“SJW”: A Lame Insult With A Troubling Meaning

There’s a derisive term that’s entered the mainstream now, which tends to be uttered by some people with either very apathetic or very unpleasant political views: “Social justice warrior”, or “SJW”.

I’ve been accused of being this a few times now over the last few months. This insult, when it’s actually backed up by claims (however sociologically naïve), is often accompanied by claims like “what you’re doing is hurting people on a larger scale than you think”.

But the moment I heard it, I started thinking, “This is the insult you use?”

Let’s refer to another classic one that I’ve actually seen used with increasing frequency in recent years: “Feminazi”.

It’s an ugly insult that invokes Godwin’s law. But at least the implication is clear: “You are advocating a position that is Nazi-like in some way”. Those who accuse people of feminazis argue that they are being rhetorically abusive, or bullying people into silence with political correctness, or advocating repressive policies. And, as much as the insult itself is pure ad hominem, the argument behind it isn’t something without any merit. There are policies one could implement to try to mitigate sexism, from banning sexist speech to onerous workplace harassment policies to banning or regulating pornography, that would be odious even if the intent of addressing some pernicious gender-based inequality was a good one. Any serious feminist should certainly be concerned with values like liberty, autonomy, non-coercion, voluntary action, a broader notion of equality beyond mere gender equality, etc.

The point being, “Feminazi” is an insult whose logic I get. It’s a real attack.

But “SJW” as an insult shows just how utterly weak the position of those who are on the other side is.

It’s said sarcastically: “Oh, here’s the ‘social justice warrior’, fighting a battle that’s quixotic and unnecessary”. And sometimes, someone might even argue that there may be harm from implementing policies that are irrational.

Is that the best that people on the other side have? Really?

An “SJW” type, if they are of the mind to be unfair, can castigate the opposition as homophobes, misogynists, wifebeaters, neo-Nazis, Klan members, cheerleaders for rapists, peeping Toms… Those who seem to be apologizing for sexism, racism, homophobia, and so forth are in some pretty bad company. (And, if the tone I am taking so far doesn’t indicate this, let me make totally clear: There are plenty of perfectly rational people of conservative or centrist values who have valid concerns about the positions of people who have a social justice policy or cultural agenda or mission. There are real concerns that people have about competing rights, policy overstep, implementation, funding, etc. that any activist should take seriously and respectfully).

This insult basically boils down to someone saying, “You’re fighting passionately for a cause I disagree  with!”

It almost sounds like a compliment.

It’s amazing to me that the people who offer this insult are both so angry and so apparently ideologically conformist that they don’t seem to see that the insult basically implies that they themselves are social injustice warriors.

I say all of this not to castigate trolls on YouTube or Facebook comments but to make a broader point.

Those of us on the political left, from anarchists like myself to more centrist progressives or liberals, advocate for change and policies regarding things like gender and race discrimination, workplace harassment and bullying, gay marriage, wage inequality, etc. because we honestly believe, often based off of a review of evidence from excellent sociologists and social scientists, that there are inequalities that need to be corrected.

Most of the people who offer this “SJW” barb or who are on the side of those who do tend, in my experience, to be very grossly uninformed about the basics of this work. They often don’t know Peggy McIntosh from Tim Wise, or Claude Steele from Shelby Steele (a mistake I myself have made once). They often are very uninformed about what those arguing on the left side of the spectrum actually say about the statistics regarding inequality and discrimination.

Again, I reiterate that it is possible to believe that gender discrimination is largely a thing of the past and not be a raging sexist. I would hope that rational people on the other side would be in turn willing to admit that it is possible to believe that gender discrimination is real and pernicious and not be a paranoid misandrist.

So I would suggest that people on the other side of the social justice debates consider for a second why they’re so angry at those who disagree with them. Isn’t it possible that they just see the world differently? Sure, there are dishonest scholars and hucksters, on all sides, and they should be castigated. There are times when I disagree with some of those who are generally on my side of the spectrum on these debates: For example, I have repeatedly asserted that those who simultaneously argue that we can be confident about the number of women who will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes and then claim that most women do not report their assault are being grossly inconsistent. Anyone who’s actually worked with victims knows about the legacy of doubt, uncertainty, fear and shame that makes getting a real handle on the sexual assault issue from a sociological perspective quite tough.

I would hope that they realize that angrily calling someone else an “SJW” is just saying loudly, “I disagree with you but I am admitting that you are clearly sincere about your beliefs that this is about social justice”.

And I would hope that they could see that many of those offering the “SJW” barb (or related barbs like “Tumblr lesbian feminist”) are operating from a perspective where they pretend a superior rationality. “Of course there’s no inequality, and anyone who disagrees with me is an irrational shrieking banshee”. The fact that this pretense to superior rationality not only often covers up extreme “angry white man”-type rage about these issues but also extreme ignorance about the basic assertions being offered by the other side should in turn be a warning sign.

Social injustice is a real issue. If a conservative views some policy as being unjust, I would expect them to speak loudly about it. That’s what us “SJWs” are doing too: Speaking loudly about an injustice we perceive.

Maybe those on the other side may want to respond with less volume and more reason.


The Black Hole

My friend’s experience with depression.

I have never experienced this kind of emptiness. I’ve only experienced the trials and the joys of pulling people out of it. But what I do know is that, no matter if you are the helper or the helped (or both), once you have seen worlds like this, you never are the same. If you ever wonder why so many psychologists and sociologists seem to speak so quietly and to take pain so seriously, it is the simple fact that they have been exposed to it so many times.

The Streets of Gotham

No, this one is not about Disney’s ’79 somewhat silly and ultimately boring, but still somehow charming SciFi piece.

This one is about the blackest hole I’ve encountered so far. The black hole of depression. I’ll admit I have been depressed before. I have felt hopeless and abandoned, feared for my life, felt humiliation and degradation, exprienced utter despair, horror, grief … pretty much everything than can bring a person down.

But as I recently discovered I obviously have never experienced depression before, not like this. Not the real thing. Whenever I thought about depression or felt “depressed” I still felt something. But I encountered something new. What I came to call “the drained world”. The world seems drained of everything. Sounds, smells, colours, taste, touch … all senses seem to be dialed down to almost zero. As are the feelings. Every waking moment feels like eating wet dirt.


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Response to Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans’ Black Widow “Slut” Gaffe

In context of my recent posts about gender inequality, I’d like to take a slightly different tack about the recent interview where Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye) called Black Widow a slut.

I disagree with the negative comments on this front, from a few perspectives.

First of all, I think that Jeremy and Chris were using the “slut” and “whore” language as a sort of glimpse into the subconscious of their characters. While Cappy would never think about a woman that way for anything beyond a tenth of a second, actors occupy their characters without judgment, and we as men have to be honest about the fact that sometimes when a (particularly beautiful) woman may leave us, it makes us feel used and hurt. That’s human. Cappy and Hawkeye would both move on rapidly because they’re good people and they really love Natasha as a friend and comrade, but they can be a little hurt.

Second, I really feel that Jeremy and Chris were mocking the whole focus on the idea and were being sarcastic. I think they were mocking those people who WOULD call someone a slut for doing that. The sarcasm in their tones is so apparent, and Jeremy and Chris are both so good-natured about it.

But, see, that’s sort of the point.

I don’t detect malice from them. That could be because I’m a man and, as much as it can actually be hurtful to be called a man-slut (as I often have been), the onerousness of that idea of promiscuity is just not as big for me. That could be because I generally see the best in people. It could be because I like Chris and Jeremy as actors and people, based on what I’ve seen.

See, every time we have to react to something like the Michael Richards rant (which by now is probably long forgotten due to you damn millennials with your iPhones and your baggy pants) or a celebrity gaffe in public, we collectively are being asked to test our instincts and intuitions about people and their motives. We do that with limited information.

On the one hand, we should be careful on these issues and not let momentary hurt or anger distract us.

On the other hand, we should also hold people accountable.

I think it’s quite justifiable for me not to see malice in these two men’s reactions. But I think it’s quite justifiable for plenty of women to. They don’t need to be less thin-skinned and I don’t need to be more judgmental and mistrusting. We can be different people and have different estimations. Women are justified in having less trust for things like this because trusting has hurt them before.

Where Jeremy and Chris went wrong was not in making a joke but in then not clarifying that joke and expressing something more sensitive. It would have been appropriate to actually discuss how their characters would react, and make clear that they were joking.

That’s because people’s feelings matter.

A lot of men are going to claim that they shouldn’t apologize because they shouldn’t give in to the offended PC crowd.

I hope we can all see how utterly and completely devoid of merit and sensitivity that reaction is.

If you hurt someone’s feelings, you should apologize. Even if it wasn’t your intention. Even if you couldn’t have anticipated it. Because apologizing might make them feel better, and might also make you more sensitive in the future.

White men want to have the privilege not only to make jokes, but to not have to listen to the negative feedback about those jokes or to be held accountable about the content thereof or to not have to assuage hurt feelings.

So, yes, I think Chris and Jeremy should clarify what they meant and apologize for hurt feelings, and perhaps even discuss slut-shaming as a problem. They should do this not just for PR reasons but also for human reasons. There’s no problem we have that more dialog can’t help get at least a little better. Talking is the solution, not silence.

After all, Cappy would despise slut shaming as being dishonorable, rude, and un-American. And shouldn’t we want to be like Cappy?


Property as Theft: An Introduction

This is another (appropriately edited) response to a Quora question that asked, “In what ways could profit be considered theft”?

My opinion on the issue as regards profit as being theft basically combines Proudhon, Marx, Locke and Pogge.

In actual fact, people can control physical property. If I have a backpack of stuff, then it’s under my control.
“Ownership” is a value statement. It’s an idea that an object isn’t just in my possession but really belongs to me, and someone else having it without my consent or transaction means they don’t really “own” it, just have it.

For certain societies to work, we have to accept that some intangible assets or some assets that are somewhat abstract can be owned. We have to accept that a certain parcel of land can be viewed as belonging to someone, usually through some kind of deed. We have to accept that a factory, and therefore its output, “belongs” to that person. Even ideas can be considered to be “owned”.

Property is therefore a collective agreement. It’s an idea that says, “We’re all going to come up with some maxim that says that the amount of stuff that people get is their own. It shouldn’t be able to be taken away”.

Of course, enforcing that collective agreement requires things like police. So people have to pay some money into the collective chest so that everyone can hopefully keep more.

So when profit, or property of any kind, can be theft is when either that social contract is somehow illegitimate or someone is breaking that social contract.

A mobster and a corporation that is making profit through illegal mechanisms such as dumping share the trait that they have a lot of property, either currency or some other kind of property, can be said to be stealing their profit because they’re violating the social contract of laws under which you can own something.

So too is someone engaging in tax evasion, or welfare fraud, or embezzlement.

These are somewhat obvious points. What’s less obvious and a lot more controversial is the idea that someone making money without breaking the laws could still have no right to it.

Locke, as Pogge has argued, had an implicit justification for inequality. The idea was that society elevates us above a state of nature. If I make 100,000 widgets a year and you make 50,000, but in a state of nature we both make 10,000, that’s a justifiable arrangement.

Of course, Locke’s position is minimalistic, and people like Rawls criticized that idea harshly.

But the point is that you have to be making 10,000 widgets.

The moment you’re making 9,000, then every one of my widgets above 10,000 is theft.

Globally, there are billions facing food inequality, the inability to access water, or the inability to access shelter.

Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath pointed out that people were starving while oranges were rotting. A lot of people in the world could literally do better if they could forage.

That means that every single person in their societies, and arguably every one globally, that has more profit or income or net worth than what they’d get in a state of nature is stealing it.

Considering that these arrangements have been brought about by force, that theft is actually violent theft.

Consider a homeless person who tries to live on a national park. Police and rangers will run him out.

But that person is merely trying to survive the best he can. Society failed to provide for him.

Of course, if that homeless person had a good job and lost it because of some incompetence or mistake, how much blame do they have? How much blame can we put onto the educational system or bad parenting? How much can we put upon labor mismatches and geography? How much blame can we attribute to the lack of mental health infrastructure and services?

These are where these issues get complicated. In a state of nature, if I get eaten by a lion, that’s on me. But if I got pushed into a lion’s den, that’s on someone else.

You’ll also notice that Locke’s assumption implicitly limits property rights too. Locke defended property rights, but why is it that a person who makes billions is entitled to those billions? If there needs to be taxes to, say, pay for the collective welfare, and those taxes will cut their wealth down to size, they’re still doing better than a state of nature.

