An Open Letter to Sam Harris

I recently started reading Sam Harris’s blog. I haven’t read any of his books, admittedly, although Mum has and liked them a lot (and I normally agree with her taste in books). Today I sent him a letter, more like an essay really, in response to his blog post titled “I’m Not The Sexist Pig You’re Looking For.” I’m sure he’ll never read it, so I’m posting it here as well.

Dear Sam,

I am a student from Australia, and as of recently a keen reader of your blog. I am writing, however, to express some concerns about your recent post, “I’m Not The Sexist Pig You’re Looking For.” I felt that parts of it were lacking in your usual intellectual rigour, and I would be very pleased if you would take a few moments to read my criticisms, as these are issues I have spent a lot of time thinking about.

As an example of a difference in social status between men and women, you mention that only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women, and express doubt that sexism is the sole cause for this enormous disparity. You argue that other factors, such as the sacrifices women make to raise families, and “normally distributed psychological differences between the sexes,” almost certainly play a role too. In fact, you argue that anyone who thinks that this disparity is caused entirely by sexism “hasn’t thought about these issues very deeply.”

Actually, it is entirely possible that such a disparity is caused entirely, or at least overwhelmingly, by sexism. This can be seen once you take into account all of the different ways sexism can manifest itself, some of which are extremely subtle. Overt sexism, such as sexual harassment in the workplace, will of course play an important role in discouraging women from climbing the corporate ladder. So will the regular sexist comments about women not making effective leaders, being too emotional to run a company, etc. So will a laddish corporate culture that alienates women by normalising sexist banter, and so will witnessing the misogynist treatment of other women in high-profile positions.

But far subtler sexism takes its toll, too. For example, a deeply ingrained cultural bias is that we associate a man’s deep voice with authority, and the higher pitch of a woman’s voice with frivolousness and unreliability. As a society we are still unused to hearing female voices speak up: I read a study once demonstrating that when women talk for 30% of the time in a group discussion, they are perceived as “dominating” the conversation. If a woman does speak up and take control, she is called bossy, a bitch, or a ball-breaker. All of these factors weigh upon women from a young age, subtly redirecting many of them away from actively seeking leadership roles.

Moreover, the other two factors you mention – women’s family commitments, and psychological differences between the sexes – cannot be completely extricated from sexism either. Yes, women (in most countries) are no longer legally obliged to stop working after giving birth. But there is still an overwhelming pressure on women to a) have children in the first place, and b) to make significant career sacrifices for these children. This pressure stems, of course, from the patriarchal notion that women are first and foremost caregivers. Thus, there are reasons related to sexism why women’s careers are more affected by family commitments than are men’s.

Finally, sexism plays a role even in how psychological differences between the sexes may contribute to the Fortune 500 disparity. I’m not going to get into the innateness vs socialisation debate. Unlike so many gender-difference researchers, you acknowledge the impact of socialisation; furthermore, you emphasize that any differences we’re talking about are normally distributed differences, thus avoiding the baffling men-excel-women-struggle dichotomy that so many quacks seem determined on wresting from their results. But even biological differences don’t emerge in a cultural vacuum. I’m sure that men’s increased tendency towards aggression is at least partially biological; this could be a reason that more men become CEOs. But why is aggression considered such a vital leadership trait? I could think of a hundred ways in which being kind, nurturing, and cooperative would confer excellent advantages on a leader. Why do we consider “masculine” traits so much more important? Because of a deeply-rooted cultural bias which confers higher value to “maleness” and devalues anything associated with “femaleness.” It is a bias so deeply embedded in our culture that we take it on face value that masculine traits are more advantageous to a leader than feminine traits. So arguing that psychological differences contribute to the Fortune 500 disparity is not enough. We need to go deeper than that, and recognise that these differences are themselves subject to sexist evaluation. As someone who writes extensively about the (often nefarious) influence of ideas, I am sure you can appreciate just how powerful something as seemingly innocuous as a sexist bias can be, particularly when coupled with historical dominance.

There were a couple of other points which I found problematic. You state that most of the differences between men’s and women’s experiences of rape and domestic violence “can be explained by general disparities in size, strength, and aggressiveness between the sexes.” This is a gross oversimplification. In fact rape and domestic violence are overwhelmingly driven by something more abstract and cultural: relations of power. You will know as well as anyone how rape has been used for centuries as a way to assert power (historically, to assert power over other men – by violating their possessions, their wives and daughters). Today, rape is often used as a means to assert power over the woman herself. It is a tiresomely common narrative. A woman walking alone at night rebuffs a strange man’s sexual advances; the man becomes enraged and punishes her insolence by raping her. To use a real-life example, last week a woman in Atlanta committed the heinous crime of defeating three male rappers in a freestyle competition. As a punishment, she was gang-raped, set on fire, and shot several times (she survived, but remains in a critical condition).

