Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"DoubleX" Writer: No Sexism in Wikipedia

Oh the irony of a writer for Slate's "DoubleX" blog, which purports to give the lady view of stuff as opposed to the implicitly sex neutral view that Regular Slate presents, who uses that forum to slam feminist criticisms of gender imbalances in the media.

Heather MacDonald begins, first by mocking The New York Times' decision to run an article about Wikipedia's gender imbalance when Egypt is happening.

Yes yes, we know. Why are we focusing on stupid shit like Wikipedia when [Women In The Middle East/War/Real Politics/Tacos/Super Bowl/Teletubbies] are So Much More Important?

Well, then, why is she?

Perhaps MacDonald would say Slate has its priorities right by ghettoizing her article to the special lady section*. I suppose her law degree from Stanford and fellowship at the Manhattan Institute probably don't render her ideas or the topic she's writing about relevant enough for a "more general" mixed-sex readership.

(*And I don't think lady sections of newspapers are inferior to general sections. What I resent is that without a corresponding "XY" blog, Slate implies that the "XX" perspective is so alien and so un-notable that it's not appropriate for the mainstream regular Slate. It's the same Catch-22 with [insert minority group] Studies programs; Women and minorities are excluded from what's considered mainstream and so we create spaces where our work and perspectives are acknowledged, but that act of segregation might also reinforce that the white male perspective is more important, general, objective, universal and unbiased than everyone else's.)

Anyway, MacDonald continues:

"The idea that these gender imbalances represent gatekeeper bias was demonstrably false even before the Wiki reality check. Any female writer or speaker who is not painfully aware of the many instances in which she has been included in a forum because of her sex is self-deluded. Far from being indifferent—much less hostile—to female representation, every remotely mainstream organization today assiduously seeks to include as many females as possible in its ranks."

She says the idea of gatekeeper bias is "demonstrably false," but she fails to demonstrate how it's false. I mean, she says that all female writers and speakers have, "in many instances," only been included in forums because they were women. And because that's just not condescending enough, she's says that if we don't recognize that we haven't always earned these spots we're just "self-deluded." But, she doesn't actually provide evidence for this.

I guess when you're anti-feminist you get to Make Shit Up since everything's so self-evidently true, something she accuses feminists of doing throughout her piece, even while citing articles of feminists actually citing actual studies.

Also self-evident is that men are just inherently more interested in fact-based, abstract stuff, which explains why they obsessively write about such stuff on Wikipedia:

"The most straightforward explanation for the differing rates of participation in Wikipedia—and the one that conforms to everyday experience—is that, on average, males and females have different interests and preferred ways of spending their free time. These differences include, on average, the orientation toward highly 'fact-based realms' as well as the drive to acquire and expand abstract knowledge..."

Ah yes, trusty old after-the-fact anecdata that's used to justify the status quo. More men than women contribute to Wikipedia because... more men than women like contributing to Wikipedia. Good one, counselor. But the thing about purported "most straightfoward" explanations is that they're lazy and thus, often wrong.

Naturally, MacDonald doesn't cite evidence for her contention that "on average, males and female have different interests and preferred ways of spending their free time." I mean, that may be true. But it could also be true that, like so many other studies about gender, there is far more variation within each gender than between each gender. It could also be true that men and women like what we're told we should like. Do I give a shit about "celebrity fashion flubs?" No. But it's crossed my mind more than once whether I should like such things because I'm a woman.

She continues:

While there are some females who track baseball statistics with as much zeal as males, they are in the minority. Subjects of disproportionately female interest, such as celebrity fashion flubs, have not generated the same bank of shared knowledge as sports records. Wikipedia articles will, of course, reflect this disparity."

That last sentence, I believe, is kind of our point, no? Unfortunately, MacDonald seems to miss it.

The feminist complaint isn't that there's something inherently wrong with there being "male" Wikipedia articles on stuff like baseball statistics. Indeed, I enjoy reading articles like the one about baseball's Cy Young Award, which includes lots of manly stats. But, my fact-based lady brain would likewise enjoy an article on NCAA Softball Records (I mean, have you seen Cat Osterman's ERA for the Longhorns?)

The feminist complaint (well, mine, anyway) is that women are not contributing to Wikipedia in the same proportion men are, and that's a problem because Wikipedia then disproportionately reflect a male point of view and "male" interests rather than the points of view and interests of all people.

So, let's see how MacDonald handles that argument. She begins by noting Wikipedia's "no gatekeeper" policy:

"Famously, Wikipedia has no gatekeepers. Anyone can write or edit an entry, either anonymously or under his or her own name. All that is required is a zeal for knowledge and accuracy."

Well, saying Wikipedia has "no gatekeepers" isn't quite correct. One needs access to a computer and to internet. One also needs enough free time to write articles, without pay, using the proper formatting and abiding by Wikipedia's rules of style. Exploring such non-human gatekeepers alone could be quite tellng from a gender (and race, class, and able-ism) perspective.

It does a real disservice to the discourse to frame it as a simple matter of Men Like Baseball, Women Like Fashion ooga booga grunt grunt.

She continues, mostly by scoffing at the Obviously Ridiculous Notion that women in a male-dominated, anonymous (or pseudonymous) internet forum might not feel safe participating to the extent that men do. She writes:

"The Times quotes [Reagle] as follows: 'Adopting openness means being 'open to very difficult, high-conflict people, even misogynists,' [Reagle] said, 'so you have to have a huge argument about whether there is the problem.' Again, it's hard to know what he means."

"It's hard to know what that means" by misogyny and conflict on the world wide web? Does she participate in internet? Like...ever?

She continues:

Glossing generously once more, one might surmise that Reagle is saying that becoming a Wikipedia contributor means having to interact with 'very difficult ... people, even misogynists.' But the implication—that "misogynists' are disproportionately represented among Wiki contributors—is not backed up by a shred of evidence.

The implication isn't that misogynists are "disproportionately represented among Wiki contributors," it's that some, some contributors are misogynists. And sexist. And privileged. And that dealing with just one such person can, for many women, quickly become Not Worth It, especially if the endeavor that exposes a person to the misogyny is a voluntary one, like Wikipedia.

Overall, her article reads like a knee-jerk reaction to defend male contributors from accusations of bias. Yet, I question how familiar she is with internet debating culture in general, and Wikipedia debating culture, specifically. Discussions among Wikipedia users and representatives about this issue, on the other hand, are more nuanced and informed.

Perhaps believing the best about people (well, except for feminists) MacDonald seems to think that internet is mostly a venue for civil academic exchange of ideas, rather than the free-for-all frontier of fuckwaddery that it so often is. (And I do realize there are forums way, way worse on that scale than Wikipedia, which at least encourages civility).

Which makes her tidbit of advice, um, cute:

"If you don't like to debate, perhaps you should avoid the debate club rather than calling for its reconstitution into a mutual-agreement society."


Way to minimize misogyny by conflating it with Women Just Not Liking Debate With The Big Boys.

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