The Antirez Principle
On Saturday, October 13th 2012, Salvatore Sanfilippo, also known as antirez, an influential hacker who maintains redis, published a blog entry entitled "A different take on sexism in IT." It made its way onto Hacker News, and received, according to his own website, over 20,000 views.
This post received a divisive reaction on twitter leading Salvatore to quit the social network altogether. However well-intentioned Salvatore may have believed himself to be, his post on the topic of tech-related sexism has some major flaws. Shanley gives a good rundown of his entry on her blog as well.
I want to break down this article and explain the different fallacies of his argument and also some strategies employed that create an illusion of correctness and distract from contradictions in the rest of the article. I've added some comments in brackets to correct some of Salvatore's English (he is not a native speaker) just for the benefit of easy reading.
More than ten years ago I started to understand that sexism in IT was not an easy topic. Talking with my female coworkers I discovered they were deeply upset and offended by other women that were too [read: found it] easy to ask for respect using sexism as a flag. At first I was a bit shocked about that, but then I realised how obvious it is.
Anecdote Provides Epiphany
Salvatore starts out explaining that sexism is not an easy topic. He is correct, of course. The history of oppression of any kind is long and complicated. However, he sidesteps this history by discussing his personal conversations with his female coworkers. He suggests that these women were offended at the usage of sexism as a means of gaining undue respect.
This is the crux of his argument; that is, the problem statement. Women should not be getting special treatment on the terms of their gender. I want to emphasize this. Everything else that is said relates to this idea: women are gaining too much. What does this mean? It suggests that he believes oppression does not exist, because this is contradicted with the response to this supposed oppression leading to a gain for women. The problem with this statement is that it presents a cause is effect argument which he expands upon later.
This argument is further unfounded since it makes exclusive use of an anecdote. An anecdote is a situation, and inherits any situational cause to its reported effect. However, this serves to further hurt Salvatore's ability to empathize considering this anecdote is based on his observations of women, and thus uses this as the genesis of his argument as a suggestion that he is relating what women want and what women feel. That is, that the argument that follows is an explanation of how women see this issue, not just him.
As a woman you want respect because you are capable and smart. Not because you are a woman.
The Indisputable Claim
Salvatore then follows it with the goal. If this is achieved, the situational problem he discussed is eraticated. This is true since he is claiming essentially that women are gaining unfairly, so equality based upon merit would solve this unfairness. Note, however, it is the same solution to the problem where women are being oppressed and discriminated against based solely on gender, such as the very real gender wage gap.
The usage of an indisputable claim in a debate or argument is a classic technique. You suggest something that your opponent must agree with so that an attack on a side-issue or side-claim can be called out as an attack on the shared goal. This goal of equality without regard to gender on issues such as intelligence and creativity is the general goal of feminism. Therefore, he has created an obstacle (the means of building a strawman) for those that disagree with his assertions of the allotment of power and oppression.
It is such a powerful technique that he received support from women based solely on this one statement. New York Times Assistant Editor Jacqui Maher gives her support by quoting this phrase exactly and nothing more. This is quickly retweeted by Salvatore. It is unclear whether or not Jacqui supports the rest of the article, and she has not answered the questions I have sent her asking for elaboration, but it stands to reason that an editor would not skim, and that she supports the entire text.
In the course of my life I started to develop an higher and higher intolerance for topics like politically correctness and protection of minorities unless this was clearly put in general terms. If you are an human being you need to be respected because you deserve respect like any other. I don't care if you are black, white, yellow or woman, you are an individual.
Similarly, I will not care who you are if you do something silly at work. Nothing is more offensive for you than me being too easy with you because you are part of some minority. This is, basically, a masked form of reverse-sexism, and is deeply offensive. This is what my female coworkers meant when they were so upset against other women talking about sexism too easily.
