An Object Lesson: Part 2


It’s hard to get more timely with these questions about objectification and science than right now. Our own network’s founder’s decision to not attend TAM this year, which I’m confident anyone reading this has also read about, underscores how germane this all is. Between that and… well, arguably pre-historical practices of subjugation and objectification that persist through millennia, it’s always a good time to inquire further.

In the last piece, I was considering the methodology of tests meant to discover the impact of sexist words and actions upon people’s behavior and perceptions, or uncovering the nature of those perceptions. Ultimately, I believe they represent good science, do not believe they will change anyone’s mind, but still allow room for doubt on both counts.

As for whether college students make for good study samples, here’s an excellent defense of the practice. I had already decided that, in these cases, it’s not a concern for me the way it usually would be. We’re not talking about IQ tests, where sampling from college students, especially at elite universities, could not possibly produce results that represent the populace at large, not with all we’ve discovered about the inherent, subconscious biases in how the tests are written, or how college students will tend to be very good at the “skill” of taking tests. One of these tests merely requires the ability to see and indicate when they recognize an image previously seen. The other study, though more involved, also does not look at skill or knowledge, only asking groups to make decisions about how money should be spent.

The researchers exposed groups of young men to three types of messages before asking them to decide on making either a donation in the first test, or how much funding to cut from a women’s organization in the second test. The men either heard a sexist statement, a neutral joke, or a sexist joke deliberately denigrating women (humorous skits were used in the second test).

“We found that, upon exposure to sexist humor, men higher in sexism discriminated against women by allocating larger funding cuts to a women’s organization than they did to other organizations,” Ford said. “We also found that, in the presence of sexist humor, participants believed the other participants would approve of the funding cuts to women’s organizations. We believe this shows that humorous disparagement creates the perception of a shared standard of tolerance of discrimination that may guide behavior when people believe others feel the same way.”

These results came from the second test, where the first gave similar results; only the sexist jokes had any statistically significant impact on the men’s decision to donate, and how much, while plain sexist statements and jokes that weren’t at the expense of women generally made no difference.

Since the researchers in this group again come to conclusions I would so dearly love to see implemented everywhere, that we not encourage sexist humor, I wish this could just be the end of it. See? We have science on our side. Stop that noise and let’s figure out how to tackle global warming.

We all know it isn’t that simple. For one thing, we also have a growing body of scientific evidence for precisely why it is so hard to make people understand why what they are doing is dangerous, or what they believe is wrong. The “Just World” fallacy, which enables victim blaming among other despicable acts, derives its strength in part from processes of motivated reasoning and inferred justification. Neurologists have found that people engaged in the cognitive process of recalling or “creating” evidence for their beliefs are actually experiencing something akin to sexual arousal.

Skeptics aren’t just challenging preconceived notions. We are, as far as the brain is concerned, practically cock-blocking people.

And even when the science is solid, people’s resistance to it is further enabled by the dominant discourses around science. This author’s new book collects a great deal of the relevant research into how perception and declared political affiliation are related, and his defense of that work claims that his critics only prove his points about conservative denial and ignorance. However, like the author himself makes clear, his critics have major outlets in print and television and online, his supporters are comparatively obscure, and what counterbalancing force could be leveraged in the so called mainstream media is too busy trying to seem balanced by remaining bland and removed from controversy.

That only scratches the surface of how media obscures and fails to recognize good science. Find me an academic who isn’t familiar with widespread disparagement of the “soft” social sciences, who hasn’t seen scientists undermining each other in ways that have nothing to do with peer review, and I’ll show you Cheerilee from My Little Pony.

Revered scholar of "cutie marks" and adorable earth pony. Not yet targeted specifically by sexists inside or outside the skeptical movement, but we're watching.

And still the most frustrating part of all has to be how trying our absolute best to exemplify the values and impartially examine the issues, we can’t have the same experience of total certainty that dogma provides, let alone argue from that certainty. Last time I suggested that maybe all of these well argued theories of objectification, which appear to explain available evidence, are entirely wrong. I can’t get into a huge chicken and egg exercise in navel gazing, but consider the following.

