Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What's Wrong With Joking Around?

Sometimes nothing; sometimes a lot. In a long comment thread here, Elizabeth puts it so well that I didn't want it to get lost there:

You know, I'm still thinking about the discussion that emerged in this thread about whether it's OK to jokily remark to a female colleague and friend, among friends, that a man who talked to her about her research was really interested in something else.

I share the reaction of another female commenter that it would be demeaning and, for me, humiliating, and I want to try to explain why.

First, though, I have to say that I find odd the whole idea that this reaction on my part shows my humorlessness and is somehow an infringement on men's right to tell jokes. What we find funny is always personal and situational. Are there contexts that produce this reaction outside of jokes that call to mind, to oppressed people, their oppression?

Like, let's say my mom is seriously mentally ill and I don't appreciate friends joking about it. If you were my friend, would you think that was a frustrating limitation in my humor? Maybe, but... I kind of doubt it. So how come when oppressed people let us know that certain jokes make things hard for them, the immediate reaction is to discount them? Why couldn't the commentator who got this response think about how it shows his own calibration of how his humor might affect some of his female friends in philosophy might be off, instead of reacting in frustration to the woman who told him this?

That said, here's why this would hurt me if I were his friend. Every day that I do my intellectual work, I rely on the useful fiction that no one in that work sexualizes me. Realistically, from a position of remove, I'm sure that that's not the case, because that's just not how sex works. And from a remove, that's OK with me. (I have a sex drive and a fantasy life too!) But up close, it really isn't.

I don't think the men insisting in this thread that women lighten up and accept their sense of humor have any concept of this. When you have to genuinely wonder whether apparent interest in your ideas is really about your ideas, or instead is about you as a sexual object, it instantly removes every external basis you might have for feeling confident. You no longer have any ability to assess where your ideas stand. Every indication of intellectual worth you've received is suddenly in question. Think about that. Women have to deal with that in some way or other. I deal with it by obstinately blocking it out. The joke would hurt me because it would puncture a strategy I need in order to do my work.

By the way, to the commenter who asked about telling this joke to a male friend about a female questioner: If I overheard that I would be hurt in the same way. The person being demeaned wouldn't be your male friend; it would be the woman whose question was assumed to be unserious.

That implicit accusation -- that the person isn't an intellectual agent, just a sexual one -- just doesn't carry the same meaning when applied to a man most of the time as it does to a woman most of the time. (I imagine, though, that some men of color in philosophy might have something to say here.) Just like, return to my example, a "yo momma's crazy" joke means something different to someone whose mother is mentally ill. Why is this so obvious in so much of normal life, but so hard for some people to grasp when the issue is oppression?

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

Let me ask the women something:

As a man, I am attracted to women. One of the top traits of attractiveness I find in women is intelligence. When people aren't smart, I don't particularly think highly of them or find them to be attractive people.

Now, imagine that my friend said to me: You only asked her a question because she was attractive, and I reply: "Damn straight, she is effing smart...her argument for X was great, and she handled so-and-so's question perfectly."

Now it is true that I talked to my fellow philosopher after because I was attracted to her, but it was in virtue of her smartness that gave rise to my questioning. Don't smart people find other smart people sexy?

My question: "Is this version of the situation one that is oppressive?" If so, then I don't think there is anything we can do to solve this problem. If not, then we need to be careful when we explain things.

I have more to say on this topic, but I really want to know if this kind of situation is one that is oppressive. If her argument was shitty and her replies to questions were poor, I wouldn't have been attractive. I would have just said like I say of all bad arguments and talks by both men and women: that sucked.

Do female philosophers find male philosophers who are smart more attractive? Do you talk to them because of that? Is that a form of oppression?

I am interested in finding out about how this might be bad that smart women are attractive because of their smartness.

Anonymous said...

"That implicit accusation -- that the person isn't an intellectual agent, just a sexual one -- just doesn't carry the same meaning when applied to a man most of the time as it does to a woman most of the time."

I am not sure this accurately captures what is implied by the joke. What is implied by the joke is that the qualities the man is interested in aren't the ones on display at the lecture/talk/conference etc. This is not the same thing are saying "she is not an intellectual agent, merely a sexual one". It is however the same thing as saying "he is only interested in a limited subset of her qualities". The joke qualifies the relationship between the man and woman in question, not the woman herself.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I do think it's problematic if you approach a woman after a talk because you find her attractive rather than because you found the talk stimulating and worthy of further conversation, even if some of that attraction is based on your belief that she is intelligent, a belief that was formed as a result of her talk.

