Defining the Discourse and Words We Use: Who Gets To?

So, this is not the way I imagined breaking my writer's block. Or my refraining-from-writing-as-an-act-of-mourning. Or my mourning-induced aphasia. Or whatever is this is. I'm gonna just cross my fingers and hope I don't snap during the writing of this and say something that worsens everyone's depression (except mine) and destroys the universe (because of my omnipotent evil feminazi womanish powers)  which in any case should be ignored (really, the whole post should be ignored, on account of its having been written by a screeching harridan whining about no big deal).  Here we go.

First, I ask thee, gentle Zuskateers, to read Let Me Fix That For You, Nature at Red Ink. (Thanks, @rocza for that link via the twitters.)  Then please read I'm sorry...but you brought this on yourself honey by my dear friend Drugmonkey.

In the first post, Henry Gee's original letter is a discourse-controlling tour-de-force, and Red Ink does a marvelous job of deconstructing his blatherings. One just sits in one's chair, jaw agape at the hilariously depressingly superb job that is this pulling of the truth out of truthiness's ass. It both entertains and instructs. One gets a delightful dose of schadenfreude in the reading of it, whilst simultaneous schooled by the unmasking of rhetorical tricks Gee deploys .

Next up is Drugmonkey's blog piece, offering a detailed analysis of  Gee's nonpologetic discourse. Wait for it... comment #4 tells us how he is doing itt rong, and in an inflammatory manner, and how the rong is ineffective to boot. Trifecta of discourse control!

Commenter #4's knickers got bunched over all the rong because (a) Drugmonkey used an analogy - ineffective! and (b) Drugmonkey picked a bad analogy - inflammatory!  Drugmonkey might as well be talking to a brick wall. Or worse, trying to talk to someone on the other side of the brick wall but all his shouting for attention makes them climb up the wall and shove some bricks onto his head to shut him up.

I'm sorry. I know that was confusing and possibly inflammatory. The person atop the wall could have poured boiling oil on his head. Or shot him with flaming arrows.

Now, as Drugmonkey did, we pause here for a trigger warning regarding abuse, should you read further.

The analogy Drugmonkey chose was this: Henry Gee's nonpology reads like a wife-beater who says "I'm sorry, I shouldn'ta done that, I was too drunk, I didn't know what I was doing, but you brought that shit on yourself because...being lippy."

Is this inflammatory? Possibly. Is it ineffective? I think not. It's at least effective enough to make someone get off their ass and type "you shouldn'ta done that". I found it effective because, while I have never been physically abused, I have been subject to some severe emotional abuse in relationships and the pattern is the same. I recognize the connection between the discourse of my emotional abusers and that of someone who beats women. And I recognize the connection between the discourse of both those groups of people and the discourse offered up in Henry Gee's letter and other nonpologies often flung at women/minorities. For being lippy, for saying something wrong, for saying something aggravating, for taking up space, for existing.  That doesn't mean nonpologists are wife-beaters or emotional abusers. The reverse can be true, though. Let me put it for you this way, science nerds: The set of nonpologies includes the discourse of woman-beaters and emotional abusers, as well as that of Nature editors, philandering politicians, co-workers, and that annoying neighbor who ruins every block party and then says "I'm sorry your kids got on my nerves".

Who gets to control the discourse? When? Where? How?

Who controls the Nature megaphone? Anne Jefferson said it so well. Behold her beautiful prose:

There are sexist and racist people out there in the scientific community. They are bad actors and they are toxic to the people around them. There are few women and people of color in the sciences (or any field) who haven’t had to deal with quite a number of these toxic people. We hear from their words and their actions that they don’t respect us and they don’t want us here. We know what they think. We don’t need our prominent scientific publishers, funding agencies, and think tanks to pass the megaphone to the bad actors and amplify their messages. We don’t need the broken record blared over a loud speaker. When our publishers, funders, and think tanks amplify these sexist and racist messages, they are accomplishing three things. First, they implicitly apply an institutional stamp of approval on the racist and sexist messages and taint their own reputation. Second, they give the sexists and racists a sense of legitimacy that only makes them more noisy and insistent. Third, they advertise to people of color, women, and allies which organizations “don’t get it” when it comes to diversity and respect.