Blaming the Victims
This is where the proposed argument made in the first paragraph becomes explicit. Salvatore suggests the the protection against discrimination is overzealous political correctness. He makes the notion that people deserve equal respect, a noble mindset, and again asserts that no special treatment should be considered, even with regard to protection, for any attribute that doesn't relate to merit.
He then, in the second paragraph above, suggests that it is offensive to women for anyone to abide by this political correctness. The implication is that women do not need protection and that women can overcome any social obstacles in their way on their own. He suggests that to do the contrary and provide some measure of protection against discrimination and policing oppression and privilege in this situation would amount to "reverse-sexism," where he relates to the original anecdote being a situation where a woman oppresses others (including women) through the undue respect she gained.
This amounts to blaming the victims, and furthermore it puts the burden of the argument on those individuals who are oppressed and have experienced sexism in the tech field to prove that they do not gain from it. Also, by placing the burden of argument on these individuals, it attempts to illegitimize the progress women and minorities have made.
In general if there is a problem at the work place between individual A and B, I think it is always an error to talk about sexism, even when the root cause is some asshole not respecting you because you are a woman. Instead the problem should be addressed in a sexual agnostic way. Why is A not payed [read: paid] like B even if they have similar responsibilities and tasks? Why A is not respected by B as she deservers as an individual?
Trying to protect women in tech since they are women is like moving a cultural problem (the sexism) into an individual domain. A woman in tech has nothing less than a male in tech, as such does not need special care or protection. She needs to be respected as everybody else.
Another naive way to consider the problem is to think that sexism is a state of mind of men. Actually the problem is more complex than that, and a lot of women don't consider themselves or other women as capable as men.
Blog posts about this topic that try to make people aware of sexism or try to send the message "we should be all kind so that women will feel great in our industry" are not the solution, nor to stress politically correctness is going to help at all. As a proof in the United States where politically correctness and protection of minority is a topic always over-discussed, the condition of women is worse than in North Europe, where such an obsession does not exist.
Effect is Cause
Here, Salvatore talks about how to better handle claims of sexism in an environment that should promote merit. He suggests here that we should not look at the claim of sexism as being about gender oppression, but rather about why there is a lack of equality when a woman and a man are effectively equal.
Again, this is a shared goal. It is obviously desired to end gender oppression to end biases made based upon gender. However, Salvatore's main claim in this section is that by highlighting sexism as being about gender oppression, we are actually causing such oppression to take place. This is a very typical false-cause argument used in these discussions by anti-political-correctness proponents.
In the end, however, he suggests that we do not look at gender at all to address issues related to gender. This is a bizarre contradiction. It also suggests that the only way to combat sexism is to erase gender, which sidesteps the notion that gender is a component of an individual that should be able to exist alongside other attributes of a person's identity, such as strength, character, skill, and intelligence.
It's silly to try to protect all the minorities [simply] because they are minorities. We should protect individuals as they have equal dignity, without resort[ing] to sex, race, and other discriminatory attributes.
He then contributes a conclusion that sums up the idea that any attempt to curb the discrimination, or affirmative action, is immoral and itself discrimination. This completely ties together his theme of the post.
I do not agree with the theme that Salvatore hinges his argument upon nor his general conclusion. I agree with the goal but not the propositions of the argument. Remember, the goal is to provide an environment where gender is not considered when measuring merit. Everybody should agree with this.
I disagree with the idea that discussing the topic of sexism leads to oppression, and I disagree with the idea that political correctness has led to a state where it is common for women to profit undue respect. There have been centuries of oppression based upon not only sex and gender, but race and sexual orientation, even in a country as young as the United States, which will be my focus here.
Anti-political-correctness advocates normally stress the rise of political correctness as a trend that is slowly eradicating the right to free speech. For Salvatore's comments about the nature of oppression correlating to the political correctness to be true, PC must have come first to create the cause-effect relationship he suggests. Common belief is that this relationship is reversed, and PC is caused by the acknowledgement of oppression.