This idea of the legitimacy of the social contract is what is actually at stake in these concepts. A great example is when we talk about debt enforcement. Plenty of countries in the Third World have what we call debts, but those debts were rung up by dictators propped up from abroad. Why should the population have to pay for the privilege of having been brutalized? The Greek government today has an excellent case for why Germany in particular owes them reparations. It’s a complicated debate, but it centers on the idea that history matters.

I personally argue for a participatory economy as outlined by Michael Albert, which you can learn more about at Introduction – Participatory Economics. While I do not think that such an economy is the only just one, I do not believe that our present economy matches even the minimal standards of justice.


Frat Boys and Male Responsibility: Why What Male Apologists Think They Know is Wrong

After debating the issues of gender inequality in the labor market for about seventy-two hours, I think it’s time to set some issues straight.

Scholars who argue that the gender wage gap is either shrinking or gone claim that once you control for factors like experience, choice of major, occupation, female negotiating strategies compared to male negotiating strategies, and a host of other factors, the apparent wage gap disappears.

By that reasoning, even though the average wage gap between men and women is about 22 to 23 cents, it might only be six to seven cents of that difference that’s unexplained and therefore possibly attributed to gender inequality, discrimination, bias or patriarchy.

Now, this is actually an important argument to engage with. Statistics matter. Understanding the array of causes for things matters.

But I can in turn assert that every single cent of that twenty-two cent difference is due to sexism.

How can I do that, even if other factors seem to control for the variation?

Imagine a person gets sick after he spent multiple nights out drinking. Let’s say it happens to be the flu that he gets sick with.

(Image to this effect courtesy of Ask Men and Getty).

I say, “Wow, dude, you probably should have taken it easy, you got the flu because you partied too hard”.

Another person comes in and says, “How dare you criticize partying? He got the flu because of the influenza virus!”

In fact, both causal narratives are correct, because both had to happen for our hypothetical frat bro to get the flu.

If he had just been exposed to someone else who was a carrier for the flu but he hadn’t been partying, he wouldn’t have gotten sick.

Similarly, if he had just been partying but had managed to avoid someone with the flu, he wouldn’t have gotten sick.

In fact, it could also have been that he didn’t drink enough orange juice, or had too much stress (which may have been the cause of the party binge), or that he doesn’t wash his hands enough, or that other people don’t wash their hands enough, or that he has asthma.

Similarly, a square isn’t just a square because it has four sides. It has to have four equilateral sides.

In a 2000 e-mail debate with David Horowitz, Tim Wise argued the following, discussing the fallacy of trying to break down the aspects of racial inequality: “There is no way to break down “responsibility percentiles” into some numerical percentage, and say, “stereotype threat” explains 10%, and motivation 15%, and family structure 20%, etc…These things can all interrelate, and trying to break it down as you would like me to do, is not possible or logical, any more than Murray and Herrnstein’s ridiculous claim that they could determine what percentage of IQ was genetic and what part environmental, despite the intrinsic interrelationship between both kinds of factors”.

So, in fact, it can be the case that 100% of the wage gap, or at least the vast majority of it, is caused by sexual inequality. That doesn’t mean it’s all caused by sexist bias on the part of employers. But since sexism isn’t just about biases on the parts of employers but also about biases in schools and in popular culture, body image inequalities, biases on the parts of male peers in organizations, pressures to go into particular fields, socialization that causes people to be interested in particular fields and to have certain personality and behavioral traits, social capital inequalities, etc., sexism can be a part of the picture in every single variable.

That doesn’t mean it’s the only part of the picture, any more than the frat boy’s sickness wasn’t just caused by him hitting the bars. Political systems, the effect of statutes, organizational policies, changes to markets and industries as a result of globalization, geography and its effect on labor mismatches, etc. could all also be part of the picture. And yes, sure, genetics, hormones and differing capabilities in various respects could be a part of the picture too.

But, insofar as sexism is part of the picture, it can be resolved.

I made this argument in my original response to Maddox and I have subsequently made it repeatedly, but it really bears going down the line.

In Facebook discussions, someone responded to my evidence of rampant sexism in the construction industry by claiming that women could just leave a business if they didn’t want to work there because of sexual harassment.

But that would mean that a woman would be leaving a job, reducing her experience as she had to enter the job market again and spend anywhere from weeks to months trying to find a new job, where she would again begin at the bottom. Her experience would be reduced. So too would she be less likely to have a good reference.

I’ve been subsequently told by woman after woman about how they’ve left fields because men ignored them, or treated them like sex objects or secretaries. What that looks like on a resume to someone who doesn’t know about the nature of gender discrimination is a person who is wishy-washy.

There’s a host of factors as to why women don’t have the level and duration of experience that their male colleagues do.

Similarly, the fact that women leave the workplace to have children is itself not a justifiable cause for wage inequality.

Why don’t men leave the workplace for exactly as long? Why aren’t men the ones going to PTA meetings or having to leave work early to pick up their children?

Both the imbalance in the way domestic duties are handled and the social contracts regarding maternity and paternity leave penalize women disproportionately for having children. But that’s not a fact of life. Paternity leave, anti-discrimination laws that protect mothers, education to employers, etc.

To again quote from Wise who makes this argument astutely: “Indeed, for men who want to share child-rearing responsibilities, the exigencies of the workforce make it difficult to exercise that choice. Most men don’t have the kind of job flexibility that would allow them to take time off, job-share, take leave (paid or unpaid), and otherwise split the home responsibilities with their wives and partners. Indeed, for a man who wanted to do any of those things, there would be a constant fear, not unfounded, that his employer could (and likely would) replace him, probably with another man whose nurturing instincts and commitment to gender equity in the home was far less concretized. Unless the social structure supports shared sacrifice, sacrifice will end up being made by those with the least institutional power, irrespective of one’s personal desires”.

This isn’t that hard of a sociological point to comprehend. But none of the men I’ve been discussing the issue with seem to understand that it takes a man and a woman to make a baby.

Worse, plenty of women who never plan to have children are going to struggle because employers and male peers will just assume that they’ll flake out.

Another factor that might explain women’s lower wages and their lack of representation in the higher echelons of many kinds of organizations would be their negotiating strategy. The Carnegie Mellon and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government study that Wise cites, however, finds that women who adopt such aggressive strategies aren’t perceived as courageous but as aggressive or unpleasant.

