Hey guys...um...girls...um...gals...um...humans...
September 26, 2010 3:40 AM   Subscribe

Is it possible to not be a sexist?

Would I be correct to think that it is impossible, in contemporary society, for someone to be entirely non-sexist? Are we all cursed with cognitive gender biases?

Also, is this question too obvious? Is it common belief that sexism is inescapable, or are there segments of people who have some understanding of gender studies that believe that they are not sexist?
posted by Knigel to Science & Nature (29 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You would not be correct.

In that sexism refers to discrimination against one gender by another, based on gender. Millions of men all across the world do this every day. Whatever goes on in a man's head is of no import; it's the actions that define sexism - even if that action is simply voicing a sexist opinion.
posted by smoke at 4:05 AM on September 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

Sexism appears differently in how you think and how you act. Where you can't always control the former, you definitely can behave in a non-sexist way. Even when making rational choices you can introspect your own sexism and mitigate it as much as possible. THat's what counts.
posted by knz at 4:05 AM on September 26, 2010

Besides gender, our identities are also defined by race, nationality, age, eating habits, native language, education, class, and a whole host of other categories based stemming from who we are and how we exist in the world. Saying that having a gender, and therefore a gender 'bias', makes you inherently sexist would also make you inherently racist, nationalist, classist and just about any other -ist you can come up with. Also, having a bias doesn't automatically make you an -ist. It's when that bias or tendency is discriminatory, unfair, flawed or somehow damaged that you start getting into -ist territory.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:21 AM on September 26, 2010

Sigh. Of course it's possible to not be sexist, or genderist, even.

"hey people"

"hey folks"

"hey everybody"

Just to address your language assumption.

But seriously - why would you think it's impossible? You may find it very difficult because you seems to be confusing a gendering issue with sexist - which, granted, are very much intertwined, but gendering is not inherently sexist. At least not to me. When you gender an activity or a mode of dress or a behavior... of course it is.

Depending on my mood I'm either amused or really pissed when someone genders me incorrectly. Mostly I get pissed because there's no reason AT ALL to gender me in the context so why bother doing so and pissing me off? But I digress.
posted by FlamingBore at 4:25 AM on September 26, 2010

Best answer: The word sexism typically denotes the belief that one sex or gender is superior to another. Many people are not sexist. However, that's different from certain stereotypes or assumptions, which are not necessarily harmful. For example, if you tell me "my friend loves to play football" I might imagine the friend as a man because my brain knows 99 male football players and only 1 female. But that doesn't mean I would consciously assume the friend to be male, or believe women can't or shouldn't play football. Many non-sexist people make gendered assumptions, which is not strange because we live in a world where there are differences between the average occupations and interests of men and women. (Which itself is not necessarily caused by biology, but rather by society and culture.)

Your question title ("Hey guys...um...girls...um...gals...um...humans...") shows an interest in gender-neutral language. Is that what you're talking about? I know plenty of people who use gender-neutral pronouns on a regular basis, without having to think about it.

In that sexism refers to discrimination against one gender by another, based on gender.
No, discrimination is behavior. Sexism is a belief.
posted by acidic at 4:27 AM on September 26, 2010 [10 favorites]

Interesting if people think it is what you do, not what you think. The politics of concentrating on outward appearances and false language that has disguised such things in America for decades. I suppose it rests on a faith that if you stop people doing or saying it will stop them thinking.
posted by A189Nut at 4:49 AM on September 26, 2010

Response by poster: Okay, great comments so far; however, I am a bit confused. Sexism according to Wikipedia and TheFreeDictionary both define sexism as more than behaviour and also about beliefs and attitudes. If it is also about attitudes and behaviours and we are raised in this global society with all of the media around us, how are we not completely vulnerable to non-consciously absorbing some distorted data. I would suspect that every person has at least one fragment of prejudice or stereotype against another gender as a whole.

From my understanding, Homo sapiens categorize information into tidy groups that are at times based on superficial similarities that supersede more rational similarities. Emphasising sameness of individuals and downplaying differences creates polarized groups such as perceiving a group as nine males and one female instead of six doctors and four nurses.

Categorization is efficient, habitual, and automatic; therefore, the process has a disadvantageous effect of forming gender biases, which are cognitive system errors that are not grounded in factual evidence. Stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination all stem from cognitive bias. Stereotypes are belief systems that guide processing gender information and not only lead to errors, but errors founded on those errors.

Is there anyone who can fully see beyond a gender binary continuously?
posted by Knigel at 5:07 AM on September 26, 2010

Yes, it is possible not to be sexist.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:09 AM on September 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Is there anyone who can fully see beyond a gender binary continuously

People who do not fit into the sex binary probably see beyond the gender binary continuously.
posted by vitabellosi at 5:18 AM on September 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think the best way to start fighting sexism in your head is to remember that our categorical thinking is a crutch. To say "all women do Z" is stupid, because "women" includes such a variety of people. If you look at distributions of almost anything (apart from skill at bearing children or sperm count), you'll see that the mean differences between the sexes pale in comparison to the variability WITHIN the sexes.
posted by parkerjackson at 5:31 AM on September 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It would be an extraordinary person indeed who could overcome an entire culture and mass media onslaught and not let those things color even their innermost inclinations on gender or race. I am pretty sure you'd have to raise a child in virtual confinement with no media, no mirrors and no people to avoid this.

People are entirely capable however of being aware of their bias or prejudice, of filtering for it when it arises, of critically analysing it, and of correcting for it in their thoughts and actions. Asking if there's anyone who never thinks a stereotyped thought is pretty much chat filter, because a) you cannot prove absence of thought, and b) when someone claims such a thing, they are very likely to be faced with a pile of links to studies refuting that likelihood.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:36 AM on September 26, 2010 [13 favorites]

Response by poster: iamkimiam, what makes us not "ist" if these "ism" do not only include behaviour, but also our internal thinking? I've read before that we are all racist at least in some way because there is always going to be a segment of the global population that we haven't encountered and will seem strange at first.

I really cannot wrap my mind around how we are all prone to making cognitive short cuts and would be able to not make "ist" categories unintentionally and non-consciously.

I do not understand how someone can be capable of not having some sort of false belief about another sex or gender whether it be male, female, or other.

I'm likely being daft, but it hasn't clicked yet.
posted by Knigel at 5:37 AM on September 26, 2010

You know what? I don't think we can even reliably act in a non-sexist way. I mean, sure, we probably can in the context of the workplace. We can make sure to write with gender-neutral language, not sexually harass women in the office, not have a blatantly discriminatory hiring policy. The EEOC and Civil Rights Act and things like that help us in this regard, which is what's nice about them.

But in our private lives? Our behavior at every waking second of every day? No, I really don't think we can avoid behaving in ways that are informed by sexism. I mean, maybe, maybe if you are a hardcore radical feminist lesbian separatist who thinks about this stuff 90% of her time? But I consider myself a feminist, and I live in a relatively enlightened part of a relatively enlightened country. And yet I catch myself all the time.

I flirt to get my way. I judge women for their parenting choices but tend to cut men a lot of slack if they seem like they actually spend time with their kids and help a little around the house. I obsess over clothes and my appearance far more than is desirable in someone who truly believes my looks aren't the most important thing about me. I fat shame and, on occasion, slut shame. And this is just the stuff I can think of before coffee.
posted by Sara C. at 5:37 AM on September 26, 2010 [4 favorites]

I've read before that we are all racist at least in some way because there is always going to be a segment of the global population that we haven't encountered and will seem strange at first.

That doesn't make any sense. Meeting new people* whose culture is foreign to you is not racism.

The way I've always seen this explained is that we are all racist at least in some way because we all have internalized ideas about race that inform the way we think and behave towards others. Which is ultimately the same reason we can't entirely escape sexism. We live in a society that systematically oppresses certain groups. Until we smash that system, none of us can be entirely free of it.

BTW, aside from a few tribes in the Amazon and certain Pacific Islands which are deliberately uncontacted for reasons of government policy, we've pretty much met everybody by now. We've definitely already come across every racial phenotype that exists on Earth. We're not suddenly going to meet a new race of people with purple hair, green skin, and crazy-shaped ears in a forest somewhere in Micronesia.
posted by Sara C. at 5:43 AM on September 26, 2010

Response by poster: Sara C. sorry for not explaining more clearly; however, I believe you have the idea anyways. I didn't mean to suggest that we are racist when we meet people, but that we make quick and dirty categories when we have little information. We meet people and make broad generalizations non-consciously.
posted by Knigel at 5:56 AM on September 26, 2010

I think that identifying, understanding, and eliminating our own prejudices is an ongoing process. If we believe in "liberty and justice for all" or "the golden rule" or any number of similar ideals, then we have a moral obligation to work on eradicating the various evil isms in ourselves and in our world.
posted by mareli at 5:57 AM on September 26, 2010

I really cannot wrap my mind around how we are all prone to making cognitive short cuts and would be able to not make "ist" categories unintentionally and non-consciously.

I do not understand how someone can be capable of not having some sort of false belief about another sex or gender whether it be male, female, or other.

If that's your definition of "sexism," then yes, everyone is sexist, at least sometimes. I don't know why you're trying to "wrap your mind around" how these things are possible instead of just admitting that they're not possible.

If you follow acidic's definition -- "The word sexism typically denotes the belief that one sex or gender is superior to another" -- then it's much easier to see how someone can be non-sexist. Just don't believe that.

But I disagree that this is what the word sexism "typically denotes." If you have rigid stereotypes, you're sexist; you could still not consider either sex to be superior to the other.

I think you're focusing too much on the word "sexism." Why is the definition of a word so important? After all, we can define it however we want. The more important thing is evaluating specific thoughts or behavior. "Sexism" is just a convenient label for "things we don't like that have to do with gender."
posted by John Cohen at 6:11 AM on September 26, 2010

Response by poster: John, my current stand point is that we are all sexist and that by understanding that we have these types of cognitive errors, we can be more aware of our blind spots and limit how much they occur. I'm trying to test that idea out a bit here. I had thought that it was generally understood that people were sexist; however, I seem to be wrong. Yet, it seems that it is the word of sexism that is problematic here since people are using different definitions that I expected, but I do not yet know if I should change the word, or if people are only using it in a common usage way.
posted by Knigel at 6:26 AM on September 26, 2010

Best answer: These are good questions.

I am a bit confused. Sexism according to Wikipedia and TheFreeDictionary...

Different people define words differently. By "sexism," some people mean actions, others mean thoughts, and still others mean both thoughts and actions. So when people answer you, they are doing so according to their definitions. Most responders have been up-front about that, saying something like, "Sexism means..."

Is there anyone who can fully see beyond a gender binary continuously?

Are you asking if it's possible for people to think about a generic doctor without thinking "him" or "her"? Are you asking if they can meet someone and think of the stranger as a person, rather than as a man or a woman? I doubt many (if any) people can do this, but I won't speak for others. I just know I can't.

This gives causes me problems when I write. I believe my job as a writer is to conjure up distinct images in the reader's mind. I'm violating that if I use gender-neutral constructions like generally-accepted, singular "they."

Personally, I can't imagine a person being a "they." I can only imagine a person being a he or a she. (Apologies to people who don't fall into those categories: It's not that I can't imagine you. It's more that still don't think of you as a "they." I think of you as people who are part he and part she. Sorry if that's offensive, but this question is partly about the limitations of thinking, so I'm confessing to the limitations of mine.)

Since I can't imagine a person being a "they," they is an indistinct image. Which I can't inflict on readers (assuming readers are like me). I tend to go back and forth between "he" and "she," which has its own problems.

Does the fact that I categorize people by gender make me sexist, even if, to the best of my knowledge, I don't discriminate against either gender? Well, that gets us back to definitions. Definitions are also categories. So, based on my confession, are you going to categorize me as sexist or non-sexist?

I think there are two reasons for making categories: because you can't help doing so and because it's useful to do so. For me, "light vs. dark" is involuntary. "Sci-fi vs. fantasy" is more utilitarian, and I could probably train myself to stop categorizing stories that way. But I don't, because I find those categories useful.

I suggest to you that if you categorize people like me (people who simply note that an individual must be male or female but who doesn't discriminate against men or women), you are rendering the word "sexism" almost useless. You are blunting it. You are doing to "sexism" what "Soup Nazi" did to "Nazi." We need a sharp category in which to place male bosses who make passes at their female employees. We need a sharp category in which to place female teachers who give boys worse grades than girls.

Having said that, I realize it's not always a simple and clean division. Our actions don't come from a vacuum. They come from our thoughts and values. Interesting question: since (I think) we're doomed to categorize people by gender (at least many of us are), is it possible for those categories to NEVER affect our actions? I'd guess possible but not likely. Most of us live long lives with many interactions. Are 100% of those interactions going to be 100% free of sexism? Probably not.

So here's another definitional question: is a sexist someone who has a PATTERN of sexism? Or is someone sexist -- are they permanently in that category -- if even once, in a long life, they discriminate by gender? Again, there's no right answer. But it's worth thinking about useful vs non-useful ways of using words.

One final wrinkle: there are ways that our culture -- and I'm guess ALL cultures -- sanctions treating the genders differently. For instance, as a straight male, I am allowed (without being accused of sexism) to ask only women out on dates.

Just being crystal clear and overly literal, that IS treating women differently than men. It is me treating people differently based on gender. Our culture says that if I hire people, I am NOT allowed to pay them different wages, based on gender. On the other hand, I AM allowed to ask people out -- or not -- based on gender. We tend to call some gender-based-discriminatory actions sexist and some not.

If you told most people, "Hey, you only ask one gender out on dates! You're sexist!" They will get offended and call you absurd. You would, in fact, be tactless to make such an accusation, but you'd have a point. Our classifications of "sexist" vs. "non-sexist" are, to an extent, arbitrary. As humans, we ARE going to mate and go through courtship rituals, and most people tend to put think of those things as separate from, say, what goes on in the workplace.

Finally, you need to think about whether "separate but equal" is sexist. As a culture, we HAVE decided that it's racist. In other words, if you say "we have a bathroom for whites and a bathroom for blacks. That's not a racist policy, because the bathrooms are equally clean, functional and elegant," most people will disagree. But, of course, we DO have separate but equal bathrooms for men and women! And I'm guessing many people would say, "I DO treat men and women differently, but I'm not sexist, because I tried them with equal amounts respect."

It's up to you to decide whether or not that's reasonable. You are not going to find any consensus.
posted by grumblebee at 6:30 AM on September 26, 2010 [7 favorites]

I am of the belief that being non-anythigist is impossible, and when people claim themselves to be totally non-whateverist I am always really, really skeptical. It's a sort of self-righteous claim that probably will not hold up under scrutiny.

That doesn't mean I think racism, sexism, or any other kind of discrimination is ok. It's just that, as Darling Bri noted, it's kind of impossible to overcome the onslaught of messages that have been ingrained in you by your culture (any culture) since birth. What I think is important is that you actively fight the sexism, racism, homophobia, ageism etc that has been ingrained in you and that pervades your culture. It's not about getting to some perfect pure place where you are free of these things. It's rather about understanding that humans have a tendency towards simplifying their life with presumptions about what and how other people are - that this kind of simplification is taught to us through our culture, and that these kinds of simplification tend to do more harm than good and that we should recognize them when we see them and fight against them.
posted by molecicco at 6:37 AM on September 26, 2010 [6 favorites]

Yet, it seems that it is the word of sexism that is problematic here since people are using different definitions that I expected, but I do not yet know if I should change the word, or if people are only using it in a common usage way.

Look, it's hopeless to establish a clear, consistent, unchanging definition of the word that everyone -- or even a large group of people -- agree on. People are never going to agree on any definition. There's no universal truth about what a word like "sexism" means. There are too many complex goals people have when using the word. People are constantly adopting it and manipulating it to serve their political/social interests.

The best you can do is to be clear about what you mean by "sexism" when you're using the word. And again, this will lead to the more important question of which thoughts/attitudes/behavior/etc. we consider to be a problem.

The word "sexism" seems to be befuddling you. I would suggest completely putting that word aside for a while. You can just decide to think and talk about gender without going on some mission to identify instances of "sexism."

The starting point is to decide what bothers you. Then proceed from there. The starting point is not the definition(s) of a word. The definitions are too chaotic to provide a firm starting point.
posted by John Cohen at 6:43 AM on September 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

No problem, Knigel. These are complex issues. I would like to highlight something John Cohen said, above: "It's hopeless to establish a clear, consistent, unchanging definition of the word that everyone -- or even a large group of people -- agree on."

This is true. It is illogical to talk about what a word MEANS -- if by "means" you mean in some cosmic, universally-accepted or definitive sense. If someone says "a 'dog' is a small insect with antennae," and you say, "You're wrong: that's not what 'dog' means," you need to further explain yourself, at least if you're trying to be rigorously logical.

This fact -- the fact that the connection between certain sounds and certain definitions is arbitrary and conventional -- is somehow not understood by many people, even though it is (I think) universally accepted amongst philosophers and logicians. I blame school.

On Metafilter and elsewhere, I often see discussions that go like this:

Person A: If you believe X, Y and Z, then you're a BLEEB.

Person B: That's not what BLEEB means.

Whenever I hear Person B saying something like that, I have an urge to hold up a big stop sign. It's not so much that B is wrong. It's more that he's being a bit unclear. What does he mean by "means"?

Does he mean...

-- according to some specific dictionary? (If so, why should anyone be compelled to accept that dictionary as an authority?)

-- according to most or all dictionaries? (If so, same question.)

-- according to me? (If so, same question.)

-- according to most people? (If so, same question -- and one other question: how can B know that? Has he talked to "most people"?)

-- you're not using BLEEB in a useful way? (If so, he needs to elaborate. How is A's use of BLEEB not useful?)

If the conversation is taking place on a literal (and rational) level, it really can't continue in any meaningful way until B explains itself. It's pointless for A to counter him, because B's statement -- as it stands and, if taken literally -- just doesn't make sense.

I suspect, though, that these conversations are rarely meant to be taken literally, at least by B. For instance...

Person A: Since you admitted that you DO mentally classify people according to their genders, doesn't that mean you're sexist?

Person B: No! That's not what "sexism" means.

Person B is wrong that in a literal sense (just as much as he is right). "Sexism" means different things to different people. But I suspect what he's trying to communicate is something along the lines of "There are people who behave badly. They make passes at their employees and pay people different wages based on gender; they think women aren't as smart as men, etc. I'm NOT one of those people. I associate the word 'sexism' with those people, and lots of other people do, too. So if you apply that word to me, that's what people are going to think! I am NOT going to be lumped in with evil bosses and thew like! I am NOT like them!"

For many people, "sexism" seems to mean "bad/unfair behavior towards women," and they've come up with pretty clear rules about which behaviors are bad and which are good. They know they don't do the bad ones. Therefor, they are not sexist. By calling them sexist, you are, to them, calling them bad peeople. And they know they are not bad. They know they make every effort to be fair and to treat people with respect.

You may not mean "sexism" in that loaded sense. You may mean something like, "Is there any part of you that thinks about men and women differently?" It sucks that words become so loaded for people, but they do. Since they do, if you want to have meaningful discussions, it might be worthwhile avoiding words like "sexism" to describe mental categorization (as opposed to actions). I suspect you'll get more interesting answers if you say...

"Do you categorize people as male or female?"

... than if you say ...

"Do you have sexist thoughts?"

The second -- though it may mean the same thing to you -- is likely to be heard as "Are you a bad person?"

I feel the same way about those "everyone is racist" statements. You can certainly choose to define "racism" in a way that makes that (likely) a true statement. But it's needlessly inflammatory. Many people don't hear it as "Hmm. Maybe there are some hidden assumptions and biases that I have..." They hear it as "You're saying I'm a bad person!" There are other ways of talking about internal biases -- ways that don't label people in ways that are likely to cause them to get defensive.

From a lot of personal experience, I can tell you that it doesn't work to make your personal definitions clear, at least when dealing with loaded words. For instance, if person A says, "When I say 'sexism,' I mean mental classifications in addition to actions. So, given that definition, are you sexist?", Person B is still likely to say, "No! That's not what sexism means!" He may not even be able to hear the fact that you're asking him to temporarily associate some arbitrary sounds with a specific meaning.

In fact, I'd bet if you said, "For the next five minutes, let's defined a 'racist' as someone who likes candy. Given that definition, are you a racist?", I'm betting a fairly large number of people would be offended. They simply hear "racist" and "sexist" as "bad." Coming full circle, it IS the case for these people that "sexism" has a set-in-stone meaning. When they say, "That's not what it MEANS," they mean, "that's not what it means to me, and you're not going to be able to redefine it in a way that I'll accept."
posted by grumblebee at 7:37 AM on September 26, 2010 [4 favorites]

Mod note: few comments removed - folks, please keep this on topic. Knigel, I appreciate your attempting to clarify your point but you are overmoderating your own thread.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:07 AM on September 26, 2010

To your original question, I think you are confusing discriminiation/'distinctiveness' with "isms'", at least the way sociology/ women's studies talk about the latter. Yes, human beings seem to enjoy and take cognitive shortcuts to use basic stereotypes for people who are different in some way (you could argue here, though, that cultures shape which differences are seen as salient - i.e. I might claim that being 'ginger' has a different and stronger social distinction in the UK than the US.) In this sense, yes, probably making these cognitive shortcuts is unavoidable.

However, in sociology / women's studies, when people speak of "isms" we're not talking just about how the human brain divides up other humans but of a social and institutional system that treats these divisions of race/gender/sexuality/etc. as correlating with superiority or 'naturality', and operating in ways that privilege certain races/genders/etc. while oppressing others, THROUGH WIDESPREAD LEGAL AND SOCIAL MEANS. For sexism, this could be as 'wide' as the Fair Pay Act or maternity leave, or as narrow as your buddy telling a rape joke at the bar and nobody saying "dude, that's really sexist".

Now the bad news is, I and most classes I've ever taken in soc/women's studies would also assert we can't escape this kind of "isms" either. They surround us. We learn from birth that girls should play with Barbies and boys should play with trucks, and even if our parents try to reverse that we learn it from our friends/extended family/babysitters/whoever.

This and tons of other messages accrete by the time we're adults into, for one, a binary that women should Look Pretty and men should Get Stuff Done. And as other posters have pointed out, even people who think they're progressive or tolerant find themselves unconsciously judging others based on these assumptions. One of the first things you learn in any gender studies course is that we've ALL been taught misinformation about various groups, and we're ALL committed to thinking critically about that, to accept when we've failed to see our own privilege or others' oppression in a situation, and to work against that.

I think that's a good yardstick for 'real life' too. I would be skeptical of anyone, in a society that IS racist and sexist, who says "I don't see race/gender at all." We all do, and that's inescapable. What we can do is learn more about the patterns that reinforce racist and sexist assumptions, recognize when we're doing it, and try to call it out for ourselves and others.
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:43 AM on September 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

nakedmolerats, I was wanting to post another followup, but I couldn't really get my thoughts together. You said exactly what I wanted to convey! Bravo!

As an additon, because I wanted to clarify a point Knigel made in his reply to me -

Racism is not "My new coworker is Greek and usually brings Spanakopita for lunch, therefore I can generalize that Spanakopita must be related to Greek culture in some way."

As nakedmolerats states, that's just a cognitive shorthand so that we can give the world around us some sort of cohesive meaning. As a former anthropology major, I'm interested in what those cognitive shorthands mean and why we group them the way we do, but I wouldn't say it was racist to make leaps like that.

Racism is, "My new coworker is a devout Muslim, therefore he might be a terrorist."

And, to tie this back in with gender, sexism is, "This job applicant is female, therefore she's just going to quit the minute she gets knocked up." Not so much, "This new hire is female, therefore we should probably not put her on Saturday nights when all the customers are going to be drunk and handsy."
posted by Sara C. at 9:05 AM on September 26, 2010

The important thing is the struggle. Can any of us get perfect at anything? Most likely not, but that doesn't mean we should stop trying to get better at it.

Can you become the best runner in the world? No, but that doesn't invalidate your morning run. Can you become the best artist? No, but that doesn't mean you should stop sketching. Can you clean every dish so thoroughly that it never gets dirty again? No, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do the dishes.

Be open to people pointing out if you've just said something sexist. It stings, but they're doing you a favor.

(Despite the fact that I'm a pretty outspoken feminist, I occasionally make a lazy gendered assumption without thinking about it. Recently a friend of mine referred to their "doctor," and I responded with "he sounds great."

"My doctor's a she," my friend said, clearly taking a lot of glee in having caught me (of all people!) making such an assumption.

I was like, "Oh, ha, you caught me on that one, geez!" And you'd better believe that the next time someone tells me about their doctor, I'll listen carefully for the pronoun. And if I don't hear one, I'll ask "Is your doctor a man or a woman?" instead of just assuming it's a man.)

It's hard to start seeing sexism. You're soaking in it! I subscribe to several blogs that talk about sexism, and I often find their posts to be eye-opening on a daily basis.

Tiger Beatdown
Geek Feminism
Sociological Images
The Border House
posted by ErikaB at 9:30 AM on September 26, 2010

I do not understand how someone can be capable of not having some sort of false belief about another sex or gender whether it be male, female, or other.