Part of what is problematic for me is that this is occurring in a professional setting. You're not approaching the woman as a professional philosopher but instead as a sexual object (albeit a very smart sexual object!).

As to what can be done: you can realize that you are approaching an individual in a professional setting for very non-professional reasons and you can refrain from doing so. Furthermore, you can reflect on why it is that people (of both genders) may be rightly uncomfortable being approached in this way.

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous 10:23: You direct your question to women and I'm male, but I'll throw in my 2 cents anyway.

There's nothing wrong with being attracted to a woman because she is intelligent. And there's nothing wrong with asking her a question *because you are interested in the relevant philosophical issue* even while, at the same time, being attracted to her. (Using the philosophical question as an excuse to pursue your, er, non-philosophical interests is a different matter.)

But the original post doesn't concern asking a female philosopher a philosophical question. It concerns asking her (even jokingly) whether male philosphers talk to her because they're interested in her research or because they're attracted to her. The question itself contrasts asking out of intellectual interest in philosophy and asking out of personal attraction to the female philosopher. How can you not see how that can be demeaning? Or do you agree that it's demeaning? (You're talking about a somewhat different issue than the original post, so I'm not sure I know your views on that post. But - and maybe I'm wrong - your tone sounds rather defensive.)

Anonymous said...

10:23, I'm a female philosopher, and I think intelligence in men is dead sexy. I'm also not particularly bothered by the idea that a male philosopher might be attracted to me. What goes on inside your head is your own private property, and not really any of my business. (Likewise, if I have a crush on a colleague, I do not make it their business.)

But Elizabeth's point wasn't really about who's attracted to whom. It was about a guy (in what should have been a professional setting) talking about whether people are attracted to a woman, instead of talking about her ideas. Most women have had enough irrelevant commentary about whether we are attractive, and do not want more of it from our professional colleagues. (Many of us have heard irrelevant commentary to the effect that we are not attractive. This is just as bad. The problem is not being found attractive; the issue is having one's attractiveness treated as one's most slient characteristic.)

I don't mind being approached by a philosopher because they find me attractive, so long as their plan for dealing with that attraction is to have a long and inspiring conversation about philosophy. (Hey, I will cop to having done the same thing to other people. It often leads to good philosophy getting done, and to warm platonic friendships. And you know, having a good conversation with somebody cute is just an intrinsically nice pick-me-up.) If their plan is to ask me for a date, I am less enthusiastic. Especially if their contingency plan is to act like they can't hear my refusals, or to immediately start ignoring me once they realize I'm not available for sex.

Anonymous said...

I'm a gay man, extremely good looking, and I get a lot of unwanted attention from straight women when I give a paper either as a faculty talk or at a conference. I hear women talking, making comments about my hot turd cutter and my cute dimples (the ones on my face). What is the relevant difference?

Elizabeth said...

I agree with Anon 2:47, and I think the way she puts it -- which focuses on whether women's attractiveness is their most salient trait in philosophical settings -- is probably a better formulation than I gave.

I also think this formulation answers the objection (?) made by Anon 10:50. Sure, the joke's about the relationship between the man and the woman, but either way what it's saying about her is that in the context of her philosophical work, it's her sexiness (or whatever) that is relevant.

"Not what's objectively relevant," I take you to be saying, "not what's relevant to me! Just what's relevant to this other guy." But keep in mind that "this other guy" is, effectively, every guy.

Because, in the context of this "joke" that so many commenters still seem inexplicable anxious to defend, the only reason for thinking the man might be talking to her with a date in mind is that he's... a man talking to her about philosophy! That's why the joke is about her, or about her relationship to male philosophers in general.

Now, seriously: if your reaction is still to try to come up with circumstances or reasons why this is reasonable, would you please consider taking 5 minutes to put that aside and think about why this is your reaction?

Anonymous said...

There is no justification for this sort of joke, but I do have a problem with the turn of the conversation towards a total divorce of work and sex.

I think this is the trend of the culture, to compartmentalize our lives, to deny our humanness in certain circumstances in order to be more "professional" Its also a natural reaction to crazy-ass behavior documented on "what its like to be a woman in philosophy" (and also in business, other areas of academia, etc.

But human beings are sexual. We get attracted to people. Sometimes its mutual and it is most natural to be attracted to someone you meet in the course of work or hobby or volunteering.. its not natural and quite forced to just randomly hit on someone in the grocery store or a bar.