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, it makes sense that women who were aggressive like this would be misperceived as normbreakers. This may be a country that applauds normbreakers, but it’s a human trait for us to mistrust those who break the rules. (For a really interesting analysis of how the American belief in liberty and in the importance of mavericks can be hemmed in by factors like the imagination of a good folk community as opposed to bad outsiders, I recommend people read Mead’s Special Providence, a far-from-leftist book that examines what the author views as the major strands of American political thought).

Men are supposed to be aggressive, so we expect it from them. In a society that rewards assertiveness and competition, that’s a good thing.

But women aren’t supposed to be aggressive. Sometimes, of course, there will be a boss who admires an aggressive woman who seeks out her own fate. But on average, the fact that people aren’t used to women asserting themselves this way is going to mean that those who do are harmed too, just as with those who don’t.

See, that’s an interconnection of two institutions. Capitalist institutions tend to reward the people who stick to their guns in negotiation. But patriarchy changes how behavior is perceived. You have to combine both.

What’s really important about all this is that these are all average trends.

Sure, some women will be able to overcome these trends and become the next Oprah or Martha Stewart.

But, on average, can’t anyone who’s intellectually honest admit that women just having that additional little bias going against them when they go to each job interview, when they go to each performance review, when they fill out each application form, is going to add up over time? Some women will be so awesome that they’ll overcome it. But there’s just as many awesome men who will overcome too. Looking at the extraordinary people, as we often do in these discussions, is misleading because they’re inherently outliers. Most people are somewhere on the middle in terms of a bell curve of competency and talent. Most people are not Oprah. And a major aspect of male privilege, gender privilege, etc. is that it allows people to be mediocre.

People like me.

See, most people I’ve met say I’m one of the smartest guys, even the smartest guy, they’ve ever met.

And yet in school and in college I got only pretty good grades.

I was exemplary in some ways, but in actual fact I could have worked much harder.

Tim Wise found the same thing. Almost every white male who does work in these areas talks about how they kept getting breaks that they didn’t realize they were getting.

I’m not saying I didn’t deserve those chances. I think I did. But plenty of women got those breaks too.

Similarly, George W. Bush was a mediocre President. He was a mediocre success in his pre-political life too. He got lots of help. Now, George W. Bush actually probably isn’t a dumb guy. He probably shouldn’t have been a politician, but people who know him talk about how charming and quick-witted he can be.

Barack Obama is not mediocre. You may dislike him, but I don’t believe anyone honest can deny that he’s a brilliant orator and a very smart guy.

It takes people like Barack Obama to break into the highest echelons if they’re black, or gay, or women, or poor. It takes people like George W. Bush to succeed if they’re straight white men from affluent backgrounds.

I know this is tough to say. I know it sounds judgmental. But the point is that we need to stop demanding that people be superhuman and instead start getting rid of unequal barriers so that people can just be good enough.

Now, in actual fact, a host of scholarly evidence finds that there are pernicious and ongoing inequalities.

Luca Flabbi found, for example, that “it is possible to separately identify gender discrimination and unobserved productivity differences. The equilibrium shows that both prejudiced and unprejudiced employers wage discriminate. Maximum likelihood estimates on CPS data indicate that half of the employers are prejudiced, average female productivity is 6.5% lower, and two-third of the gender earning differential may be explained by prejudice”. Flabbi then used a model of an affirmative action policy and found that it would result in “a redistribution of welfare from men to women at no cost for employers’ welfare”. Okay, Flabbi may be wrong. But this is a modern source, a scholarly source, from 2010, that did a very careful analysis and looked at the data. Moreover, you’ll notice that Flabbi did find that female productivity is on average lower than male productivity, even though that didn’t explain the variation. (In fact, I’d argue that even the apparent productivity difference itself can be traced to sexism, given that women in sexist organizations are probably quite likely to be more disengaged and not put as much effort into their work, are probably less likely to be getting organizational support like continued professional development, etc.) I’d recommend reading the opening page (which is free if you click on the “Article” tab and then scroll down) which notes that most industrialized societies have a gendered wage gap too, from Japan to Northern Europe.

One of the biggest factors that creates consistent inequality for women is the ongoing existence of the “old boy’s network”. That’s a somewhat pejorative term for the social capital advantage that white men generally have. Since white men were in charge of the society for as long as they were, they’ve constructed fraternities, bowling clubs, golf clubs, etc. to be methods for amplifying social capital. A white man who goes to an affluent country club has a host of other affluent people to talk to in order to get potential job offers, investment opportunities and crucial information. Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone and his subsequent work has pointed out how important social capital is as a predictor of success. Putnam argues that social capital tends to have a leveling effect, but while this has some truth to it, inequalities in social capital can also serve to keep out women and minorities.

So Steve McDonald found that “people in white male networks receive twice as many job leads as people in female/minority networks. White male networks are also comprised of higher status connections than female/minority networks”. Similarly, Steve McDonald, Nan Lin and Dan Ao found that “Findings from nationally representative survey data reveal significant white male advantage in the number of job leads received through routine conversations when compared to white women and Hispanics”. Worse, these differences are higher at the “highest levels of supervisory authority”, which helps explain a large part of the reason why women and minorities find it so hard to break into those uppermost echelons of the workforce such as becoming senior partners or CEOs.

It’s easy to find hundreds of scholarly analyses like this. It’s so common that Elizabeth Kelan opened her analysis of what she calls “gender fatigue” in organizations (organizations being aware of gender inequality yet having to try to present themselves as being as neutral and fair as possible) claims that “Although gender discrimination remains a feature of working life in many contexts, research on gender in organizations has shown that workplaces are often constructed as gender neutral”. Basically, pretty much any scholar in sociology is going to tell you that sexism and gender bias are real phenomena.

The Kelan article is especially useful because it points out one of the trajectories that happens in discussions like this. “Instead of denying gender discrimination, workers acknowledge it can happen but construct it as singular events that happened in the past and they place the onus on women to overcome such obstacles”. This isn’t just true in the workplace. Most feminist activists will have had the experience of finally eliciting a concession that discrimination may be real but then being told, as Maddox did in his opening article and later when pressed on Facebook, that focusing on discrimination is victimizing.