However, the oppression of women is historically, and commonly known. Women's Suffrage was an issue throughout many nations. Specifically, in the US, suffrage was given and taken away several times by states. Only by the year 1919 through 1920 did federal support and a constitutional amendment provide the right to vote to all women regardless of land ownership or resident state (although minority women were still discriminated against in this area for years to come.) It wasn't until around 1958, however, until all states officially ratified the amendment. Gender gap statistics give factual insight into the effect of social oppression, and have seen worldwide positive progress alongside this presumed trend in political correctness, although are still far from equal. Therefore, the oppression of women (I've only highlighted one example of many!) predates the notion of political correctness and even within the environment of political correctness, the gender gap has gotten better, not worse. We are indeed, I am happy to report, making some movement toward equality. Talking about these issues does not interfere with progress, which should sound completely obvious.
As for systemic oppression, it affects all genders and it is a subconscious process. That is, in our society there exists an ingrained bias toward one gender over another and this bias affects women as well as men. An experiment by New York University psychology professor Madeline Heilman showed that a male leader seemed more likeable than a female leader when the descriptions and facts presented for them were exactly the same. This supports the biases that cause the lack of female CEOs of fortune 500 companies, which only as of 2012 hit a record 4% with only 1 representing the top ten. The lack of women holding higher positions is a force that could cause the gender gap, as these positions would generally pay more and gain access to more opportunities.
How about access to skilled labor? Salvatore's argument is rooted in the technology industry. This is a field wrought with problems of gender discrimination. Sapna Cheryan, professor of psychology specializing in cultural stereotypes at the University of Washington, wrote a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology thoroughly entitled "Why do women consider a future in computer science to a lesser extent than men?" In this paper she discusses the effects of the stereotype threat where the false ideas and perceptions of the computer scientist and the field itself correlate to the disinterest women have in pursuing that career. Sapna gives an excelent TEDx talk on the subject.
This idea is supported by several other studies such as Spencer, Steele, and Quinn's "Stereotype Threat and Women's Math Performance." In this study, they have participants take a difficult math test. In one case, they reproduced an earlier result of women performing worse than men on difficult tests, but perform equally well on easy ones. Then, they take a similar group and told them that there were no gender differences to be expected, which defies the stereotype. The women in this group do equally well as the men. The conclusion is that it is the presence of the stereotype that affects their performance. All in all, the stereotype of the geek promotes disinterest, which prevents women from ever considering the tech field. If they do, then the stereotype that provides the notion that women are worse at math and science actually causes women to perform worse in the educational settings, and may cause them to drop out.
These are issues worth discussing. There is ingrained, systemic oppression that cause these issues. They will not be solved by ignoring these facts. We cannot, as Salvatore suggests, simply close our eyes and base everything on merit, because we will be betrayed by our biases. We cannot promote more diversity if the conditions of the field and the perceptions of our field to others are not equipped to deal with combatting these stereotypes.
We must provide solutions, and that solution, in a broad brush stroke, is education. We must push gender equality in math and science as early as second grade, which includes introductions to computer science. We must offer our support to mentorships that are inclusive to women and minorities such as TLI, RailsGirls, GirlDevelopIt along with many others. Yes, they select by gender and age. This is ok. Early education can eliminate the stereotype threat, but for those of us living in this society, the stereotype threat can lead to a lack of belonging in groups that underrepresent women.
We are not creating these groups because women need the extra support and consideration. On the contrary, we create and support these groups because they prove the obvious without erasing one's gender: that women are equal to men. They are not without their own problems, but they are a solution to a severe issue that I'm sure people 100 years ago expected us to solve by now. We don't discuss these issues because we are "whiners", "complainers", "white knights", or "political correctness police." We bring these things up over and over again because these issues simply keep occurring, because the facts support our claim, and because we know that if the issue is dropped or becomes less visible, it will not be solved. And because, at the end of the day, women indeed deserve respect because they are capable and smart, and furthermore they deserve respect because they are women.
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