We all (I am guessing) know of colleaguges who have met their significant other at work, be it academia or otherwise.

The chief problem with my view is the weird history of men sexualizing women in a demeaning way--not hey you are sexy, but hey you are sexy and thats all I care about.

but what we should crave is not this or that dumb rule to follow (don't date a colleague!) but just common decency and respect.

Anonymous said...

> What is the relevant difference?

Do a substantial number of them believe that, as a rule, gay men are not as good at doing philosophy as straight women? Will they stop paying attention to you intellectually if you don't reciprocate their sexual interest? Are these women often in positions of power that might affect your career one way or another? Do these women outnumber you by eight or nine to one in faculty meetings? Do they tend to apply a clear double standard to evaluating your sexual behavior in comparison with their own actions? Is it easy for them, if they wish, to socially exclude you from professionally important connections or events? Will some of them have the opportunity and perhaps the inclination to passively or actively screw your career if they can't screw your person?

If the answer to most of these questions is "Yes", then you're right — there's no relevant difference.

On the other hand, gay men do of course experience discrimination of various sorts. Interpersonally, it typically comes from straight (or straight-identified) men who tend to treat gays either as overly effeminate, and thus contemptible, or threateningly sexual, and thus dangerous — much as they do with women.

Anonymous said...

i'd never heard the term "turd cutter" before. i would have thought it referred to a knife or pair of scissors kept in the bathroom to help prevent toilet clogs, but the context indicates otherwise. you learn something new every day at the philosophy smoker!

Anonymous said...

3:23 here again, yes, I am judged as inadequate because I'm a good looking gay man in philosophy. I always feel pressured to behave like a straight man, but I refuse to. I've been out of the closet for years. I'm going to start a website sharing the experiences of gay male philosophers. I think that they are much more harrowing than those of straight female philosophers. Different from straight women, the sexual advances are completely out of sync with our desires (to be with other gay men, not straight women). At least a straight woman could, in principle, be open to a liaison with a straight male who finds her talk fascinating and her attractive, assuming that she is attracted to him. I, on the other hand, don't like seafood.

Anonymous said...

dude, anon 3:23, i was going to say it's not a zero-sum game; we can fight sexism and homophobia at the same time (and a lot of women philosophers have to do just that). but seafood? turd cutter? fess up, you're not interested in stopping sexism and homophobia in the discipline, because you're fourteen.

Anonymous said...

Are there any unattractive women philosophers out there who could share their experience? As a man who is shy and unattractive, I have a really hard time getting folks interested in my ideas when I present them in person. (Please be mature enough to refrain from saying that it's because my ideas are uninteresting. I am quite well-published.) The problem may be quite different for shy and unattractive women philosophers, of course. Thank God for blind-review!

Anonymous said...

anon 8:12, cut being the PC language censor...you're sounding like the feminists, who'll tell you "You can only use the word 'girl' or 'hottie' in these situations, etc." If a gay man reports how straight women ogle his "turd cutter," then we know what the reference is: his ass. If a gay man says that he does not like "seafood," then we know what the reference is: that part of the female anatomy that smells like chicken of the sea. There is nothing childish about relying on euphemisms and suggestive terminology. What is childish is trying to censor others who are clever/creative enough to suggest the object of reference, rather than to directly say what it is. I think that you're being homophobic, since you obviously do not like fabulous gay men who use suggestive language.

Anonymous said...

Just another quick appreciation for Elizabeth's thoughtful reply here.

Anonymous said...

'Every day that I do my intellectual work, I rely on the useful fiction that no one in that work sexualizes me. Realistically, from a position of remove, I'm sure that that's not the case, because that's just not how sex works. And from a remove, that's OK with me. (I have a sex drive and a fantasy life too!) But up close, it really isn't.'

The sexualization of just about everything we do is a reality. Whether it manifests itself in an 'up-close, in your face way' or in a 'removed' way, the desires are still there, and as long as we're normal humans they'll continue to be there. It's a reality, and it goes both ways - I've heard many Women discredit the ideas of males because of perceived ulterior motives (that in the case I speak about were completely unfounded). Ultimately my response has been echoed by a few others: Both guys and gals should lighten up. You should have strong enough interpersonal skills to realize the difference between men who are complimenting you to get in your pants and men who are being sincere. If you're not sure...bring the issue up and ask him! Human relationships are complicated and weird and at times really disconcerting. Being candid, honest, and relaxed rather than uptight and over-analytical seems to me the best way to see through the thicket.

