Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What not to say

In the social justice scene, you're supposed to recognize patterns of oppression. You're supposed to know that women earn less than men, and that black men are disproportionately likely to be imprisoned.

But you're not supposed to apply that knowledge to individuals. It's not okay to openly assume that a woman earns less than her husband, or that the black man you just met is an ex-con, even though you know the statistics. This can land you in tricky situations.

This week I was at a Less Wrong meetup. A man turned to a young woman near him and asked, "Do you actually read the site, or did somebody drag you here?"

I asked him, "Did you say that because she's wearing heels and lipstick?"

He said, "No, no, it's not because of how she's dressed! It's because most of the woman who come here are dragged by somebody else."

I was furious.

The thing is, I understand where his assumption was coming from. It is more common for uninterested women to be towed to the meetup by their boyfriends than vice versa. I knew from talking with her that this woman is an avid reader of the site, but if I hadn't known that, I might have made the same assumption he did. We all judge new people based on people who seem to be like them. It's unrealistic to expect anyone not to do this.

But this is an inside thought. Unflattering generalizations fall into the same category as "Wow, your acne is really bad": it may be true, but you don't say it out loud.

Because Less Wrong is so heavily male, I know people who meet me will judge me as part of a population of women. I feel embarrassed every time a woman says something foolish, because people will judge me as being part of her group. I know that stereotypes have some basis in reality. I know all this, and I hate being reminded of it.

Even if you have a 90% prior that some unpleasant generalization is true of an individual, don't say it to their face. I'm not going to say you should just mind your own business and not ask them questions, because we make community by getting to know each other. But insulting someone is not a good way to get to know her.

If you're really curious to know if your guess is right, ask some more generic question - "So, what got you interested in coming here?" Nobody gets hurt, and you might actually learn something about her.

No comments: