The Mars and Venus thing is stupid, but it’s not sexism

Last fall, my university had a tiny kerfuffle: a student working for the university’s social media team retweeted another student’s tweet. It’s been deleted, but it said,[university], where the weather is more confusing than the women.” Somebody cried foul, one thing led to another, and the President of the university issued a mea culpa about this event that “…quite simply shouldn’t have happened,” agreeing that the message was “sexist,” with “offensive implications,” and “hurtful.” As a result of this incident, the President has asked for “new policies on oversight of messages on the website and social media.”

I currently study men’s beliefs about women–particularly men’s beliefs that women are “fundamentally unknowable” (i.e., approximately as confusing as the weather), so this caught my eye when I (belatedly) found out about it.

TL;DR: I don’t think it was “sexist” in the way we usually use that term, and I think, from a logical point of view, the university administration overreacted. However, from a realpolitik perspective any university President in her right mind would have reacted the same way.

First, it’s not sexist. At least not in any directly measurable way. Teh Goog defines sexism as “prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.” Merriam Webster defines it, “Unfair treatment of people because of their sex; especially: unfair treatment of women.” Wikipedia says, “prejudice or discrimination based on a person’s sex or gender.” Academic definitions tend to be pretty similar, despite some variations. So…

  • Prejudice? I think that’s a very tough case to make. The tweeter said (essentially) “women at this college are confusing and I am making a joke about this.” Prejudice doesn’t really pop out of that.
  • Discrimination? No. That (as defined in social justice terms) requires behavior to deny some sort of benefit to a person, generally. A tweet doesn’t do that, unless it’s from Obama or your boss. The Wikipedia definition’s unfair treatment label is basically this. And the tweet wasn’t.
  • Stereotyping? Perhaps it seems like it–this is saying “all women are X,” which is pretty much the definition of stereotyping, but I argue that the only kind of stereotyping we tend to care about when we talk about sexism is the type that casts one social class in a negative light, especially in a way that might lead to denial of benefits to people from the social class (e.g., classic stereotypes like “Black people are lawbreakers,” “Women are bad at quantitative tasks,” “Gay people are sexually deviant”, etc.). It would be sexist-stereotyping to say “Women are evil witches.” Technically, saying “Women are more intelligent than men” is also sexism and stereotyping, but positive stereotypes are rarely what we’re talking about in this domain. Social-value-neutral stereotypes (e.g., “Women enjoy the color blue”) are also probably not what we mean when we say sexist or stereotype. Classifying women as “confusing” seems to be more of a neutral than a negative stereotype.

Interestingly, Wikipedia gets to the meat of the matter after the main defintion: “Sexist attitudes may stem from traditional stereotypes of gender roles…” but then there’s a discussion of actual sexism, including unfair hiring practices and believing that one sex is inherently superior to the other [emphasis mine].

So if this isn’t sexism, then why did a University President–quite rationally, I believe–issue a formal apology? Because it was offensive to someone. And that, I believe, is a bit of a problem. Sexism can have a nice, firm, quasi-objective definition; but offensiveness? It relies entirely on one person’s experience of a message, not just on the characteristics of the message itself; that is, it’s an interaction between message and receiver. The President was, I assume, trying to protect the University against the kind of backlash that can result from certain people being offended. This kind of backlash can lead to real reduction in the school’s financial or political (i.e., ultimately financial) prospects. And if the school runs out of money, nobody gets an education here, so the President was protecting us all, as odd as that might seem on the surface.

I really do think this is an issue of necessary paranoia. Several tweets by people clearly offended by this incident indicate the kind of feeling that can be prompted by such a comment. According to a few people (which is all it takes, sometimes), an undergrad retweeting this particular bad joke (possibly first labeled as “sexist” in this sphere) indicates that

Commenters went on to insist that “the women of [the university]” would not be ignored, that the President’s apology was actually “not an apology whatsoever,” and that it failed to “address the sexism and complete oversight of women’s existence as students on this campus.” And apparently the President should “take responsibility.”

So anyway, my research (recently) studies the phenomenon of men believing that women are “fundamentally unknowable.”

I find one tweet particularly interesting: “You should be explaining WHY it’s offensive, not making excuses.” Not that I want to argue this with the people obviously very much into the groove of this particular bit of protest (Actually, several months later, I hope the groove has passed), but if I could get a thoughtful answer, I’d like to hear an explanation of why the tweet (or perhaps the issue is the retweet) is offensive. I don’t doubt that it is, but I’m interested in the reasons. After all, the boy said, effectively, “Women are confusing, amirite?” It’s hard for me to fathom how that message makes a place non-safe, or how the joke is about women’s very existence. How does this particular joke become an existential threat? How does it mean an entire university believes women are trivial and don’t matter?

My answer is that it doesn’t mean those things. A few Tweets by a few people offended at a bad joke don’t mean all women on campus are offended by a particular event/message any more than one tweet by a guy with a not-very-imaginative sense of humor (and retweeting by someone who was probably too busy to think carefully about it) means that all women at the university are being systematically marginalized and/or negated.

The original tweet seems to illustrate the concept I’m studying very nicely, but the reason it’s so interesting to study is that it doesn’t cause any harm by itself.  My working hypothesis (not original; cadged from Polaschek & Ward) is that such beliefs about women are part of a chain or cluster of psychological constructs within individuals (or, more likely, acting more at the level of social groups) that are associated with other concepts that are associated with sexual violence toward women. That’s a far cry from saying these beliefs themselves are harmful to women. I’m reminded of an old pre-internet meme that noted that some ingredients in ice cream were also in rat poison, with the implication that the ice cream industry was trying to kill us all.

In the perfect world I imagine, there would be fewer men strongly believing that women are fundamentally unknowable–possibly because we would have found a way for more men and women to have ongoing, non-stereotyping interactions with each other, and media content would be less ridiculous–and I think that would contribute to a climate in which women were safer. But that’s not the same as saying a man who thinks women are “confusing” and makes a joking tweet about it is somehow harming, oppressing, or negating all women in his environment. Women are tougher than that–they’re humans like me. They’re not hothouse flowers harmed by every non-perfumed word floating through the twitterverse.

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