Euthyphronics said...

" Being candid, honest, and relaxed rather than uptight and over-analytical seems to me the best way to see through the thicket."

Yes. Unless you're surrounded by assholes who have the power to keep you from getting a job/tenure/promotion.

And if you just can't tell whether the people you're surrounded by are well-meaning bunglers or assholes... well, it's rational to be risk-adverse.

Mr. Zero said...

I find it very hard to take 3:23/7:23's comments seriously. The "turd cutter"/"seafood" stuff is a big part of it. But just on their face, the comments don't make much sense. He says, "I get a lot of unwanted sexual attention from straight women." But he doesn't bring it up to commiserate or to ensure that a legitimately disadvantaged group is not overlooked. He issues a challenge, asking what the relevant difference is, as though anyone had suggested that the sort of behavior he describes is okay.

The second comment is worse. Now he says that his experiences are more harrowing than those of women. He's competing with them about who is more oppressed. At the very least, this isn't a constructive attitude. And while I find it easy to imagine that a gay philosopher would be subject to a lot of pressure to behave in the manner of a straight person, I find it hard to believe that a substantial portion of this pressure comes in the form of straight women who cannot accept that he doesn't return their feelings of sexual desire.

Finally, at 2:46, come off it. Nobody censored you. I published the comments, although I strongly suspect that they are not genuine. And 'turd cutter' is not a euphemism any more than 'fur pie' is. It is neither censorship nor homophobic to point out that such expressions are childish. And the contention that the author of these comments is "fabulous" is not supported by textual evidence.

Anonymous said...

> And the contention that the author of these comments is "fabulous" is not supported by textual evidence.

Love it.

Anonymous said...

It seems that you are once again stuck in the situation of not being good looking or gay enough to attract the unwanted attention of women. Perhaps you are male, straight, desperate, nerdy, socially awkward, overly analytic and not very good looking...just like the rest of us.

BunnyHugger said...

Anon 11:16:

I'm not sure whether to answer your query for shy and unattractive women. I am certainly very shy, so I'm covered on that end. What's harder to judge is whether I am unattractive. My (male) SO frequently assures me of my dazzling beauty, but his views probably do not represent the conventional wisdom. I tend to think of myself as unattractive, but I'm also typically rather hard on myself. I could perhaps appeal to everyone's favorite authority, RMP, as evidence that students, at least, do not find me attractive, since they have withheld the chili pepper (while bestowing it copiously on another professor in the department -- probably 90% of her reviews there directly refer to her perceived hotness).

I am pretty sure that by most people's standards I am not attractive. I'm not so unattractive (I think) as to strike people as notably ugly, and that probably makes a difference.

Having said that, I have not noticed myself having an especially hard time getting people interested in my ideas when I have given presentations. I do sometimes suspect that my unattractiveness affects how students respond to me, but that's a different issue.

Ars Exitii said...

I have to say that some of the comments on here are just fucking ridiculous. They're like questions at a colloquium, trying to come up with a counter-example or some sort of challenge, when really, all you need to do is think about the person and step outside of yourself.

If anyone is happy with what s/he does, and s/he receives praise for it, s/he is going to be touched and happy. If s/he then tells other people that his/her work generated a lot of interest, and his/her colleagues or 'friends' say some horseshit like "No, it was probably because they are all just paid sycophants" or "No, they were probably not very good critics" or "No, they probably don't know what they're talking about", then, if it's not a genuine criticism meant to be constructive, it's a fucking insult. It's as if the message is 'it's *not* your work being interesting that is generating interest, certainly not - it's some other thing that explains the apparent interest in your work - your shoes, your hair, your tits.'

It's clear that saying something like "well, it's because you're an attractive woman" falls in that category, though I'd even say it's worse, since there are already oppressive attitudes and beliefs towards women in our institutions in place, and making such comments further adds to that, even if made in jest.

I finished at a Leiter-ten graduate program, and one of my friends during that time worked with a couple heavy-hitters not just of the dept. but of her area of research. She was fucking-A smart. At a party a few male friends (who were also *star* graduate students) dismissed the attention that she was getting, saying that she only got attention from the top faculty for being *hot* and *blonde*.

It's a fucked up thing to say - fucking moronic. I realized I was around a bunch of dork-ass nerds who never really socialized enough to hone their social skills. Smart, but fucking clueless.