In Sam Harris’s defense of his remarks that had unintended but nonetheless real sexist implications which I explicated in detail Monday), he stressed that the remark about atheism not having that “extra estrogen vibe” (for which he was, in his words, “savaged” on Twitter with the hashtag #estrogenvibe), was “spoken in a tone that acknowledged its silliness” and “also got a laugh” the way that another remark about his lack of sex appeal deterring women from buying his books did.
He claims it was “misleading” of her to use that phrase “estrogen vibe” because “Boorstein surely knew that setting it down in print would make me look stupid.” Last night I wrote an analysis of his entire reply to feminist critics. In that post I read his criticism of her use of that sentence in her article as though he was saying he just didn’t want her to use it in a way that left out the fact that he used a silly tone to contextualize how it was meant. But re-reading his complaint against her I realize that his gripe was actually that he didn’t want her to use his actual words here at all just because they make him sound “stupid”. But that’s not something he can demand of her. It’s not “gotcha journalism” for her to include Harris saying something foolish and sexist. That’s straight up journalism, and her responsibility even. Claiming that the mere use of the quote reveals bias is akin to when Sarah Palin blamed Katie Couric for using unmanipulated footage of her not being able to name a magazine she read or her unbelievable awkwardness on Russia. She blamed gotcha journalism for her ignorance of the Bush Doctrine. Boorstein gave a full contextualized quote. He called it accurate but misleading. But it’s only accurate, not misleading. It’s not her fault if his words make him sound foolish.
But it would be her fault if she didn’t adequately indicate that something was clearly in jest. So, being charitable to Harris, last night I took him at his word and said she should have included that he was being silly with that phrase and focused on her escalating tweet to the article. But now there’s video I’ve discovered of the “estrogen vibe” itself, so you can see for yourself. Personally I don’t think she was unfair at all to him in using this quote and presenting it straight.
I don’t think the phrase is much at all marked by his tone of voice as an attempt to just be a funny remark. Obviously Sam doesn’t literally believe in things like “estrogen vibes” as woo-ish forces and his voice indicates the exaggeration. In that sense he is not being literal. But nonetheless the remark is indistinguishable from the rest of the earnest attempt at analysis (not at all like the one liner about his sex appeal from earlier) so expresses his real opinion through exaggeration.
To the extent he’s not owning the “extra estrogen vibe” line while speaking there, but rather is mildly indicating that it’s over the top, he does this not in a way that indicates to me that he knows it is over the top to have a mindset of explaining every outcome disparity between men and women reductionistically and fatalistically with hormones. That harmful biological essentialism—which kept women down for millennia, that contemporary reactionary traditionalists earnestly believe and use to harm women today, and that women are vulnerable to internalizing through stereotype threat—is what a joke about “extra estrogen vibes” should lampoon. Instead, Sam’s exaggerated, hyperbolic word choice sounds more like it’s perfectly in keeping with traditionalist Othering of women in the ‘oh those women and their hormone-induced differences’ vein. Of course that vein has a corollary (‘oh those men and their hormone induced love of anger and conflict) that’s also at work here earlier when Sam chalks up the interest in conflict to being “to a degree intrinsically male”.And, this is key, I don’t hear anyone laughing as Sam claimed. If they laughed they weren’t loud enough to be picked up by the camera, so clearly not the way the whole room (or even apparently a majority) took it to be so silly as to merit a laugh. And I have been hearing mixed personal reactions reported to me from people who attended the event that break along the same ideological lines as any other commenters online. It stands to reason most of the people put off by his remarks and taking them as very sexist online would have had the same reaction in person. So the outrage wasn’t over anything misleading by Michelle Boorstein. She was still seriously unfair and unprofessional to post a tweet that summed up his views as “why chicks don’t dig atheism”, which was interpretive and risked escalating the sexist reading of Harris unnecessarily rather than just let Harris’s words speak for themselves and open him to criticism themselves. But 2 points about that. It’s been pointed out to me that she only has 5,000 followers and the tweet only got 10 likes, so the #estrogenvibe campaign is hard to lay at her feet. And to charitably read her, since Sam Harris introduced sexist silliness supposedly all in good fun she could claim she was just recreating that testosterone vibe on Twitter. (See what I did there?)
So, to put a finer point on it: There are two ways to make an “estrogen vibe” joke. One which makes a joke of the idea that the disparities between men and women can actually be simply rationalized and accepted because of hormones (or that women can be dismissed on account of their estrogen), in order to delegitimize through mockery the whole biological essentialism used by traditionalists to disempower women for centuries. The women reclaiming “estrogen vibe” with the hashtag on Twitter are making that kind of “estrogen vibe” joke. The other way to make an “estrogen vibe” is to basically say “oh those women and their estrogen”, which serves to Other women as weird because of this hormone (something they can’t much control) that just makes them the way they are. It’s the latter kind of sensibility which Harris’s remark tilts towards trying to be exaggerated/mildly funny on the basis of and leaves a sour taste in my mouth. It seems to play to the reactionary biological essentialist’s categories rather than mock them.
Let me close with something my friend Marnie said on my Facebook wall (repeated with permission) explaining what was wrong with the comment:
Women don’t want to denigrated and they don’t want to be put on a pedestal. They want to feel that they can be who they are, whatever that is and not have their gender be their sole identifying feature. Every time a well known figure in the group talks about women’s low attendance, they look at women and try to figure out how they don’t fit in, they don’t look at what the group might be doing that makes them feel unwelcome. It just never occurs to them. They think that this is the way it is and this is the way it’s been so it must be right already and anyone who doesn’t feel welcome isn’t cut out for it.
My full responses to his remarks are Sam Harris, The Criticism of Bad Ideas, and Sexist Appeals to Biology and On Sam Harris’s Reply to Feminist Critics. And I talked for just the first few paragraphs of another post about the irony involved in Sam Harris complaining about people taking words literally.