next day, I revisited my earlier draft of this post. I reviewed Chokshi’s article, and came away with a somewhat different perspective. It did still seem that he had been both sexist and illogical, as outlined above. But I also perceived that a more thoughtful writer, in his position, might have found something worth developing in the underlying research by Cooper et al.

The problem with Chokshi’s approach was that he was following the feminist playbook — arguing, in effect, that both men and women are doing things wrong. In the heyday of second-wave feminism, that mindset gained traction. It changed a lot of things, some of which needed to change. But at this point second-wave feminism has been with us for half a century. It isn’t fresh and revolutionary anymore. Virtually everything that could be turned upside-down and inside-out has been. It’s true that entrenched sexism can take time to uproot, but it’s also true that many feminist critiques have generated dissent even among feminists. The ability to find a wall and beat one’s head against it is not proof that the wall shouldn’t be there.

In other words, it could make sense, at this point, to adopt a more constructive stance, asking what is good about what men and women do, and how it can be improved, rather than assuming that one must constantly find fault with it.

First, on the female side, it is not clear that more confidence in science would make better scientists. Years of study in social sciences and elsewhere have persuaded me that it can be very hard to get things right. Humility is a virtue. One must always be asking what one is overlooking, what more there is to know. A healthy awareness of one’s limits in the face of massive complexity seems advisable. Granted, extreme self-abasement would be counterproductive; not asking questions in class due to intimidation would be undesirable. But Cooper’s approach of simply asking students whether they considered themselves “smarter than” their classmates may have been too coarse to distinguish healthy caution from unhealthy fear.

And then, on the male side, we have Chokshi’s belief that men should not be overconfident. As far as I can tell, Cooper et al. didn’t try to find out whether men were similarly confident in other fields — in the business school, say, or in the English department. Perhaps the behavior of males in Cooper’s biology class was typical, indeed normal: perhaps a high level of confidence is psychologically essential, for men who seek to behave in ways that women consider desirable. For instance, Fales et al. (2015) found that women tend to prioritize finding partners who make more money and have successful careers, and of course confidence is commonly considered an important attribute for success. Ours would not be the first species whose females favor male preening.

For reasons just stated, overconfidence would probably not help male students become better scientists. As discussed in another post, it seems the mere presence of females may alter male priorities and potentially reduce male achievement. Male overconfidence might disappear in, say, a single-sex school with minimal grading and a strong ethic of collaboration rather than competition.

Chokshi didn’t think of any of that. Instead, he was busy writing that differences in male and female overconfidence “can have cascading effects on motivation, participation and confidence.” Unfortunately, Chokshi did not cite any research in support of that alleged causation. It is probably the other way around. It is not clear why he threw “motivation” and “participation” into the mix; those variables were not the focus of this research. But if women come to class with a non-male level of confidence, that could derive from learned or innate mating behavior (i.e., deliberately taking a back seat or downplaying themselves or their interests or ambitions, e.g., Bursztyn et al., 2017). In that case, not everyone will agree that women should or even can be hectored into prioritizing science career outcomes over mating.

I’m not saying I like or don’t like any of this. I’m just trying to identify what’s actually happening, as distinct from what people think I should believe.

Chokshi’s own writing illustrates the behavior of an overconfident male, mansplaining women’s priorities to them, raising issues of psychology for which he produces no empirical support, holding forth on matters in which his writing suggests ignorance of relevant research. An educated reader might wish to see where he’s getting this stuff about self-perceptions having “cascading effects on motivation” and so forth. After all, he’s the Times science writer; he’s the one who started this and is getting paid for it.

Such questions and observations illustrate the damage that can be done by the sort of sexism promoted in Chokshi’s writeup. The tired narrative of females disadvantaged by domineering males in STEM fields failed, in multiple ways, to fit the scenario studied by Cooper; and as just indicated, it discouraged exploration of alternate possibilities with potentially greater explanatory power. The assumption that women can and should be like men, and vice versa, appears to have been soundly rejected in practice if not theory in many areas of daily life. It was not asking too much for the New York Times to catch up to that.

It seemed that perhaps I needed to catch up with that myself. As expressed in the preceding section, I had reached a point of frustration with women whose advanced degrees had fooled me into thinking that they could and would seize opportunities to express their perspectives to a man, such as myself, who was visibly puzzled and frustrated by the hostility and illogic of various feminist expressions. There now appeared to be some prospect that I was experiencing what science teachers observe, in classrooms like the one studied by Cooper et al.

It seemed, in other words, that sometimes there may be good reason for mansplaining, in its non-condescending form: a man may feel obliged to explain things to a woman who understands them better than he does, not because he is a jerk, but because he recognizes that he is expected to be confident, to put himself out there. What I seemed to be finding was, in other words, that women tend to favor the cautious approach of remaining silent, leaving the man uncertain as to their level of understanding, in effect inviting him to speak, and then professing neutrality to his face — meanwhile, in some instances, ridiculing him behind his back.

In short, maybe what Cooper was trying to study was the same thing that was frustrating me: maybe women were understated in STEM — maybe they professed a lack of confidence — due to pressures, not from STEM fields or from men, but rather from other women of present and/or past acquaintance. Maybe women were just not going to participate in STEM classes or convey thoughtful responses to my blog posts, because that’s just not what women do; maybe that’s not something that feminism (as we know it) will ever change.

* * * * *

P.S. I did send a link to this post to Cooper, and also to the Times newsroom. So far, I have received no reply from either.

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