Thursday, July 15, 2010

He Comes Bering Schadenfreude

"In fact, everything we encounter in this world with our six senses is an inkblot test. You see what you are thinking and feeling, seldom what you are looking at."

So, Emily Nagoski, a woman with a relatively small wordpress blog, wrote a post about misogyny she saw in male evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering's article in popular science magazine Scientific American. Basically, she accused him of being "anti-feminist" for writing about being grosssed-out out by vaginal secretions. While the matter could have been resolved with Bering saying something akin to, "Actually, I think male secretions are just as gross as female secretions, which is evidence that I am not sexist," (which he insists is his view) he instead went on a verbally abusive tirade in this popular scientific e-magazine that was about seven times as long as Nagoski's small post.

As a wordy lady myself, it's not so much the length of Bering's response that got to me, but rather that it was so disproportionate, so unwarranted, so hostile, and so- well- everything he claimed Nagoski's article to be. And more than that, he deigned to be knowledgeable enough about feminism to be able to inform the world what is wrong with the movement, despite the fact that he admitted he wasn't even previously aware that "misandry" was a word, something people who follow feminism tend to know. Feminism's Big Problem? Well, "intriguing new experimental research" shows that humorless bitches of feminists like Nagoski give feminism a bad name "in the modern psyche."

I don't dabble in psycho-babble (is the "modern psyche" really a thing?), and am going to be up front about not being a scientist (although, is a psychologist?). However, as an attorney, my gig is arguments and, specifically, calling bullshit on other people's. So...


Bering's response transforms a nuanced human being into a caricature of the most extreme feminist villain imaginable. Like, Valerie Solanis and SCUM Manifesto extreme. From a handful of sentences, he discerns that Nagoski is precisely the type of feminist that Defames All Of Feminism or, in his words, she is one of those "obnoxious, peevish and humorless feminists" that is "sadly defining the movement in the minds of thoughtful onlookers."

Ouch. What a peevish thing to say about someone who wrote, at best, a legitimate reaction to perceived disgust with women's bodily fluids and, at worst, a reaction grounded in a wrong assumption.

My main issue of contention here is Bering's argument that Obnoxious Feminists are the primary reason as to why people are unwilling to identify as feminists. First, note his phrase, "thoughtful onlookers"- a phrase that assumes these onlookers are somehow perched on platforms of total objectivity, with no stake at all in feminist or anti-feminist advocacy, having no other factors influencing their opinions about feminism. It is as though the world consists only of (a) self-identified feminists and (b) everyone else, who is a "thoughtful onlooker."

Now, I have a multitude of other explanations as to why people think poorly of feminists, but let's examine the most obvious. Namely, the real world also consists of at least two thriving movements dedicated to defaming feminists and caricaturing all of us as Humorless Feminazi Man-Hating Bitches. These two movements, of course, are the religious right and the men's rights movement (which, consequently, also characterizes feminism as misandry). In addition, liberals and progressives sometimes jump on the feminist-bashing bandwagon, usually when we have the audacity to criticize a Judd Apatow movie or basically do anything other than rectify the plight of the oppressed Muslim woman.

I daresay these defamers of feminism contribute substantially to feminism's shoddy reputation.

Secondly, I call bullshit on Bering's caricature of Nagoski, which he drew after reading a 305 word essay of hers. Not only did Nagoski quickly apologize for and clarify her remark about Bering's homosexuality- demonstrating a rather un-peevish demeanor (which is more than can be said for Bering), but her posts also demonstrate a sense of humor and are not at all "obnoxious."

Rather than being paragons of level-headed objectivity, Bering's charges are over-the-top and not supported by the evidence. His "humorless" jibe is particularly uninspired, proving my rule that the swiftness with which critics lob that canard is inversely proportional to the amount of time they spend actually paying attention to feminist blogs or writers. And, really? Who died and made Bering the big decider of what does and doesn't count as funny? Feminists are some of the funniest people I know. Sure, I don't laugh at farts (that's a lie), or think Adam Sandler, sexist jokes, or guys getting kicked in the balls is funny, but did some new "intriguing new experimental research" suddenly demonstrate that funniness is an objectively measurable thing? (Perhaps measured by the same instrument that quantifies "the modern psyche"?)


Bering used research on the Implicit Associations Test (IAT), which was developed as a device for exploring the unconscious roots of thinking and feeling," to observe that "this negative view of feminism is more than just my personal opinion and in fact runs very deep in the modern psyche."

The study, of course, doesn't show that feminism is objectively sucky, but rather that lots of other people besides Bering think feminism is sucky. Using his own anecdotal bad experience with a feminist in conjunction with this research, he concludes that people hold these negative views because some feminists give all feminists a bad name.

And yes, Cap'n Obvious, just as some people of any ideological stripe suck, some feminists do indeed suck. Yet, rather than exploring why "the modern psyche" attributes the actions of some feminsts to the actions of all feminists, or suggesting that perhaps it is unfair of the "modern psyche" to demand perfection from every single feminist or that maybe other factors, like rightwing anti-feminism, contribute to the negative associations people hold of feminists, Bering ends with a hostile lament of questionable sincerity on the status of feminism:

"What a sad state of affairs for the feminist movement. So there’s my apology, Nagoski. Go stuff it up that hole of yours which is shared by both male and female jackasses alike."

Yet, rather than expressing sadness, Bering's article is a revelry in feminism's bad reputation. It as though other people thinking poorly of feminism somehow makes him more right that Nagoski is a "jackass" or more right that he's not sexist. As though it's a Startling Revelation that lots of people dislike feminists or that it's An Act Of Courageous Proportions to be hostile to one. For, you will notice that he can't really be bothered to use his psych training to explore the "modern psyche's" tendency to wrongly generalize about feminism other than to use it in a petty vendetta against a feminist science blogger. It's all Nagoski Sucks and then, onward ho, to more important things! Indeed, his vitriol, and yes he does have a way with words, at being called a sexist appears infinitely greater than his concern that he might actually be one.

Which brings up the situational irony of it all.

Bering uses the IAT within this sort of I-swear-I'm-not-sexist defense, when the IAT is premised on the idea that we hold prejudices that we are not aware of and will not admit to. For instance, the IAT also finds that many of us hold negative implicit views of black people and gay people, views that we are not always aware of. I took the IAT and found out that I have very strong negative associations with homosexuality. Which, you know, is always awesome for a lesbian to find out.

Now, I don't know what lies in the cockles of Bering's heart or mind. All we know is what he writes. Like many feminists, I'm not fan of men calling girls "bitchy" (it frames social aggression as a female thing when, as Bering demonstrates, it is also a male thing), of calling women "girls" (it's infantilizing) or of them mansplaining to their readers that is an "interesting" blog name given what Jezebel means in the dictionary (as though the founders of had not at all thought of that!)- all of which Bering has done. So, I think there's room for reflection there.

There is also room for psychologists who have their very own columns in popular science magazines, something Bering boasts about in his response, to be genuine allies to feminism. There is room for people, particularly those who pay attention to the movement, to offer sincere, constructive critiques of it in an assertive, not aggressive, manner.

But this? A critique written by a man who admittedly has a "negative personal view of feminism" who pecks out an over-the-top, hostile rant arguing that someone who is involved in feminism is ruining it? Bering's a smart guy who espouses his views on a bigger platform than most feminists get. Unfortunately, acting like the Scientific American's equivalent of Perez Hilton does not embiggen the discourse.

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