In that vein, there’s one more point I’d like to bring up to demonstrate how much this discussion is basically about people, usually men, avoiding their responsibilities.

Let’s say for a moment that there was actually no aggregate wage gap between men and women.

However, all of the data about, say, sexual harassment or discrimination in the workforce could still be true. It just would not be having an impact on wages per se.

Okay, that’d be a good thing, were it true. (To be clear: It’s not).

But shouldn’t we still do something about it?

In other words, sexual harassment isn’t just bad because it causes people to have lower wages. It’s also bad because it’s dehumanizing, cruel and evil.

Even if all women who endured discrimination could still succeed, it’d still be a psychic toll. Hell, even if women were ahead of men in wages and political success, it’d still be wrong to ogle them and treat them like objects.

But the men who enter these discussions never talk about this.

They virtually never discuss their own fears and anxieties. (They’re plenty willing to vent about losing a job to a minority or a woman because of affirmative action, but that’s not the same thing).

The combination of vitriolic anger and pseudo-scholarly distance that men affect in these conversations is creepy as shit. It’s like Kevin Spacey in Se7en.

It’s easy to hide behind numbers. It’s (emotionally) easy to do statistical analyses.

It’s much harder to actually talk to a woman about her experiences with injustice. It’s even that much harder to listen.

I have yet to hear from any of the apologists for gender inequality what men should do about any of the phenomena we’re talking about. Even when it’s clear that women are encountering barriers in law. Even when it’s clear that women are facing widespread sexual harassment. Just as whites in debates about racial inequality are very clear about how black people should stop joining gangs or wearing their pants low but never about what white people might want to do to promote dialog or become more fair judges of character. Just as those defending class inequality talk about how the poor just need to work harder and live like monks but never talk about how the rich should change their behavior.

A friend of mine has told me, “Other people say, ‘I’m one person, what can I do?’ You say, ‘I’m one person, look what I can do’”. The reason that I have that attitude is because I believe in personal responsibility.

Until the people who enter these debates talk about what they can do, until they can drop the pretense of objectivity when they’re defending the privileges that people like them are reaping, the debate is bankrupt from the beginning.

For those of you who are actually interested, here’s an additional annotated bibliography.

This analysis by Ridgeway looks at the way that gender framing occurs.

Ineson, Yap and Whiting’s data based on studying hospitality management students found evidence of serious sexual and homophobic discrimination in the hospitality industry.

This USA Today article is actually a very centrist analysis as to why there’s inequality in the construction industry, noting that lawmaker apathy is a big cause.

Despite some evidence that women have higher levels of job satisfaction, there is extensive evidence of stress inequalities between men and women as well as between whites and minorities, as this Perry et al. article indicates.

This Catalysts examination looks at some of the causes for gender inequality in the legal profession.


Can the Same Action be Moral and Immoral?

I post frequently on Quora. For those of you who don’t know, Quora is a site where you can ask a question and get responses. However, unlike Yahoo Answers, Quora has managed to actually curate responses and have good enough community standards such that there are, by and large, some really intelligent responses. I post often enough, and on random enough issues, that I won’t replicate all my content there here. However, those posts I am most proud of or I think have the broadest utility and are relevant to the Freelance Hope Warrior blog I’ll put here.

This was a response to the question, “Can the same behavior be moral and immoral”?

First, let’s look at the major existing ethical systems and see what they might say.

Kant would largely say no. A Kantian deontological or categorical imperative framework says that actions are intrinsically wrong or right. Specifically, Kant had two maxims: An action should be universalizable at the moment you do it; and an action should not use others as a means to an end against their will.

The first one, the categorical imperative, means that lying is wrong, no matter the motivation or context, because if everyone were to lie, communication would be debased. Theft would be wrong because theft, if everyone were to do it, would make the idea of property in the first place impossible.

In other words, Kant’s first principle says that actions that basically prey on the good behavior of others are wrong. Lying depends on other people telling truths to work. If everyone lied, lying would be much less effective. Theft depends on other people not stealing and producing products for the thief to steal to work.

The second one, not using other people as a means to an end, against their will, is a little tricky.

An example philosophy teachers often point to as a transaction where I use someone as a means to an end, as a way to fulfill what Kant would call “a hypothetical imperative”, is buying a sandwich. If I go to Subway and ask someone to make a sandwich, I’m using them as a means to get that sandwich. My interaction with them is basically with them as a proxy for a tool. But they consent to this by virtue of working there. (I’ll put aside the idea of consent in a capitalist framework for this discussion).

So sometimes, the same basic action could be evil if it were being done against someone’s will or if it was using them as a means to an end in some kind of inhuman fashion.

Virtue ethics, like that espoused by Aristotle, would absolutely say that the same basic action can be immoral, or at least not morally laudatory, based on the virtue behind it.

If I give someone a soda when they’re thirsty because I feel generous and want to share with someone who is thirsty, that’s probably a good action.

If I give someone a soda when they’re thirsty because it’ll impress the girl I’m with, or because I want them to go away, or because I’m in a bad mood and don’t care what I do, then that’s probably not a good action. Sure, a thirsty person still got a soda, but I did it for reasons which are flawed.

For Aristotle, accidentally good actions carried no merit. Someone actually had to be intelligently producing the outcomes of their actions. That’s because Aristotle, as a student of Plato and in turn Socrates, viewed the moral person as an enlightened individual who, through the study of mind and philosophy, would be in control of their emotions, reason and soul.

So someone who, say, accidentally shot a mugger in the process of mugging when they were trying to be on a killing spree is still not a good person.

Utilitarian and virtue ethics scholars, in the vein of Bentham and Mills, would say that the same action might be wrong if its long term consequences were wrong.

Let’s say one government policy gives services to the poor. It works very well, with those services developing people, building their capabilities and leading to long-term reductions in poverty. By a utilitarian perspective, that was probably a good policy.

Let’s say another government did the same thing with the same framework. But, due to the different context of their society, what occurs is that those resources are stolen by thieves and encourage dependence and waste. Same action, different outcome, therefore it was a bad policy.

Now, for my perspective:

You have to use all three ways of thinking.

As the Dalai Lama pointed out in Ethics for the New Millennium, you can’t either ignore consequences entirely nor can you judge a situation entirely by the consequences. A captain of a boat in a storm certainly has some impact on whether or not the boat is saved, but just because the boat is ultimately saved does not mean he is a good captain. He could have gotten lucky.

