The Limits Of Spirited Conversation

I shut down last Friday's Open Thread after a dispute about rape and the false reporting of rape began to dominate. It got so bad that people's comments


At one point words were literally being pushed off the page. I guess it says something commenting technology. But it also says something about us.

I think I've hosted some fairly spirited conversations around everything from the X-Men to the NFL playoffs to race. On that last count, I think I can say there's been a level of candor, depth, and respect that you don't tend to get on the Internet. That stands in sharp contrast to conversations we have around gender, which, to my eyes, tend to be terribly unrevealing.

In this business, it's always best to start with the host. Put simply, I'm a dude. Now I like being a dude, but I also know that, like any identity, it brings some blindness and baggage.  I think, were I a woman, or even a man who knew more about the world, some of my views would be different. But more importantly, my views on gender would be expressed with more nuance, more complexity, and more wisdom. In conversation around race, you'll often see white pundits note that someone like, say, Barack Obama or Bill Cosby, gets to say things that "no white person" is allowed to say. But it becomes clear, if you actually listen to said white people, that what they want to say and what Obama/Cosby are saying is actually quite different.

A quick example, if I may digress. Last week I wrote a post noting that living in the hood is wearing on me. Here's one of the responses:

Thank God this isn't my imagination. As a White guy living in the Black ghetto, any time I speak of this dominant state of the environment around the 'hood, I am immediately called out as a "racist." The violence is real. The insidious tension is real. And the dread of Summer and heat is real. The constant assault on the senses is real. It's not an easy place to live. I've lived in nearly every ghetto of NYC because I have to live where I can afford to live, and the Black ghetto has a unique pride in violence, and the perpetuation is endless. It's held in place only by a thin network of dominating presences, because I know my wonderful and exhausted Black neighbors wish for it to change, too. It's oppressive and terrifying for most who live here.

Now, you can read my post and then re-read this comment and compare. What I see is the commenter finding comfort in a point that was crudely similar, but, on serious examination, not the same. Moreover, note how he suggests that his whiteness is an obstacle to him being able to say that which I'm free to exclaim. Surely his whiteness is an obstacle, but it's one that obscures more than it gags.

I suspect a similar dynamic is at work in gender. Witness me calling for Rothlisberger to grow up, since that's all I can say while observing a presumption of innocence. But perhaps if I had another set of experiences, I met have written about the unique challenges posed to the presumption of innocence by sexual assault. I would have loved to have read that post. Unfortunately, I don't have the chops (yet) to write it. Or maybe I would have tried to quantify false rape charges, as Emily Bazelon and Rachel Larimore did here. My point is that I likely would have come at it from another angle.
I think that kind of obstructed, or shaded, vision, while maybe not an act of unabashed sexism, eats away at the presumption of good will, thus making it harder to talk. If I'm the kind of guy who knows more about the Duke rape case, then this kind of thing, you probably start to wonder about what I see and what I don't. That, in turn, feeds into a general sense that men, as a class, are obstructed. The upshot is that when we have conversations around gender, it's very likely that, at some point, to descend into yelling.

Generally, I'm suspicious of white pundits who bemoan the fact that they aren't "allowed to talk about race." What they tend to want, is to not be bashed with their own ignorance. That's fine. And if you're black, it behooves you try to not bash away for the hell of it. But if you're one of those white pundits it behooves you to not think of learning as a hug-fest in which black people sit around and tell you "No, you're not racist. Yes, your mother was right--you are a good person."

And so it is for gender. I'll do no such bemoaning, and will continue to host these conversations. But I'd ask that the more knowledgeable among us, not to bash away for the hell of it. Meanwhile, we'll try not to expect you to repeatedly say, "No, I don't think you're sexist." or "Yes, you are a good person." I'd like for these arguments to be more productive. I'd like to not have us arguing each other into the margins of the screen.