Common Sense for Common Sense Atheism: don't make a 'Sexy Scientist' list
Luke Muehlhauser, over at Common Sense Atheism has gotten himself mired in moral opprobrium for constructing a list of sexy scientists. It’s provoked hundreds of comments on his blog, and Pharyngula weighed in too with hundreds more. Luke has said he’s happy to conclude he’s done wrong, so long as he can see the argument. I’m happy to oblige.
In sketch, Luke wronged three groups of people when he made this list.
1) He wronged the women he included
2) He wronged women in general (and perhaps other groups too)
3) He wronged himself
How did he do this? He did so by demeaning them. Putting up lists of this sort is obviously demeaning to those included, and so doing so is obviously wrong.1 Demeaning, here, I’m going to take in a broad sense of ‘treating someone in manner unbecoming of the dignity they deserve as a fellow human being.’2
What’s wrong with publishing this sort of list?
Including pictures of these women and describing them as ‘sexy’ wrongs them. Some women (perhaps some women on the list) would be all-too-happy to be included these sorts of lists: good for them. The issue is consent: people want autonomy of own sexual portrayal – and very plausibly, some might a) want to only express it in particular intimate contexts and b) want to keep it separate from other spheres of life (like, I don’t know, being a scientist).
These sorts of lists trample over these concerns. It amounts to Luke advertising their sexuality (worse, his presumption of their sexuality) on their behalf without consent. It promotes a one-sided and lascivious relationship between those pictured and those viewing. It’s demeaning for that, but it’s also demeaning that Luke thought he had license to rip these pictures out of context and appropriate them for this purpose. Unintentionally or not, it implies contempt.
The elephant in the room is ‘sexy’ itself. If Luke grouped these women together under some other category (maybe they all played tennis) there wouldn’t be a problem. Likewise if he were a woman and posted a list of sexy men, it would also pass without incident. So why is this such a big deal?
What’s wrong with calling a woman sexy?
What makes calling someone sexy demeaning? Sometimes, it doesn’t. ‘Sexy’ seems entirely fine when flirting at a bar (or in flagrante!) It also isn’t the case that any sort of female sexual assertion is demeaning for them – that way lies odious paternalism. But ‘sexy’ is compact of all sorts of unpleasant male sneering, it connotes with the following:
a) A presumption of sexual availability.
b) Sole or main regard for someone’s physicality, and the assumption that women only or mainly have value insofar as they’re sexually attractive.
c)Power: stating you regard them in an intimate context whether they like it or not.
The reason why it has these connotations is because of an ongoing (although hopefully attenuated) tradition of sexist abuse. That of men really presuming that women were sexually available for them, that they had nothing of note besides how hot they are, and their sexuality wasn’t really theirs to decide for themselves (amongst many other things). If you’re male, certain words (and certain actions)3 cast you in this odious tradition and give credence to it. This is bad not only to those particular victims but to the victimized class as a whole, as it endorses and engenders an environment where they too are demeaned.
Different rules apply for different contexts (it can’t always be demeaning to call a woman sexy, and some might welcome it). Different rules also apply for different speakers: women can ‘get away’ with this because a) they are a member of the traditionally victimized class, and their membership reassures us that their use of these words spring from a different source than chauvinism4 and b) they may want to use these words deliberately, to rehabilitate them from their odious antecedents and take possession of them themselves.
But Luke is male, and neither of these apply. If you are male, you should be conscious (and sensitive of) the very unpleasant traditions your group has in its behaviour to others. You should be at pains to exonerate yourself from this tradition, and to take care that you behaviour doesn’t support it in any way. So although other groups may be allowed to say and act more freely, you should police your own behaviour to a higher standard (in some sense, because you fall under a darker shadow of suspicion). If you’re white, you shouldn’t think that because two blacks call each other ‘nigger’ you can follow suit. If you’re male, be careful before saying or doing something that may be considered sexist.
But I never meant that!
Luke is adamant he meant this list in a light-hearted and complimentary sort of way. He never meant (or wanted to be taken to mean) anything demeaning about these women he included, nor women in general. He further wonder’s whether he should be blamed for someone else taking offence at something he never intended to mean.5
Sadly for Luke, despite his (no doubt genuine) protestations he’s still in the wrong. He doesn’t get right of veto over the meanings attributed to what he does. Wittingly or not, he stands within the unpleasant tradition described above.