I believe that we have to make sure our actions aren’t just good in some of abstract moral framework, but skillful. We have to think, “Is what I’m doing based on me actually having the proper mindset, the proper heart and mind, to do something positive?”

Perhaps the best example is a therapist trying to treat a family member. The therapist is perfectly skilled. They’re doing something with a good heart and something that could well have positive outcomes. But the interconnection between the two, the emotional link, can make them less able to intervene. They have a vested interest, and that actually makes them less effective and objective. So a therapist in that situation would in most situations be best served by refusing to give that care and instead finding someone else she trusted. The therapist in that situation would know she can’t be skillful, can’t be effective, or at least that the risk that she can’t is quite high. Worse, even if that situation comes out well for her family member, it may cost her a lot and hurt her, and there’s no reason to embrace that concept.

See, our actions have to be taken with what I call the third level of empathy. We need to be able to empathize with the system in total, ourselves and others included, and give the appropriate weight to everyone. We need to be able to be our own advocates without being cruel or dehumanizing. We need to stand up for our belief system without denying, explicitly or implicitly, that others have valid and functional belief systems that work for them based on their position and experiences.

Noam Chomsky offers the maxim that we are responsible for the predictable consequences of our actions. I view that as an excellent philosophical framework.

So, when we do something, even if that something is basically routine, we need to think each time (or at least often enough that we’ll catch problems) about (in roughly equal importance)

1) How our social context, privileges, culture, etc. might be unduly constraining our perception and our actions
2) If we’re acting in a way that is hurtful, callous or cruel
3) If we’re acting in a way such that we won’t see problems or be compassionate
4) If the consequences of this specific action might be negative to someone, and if so if that negativity is enough balanced against the positive outcomes that encourage us to do it
5) If the positive outcomes of our actions are overwhelmingly concentrated for us, and the negative outcomes to others are of a noteworthy magnitude (i.e. if we are being selfish)
6) What our motives are for why we’re doing this action, and if those motives may lead us to not be skillful

And that means that each and every situation is totally distinct.

A police officer who kills a suspect brandishing a firearm, even if he went through the same reasoning each time, could have been unduly hasty in one case and prudent in another. Lots of little factors add up in our most important moral decisions.

But the biggest help to this process is to know this:

Even with a good heart, you will make mistakes. You will have flaws. You will on occasion act without the proper thought.


A Response to Maddox’s “How Every Company in America can save 23% on Wages”

A Response to Maddox’s “How Every Company in America can save 23% on Wages”

I despise sloppy sociology.

Look, I get it. Social systems are really complicated. One’s eyes can glaze over after reading the tenth article on a row on Mertonian strain or average distance within social networks.

But it’s important that, if we want to dismiss the political aspirations of people, we do our homework.

Maddox is one of my favorite Internet satirists. Sometimes, as a satirist, a person needs to make an argument that might be exaggerated or polemical or aimed for the average person in order to make a point.

However, when people are grossly misinformed about an issue, an article that purports to present a view of the world can actually cause serious problems.

To wit, Maddox has recently posted an article where he takes issue with the idea of sexism as being the cause of the wage gap.

Let’s respond to a lot of these arguments, but first, let me begin with my strongest example of how sexist priorities operate in the real world: Social work.

It’s no secret that social workers are underpaid.

It’s also not a big secret that most social workers are women, and in fact more so in recent years.

So one of the best examples of a “pink collar” service profession, a nurturing profession, is one which is both overrepresented by women and underpaid and overworked.

Now, I offer this example because it robs so many of the bullshit excuses we hear.

There’s no “free market” estimation of work value here going on here because most social work is either in the NGO or public sector. It’s government who’s paying social workers; specifically, it’s government underpaying social workers. (And teachers, another “pink collar” profession, but let’s not even open a can of worms here).

Rather, we have brutal political priorities that make it so we want to make sure that there’s always money for aircraft carriers and subsidies for corporations but can scrimp on things like entitlement payments or social services.

These brutal political priorities, by the way, are economically harmful to us collectively. If we thought about the value that a good social worker has in terms of avoiding long-term externalities, one could make a great case for tripling their pay. Think about all the ways that a social worker helps reduce theft and criminality by getting people in touch with resources to survive, improves life conditions and makes communities safer by intervening in families that have destructive and abusive dynamics, and so forth. Or think about how much better off we’d be if the foster system were not a disaster that is so well-known as a disaster that the messed-up foster care kid is a cliché.

Those brutal political priorities that are the cause of low social worker pay aren’t specifically sexist. I don’t think that politicians are rubbing their hands together and saying, “Let’s hurt women by paying social workers less!”

But it’s an example of why this wage gap between men and women exists. It’s an example of a sexist impact, because it disproportionately harms women, socialized to go into nurturing and support roles. And the brutality and lack of concern about family dynamics is based on sexist and patriarchal value systems that feminists oppose. The fact that politicians aren’t castigated for the way that they’ve screwed up juvenile justice, foster care, child services, and a host of other social work services, but are burnt in effigy if they raise taxes, is based on a value system that has sexist roots. Women bear the brunt of the impact our collective amount of family dysfunction, and they also bear a large portion of the work of fixing that family dysfunction.

More importantly, it helps explain why even excuses like “Women go into different fields” don’t cut it. Those excuses in turn assume that the relative pay that fields get is based on justice, when that assertion is not only absurd but often undermined by the apologists who then go on to claim that it’s men with disadvantages!

So, let’s look at some claims that Maddox makes specifically now, in light of the ideas above.

Maddox claims, “The prevailing theory is that it’s because women are conditioned to have lower expectations in the workplace.”

No, it isn’t.

This is one of the best examples I have ever seen in history of a strawman argument, a deliberately weak interpretation of one’s opponents viewpoints that makes one’s position seem stronger in false comparison.

One is free to look through my blog for the times I’ve discussed gender inequality and race inequality. Like this one on color-blindness , or this one on the bronie phenomenon , or this salient piece on sexual assault and statistics. You’ll see plenty of explanations for both of these factors, and I doubt this conditioning is found plenty of time.

Or let me turn to other scholars.

The European Commission names the following factors: “Direct discrimination, the undervaluing of women’s work, segregation in the labor market, traditions and stereotypes, and balancing work and private life”. Of those, “lower expectations” is a small part of just one, “traditions and stereotypes”.

The Center for American Progress similarly looked at the breakdown. They found that “Women need an additional degree in order to make as much as men with a lower degree over the course of a lifetime. A woman would need a doctoral degree, for instance, to earn the same as a man with a bachelor’s degree, and a man with a high school education would earn approximately the same amount as a woman with a bachelor’s degree”. These are just massive inequalities, what we’d call a big “signal”.

So what are the causes of the gender gap?

Well, one does happen to be lowered expectations in the workforce, sure. Women rightly begin to believe that their efforts just don’t get noticed. Many understandably begin to retreat.

Maddox has a reply on this front, though. He states, “There are plenty of powerful, successful and wealthy women who break this mold every day”.

There’s “plenty” of people who win the lottery too, Maddox. Want to suggest that as a means to fix the gender wage gap problem?

Fact is, there are some women who are hugely assertive. And this is a great thing. But the reason why feminists don’t “focus on the positive”, as he’d like us to do, is because that’s giving people a pat on the back before the job is finished.

This is one of the great challenges of activism, and it’s obvious Maddox doesn’t do any of it. Bono, for example, had a wonderful TED Talk where he went into how poverty is improving globally. He wanted to talk about the positive.

But he also knew that if he just did that then people would stop working. Men and white folks want to hear about how sexism and racism are over so they can stop having to work on those fronts.

Bono pointed out that there’s two possible ways that you can end up going when you see improvements: You can see complacency, and a slowing of change, or continued effort, and the continued rate of change.

The reason why we have to talk about the negative so often is because so many men are insistent that nowadays it’s an advantage to be a woman or a black person in the workforce. Many people refuse to believe that there is still something like gender and race inequality. (And I mention these together because they are linked, as the Center for American Progress article shows, and because the resistance to the idea of white privilege shares many of the same cognitive problems and failings as the resistance to the idea of gender privilege).

Worse, those women who are assertive themselves face challenges. I’ll quote again from Tim, citing “findings of researchers from Carnegie Mellon and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, which demonstrates that women who haggle for better pay are viewed much differently than their male counterparts”. In other words, women are just perceived as bitchier when they are assertive. Women find themselves in a double-bind: They can not negotiate, and be viewed as wallflowers, or try to be assertive and aggressive in negotiation, and be viewed as non-collegial.

However, the domestication of female aspirations is only one factor.

Another is the “old boy’s” network. That may be part of why we’re seeing women enter the lower echelons of industries like law and finance, but still struggle to make it to the higher echelons. The best jobs are still filled by social networking, by one’s “Rolodex” as it was put in the olden days, and having access to those traditional mechanisms like being the gold buddy or the college roommate of a person at the highest echelons is a massive part of the issue. Inequalities in what scholars call “social capital” is a big part of what causes inequality in general.

There’s also subconscious bias. Both male and female employers, human resources professionals, interviewers, etc. are likely to be saddled with subconscious ideas about how women should act and what their capabilities are. The Implicit Attitude Test project, for example, has found that for both race and gender, people’s subconscious biases are quite easy to replicate and even get some degree of measure upon.

Another factor is the perception of the “mommy track”, which saddles women intended to have kids and those who have no such expectation (and is itself partially the result of the second shift, where women continue to bear the disproportionate brunt of domestic work even when they work as hard as their partners). For those of you who believe that the “mommy track” is rational, Tim Wise has a wonderful set of responses.

Here’s another brilliantly obtuse argument: “Women make up about 51% of the workforce, according to the US Department of Labor. So either companies don’t want to save 23% on their wages, or the “77%” wage gap number is bullshit, because both can’t be true”.

But since women are about half the workforce, they’re already represented roughly equally. In fact, the female unemployment rate is slightly lower at the moment than the male unemployment rate. There’s just not a ton of women out there to hire more cheaply.

Maddox makes a false analogy to how employers are willing to hire non-English speakers to pay them less, ignoring that part of this dynamic is that employers have biases against native peoples of color and often hire immigrants in preference, but this is below comment. It’s cheap to hire illegals because you can threaten deportation. You can’t deport women. Women get paid less because of other factors, garden-variety sexism (both subconscious and overt bias) being part of it.

But you know what? I’ve heard employers joke, and heard stories of employers joking, about hiring the minority or hiring the woman because it will be cheaper. See, here’s the thing: Wages aren’t fixed by magic. In most environments, how much people are paid depends on their ability to negotiate. And as we’ve seen, on average, a woman’s ability to negotiate is just lower than a man’s, for both psychological and economic reasons.

Another one of Maddox’s claims that shows how utterly unfamiliar he is with this debate and how out of his depths he is is this gem: “critics struggle to contend with the fact that countless studies have shown that women have a higher job-satisfaction, despite the supposed wage inequality.”

But this “paradox” is only a paradox to people who don’t do any work in social justice.

Here’s an acronym that anyone who actually talks to feminists is likely to know: PHMT, or “Patriarchy Hurts Men Too”.

It may be possible that men are pushed into professions that are more competitive, more high-paying, but less good for the soul. They may be being pushed into professions that make them wonder if they are contributing.

So while women may be getting the shit end of the stick when it comes to quantifiable advantages like socioeconomic status, income, etc. they may be getting a psychological advantage.

Men are trapped by patriarchy just as much as everyone else. Privilege is always harmful to the people who have it. Orwell pointed out just how utterly banal colonialism made the English in “Killing an Elephant”. He made clear that both the colonized and the colonizer enter into a mutual relationship of mistrust and dependency.

Tim Wise has talked about how privilege can make people sick: It can give us a false sense of our invincibility. White men can often sail through life with every expectation that the world will just keep picking up after them and keep fixing things for them. The few times that doesn’t happen can be terrible for us, and we’re getting to the point that it’s just such a big handicap to have such a small and sheltered view of the world.

The best example Tim offers is about the Columbine shootings. He was told by a SWAT officer that they didn’t go in to save the kids at Columbine because they knew that these were white parents who would ring them out to dry for the slightest mistake.

In that moment of hesitation, those officers made it so that the privilege for those Colorado kids was no longer an advantage. In every other environment in life, they’d see doors open for them. But for the kids that died, there would no longer be any doors, because of the one time privilege did come back to haunt them.

