“That’s just the internet”?

From an article on internet comments sections over at The Guardian:

Recently, however, a colleague penned a piece that defended a woman – it doesn’t even matter which woman or what context. Every week brings a new reminder women are not welcome – especially on the internet.

The site published it proudly – however, and inevitably, the comment section ended up a fat sack of misogyny hanging like an unwanted testicle below it. This wasn’t a special case; it seems to happen every time a woman writes something that somehow defends some aspect of women’s autonomy.

A lot of times when people express their hatred for people’s behaviour online, wizards emerge to inform us, “That’s just the internet. Learn to deal with it.”

This assertion gives no humanity to victims: everyone is a blank, emotionless internet user, with no history of being targeted for her sex, race, sexuality. As much as we should be treated equally, in reality, we come from backgrounds where we’re not – and we continue not to be treated fairly. Second, in this assertion, the internet, too, becomes an amoral wasteland where only the “fittest” survive – and by “fittest” we usually mean individuals who rarely face prejudice or hostility premised on their gender, race, etc.

This last point reminds me of the importance of having a grasp of the concept of indirect discrimination. (See here for an explanation of indirect discrimination in the UK context.) Certain ways of treating everyone the same, when that treatment has differential consequences for particular groups, can constitute discrimination. This can be unethical, and under some circumstances illegal. It can also have other have negative consequences, such as intellectual or epistemic ones: for example, if some ways of treating everyone the same in an online comment section (or for that matter an academic discipline) turn out to be an effective method of excluding certain groups, that comment section (or discipline) may be expected to suffer intellectually and epistemically for lack of the expertise, perspectives, and ideas that those being excluded could have contributed.

How to talk about bias (and how not to)

Some important stuff summarised here! (Caveat: I have not had a chance to look up the original studies.)

In several experiments, Prof. Michelle Duguid of Washington University in St. Louis and Prof. Melissa Thomas-Hunt of the University of Virginia studied whether making people aware of bias would lessen it. They informed some people that stereotypes were rare and told others that stereotypes were common, then asked for their perceptions of women. Those who read that stereotypes were common rated women as significantly less career-oriented and more family-oriented. Even when instructed to “try to avoid thinking about others in such a manner,” people still viewed women more traditionally after reading that a vast majority held stereotypes….

Why would knowledge about stereotype prevalence lead to greater stereotyping? We can find clues in research led by Prof. Robert Cialdini at Arizona State University. In a national park, Professor Cialdini’s team tried to stop people from stealing petrified wood by posting: “Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest.” Even with this warning, theft rates stood at 5 percent. So they made the sign more severe: “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.” This warning influenced theft, but not in the direction you’d expect: stealing jumped from 5 percent to almost 8 percent.

The message people received was not “Don’t steal petrified wood,” but “Stealing petrified wood is a common and socially acceptable behavior.” We have the same reaction when we learn about the ubiquity of stereotypes. If everyone else is biased, we don’t need to worry as much about censoring ourselves.

If awareness makes it worse, how do we make it better? The solution isn’t to stop pointing out stereotypes. Instead, we need to communicate that these biases are undesirable and unacceptable.

Professor Cialdini’s team slashed the theft rate to 1.67 percent by adding a simple sentence to the sign:

“Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the park.”

Professors Duguid and Thomas-Hunt used a similar approach to prevent bias awareness from backfiring.

Rather than merely informing managers that stereotypes persisted, they added that a “vast majority of people try to overcome their stereotypic preconceptions.” With this adjustment, discrimination vanished in their studies.

Susan Stebbing trending on twitter

Feminist History of Philosophy

After Mike Beaney’s Vienna Circle lecture about her yesterday Twitter was *awash* with comments on her influence in the history of analytic philosophy, and – of course – the way she was pushed out because she was a woman.

Here is the abstract of the talk.

Mike Beaney has a paper on Stebbing here and also discusses her in his Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Conception of Analysis in Analytic Philosophy.

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