(Let us have a moment of silence in honor of all the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades, lifetimes of creativity, such as are on display in the posts of Anne Jefferson, Drugmonkey, and the deconstruction rewrite at Red Ink, lost to dealing with this bullshit. Time and lives that could have been spent on improving treatments for cancer - or depression. Or deepening our understanding of hydrology and climate change. Or raising children to be strong, happy, and caring individuals. )


Who is the injured party?

There were people subject to Gee's behavior in 2010, who read the Womanspace natterings, who listened to Nature's blandishments in the direction of "pro-women yay!", who read the most recent comment(ary) at Nature about how women deserve discrimination because they aren't men. Many of these people are women who do science. They have spoken and written in detail about the negative effects of these things. And there is Henry Gee, an editor at Nature, who outed a pseudonymous blogger who is a woman who does science.  Gee tells us he felt hurt and bullied. I am pretty sure there are a number of folks who could say they feel hurt by Nature's editorial stance and actions, and maybe even bullied around by it, given the power Nature commands in the world of science.

I for one am fantasizing of marching on the office with torches and pitchforks, burning the place down and chasing the editors out of town. In a fit of pique, it might make me and the mob feel better for a minute or two. And if I have expressed a sentiment that is widely shared and representative of a large segment of the scientific community, why should I not write about it? Somebody might use my words as an excuse or cover to commit arson. Then I would say: what are you going to do? People commit arson. If a person wants to commit arson they are going to do it. You can't stop them by yelling about how bad arson is. They aren't going to listen to that. Try reasoning with them. Although people's attitudes about arson are developed when they are young. By the time they are adults and have been setting things on fire for years, you aren't going to get them to stop by talking. What are you going to do, put them in jail? That's not going to make them stop loving to burn things up. There's just going to be arson and you need to build houses out of stone and have good sprinkler systems and working fire alarms. If you can't stand arson, get out of the house. Go live under a bridge. Besides, many people who commit arson are otherwise upstanding members of society. They may donate to the poor. In retrospect, that should not have been written. [Here I pause to "burn down a house".] Okay, I " "burned down a house" ".  People found out and are upset, so let me clarify: I'm sorry, and if it has left the owners homeless. I fully support not burning down buildings of importance. I take this seriously, when the buildings are ones that matter. Official-looking buildings, where important business goes on. Houses are really just big closets for shoes. I really am pro-anti-arson, at least philosophically. I have been harangued by door-to-door anti-arsonists going on and on about non-existent arson in our town. I absolutely support their efforts, but ringing my doorbell and asking for a donation pushed me beyond the breaking point. Last year I gave donations to the volunteer fire company in the town where I live, and in my hometown. I think the anti-arsonist I shoved off my porch and into the azalea bushes, and who I later sued for damaging my azalea bushes, would agree we have similar views. What differs is that I am not an asshole, and she is.

Wow, that last paragraph just about gave me whiplash, there was so much crazy and back-and-forth! What the hell was that?

See if you can work out what I was doing there, Gentle Reader.

Hint: I was not calling Nature's editors arsonists.

Hint: when I typed "burn down a house" in quotes like that, I meant I didn't really do that. But I kinda wanted you to think I really did it, because I want the badass arsonists to think I am badass and not smoke alarm-whipped. But even if I did it, I am only conceding that I "did" it because there are non-arsonists who I want to keep on my side. You see? This discourse-control biz is not for amateurs. One must not only be in control, but aware of one's multiple audiences.

Hint: I am a good person who really does give donations to fire companies.

Who gets to claim illness as an excuse?