If all you mean by "sexist" is "has false beliefs (or cognitive errors) about sex or gender" then it's going to be impossible to answer your question because we haven't settled on the full set of true beliefs about sex and gender.

If what you mean by "sexist" is "has false beliefs (or cognitive errors) of a certain kind about sex or gender" (and I think that is what you mean) then it's going to be impossible to answer your question without knowing what this certain kind of beliefs are.

To get at that, I think you're going to need to ask yourself, "Why am I interested in this question?" I can think of a couple reasons:

1) You really want to know if we are biologically determined to have some set of false beliefs about sex or gender, such that "not being a sexist" is impossible for human beings. These would be false beliefs like those brought about by optical illusions -- they're just an artifact of the way humans function.

2) You really want to know if false beliefs of a variety of kinds are so pervasive that it is practically impossible (though perhaps not logically impossible) for anyone to avoid holding any false belief about sex or gender. These would be false beliefs like the sort USians (and I imagine other countries too) pick up in history classes -- there's so much factually incorrect information about events significant to the national self-image that it's unlikely, though possible, that anyone will get through without picking up some false belief.

3) You really want to know if false beliefs about sex or gender can be corrected. Notice that there's nothing about 1 or 2 that logically requires they be correctable, so this category may include beliefs from either, both, or neither 1 and 2.

If you're interested in 1 or 2, make sure you're not asking these questions as a prelude to the non-sequitor conclusion "therefore we should pay less attention to or ignore efforts to reduce sexism and its effects." You only get to that conclusion if your answer to 3 is "No, at least to some degree." The fact that people change their opinions all the time makes that an unlikely answer.

For what it's worth, I think that it is much more helpful to talk in terms of whether a person's actions or beliefs are supporting a sexist society than it is to ask whether some person or action has the property "is sexist." The latter seems to make sexism a fact about the person or action, when really no concept of sexism makes sense unless there is some sort of external relationship between at least two people of different sexes.
posted by Marty Marx at 3:04 PM on September 26, 2010

If OP suggests that "different people define sexism differently," is acceptable, then I therefore define it as "wearing a garment made entirely from canteloupes," and thus I am able to be completely unsexist.

Seriously, though, I believe you must be deliberately sexist in order to actually be sexist. A blog post of mine that has earned some attention among Moslems is that I referred to a recitation of the Qu'ran in a particular YouTube video of a sand fountain, as "song" and many chimed in that I am insulting Islam. I did not insult Islam.

Insult as a perception of the hearer is not the authority for calling a remark an insult, but instead requires evidence from the source of the remark that it was intended as insulting. If you "feel insulted" I have not insulted you, but instead you have a reaction you are projecting upon me as being the fault for, not realizing that you have control over your own feelings.

To say that I have insulted you, when I insist I have not, is to suggest that someone else has governing authority over your own feelings and can change them as they please. You do actually have control over your own feelings, and blame would appropriately be rested upon you for erroneously feeling insulted when I have not actually delivered an insult that you feel insulted by. I could just as easily devise a lame insult that you could dismiss as lame and not feel insulted.

If you feel I have made a sexist remark when I claim that I have not, you are essentially dictating the nature in which I made a statement, contrary to what I myself claim. That is not possible unless you are me.
posted by Quarter Pincher at 7:17 PM on September 26, 2010

Insult as a perception of the hearer is not the authority for calling a remark an insult, but instead requires evidence from the source of the remark that it was intended as insulting.

I can't speak for Islam, but within feminist and other leftist/intersectional circles, it's usually the other way around. If your words caused offense, you are responsible for the insult and should take it back, apologize, educate yourself, and do what you need to do.

A lot of what sexism is today, post Second Wave feminism in the 60's and 70's, has to do with the idea that some people, by the very nature of their chromosomes/genitalia, have privileges over others. These privileges are conferred on all members of a group and have nothing to do with the behavior or preferences of the holder. One of the biggest privileges is the privilege to be ignorant. Which goes hand in hand with the privilege to say "oopsies, didn't mean to offend anyone" and get off scott free.

In feminist circles, it doesn't work that way. You fuck up and piss somebody off? That's your problem. You need to do what you have to do to take care of it, whether you "meant to" or not.
posted by Sara C. at 7:25 PM on September 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

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