Domestic violence follows a similar narrative. In Australia, one woman is murdered by her partner or ex-partner every week. Frequently, this happens when the woman has just left her partner or is in the process of leaving: the ultimate slight to his authority. Reducing violence against women to simple differences in size and strength ignores the crucial fact that it is symptomatic of a patriarchal culture, which sees men’s rightful place as in control.

Your oversimplification of violence against women also underpins your argument regarding gun control. You state that “a gun is the only tool that reliably cancels the advantages that (most) men have over (most) women when it comes to physical violence.” I’m sorry, but this truly is absurd. Would-be rapists don’t trundle up to women from a distance wearing t-shirts declaring their intention in big bold letters – about the only situation I can think of that would give a woman untrained in firearms the time and presence of mind to retrieve a revolver from her purse and shoot her assailant (or at least to show that she feasibly could – if the point is that it’s meant to be a deterrent). The enormous majority of rapes are perpetrated by someone known to the assailant, anyway, in a setting in which the woman is unlikely to be carrying a gun.

The reality is that because I live in Australia, where guns are tightly regulated, I am 20 times less likely to die from gun violence than if I lived in America. My chances of being raped are about the same in both countries. Much better to tackle violence against women by teaching men to stop asserting their dominance through rape and murder.

I want to discuss one final comment you make in this post. You relate how a woman confronted you after an interview about things you said that she found sexist. After a brief discussion, you said to her: “You really are determined to be offended, aren’t you? It’s like you have installed a tripwire in your mind, and you’re just waiting for people to cross it.”

This is a widespread misunderstanding of why people call out others on sexism, racism, homophobia, or any kind of discrimination: that it’s because we are spoiling for a fight, addicted to the adrenalin of being offended. Now, I’m not saying that you hold this view about everyone who challenges you on these lines. But your earlier comment about the “ridiculous paranoia engendered by political correctness” suggests that you do indeed feel that this kind of criticism often comes from the unreasonable, hyper-sensitive PC-brigade.

Let me say one thing. I believe that I speak for the large majority of women when I say that I hate sexism. I hate talking about it, reading about it, and calling people out about it. When I hear or read a deeply sexist comment, my heart sinks into the pit of my stomach. It is hurtful and damaging in a way that no insult directed to me as an individual can be. Far from being “determined to be offended,” if I read or hear something that seems sexist, my mind desperately works to recalibrate it in a way that it is not. Surely, I think, the writer is being satirical. Surely, he or she actually means this. I arrive only reluctantly at the painful realisation that this is undeniably sexism. Honestly, the time I spend writing and talking about sexism gives me very little joy. I wish that sexism didn’t exist so that I could write and talk about something nicer. I would never torture myself further by seeking out sexism that wasn’t already there.

Perhaps there are a few women out there who enjoy being offended. But most of us don’t. Most of the time, when a woman challenges someone about sexism, it is because she just wants it to stop. And if her criticism is, on occasion, the result of a misinterpretation, it is probably not because she is desperate to create controversy out of nothing. It is probably because, after a lifetime of sexist micro-aggressions, she has become wary of instances of sexism that go by unchallenged – and has on this occasion come up with a false positive. If she gets defensive, it is because women are told time and time again that we are overreacting whenever we point out sexism. It is the most common tactic used to deflect our concerns. And to tell a woman that she is “determined to be offended” betrays a lack of understanding at just how deeply hurtful that particular kind of offense is.

I’m aware that I haven’t addressed the main content of your post, which is why you and other prominent atheist writers have more male followers than female. I have avoided this topic because I have no real experience with the “atheist movement,” so would need to do more research in order to respond properly. I will note in passing, however, that the very (perceived) characteristics of your style of communication which you believe attract more men than women – your work is often considered “angry,” “divisive” and “confrontational” – are exactly the traits many men cite as reasons they can’t take to feminism. I suppose for men like that, a “confrontational” style is all well and good until it is their privilege which is being confronted.

Thank you for taking the time to read this; I hope that at least some my comments have been helpful. I will continue to read your blog with interest.

Kind regards,

S. Martin

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About A Book and a Half

I'm a teacher based in Melbourne, Australia. I blog about reading, writing, teaching, learning, and exploring.
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One Response to An Open Letter to Sam Harris

  1. Vaughan says:

    Your lovely letter to sam h is beautiful to read. I feel like printing it and re reading a few times as it is a most respectful comment and I really hope sam does answer you as I do not think of him in negative terms and if his comments offended YOU – that is bad. I will keep your page for further reading. Bless you in the name of whatever god(s) assist you in life. My e-mail is a strange one but it helps me filter away junk.

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