One thing we can feel more confident in arguing, based on these studies, is that there is “something” which promotes differences in behavior among people where certain discourses are tolerated or encouraged. There is also a great deal we do not know. Is it a “force” or a “choice” which promotes the difference? What environmental factors were not accounted for and what impact might they have?

Say the first study is right, people do perceive “sexy women” as objects, at least the ones they were shown (and thanks again to both our admin, Will, and readers for giving me access). The male and female models aren’t wearing the same clothes or adopting the same poses. Isn’t it sort of obvious to ask if we might see different results if the women were not wearing garments whose chief purpose is to enhance their secondary sex characteristics? If the men were not wearing baggy trunks? What if they were both nude? What if they both wore plain skin tight dance outfits? Even if they were nude or wearing identical outfits, how have these individuals shaped themselves, over the course of their lives, through a combination of personal choice and social influence? Again, what makes any of them “scientifically sexy”, fit for replicable tests across diverse populations? What, for goodness’ sake, might happen if the women were anonymous and the men were famous Hollywood actors? What about how respondents perceive race, in a racist society like the United States?

Since I mentioned race, consider this article and what it implies as far as how to correct the hostile environments produced by disparaging humor. Let’s assume that the second set of studies is also correct in demonstrating the negative impact of humor that targets whole classes of people. What if the solution proposed is off the mark, and only winds up producing exactly the kind of insincere “performances” of anti-sexism which are as poisonous to social justice as performed anti-racism? We could be missing some critical factor here that prevents the power of group think and social influence from generating just another “feel good without doing anything” process.

Our brains, our culture, and even our own higher value systems are often working very hard to disrupt and disperse any attempt to actually change our world for the better. The very process of free inquiry and rigorous standards we employ to escape total determinism can also lock us into indecision, or tempt us towards facile definitions of freedom, fairness, and reason which keep prejudice and oppression alive.

One of the most interesting themes, to me, found in the comments on Rebecca Watson’s piece explaining why she won’t attend TAM this year, is the characterization of the skeptic community as a social group largely dominated by “libertarian” attitudes. Every notion from “if you’re offended it’s your fault” to “you can’t regulate my behavior and be a free thinker” has a home under that umbrella. It’s a pattern of thinking notable for its inability to form coherent patterns, for how well it resists all patterns. It is the just world fallacy writ large, agreeing that equal opportunity is a good thing, but assuming that it cannot emerge from any attempt to group things together and settle on rules. It claims things like “I don’t see race” and explains whatever troubles, triggers, or tough breaks you have purely to your own failings. It’s enamored of simple reasons, lines that connect A to B, and is impatient, even hostile to webs of interrelated causality.

I won’t say this is accurate, that this is what the community is like. I’ll merely say I see what they’re talking about very often, and it is saddening every time.

A few other comments talk about this event as part of a large story, tying in “elevatorgate” with a series of occurrences that culminates in this decision. Again, I’m sure anyone could compose a story that begins elsewhere and ends we know not yet when. But they have a point here, in their urge to construct a historical narrative, maybe even something that sheds light on all the theories I’ve been poking at these couple weeks.

What is objectifcation? It is a process of dehumanization. In a space like this, we’re all too familiar with how this theory explains that real human beings may be reduced, in the eyes of those around them, to the state of a consumer product. Stories may, absolutely, be products or objects.

But telling one’s story, being heard, having one’s humanity affirmed by the authentic exchange of experiences cannot be rendered into an object. I don’t mean lectures from the “heroes of atheism”, I mean skeptical people living lives they are all truly free to talk about and share with others that we might all benefit from the panoply of perspectives. It has historicity, it is not fungible or an act of commerce, it is not appropriated or made subordinate to an agenda.

