on not freaking out about bias in public interest tech/ip

NYPL hosted a panel a few weeks ago on the Google Print issue. I noticed that there were no women on the panel. This was shortly after I’d seen a flyer for a conference Yale was hosting on Search, which also had very very few numbers of female speakers or commentators. I’d been trying to craft a cogent & reasoned critique of sexism in the industry and practices that lead to gender disparate conference panels in a field where, if anything, a majority of leading scholars are women. In the meantime, Ann Bartow wrote on the matter, and I linked to her in lieu of posting separately, and then I got focused on other things.

But today (12/6), trying to wrap up a similarly long-hanging draft post about Google commentary, I came across a two-post discussion in comments on Larry Lessig’s blog entry about the NYPL debate. First, Ann Bartow briefly noted the absence of women on the NYPL panel:

With little effort I can think of 50 or more women who could have been part of this debate without diminishing the quality of the discourse in the least; in fact quite the contrary. The majority of librarians, and library patrons, in this country are female, as are the majority of book purchasers. Yet not a single woman gets a voice in this debate.

To which unfortunately “David” cluelessly responded:

Correct me if I’m wrong, but women read as men do, as far as I know. By this I mean that the process is structurally equivalent, they look at the page, decode the glyphs or higher-order primitives (such as words) and convert this information into symbolic representations of the writing. Same can be said for search. Is there some peculiarity in women’s reading that would make it imperative to have them represented? Do they do something differently that needs addressing by itself? Because if they do not, as I would hold, it is a disservice to claim they should be represented. Women are first and foremost people, and just as 53-year-olds need not be represented in a debate, because their is no functional difference that requires it, neither do, in most debates, women.

So, whether there are women in the debate or not is entirely irrelevant, and subtracts no legitimacy whatsoever. It could be argued that women could participate just as the men who did, and this is true. Maybe there was a bias against women in the choice of debaters. Whether that was the case or not, though, doesn’t make it imperative to purposefully choose women as debaters on this and most other topics.

David wanted to be corrected if he was wrong, so here goes. He got one thing right: “Maybe there was a bias against women in the choice of debaters.” But alas he completely obfuscated this point with his off-point and non-responsive paragraph about whether men and women have special ways of reading. Or perhaps he simply confused himself. So let me shed a little light:

Professor Bartow said nothing about men’s special ways of reading. She did not “claim” that women “should be represented” because of something they bring to the debate. Rather, she made one simple point: The panel was not gender-representative of any relevant population: IP/law experts, book people, librarians, etc., who are qualified to speak on Google Print issues.

She was concerned about special ways of selecting speakers. That’s a problem of sexism, not cognitive processing. Correct me if I’m wrong, but both men and women spell sexism S-E-X-I-S-M.

David’s response reflects a broader problem in responses to critical engagements with sexism, racism, and other biases, which is, when racism or sexism is called out, to engage in one or more knee-jerk denials: “There’s no sexism here!” or, classically, “I’m not racist!” or “I’m not sexist!” as if it were a personal insult. One can observe three kinds of major knee-jerk responses: One, to become so politically correct that one becomes a caricature of one’s own politics. Two, to deny the critiques, and censor the critics by calling them politically correct. Three, to do the crazy white panic (“I’m not a racist! You don’t think I’m racist, do you? But I’m so not racist!”), so beautifully dissected by Alas, a Blog.

Hey, I’m not immune from any of these responses. It’s pretty natural to do this kind of thing when you’re dealing with a conflict between how you think you ought to be, and how you are being perceived. But that makes these responses all the more important to understand.

And understanding these kinds of natural responses helps us understand what David did, and didn’t do, and could have done more helpfully instead, in his response to Ann Bartow’s simple pointing out of a gender disparity.

When a critic points out a possible problem, the ideal response would be for people to hear and evaluate the critic’s comments, and respond appropriately (and not disproportionately or personally; go back and read Alas, a blog again.)

The first step: Is the criticism accurate on the facts? In the case of the NYPL panel, manifestly, yes: the panel was disproportionately — all — male.

The second step: Is the criticism accurate in its analysis? Well, here is a problem, because Professor Bartow just pointed out the facts, leaving the analysis mostly to the reader. Not entirely; she did try to subtly deflect content-oriented rejoinders by pointing out that the inclusion of women could have been quality-neutral, and that tended to lead the reader to the analysis that this wasn’t a content issue. But for the most part, she made a neutral observation about gender representation and left the rest of the rather obvious analysis to the reader.

Apparently, though, any suggestion of sexism can trigger knee-jerk responses: “There’s no sexism here! No sexism! Gender is irrelevant to books! Linguistic processing of higher-order mammals blah blah blah!”

David failed to analyze Professor Bartow’s critique of implied sexism in a rational way. Instead he hand-waved and obscured the criticism with a non-response. (<annoyed Sarcasm> While missing the point entirely, he did manage to sound very brainy by couching his non-response in big words and impressive phrases like “structurally equivalent” or “higher-order primitives.” It reminds me of the literary debate between William Faulkner & Ernest Hemingway: Faulkner on Hemingway: “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” Hemingway on Faulkner: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” Lots of fancy words don’t necessarily mean you’re on point. </annoyed Sarcasm>)

Rather than analyzing Ann Bartow’s implied critique of sexism, David instead shifted the debate. He didn’t deny the observation, and he didn’t even really deny the implied critique — he actually admitted it: “Maybe there was a bias against women in the choice of debaters.” But the locus of his response is something completely different — the value of diversity — and he then steers away from the point of original observation even further by questioning whether women and men are cognitively different. Bajillions of gallons of ink are being spilled on that question, by the way, so it’s hardly an open-and-shut question, but the point is that David chose to deny & distract rather than to engage the question. And my sense, from watching oh-so-many stupid arguments about sexism & racism, is that David’s response thus falls into exactly the same category as so many other pointless responses to criticism these days. The pattern goes like this: A: “That’s racist!” B: <radiating outraged indignation !> “How dare you call me racist?”

So let me just state what I would have liked to have seen David or other commentators on the Lessig blog, or other readers of the Lessig blog do: Read Ann Bartow’s observation. Note to themselves, Huh. By golly, she’s right: there were no women on the NYPL panel, and there certainly could have been. That’s suggestive of sexism. When I do this kind of work I’m going to make sure that I don’t fall prey even to unconscious sexism or other bias. And I’m going to help other people avoid it too.

Don’t freak out. Don’t go all sarcastic or blah blah blah about the Western canon or higher order verbs or mammals or whatever weird issue you have. Everybody falls prey to internalized, subconscious sexism, racism, and other biases sometimes. Just try to be more self-aware about it and don’t freak out when someone calls your attention to it. It’s not an attack on you or on your livelihood or on western civilization. (Well, maybe western civilization ….) Unconscious bias is remedied, in part, by having your consciousness raised and beoming more aware of unconscious bias.

And I had a much longer response detailing why this kind of response is so silly, so irrational, so pointless, and so not helpful, but instead, I’m going to just point, once again, to my new favorite post of the year: How Not To Be Insane When Accused Of Racism (A Guide For White People) at Alas, a Blog.

Oh, and by the way. Thanks, Ann, for doing this work. It’s appreciated.