Ignorance is not a sufficient excuse here either. Because he should have known better. This isn’t the case of a few hypersensitive women being exceptionally touchy:6 the storm of commentary has been mostly critical. So unless all the commenters are hypersensitive and looking to get offended, it seems plain that reasonable people would have taken Luke’s list in the sexist manner in which it was not intended. Luke should have been sensitive to these meanings and contexts that colour how his actions would be viewed (including the offense it could reasonably cause, the odious attitudes it can be reasonably taken to endorse, and so on), knowing this, should not have done what he did.7
Given the torrent of (sometimes vitriolic) abuse Luke has received, he has responded well. However, his response still smacks of dissemblance and incredulity of privilege. He’s off reading through Naussbaum on objectification, but that’s simply unnecessary to see that sexy scientists lists are wrong – it’s almost an act of auto-exculpation (“Okay, fine, maybe I’ve done something wrong, but it would only be wrong in a particularly nuanced sense I’d get from reading feminist literature, I haven’t done anything clearly or considerably wrong”).
Yet this sort of thing is wrong in a clear and intuitive sense. If I put Luke-esque lists up and my medical school heard about it, you can bet I’d be disciplined. Even if I never publicised them, my friends would be repulsed if I kept lists of sexy scientists, sexy passers by, or sexy anything else. The moral intuitions here should be clear. Maybe Luke simply lacks this intuition (so much the worse for him) in which case he wants an argument. Well the argument is pretty easy too – the above is very simple, and has avoided the feminist literature, in part because I’m no expert, but also to make the point that it isn’t necessary. Likewise we don’t need to delve into complicated bits of normative theory (all sane normative theories make demeaning people ceritus paribus wrong, regardless of what this is in virtue of – no commitment to neo-Kantianism or virtue ethics here!), nor meta-ethics. Luke’s theorizing sans apology (or even sans recognition of harm) is, I’m afraid, just a smokescreen.
Advice for Luke:
- Hopefully this will convince you that you are clearly in the wrong here. If so, post up an appropriate apology.
- If you aren’t convinced that you’re in the wrong (I hope you will be) you can at least express regret about the offence and general negativity your recent posts have caused. Expressing regret for your actions is not an apology.8
- Take off the suspect pictures. The post itself and all the discussion is valuable, but there is no need to keep these pictures up (at least, unless you can get consent from those involved).
- If you’re minded to do something like this in the future, at least get the consent of those you hope to list.9
EDIT: Physprof keeps it short and sweet:
Luke has decided that his list was wrong, as has apologized. Good for him!
1Note: we don’t need to commit ourselves to a particular normative view to see this. Although it naturally springs out of Kantianism, it isn’t hard to see that demeaning people comes out as wrong on utilitarianism or allied views either.
2Perhaps you could play with demeaning/de-meaning, but I’ll leave that to the Po-mos.
3I think even if Luke changed his phrasing to ‘pretty’ or ‘attractive’ he still wouldn’t be out of the woods. The act of compiling and publishing this list carries an undercurrent of male leering, even if the vocabulary was changed.
4This should not be taken to mean that women can’t ever say demeaning things about women. Merely that because they are women, that reassures as to their likely intents.
5Luke has also defended himself on the grounds that other people (like in popular culture, TV etc.) behave in the same way. I leave as an exercise to the reader to see why that’s obviously no defence at all.
6Note: I am aware that the ‘stop being so emotional/hysterical!’ defence is common for people excusing their own chauvinism (ironically, by ‘compounding the harm’ and invalidating the woman’s sense of offence). I use it here both in sincerely, semi-parodically, and without any ‘in principle’ endorsement.
7Going back to the ‘nigger’ example, even if I followed suit and used ‘nigger’ too without any intent to demean or abuse, I’m still guilty of breath-taking nativity out of how hurtful it might be for someone who’s black to have a white man call him ‘nigger’. It’s not as bad as doing so ‘deliberately’ to offend and demean, but I still did wrong.
8Example: suppose I crack a joke about cancer unaware that the mother of one of those listening has a terminal diagnosis. Assuming that it was reasonable to me to crack such ‘bad taste’ jokes in that context and I wasn’t at fault for not knowing about the diagnosis, I am morally ‘in the clear’. However, it would still be entirely appropriate to express regret to that listener for the hurt that my joke caused them, to make clear that this was not my desire, and also perhaps to explain that if I was in the position to know the damage my words could bring, I would not have said them.
Expressions of regret sans an apology or admission of fault aren’t really good enough if you are responsible: they sound spineless and insincere (‘I’m sorry you feel that way, but it isn’t my fault’). But they do at least recognise that harm was done. That’s better than nothing.
9That might not be good enough: it might be that these sorts of lists are so inherently toxic that even consent of the participants to be ‘taken/demeaned in this way’ isn’t enough. However, given a desire to let people self-actualize, and the unlikelihood any of them would be exploited, it is at least not clearly wrong to make such a consented-to list. That also might be why the sexy atheist list drew far less criticism: as the people included were actors, models and so on, there’s a case that there is some implicit consent towards being ‘taken in this way’.