The alternative is an “objectified” skepticism. A set of rote positions to take, found in the right books, advanced with stale memes, one great choir preaching to itself. Palatable, reassuring in its promise of how special you are for just not believing in gods, comforting that “its only natural” you should want to avoid strong feminist women, or that “women don’t do science”. A fetish to be waved like a rattle at the reality of an unjust world, which implies responsibility and the dread possibility that we might sometimes be very very wrong.

And now, at least one major event which should be a haven for diverse exchange and genuinely free inquiry will be significantly poorer for the loss of many contributors, because… admitting there’s a problem to fix is more scary and it’s easier to blame people pointing it out?.

There’s a lesson in that. Pity we haven’t yet built the classroom where we can all work out what it is and learn from it.

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  1. Ok, long post: This has been on my mind for a long time reading skeptic articles and talking to my skeptic friends. It seems counter-intuitive, but sometimes the pursuit of an objective, correct answer, through logic and critical thinking, leads us astray. I have seen this with respect to social justice questions – for example, what does and doesn’t “count” as racist or sexist language? what (if any) obligation privileged individuals have to understand that they are privileged (for example, when posting in the comments sections)? Does a perceived incidence of discrimination or harassment “deserve” recognition as such? Quite often, from the more science-minded skeptics, I hear something like “using the principles of critical thinking, I can demonstrate that (fill in blatantly-sexist/racist/homophobic article/speech/whatever) contained no offensive content, and should not have received criticism, and anyone who says otherwise is not truly being a skeptic. You can’t argue with logic.” And then I say “yes, when you remove the social and historical context, ignore the relative levels of privilege of the people involved, and squint at the screen, that thing you’re talking about IS totally benign.”

    It seems that many skeptics have a background or enthusiasm for science and have become enamored with the specific type of critical thinking so successfully employed in the “hard” sciences. This is good – the scientific method is awesome. But we forget that, when dealing with human behavior, there are many variables, and quite often it is impossible or inadvisable to perform a classic, science-style experiment. (This is one problem, for example, with certain specious studies – blogged about on the skepchick network btw – claiming to link all manner of human behaviors to supposed evolutionary tendencies, while ignoring cultural variables.) So perhaps we can’t always get hard numbers for “soft” questions, but I don’t think we should throw our hands up and say “well, I guess we’ll just never know!” Verified unambiguous occurrences of a phenomenon do constitute evidence, despite the fact that the “hard” scientists prefer quantitative evidence (thus, “the plural of anecdote…”).

    Science cannot, nor has it ever, provided a clear answer to any question with the word “should” in it. By definition science is designed NOT to deal in the realm of “should” because that would taint it’s objectivity. So how do we advance society – how do we know what we should do to fix the world? Well, that is one reason we have the social sciences (and humanities and activism etc.) to begin with. When we say things like “if you are offended, that’s your fault” we impose on our own understanding of social issues a debilitating starting assumption. It’s even worse when we justify that assumption through reasoning which doesn’t account for human psychology and historical context. We skeptics pride ourselves on our scientific literacy, yet it seems some of us can’t even grasp the basics of the social sciences. And what’s worse, we seem to defend that ignorance by denigrating and mocking any attempt to remedy the problem. It’s disturbing.

    • Very well said, and I agree 100%.

      I often have found myself in arguments with skeptics who dismiss social sciences and qualitative research as useless, and it’s quite infuriating (considering I’m a cultural anthropologist and that’s what I do).

  2. I agree with a lot of what you write here, but you seem to intentionally ignore the elephant in the room, which is exactly how gender should be confronted in situations like the Olympics. If there are to be separate categories for men and women (based as they are on a presumption of physical difference that has an effect on competitive performance…which admittedly makes more sense in some sports than others…why a separate category for women’s sharphooting?) then someone, somewhere, does actually have to determine what these categories mean in that specific context.

    Is self-identification really adequate? Can we believe that no one is cynical enough to manipulate that kind of system to their (and their country’s) advantage? I rather wish you’d addressed that here, because not doing so in the midst of criticism feels like the easy way out.

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