Sexism And Sensitivity

So, a couple of weeks ago, was American Atheists’ Southeast Regional Atheist Meet and during the conference there was a talk that rubbed some of the women at the conference as sexist. Then at a panel discussion, of which there is video footage below which you can view for yourself, a woman complained about the panelists’ use of the word “female” to refer to women. The reaction of the panelists is what I will discuss below the video. In the meantime, to acquaint yourself with (and also embroil yourself in) the controversy, you can read the following posts at Jen McCreight’s blog where all hell has broken loose:

When Gender Goes Pear-Shaped

My favorite type of comment

Irrationality or Frustration?

When posts about gender go pear shaped

Now, to the videotape, the complaint about the word “female” for describing women is at around 8:10:

The video comes via Friendly Atheist, where there is a vigorous comments section debate to join in as well.

Okay, my brief thoughts on this issue. I have never liked the use of the word “females” by men talking about women in a dating context since I find it so indiscriminate and focused on the specifically sexual characteristic identifier of women that unites women and young girls, and all other female animals alike. So, for that reason, I share at least a bit of the complaining woman’s queasiness at the word. It, frankly, sounds like an ignorant word to me.

But without necessarily endorsing her specific complaint in this specific context or her manner of raising it, etc. All of that is irrelevant to the problem with the response to it.

Put simply: when a woman complains that she thinks you are being sexist and demeaning, the single worst thing you can do is make a sarcastic remark that sends the message you are not taking her seriously. She is complaining that you are demeaning her. Don’t go right out and demean her. And don’t go even further by not only treating her opinion dismissively and worthy of only derision but make your derisive joke a sexist allusion in the process.

If you had not been demeaning and sexist in the first place, you have become so now.

I can understand feeling defensive if you feel overly scrutinized because someone is finding sexist and demeaning connotations in your speech that you do not consciously intend. But the solution is not to push back with overt hostility of the kind that you are being accused of unconsciously expressing.

Yes, maybe some people are oversensitive. I’m not saying this woman in this case was, I don’t think that’s relevant to what I want to address. What I want to address is that even when you think someone is being oversensitive, there is a temptation to stomp on them as a defiant way to show you are not going to cater to their oversensitivity and thereby legitimize it, you are not going to be manipulated by it. I get that. I think fundamentally that’s what’s going on here and what motivates someone to make the kind of joke he made.

But if you are going to do that you had better be sure (a) that the person really is being oversensitiv—and when you come from a more privileged group than the person confronting you, I think proper humility and social awareness require hearing the person out before jumping to the assumption they must just be oversensitive; and (b) caving to the oversensitive person really will have negative consequences. If you can just as well treat an overly sensitive person in a way that affirms their feelings and what is true about their complaints, you can do them much more good than by alienating them and belittling their feelings and thoughts.

Only if there are really important principles that must be protected and catering to the oversensitive is going to undermine those is it really justified to get derisive and dismissive and protect others from being manipulated.

By the above criteria, I think it’s clear that, regardless of the merits of her complaint, the reaction was a serious sexism sensitivity FAIL.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Angela Gustafson

    I think referring to women as ‘females’ dehumanizes us, and it is my preference to be called a woman. I don’t go around referring to men as ‘males’ and I can’t imagine why anyone ever thought that ‘females’ was the appropriate term when discussing humans in a nonmedical nonscientific way.


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