Friday, November 7, 2014

Sexist jokes and Bill Maher

I'm a member of the atheist student group at UC Berkeley, known as BASS, and apparently they recently launched a blog.  The first post is about Bill Maher, who was invited as a commencement speaker.  Some students, especially the Muslim student group, did not like that Bill Maher was invited, and they started a petition to stop him.

I basically don't care about Maher speaking at commencement, because I already hate commencement.  It's a long boring ritual that we're strongly pressured to participate in whether or not we personally derive anything from it.  Anyway, I'm not an undergraduate, and it's for the undergraduates to work out.

What I find shameful is the defense of Bill Maher in general, and the defense of "sexist" jokes (in scare quotes because my opponents are contesting that they are sexist):
...let’s take as an example a Tweet that Bill Maher made recently, saying “Dealing w/ Hamas is like dealing w/ a crazy woman who’s trying to kill u – u can only hold her wrists for so long before you have to slap her”.
Now, I agreed with him that the Tweet was objectionable, but I also saw that the moment he started arguing over whether the term “sexist” applied to it, he gave the conversation away to the forces of nonsense.
Calling something sexist just means that it's objectionable, particularly with respect to the gender axis.  If he agrees that it's objectionable, then it hardly seems necessary to argue a point we already agree with.  He appears to be operating under the view that "sexist" is to be reserved for things that are LITERALLY HITLER, whereas my definition of "sexist" is apparently too loose?  It seems clear to me that a looser definition of "sexist" is simply a superior one, because then maybe I can actually use it every so often on things that exist in the real world.

The author then goes on to talk about the real world harm of the tweet:
“It perpetuates the stereotype of women as irrational and insane.”  In whose mind?  Yours?  Maybe if you’re an idiot.
Wow, what a great example of people believing that if they're smart enough, they can overcome cognitive biases.  Only an idiot would ever be taken in by stereotypes.

You don't need to look very far to find lots of research on sexist jokes, and how they affect attitudes towards women.  Here are a few examples from one study:
How many men does it take to change a lightbulb? None let her do the dishes in the dark.

Why do women have small feet? So they can get closer to the sink!
These jokes are, of course, "ironic", because no one actually believes that women have small feet so they can do housework.  The lightbulb joke only mentions a specific woman, and not women in general.  In fact, that one's really making fun of lazy men, not women.  Only an idiot would be affected by these jokes.

Look, we can argue back and forth whether Bill Maher's humor is qualitatively different.  But we don't know if it's sufficiently different, because I didn't see any studies that looked at the finer gradations of sexist humor.  I don't think the problems with Maher's humor can be dismissed out of hand as something that only affects idiots (and certainly not ourselves!).

Oh, and take a look at this concern trolling:
If Feminists attack people who make disagreeable remarks on social media, then – in the public perception, at least – Feminism comes to entail attacking people who make disagreeable remarks on social media, and that’s all anyone needs to know to safely dismiss the brand altogether (e.g. "Feminists?  You mean those people who say you can never call a woman crazy, even if she's trying to kill u?").  If you want to brand yourself as the kind of person who throws a fit whenever a public figure says something unflattering, don’t be surprised when people stop listening to you, even about real issues.
People focus on quotes because it's actually a lot more effective than saying "Bill Maher is islamophobic" or "We have a problem with islamophobia."  "Oh?  Can you give an example?"  Yes, here are some quotes.  No wait, Alex Freeman advised me not focus on quotes, and surely he knows best.

Alex Freeman proposes that instead we focus on actions.  For instance, Bill Maher is my goddamn enemy because he is anti-vaccination, and I got into skepticism precisely to oppose that sort of nonsense.  But let's not focus on anything Maher said about vaccines or Louis Pasteur recanting germ theory on his deathbed.  Let's focus on his actions, and any actions he directly inspired.  I don't know of any such action, so I guess Maher's off the hook!


miller said...

I think you missed the point of actions. Bill Maher's actions show that he is a strong supporter of equal rights for women, homosexuals, atheists, all minorities in fact. The idea is that when you cherry pick a quote, especially a joke, to make a blanket condemnation you are ignoring what he actually supports. I also take umbrage with the casual and loose way in which people throw around the words sexist, racist, islamaphobia, etc. It gets to the point where EVERYONE can be determined to fit into the insanely loose definition of what constitutes one of those caricatures. As far as anti vax. He's not actually anti vaccination he recently clarified that.

miller said...

You're having a mixup between my "loose" definition of sexist, and your rigid one. When I say that someone said something sexist, it is not a blanket condemnation of that person, and it is not trying to fit them into the caricature that you imagine when you think of a sexist. It's just something they said?

I am perfectly happy to get to a point where we can say that everyone occasionally says things which are sexist, racist, or islamophobic. Because it's basically true. Stereotypes aren't enforced by a handful of malicious people, they're enforced by a more diffuse set of attitudes. It's not something you escape from by being super smart, or by being super feminist.

Also, I think you're not very familiar with anti-vaccination tactics. Anti-vaxxers often do not self-identify as anti-vaxxers. Rather, they accept vaccinations, but just want to promote a "fair and balanced" view of vaccinations as having potentially many risks. The (uncited) fact that Maher was anti-vaccination, and then walked it back a little bit is hardly a strong defense of Maher.

miller said...

I would concur that everyone on occasion will say something that can be interpreted as an -ist. That was my point though that cherry picking a quote and then saying this person isn't worthy of a certain honor because he said this or that on one occasion is unfair. Anti vaxxers are usually pretty transparent and I do feel Maher unfairly gets labeled as an anti vaxxer he is not in the conversation with people like Jenny Mcarthy. I am very familiar with there tactics and have argued against many friends over the years over these issues (autism causes, etc) I have yet to hear Bill Maher ever claim we shouldn't vaccinate against smallpox, polio, etc. The quotes people typically cite have to do with his being against flu shots.

Also I do not have a rigid idea nor did I even define what I feel is sexist racist or bigoted. My view point is not diametrically opposed to yours I am mostly arguing against your conclusions.

miller said...

I'm actually more interested in attacking sexist
jokes in general than attacking Maher specifically. I don't watch any material by Maher, so I don't know if he tends to be better or worse than other comedians.

I'd say that if I'm mean to Maher, it's more because of his views on medicine rather than a few sexist jokes. And even there, I only go by what other people say he said, like my citation to RationalWiki. There was also a lot more discussion of this in 2009 when someone gave him the Richard Dawkins Award (eg see Orac).

miller said...

In the atheist community we need allies and advocates and Maher has been a hugely positive influence on the discussion overall. I'd encourage you to watch some of his material he is not anti medicine and does not tackle that as an issue. I have watched his show weekly for years now and I have never heard him speak against vaccinations on his show. Only flu shots, his view is that because the flu changes every year the flu shot is like playing whack a mole. I don't agree with his view on this but it is trivial in comparison to more pressing subjects.

miller said...

I hate comedians

miller said...

Ouch :(