But here’s the point. Orwell, Paulo Freire, Tim Wise, Noam Chomsky… the host of people who make philosophically clear how bad privilege and power is for the powerful are not going to then say that that power doesn’t matter.

Men may have the less satisfying jobs, but we are more likely to get the jobs that give us the money that we can use to have plenty of satisfaction when we get home. We get to have power, influence and respect.

And if we want to talk about stress? Women have a lot of stress too. A friend of mine had a friend point out to a lot of debate that people’s fear of sharks or lightning is viewed as cute or benign (and I would add that our fear of non-white terrorists is applauded), while women’s fear of being raped is viewed as misandry, even though the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network has found that one in six women are going to be victimized in their lifetimes. Maybe RAINN is wrong. Maybe the number is one in eight, or one in sixteen. But it’s enough that a woman has some justifiable reason to be afraid when they go out of how men look at them.

Women have a lot of justifiable fear that their boyfriends or husbands will shoot or beat them.

Women have a lot of stress over entering the mommy track, or having their opinions constantly ignored by men.

Maddox then uses a Politifacts statement, but it’s emphatically clear that he didn’t get the meaning of it:

“The Obama campaign took a legitimate statistic and described it in a way that makes it sound much more dramatic than it actually is. The 77-cent figure is real, but it does not factor in occupations held, hours worked or length of tenure. Describing that statistic as referring to the pay for women “doing the same work as men” earns it a rating of Mostly False.”

The 23% pay difference is a real statistic. The Obama campaign used that statistic, for sake of simplicity, instead of those statistics that take into account the other factors listed. That’s something I find to be problematic, but you will note quite clearly that the Politifacts review here does not deny that there’s a wage gap.

Of course some of the factors in the wage gap aren’t sexism. In sociology, you rarely see any one variable, even one as major as gender, explain anything more than 10 to 15 percent of the variation in a set of data.

But people who have done the disaggregations, even conservative scholars, have found that you can control for variables all day long and you still get an average pay gap differential. The Center for American Progress article has a very careful breakdown and analysis. And we also know from a host of studies that women face all sorts of barriers, so it’s not just a statistical observation but a tested fact that there are barriers to women in the workforce.

Moreover, can’t anyone see that even the factors of “occupations held, hours worked or length of tenure” are themselves partially influenced by sexism, so that you can’t eliminate them from the analysis as if they weren’t part of the problem?

If women face hiring barriers, of course they’ll struggle to get into occupations that might look good on the resume. They’ll be the first fired and the last to get hours and opportunities, so their average hours worked and length of tenure will go down too.

Let’s say that it actually looks worse to an employer that someone has four years of experience as a social worker than four years of experience in finance.

How is that not itself sexist or irrational?

Why is the value system that would lead us to think that going to Wall Street to try one’s hand at being a millionaire, or being a good programmer or something, is somehow intrinsically better for one to be a good worker than having the ridiculous emotional and physical stresses of social work?

That was actually always part of the point of affirmative action in employment. It was the recognition that a woman’s resume and a man’s resume that seem to be roughly equivalent (have the same numbers of years worked at firms of equivalent prestige) just aren’t.

Maddox offers this theory: “My own theory, completely unsubstantiated by any studies or research, but a sound theory nonetheless: jobs that pay lower have fewer responsibilities, less at stake and are generally lower stress. A foreman on a construction site has significantly more responsibilities and stress than a low-stress, lower-wage job.”

Okay, I’ll agree, that may be part of the factor. But let’s say that women who try to enter, say, venture capital are encountering discrimination, like with the Ellen Pao case recently and the fact that the number of female venture capitalists has gone down in recent years. Wouldn’t they be facing just as much stress as their male counterparts?

So Maddox’s argument, even if it were true on average, would ignore how many times sexism still causes inequalities that aren’t justifiable.

Worse, why would women choose low-stress jobs so frequently?

Maybe they’re already encountering the stress of being the subordinate group in a social environment.

Maybe women are constantly told about their weaknesses and inabilities.

Maybe they don’t want to have to fight through the glass ceiling.

Sound sexist? It isn’t, actually, but it’s also just true.

A poll in Australia found girls were perceiving increased sexism. One of the most astonishing aspects of studies like this is the reaction that many men have. They often say, “Oh, that’s just women being sensitive”. Men, especially white men, are so predisposed to think that women are wrong that they disagree with women about their own perception of reality. Isn’t it obvious how sexist that is? A woman saying, “I feel like I’m encountering more sexism these days” being told by a man (who would not be usually the person encountering misogynist bias) “No, you’re not” is a microcosm of the entire gender problem we have.

You can find this research everywhere if you want. Women are constantly telling researchers that they encounter problems and then they’re ignored.

Let’s step back just a second and think.

Why are we so surprised that sexism still exists?

Why are we so surprised that racism still exists?

The 1950s and 1960s are still in living memory. The era when women were supposed to be housewives and black people were supposed to be segregated is one that a lot of people alive today lived through.

It takes time and generations for these trends to change.

Yes, we’ve seen amazing progress on both these fronts. We may well soon have our first female President after having our first black President.

We’re seeing better progress on homophobia too. Class inequality is worsening, but I think we are seeing people begin to see more and more clearly how unequal our economic system is at its base.

So if someone tells us, “Sexism is over”, we should react with skepticism.

We should be thinking, “Wow, that’d be a pretty remarkable fact. The Glass Ceiling Commission found huge inequalities in the 1990s, men and women are still socialized differently in everything from their toys to their cartoon shows… I better check to make sure”.

A careful person would look for inequalities that might be hiding. They would consider how maybe things may not be as rosy as they would like.

And a person doing this is not a misogynist, or an inveterate pessimist. Hell, they’re very likely an optimist.

A responsible person makes sure a problem is resolved before they stop worrying about it.

Can’t we do the same with gender?


After extensive discussion, this was elicited from Maddox:

“… I acknowledged the possibility that the remaining 5-7% wage gap may be due in part to discrimination”.

After which I was accused of “writ[ing] a lot” but not “say[ing] a lot”.

So then, folks, we should do something about it. (Putting aside that I do not agree that “the remaining 5-7% is due to discrimination” and view it as a lot more. However, because these variables are all interconnected, you can’t really disentangle them, as Tim Wise pointed out to David Horowitz).