On Labels, Institutional Sexism, and Dialogue

The power of social media to polarize.

March 29, 2015
A strange this happened to me this past Friday. I became the guy on the Internet who was guilty of “mansplaining." Of engaging in “typical kinds of privileged and patriarchal writing." Of being the “rich white guy,” who is “paternalistic” and guilty of engaging in a “stunning act of hubris." I even got my first “open letter” asking me to publicly repent for my “typical sexist pattern of behavior”.
This all came about because of my response to Audrey Watters and Sara Goldrick-Rab’s review of Kevin Carey’s book
This is not the place to rehash that debate. I invite you to read Carey’s book, my review, Watters and Goldrick-Rab’s review, my response - and to draw your own conclusions.   
What I do hope that our community can discuss is the power of social media to polarize. The role that Twitter and blogs and commenting can have in pushing us to the extremes of a debate. How the flip side of social media’s ability to democratize and open up our discussions is the mediums tendency to segregate us into opposing ideological camps. I also hope to discuss with all of you the power of labels.
At the bottom of this post I’ve reproduced some of the Tweets, and a link to a blog post (the open letter), that I’ve been reading about myself in the past few days. Perhaps I am hoping too much that we can utilize this event to move forward as a community, and to think about the power of the platforms to which we all now enjoy access. In general, it is usually not a good idea to engage a debate when emotions are running high. The last thing I want to do is add more fuel to this social media dustup. But in reflecting on this, I came to the conclusion that addressing issues head on may be an opportunity. I hope that you will join me in the discussion.
In thinking about these past few days, I see 3 outcomes - none of which are very good.
1. Our Community’s Online Dialogue:
My blog post on Friday Criticism vs. Attack was intended to be a call for a more constructive, positive, and open conversation in our IHE community.  Again, I invite you to closely read Audrey Watters and Sara Goldrick-Rab’s original review and my response to evaluate if my critique of their essay was valid. In response to my critique, I have been accused of offenses ranging from “tone policing” to outright sexism.  These accusations seem to have very little do with my arguments about finding a productive path to engage in dialogue and discussion, and everything to do with my gender and that of Watters and Goldrick-Rab. We can disagree if requests for a less polarizing dialogue are appropriate or not. We can also disagree on how effectively I made this case. What seems indisputable, however, is that if calls for restraint result in accusations and labeling, people will become less likely to try to push for a less divisive dialogue. What can we do to turn down some of the heat in our social media interactions?  How can we move toward online interactions that more closely mirror our more complex and robust face-to-face professional interactions, rather than mimicking the overly simplified polarization and paralyzing dysfunction of our political class?
2.  Institutional Sexism and Technology:
I won’t pretend. Being labeled a sexist, paternalistic mansplainer is not very fun.  Being labeled one as such so publicly on Twitter and on blogs is worse. As a feminist, a sociologist, father of 2 daughters of color, husband who took my wife’s last name, and someone who has tried to work towards gender equality and institutional diversity his whole career, I find this turn of events as distressing as it is surprising. In getting a little distance from the accusations, however, what I worry about most is that accusations of individual sexism have the danger of obscuring deeper issues of institutional sexism within technology and education. Even the most cursory understanding of the gender dynamics of the technology industry makes clear that this industry has a problem. Women are severely underrepresented in the industry as a whole, and in leadership positions in particular. I have written about this phenomena, and have asked if in my field of educational technology if we may be doing better than the profession as a whole. (See Women and Academic Technology and Gender, Technology and Higher Ed).  The root causes of the gender imbalance in technology, including higher education technology, are complex and multifaceted. Understanding and correcting institutional sexism is a complex task that requires sustained commitment and leadership.  This is a social change goal that I am committed to pursue throughout my professional career. What I worry about is that casual accusations of sexism, those based on claims that the mere act of critiquing the arguments of a writers of a different gender, cheapen and degrade efforts to root out gender discrimination at all levels of our industry.
3. Labeling and the Internet:
The reason that I’ve reproduced the a Tweets below (and linked to Open Letter by David Perry above), is that I don’t want to cede my online narrative to others. A web page or tweet, once published, will live forever.  From here on out, whenever someone searches my name they may run into assertions that I’m a tone-policing, mansplaining, hubristic, privileged, patriarchal, and sexist individual. These sorts of labels have real consequences. In my career I expect to apply for jobs, grants, and service opportunities. Googling candidates is standard practice. Once labeled as a sexist mansplainer it is very difficult to prove otherwise. A career of working towards social justice and gender equality in my chosen field can be balanced against a few tweets and blog posts. The underlying issues that these tweets and blog posts reference are complicated and nuanced. How likely is it that some future web searcher will take the time to read, and then make judgments, on the original articles that the tweeters/bloggers refer? The reality is that I’ll be fine with all this. I am fortunate to have a large and supportive professional network (one populated largely by women). I also have a body of written work and professional actions that I hope reflect my true values where it comes to gender equality and diversity. Years of blogging have given me a pretty thick skin. (Comments to our blog posts can be very harsh and personal, and I have no doubt that this post has the potential to generate more of these sorts of comments). Perhaps all of us should give some thought to the power and potential to do individual harm of our emergent social media platforms, and think very hard before we engage in the sort labeling that could damage careers.  
So where to do we go from here? Is there some way we can agree that -- until there is evidence of dishonorable goals or a pattern of attacking women (or some other group) -- we can evaluate ideas based on their merits, and not just accuse people of being sexist or otherwise dishonorable? That maybe the medium of social media is getting ahead of our ability to communicate effectively and empathically? I believe we should put value on strong and vigorous debate, but recognize that we need a measure of collegiality and kindness to have this discourse.


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