Last week I broke the Internet again with a piece called No It’s Not Your Opinion. You’re Just Wrong. It spread virally to millions and by and large, the response to it was very positive. I’m still in shock Amy Freakin’ Tan was a fan of it! On the other hand, because I pointed out things that are seen as “liberal” such as climate change and continued systemic racism in America as facts (they are), I got a lot of mail from the exact sort of people I was talking about in the piece. You may believe autism and vaccines are linked. I may believe in angels. Neither belief is rooted in any sort of fact and our uninformed opinions are in general not worthy of respect or notice just because we think we’re the specialest of the snowflakes. We are not Green Lantern and we can’t imagine things into reality just because we want them to be that way. Actuality is indifferent to our eggshell egos. Deal with it.
But I’ve already said all that before. What I found the most interesting about the negative responses I got from the article was how many of them assumed I was a woman and in that vein how many of them turned a special kind of condescending based on that assumption. Some examples…
I’ll spare you any more, but it went on and on and on. I even saw one person (who I blocked because I don’t need to see this sort of nuttiness) on a friend’s Facebook share refer to my work as “typical white women liberal logic”, whatever the heck that means. Time after time, I was assumed to be a woman, and those who did so were usually the ones who immediately tried to mansplain away every seed of logic and well-sourced information that I had planted.
I’m guessing part of it was that I led the original article with a screencap of Kathryn Schulz’s TED Talk on being wrong. I was kind of hurting for art for the article, and any day I can guide people to Schulz’s amazing talk is a good day. I guess it’s likely that people saw Schulz and assumed she was me or I was she or that we were all together. I find that misconception in an article about having opinions based on wrong or insufficient data somewhere between deliciously ironic and ominous portent. The picture was clearly labeled with Schulz’s name as is mine in the byline. Jef is not only not a unisex name, it has no female derivative. In addition to being willfully ignorant, I can only assume that initially seeing a woman’s face headlining something challenging a reader’s emotional attachment to misinformation woke up some gendered judgment.
What’s even weirder to me is that I did get something wrong in the article. I said that science didn’t know why water was the only substance that expands when it cools. Turns out water is one of the few substances that expand while they cool, not the only one, and that we do know the reason it expands. I took finding this out with chagrin and further proof of my point that we all have much to learn. My opinion was based on bad data. Now it’s not. Level up.
However, even though I got a fair amount of comments and emails correcting me on the subject, the nature of the comments was generally very different. For one, I was rarely misgendered, and the tone was generally more helpful. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of folks called me an idiot without referring to me as female, and some of those who told me I was wrong about water did so with gleeful jerkitude, but not in the same numbers.
It got me thinking about an article I read recently about video games. A recent study suggests that when low-skill male players are confronted with a female player of higher skill, the males are more likely to use sexist language and insults. High-skill male players were less likely to do so. To quote from the abstract…
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We show that lower-skilled players were more hostile towards a female-voiced teammate, especially when performing poorly. In contrast, lower-skilled players behaved submissively towards a male-voiced player in the identical scenario. This difference in gender-directed behaviour became more extreme with poorer focal-player performance. We suggest that low-status males increase female-directed hostility to minimize the loss of status as a consequence of hierarchical reconfiguration resulting from the entrance of a woman into the competitive arena. Higher-skilled players, in contrast, were more positive towards a female relative to a male teammate.
People with chemistry backgrounds and a deeper understanding of the nature of water than I had often reacted more positively than those who tried to prove me wrong with YouTube links featuring shouty people. Those in the legitimate know had less to gain emotionally from belittling me in a gendered way. Very few of them assumed I was a woman as some of the commenters above did.
I’m not trying to prove sexism here. Institutional sexism is the history of our species and it doesn’t need an assist from me. I just thought it was very interesting how when a large group of readers were confronted with information that challenged the quality of their knowledge, the first thing they did was make me a woman.