Gee says the bullying he claims took place worsened his depression. I agree that actual bullying would induce or worsen depression. I don't agree with "I was depressed, so I'm not responsible for anything I did. Unless it was good and you want to reward me for it, then I totally am fully responsible!" Especially I don't agree with "I was depressed, so your behavior/words made me do things for which I am not responsible." If women/minorities try to go this excuse route, more often than not they are just ignored, labeled crazy, demoted or fired. On the other hand, systemic racism and sexism are known causes of serious depression, among other bodily ills. Almost no one, no matter how successful, escapes the effects of these societal plagues. I am thinking in particular of Denise Denton.

In this sense I would say that Henry Gee is also a victim, but not of cyber-bullying. He is suffering the effects of systemic sexism. He has lived all his life in a world where everything, every day, serves to teach him women are inferior, and women don't belong in science. It's so, so hard to see around and past that. Most people don't manage to. Most people don't even manage to want to. He says he is "philosophically a feminist". It is possible that he believes himself to be a feminist and genuinely wants to be one. It's pretty to think so, but the philosophers will tell you there is a world of difference between wishful thinking and thoughtful living.



13 responses so far

  • atcgphd says:

    The "philosophically, at least, a feminist" thing is, all on its own, jaw dropping.

    If you're theoretically a feminist, but just not one in practice, that doesn't really count, 'mkay?

    And why would an actual, in-practice, for-real feminist qualify in this way??

    Nature, if you really want to know why women are underrepresented in your pages and amongst your reviewers, I think some intense navel gazing is in order.

  • quixote says:

    That was in Nature? For realz? Not just philosophically?

    And then people sit around busting their brains trying to figure out why there aren't many women in STEM.

    The ability to connect big fat dots, it is missing.

  • Hermitage says:

    Depression turns you into a troglodyte? Well shit, I better go practice my Bam Bam skillz before the change comes over me.

    Oh wait, I'm a WoC, there's no oppression matrix for me to fall back on when retaliating over because of my fee fees.

  • thebewilderness says:

    The pattern is always the same whether the excuse that justifies the abuse is anger, alcohol, or illness. Or, heavens forefend, love.
    It is good to see more and more people recognizing what they see for what it is.

  • sad says:

    I have a question that is hard to formulate. I am an editor at NPG. I share the anger that is being expressed about this situation. However, I also am frustrated by the fact that many people are discussing the company NPG, and thus everyone at NPG, as culpable. I am not in a position to determine Henry's fate. I am not in a position to control his access to manuscripts/authors/etc. I have never actually even met him (or even seen him, to my knowledge). Thus, the question is: what would you recommend I do to make it clear that this behavior is not acceptable to all people at NPG? Should I resign in protest (and go work for another company where there is undoubtedly at least one similar luddite who horrifies me, although perhaps with less of a public platform)? Should my journal write editorials expressing our anger? Should we start a pro-women campaign where we only publish content from female authors? I may be hoping for too much, to think that there's some way I can help fix this, but I'd be very grateful for your thoughts.

    • Zuska says:

      Dear Sad, I suggest you keep yourself well out of this mess if you are not directly connected with it, unless you have unlimited power and prestige in your workplace. If you have influence you can wield, then wield it. Whether it has directly to do with Spittle McSpitterson is not the main thing. What, within your area of influence, can you do to make things better for women/minorities in the tiny part of the world that you can control? Can you instigate a review of your editorial policy to see if it has been fair, or whether the present practice has built in bias against women/minorities? Can you make sure that women/minorities are represented among reviewers? Can you influence who gets to write editorials, and on what topic? If so, can you solicit editorials on the status of women/minorities in the relevant field, or on best practices for recruiting/retaining/supporting/promoting women/minorities? These are just a few suggestions, but in short, what can you do to bring positive change to your workplace ? Draw lessons from what has happened and apply them to your work to make things better for people going forward. Asshole sexist/racists are everywhere. You can't escape them by changing jobs. So try to change the place where you are. Unless it's a real hellhole, then get out to someplace new. Don't let a hellhole suck your energy dry.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    The real question is who the fuck appointed Henry G to decide who is worthy for ferrying over the Styx to fame in Nature. The clown did a degree and dove into editing for Nature. Not anything else. Somebunny moved him up the ladder and those people have a responsibility for this mess.

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