Learning While The Stakes Are Low

published by Eric Mill on

I got into two small debates on Twitter over the last couple of days, and they were both so similar that they made me pause and think about whether I was coming at them the right way.

In one, I disagreed with Netroots Nation's no-all-white-male-panels policy as well-intended but overly blunt.

My immediate reaction was that in a large conference with dozens of panels of small numbers of people, even a fictional perfectly diverse conference could see a natural distribution that included an all-white-male panel or two. (You can already see how silly pushing this point sounds.) I ultimately agreed that the policy was better than none, but said that thoughtful policies that hinge on discretion and diminish bias are superior.

In another, I defended Slate's criticism of an infographic that showed the disparity between rapes that end up reported and the attacker imprisoned, and the (many more) cases where one or both of those don't happen.

Writing for Slate, Amanda Marcotte argued that the numbers the infographic uses are more grim than is accurate, and that for a cause as important and charged as rape awareness those inaccuracies ultimately do more harm than good. I agreed, and felt it was damaging for constructive criticism to be unwelcome within the ranks of any good cause.

I've since come to think that I let myself rush to judgment on these. While I believe my points were basically valid, I was elevating their narrow worth above the larger context, which is, for lack of a better word, a totally engineer-y thing to do.

Netroots' policy is certainly imperfect, and they'd probably agree with that, but there's lots of benefits, and in practice the downside is likely to be little, or nothing. "Not white male" is a pretty broad criteria that most panels will be able to meet, and in the meantime they'll have raised tons of awareness (like this post), pushed the issue forward, and, assuming it works, demonstrate a pretty cool reality when the actual conference happens.

I'm sure the Slate author personally felt she was helping a cause she cares about, while holding it to a high standard. But it's also very easy for a person in that position to internally downplay the counter-arguments when there's such pressure for publications like Slate to attract traffic. The Slate headline was distinctly mocking and combative ("Too Bad It's Wrong."), and while that's entirely explainable by the MO that every online for-profit magazine takes with crafting its headlines, in this context it really feels like Slate benefits more than the cause. The practical result is that a simple, well-made graphic that generated enough energy to make people re-examine their unconscious "it's probably mostly okay these days" feeling about how well rape is punished in the US had that energy sucked up into a vortex of meta, hosted at slate.com. That sucks.

I instinctively distrust militarization of conversation and questioning others' motives, and I'm fine with those instincts. In particular, I worry the ferocity with which well-meaning people who make mistakes are getting attacked for them is polarizing them to hold opinions they otherwise might have been steered away from.

But when talking about gender in 2013 elicits comments like the ones on this post, and talking about race in 2013 yields conversations like this one on Hacker News, some bullheadedness and fighting spirit is probably justified for a long while yet.

  1. Libbey

    I'm going to be the most annoying person in the room and say that I partially agree with both of you (Eric and Sarah) on the points about the Salon article. I definitely agree that it's important to get facts and figures right when talking about human rights violations, because if the figures are inflated, and you learn that what you thought was 500 rapes in your neighborhood was actually 50, your natural reaction will be, "Oh, PHEW! Wow, only 50. That's not so bad." When, in fact, 50 is very bad. 50 is terrible.

    But on the other hand, I do not feel like the Salon article did a good job of helping to get the facts straight. It reads like something written hastily by someone who is mostly interested in being right. (Why should I blindly trust RAINN's estimate any more than the original infographic's?) Even if their tone can be explained by things-publications-do-to-get-readers, that doesn't make it right. The whole thing could have been thoughtfully written, couched in a context of "let's go deeper with this, because we care a shit-ton about the topic," rather than attacking. As Luigi pointed out, Enliven explained their methodology, and the article ignored that. That makes me bananas.

    As for the Netroots panel part of your post, I can see your point, and maybe partially agree, but overall I like that policy. While it does, of course, sound reasonable to have one all-white-male panel out of 40, as you say in your tweet, I think the hidden question in there is, "How do we get there?" How do we get to a world where only a handful of the panels are homogeneously composed of the most privileged people? Because right now, at many conferences, it's not unusual to have only all-white-male panels. It's not notable. It's normal. The enormity of that fact is really hard to contemplate, let alone tackle, which is why I like the policy-- it's starting somewhere that's easy to explain and identify, and taking a stand.

  2. Eric

    That's unfair. I didn't offer any strawmen; I made points that were outweighed by much better ones. I don't know where "conservative" would come from, unless you just mean "not in complete agreement about something that relates to a social issue". With the Netroots thing, I wasn't even arguing against quotas or blunt policies - just that the specific one was ill-crafted. I never questioned anyone's motives, not yours or anyone else's.

  3. Sarah

    i put in an href link but apparently your webform strips html? http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/01/the-panel-pledge-a-follow-up/266886/

  4. Sarah

    lol at the tortured logic of "I instinctively distrust militarization of conversation and questioning others' motives." The fact that you have an internally militarized reaction to question the motives of people who are questioning the motives of people while you seek to militarize the status quo lolololol. Cool. Yeah. That's totally the perspective you want to come in with to have a productive discussion.

    I appreciate your attempt at rethinking things but it's dispiriting you don't seem to fully acknowledge the frank reality of your being a dude putting forth conservative, strawman opinions arguing indirectly against women taking agency in discussions. Which, whatever nuance and level headedness you think you're applying, ends up with the same result as get in the kitchen and make me a sandwidch.

  5. Luigi Montanez

    I appreciate you posting this.

    The main thing that bothered me about Amanda Marcotte's Slate piece is that The Enliven Project wrote an explanation of their methodology the day before, but it was more or less ignored in the criticism. Specifically, they explained why they chose the 10% figure for reported rapes. I tried to engage with Marcotte on Twitter but it didn't go anywhere:


    And to your point that some bullheadedness and fighting spirit is justified, just take a look at the conversation that ensued (particularly towards the end of this thread) when the infographic first went viral yesterday: