An apology

By Felix Salmon
February 19, 2013

I wrote something stupid on Friday. I was putting together a follow-up post about Maria Popova and her blog, Brain Pickings, covering a bunch of points I’d failed to make in my original post on the subject. And it turns out that there were a lot of those points: the follow-up post ran to more than 2,400 words, on top of the 1,000-word original.

The second post was written disjointedly, on trains and on strange couches and while sitting in a lecture hall at Yale Law School, half-listening to panel discussions about impact investing in emerging markets. As such, it wasn’t one of those posts where you have something to say, and then you write it down, and then you press “publish”; instead, it was one of those posts where you write a bit, and then you do a podcast, which gives you another idea, which you squeeze in somewhere, and so on. The perfect blog post is exactly one idea long; in that respect, this post was far from perfect. I just didn’t want to spend all week writing about Maria Popova, so I tried to get everything covered in one fell swoop.

As a result, halfway through the post, I made an ill-advised detour into gender politics. (Not that I had any advisers telling me this was a good idea: it was entirely my own mistake.) Here’s what I wrote:

The consistently positive and upbeat tone to Popova’s blog might generate healthy Amazon income as a side-effect, but it’s also genuine: she’s one of those bloggers — Gina Trapani is another very successful example — who have no time for snark and who naturally look for things to celebrate rather than things to tear down. (Just listen to that O’Reilly talk: she dishes out huge amounts of praise to virtually everybody she cites.)

To a certain extent, this is a female thing: positive happy bloggers tend to be female, as do their readers. And when someone like Anne-Marie Slaughter supports Maria Popova to the tune of $300 per year, there’s definitely an element there of supporting the sisterhood. Which is a good thing!

But to many male observers, there’s something a bit off there.

This did not go down well, and I soon ran into a firestorm of criticism on Twitter, accusing me of saying that women are simple and happy. How could I be so sexist? How could I generalize about women, or about women bloggers, in that way?

My first reaction was indignation: I hadn’t generalized about women, or women bloggers. If I say that “brain surgeons tend to be men”, you really haven’t learned anything about men, or about male surgeons. Men don’t tend to be brain surgeons, and neither do male surgeons.

But on reflection, including that passage was pretty obviously stupid. For one thing, my language (“female thing”, “male observers”) naturally and unnecessarily raised a lot of hackles: there’s a line between being plainspoken and being needlessly provocative, and I crossed it. In doing so, I made it far too easy for my readers to miss the precise meaning of “most positive happy bloggers are female”, and to read it instead as “most female bloggers are positive and happy”, or even “most females are positive and happy”.

And then there’s the bigger question of why on earth I thought it was a good idea to bring sex into the blog post at all. It really wasn’t a particularly important part of what I was saying, but it created a situation akin to a long play with a nude scene in the middle: once it’s over, all that anybody remembers is the nude scene. By including this passage, I was effectively doing my best to ensure that people would completely ignore the other 2,300 words of the post.

Finally, and most importantly, I was wrong on the substance of what I said, as well. This one took me longer to work out; I’m indebted to Salon’s Irin Carmon, who spelled things out in an email to me, for explaining something which can’t really be encapsulated in 140 characters:

You seem completely ignorant to the fact that if many women behave in a “positive” fashion, it’s partially because the social costs of being anything else are much, much higher than they are for men. Women who are critical, opinionated etc are still “crazy” or “bitchy” or whatever. Meanwhile, women have socialized to not make too much noise, be nice, make other people feel better about themselves — to enormous professional cost, I would argue, even if they are inherent goods for society. The successful women you write about are clearly threading that needle, and it’s working for them — but the way you described them clearly implied that it made them unserious (“to many male observers”, etc).

In a similar vein, women are often disqualified from serious discourse for writing about things that are become serious when men do them. See: Andrew Sullivan writing about his personal life. Women who do it are navelgazers.

When I talked about “male observers”, I didn’t mean the word “male” as a compliment. Far from it. But Irin’s point is well taken: there’s a societal pressure on women to be pleasant, and the many wonderful snarky female bloggers out there generally face much nastier and much more personal pushback than do those of us who are men. So it’s fine to praise a male blogger for being positive and happy, just as it’s fine to praise a white man for being calm and slow to anger. But talking about positive and happy female bloggers is a bit like talking about calm and controlled black men — it’s something which is incredibly fraught, and which you certainly don’t want to do in passing.

Katha Pollitt, in 1991, coined what she called the “Smurfette Principle” of children’s books:

The message is clear. Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys.

My “female thing” was a prime example of the Smurfette Principle in action. Snarky and political male bloggers are the norm; happy and positive female bloggers are the peripheral exception. That is pretty offensive, and also untrue. Blogging is a broad and vibrant church, and singling out some random subset of it as being particularly female is very unlikely to be helpful. So: apologies to everybody who was offended by this wholly unnecessary passage. There was no good reason for publishing it, and doing so was entirely my fault.

11 comments

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These last three posts have been extremely dispiriting.

I was struck initially in the first (updated) post about the extreme narcissism on display by Popova. Her response was basically, “You don’t understand me. I’m so important. So is my time. How dare you not understand me and what I do.” Of course, she was loath to divulge actual facts to counter your positions (and used sentence structure that was clearly designed to obfuscate).

The next two posts, I guess you decided to dive full in to the pool of narcissism and now we are doing nothing about talking about you personally? I think this blog works better when we talk about things that are important.

If that were not enough, perpetuating (and copping to!) this obviously errant charge of “sexism” just increases the inanity. Perpetuating a stereotype that one (or many) women do not care for is not “sexism”. “Sexism” is the treatment of an individual on the basis of his or her gender rather than his or her abilities or the content of his or her character. Can we at least try to have some sort of semantic consistency please?

The stereotype-obsessed like this are no different than republicans who are against all government expenditures (except for the government expenditures that directly benefit them, and God help you if you threaten those expenditures).

We all use stereotypes and heuristics and rules of thumb. There is no one who doesn’t. That is logically impossible.

This hollow charge of “sexism” is nothing more than a whiny plea to stop using a stereotype that the complainer thinks might harm their own specific status in the world. They’re fine with stereotypes, and they’re fine with stereotypes that harm women who occupy other subcultures, but damn the person that uses a stereotype that doesn’t empower them.

This whole thing is ridiculous and foolish, and I can’t believe you used your valuable time to engage in this.

Posted by AnonymousJones | Report as abusive

Last December your revealed what was taken by most observers to be a somewhat disappointing side of yourself, in that HSBC thing you dumped on everyone. That didn’t help comment-traffic on your blog, did it? Now in February you’ve multi-tasked your way head-long into a gender-episode.
.
Hmmm … maybe ‘multi-tasking’ your posts (and your life)isn’t ‘your thing’?

Posted by MrRFox | Report as abusive

I’m sorry to say there is a lot of fact as well as sincerity lacking in this apology.

Initially, Felix wrote that Maria Popova was making an enormous sum – about $500,000 – based on numbers he partially made up and partially took from a previously published blog on Tumblr. Despite the implausibility of this eye-popping sum, he published it without checking it or calling Ms. Popova. She later wrote in to say that his estimates were off by at least 90% – that is, that she is not making even a tenth of the numbers he published on Reuters.com.

Then, in “correcting” this, he threw off this risible comment about women or bloggers – either way, however you read his understanding of it, two categories that are entirely too vast to summarize. Yet he did so, condescendingly. Several prominent female writers, including me, Xeni Jardin, Kate Aurthur, and Irin Carmon told him in no uncertain terms that he was off base. Kate, in particular, said this was the “stupidest generalization of 2013,” which I agreed with.

Felix’s reply to me, and me alone: “@moorehn If you think I was generalizing about female bloggers, you’re an idiot.”

This, I suppose, is the kind of “nasty pushback” that Felix writes about here without acknowledging that he is guilty of it. This is severely disappointing behavior.

He may brag about Yale Law School podcasts, but with unprofessional, dismissive and misogynistic comments attributed to him of late, one must question whether he deserves the prominence he so enjoys bragging about.
-Heidi Moore

Posted by moorehn | Report as abusive

I am confused how we as a society have gotten to the point where making simple generalizations about the sexes is verboten.

People make generalizations of this sort hundreds of times a day to get by in life and be effective human beings. Generalization/(pattern recognition) is one of our most powerful mental tools. Picking out a few spheres of life and pretending to turn it off is just ridiculous.

Felix makes all sorts of unsupported arguments based on his personal opinion and experience on this blog. This was another one of those. There is nothing wrong with his belief that women bloggers and generally different in X or Y respect than female bloggers.

New flash. Men and women are different! There are so many ways, that everyone is familiar with that it isn’t even worth listing them. Pretending otherwise is just wanton ignorance masquerading as progressiveness. Yes there is a spectrum of traits, and any individual woman might be say more interested in sports than any individual man, but when speaking of men and women in aggregate it is perfectly appropriate and accurate to say men are more interested in sports than women. And no amount of Title IX or forced socialization, or PC speech is going to change that. It is a brute fact about men and women.

The type of person who goes all fire alarm fire angry at the mere mention of possible differences between men and women in X or Y way is the type of person who is still trapped in the world of gender stereotypes and gender roles they claim to so desperately want to escape.

No one would bat an eye if Felix said “I don’t like Toyotas I had two Toyotas and they both gave me tons of problems” except crazy Toyota partisans.

Perhaps a few rational people would point out that as a matter of fact he is wrong in this case and Toyotas are in fact generally reliable, but no one would begrudge him the opinion base don his experience.

Posted by QCIC | Report as abusive

QCIC: Men and women are NOT as different as most people think they are. In reality, when you bother to study any kind of personality or mental aptitude trait, what you generally find is that the difference between the two averages is swamped by the variance. Like this: http://www.flickr.com/photos/plymouths/4 833644896/

Given the high social cost of non-conformity, I strongly suspect that in the absence of the pressure of gender stereotypes enforced by ostracism and violence, the sexes would be even more variable / less differentiated.

http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/201 3/02/06/men_and_women_are_basically_the_ same_new_study_says_our_personality_trai ts.html

Posted by Auros | Report as abusive

And the reason this topic is fraught is precisely that there are many of us who have been subject to discrimination, and even violence, based on our failure to conform to gender stereotypes, in small or large ways. Institutional sexism persists, and must not be tolerated. (See, for instance, the history of blind auditions for major orchestras. Before they were instituted, many more men were accepted than women. As soon as reviewers had a screen put up between them and the people being evaluated, suddenly the top marks started going to a 50/50 mix of men and women. None of the reviewers would ever have admitted being sexist, but clearly their underlying expectation that men would be better than women was altering their perceptions and evaluations.)

Posted by Auros | Report as abusive

Frankly Felix you used more weasel words in the apology than in the original theoretical faux pas. You can’t please us all brother.

Be loud, be proud, and short of thermonuclear mistakes. blogging should mean never having to say you’re sorry.

Posted by CaptnCrunch | Report as abusive

I’ve always tried to give my daughters boy toys as I don’t see why you have to only have dolls if you’re a girl, and only boys get train sets, radio controlled cars etc. So they got all this stuff I had as a kid, and guess what? They played mostly with their Barbies and wanted everything in pink.

Scientifically though, the XX v XY chromosome difference does cause phenotypical differences between women and men. I think what is not fair in today’s society though is the equality of opportunities, I think too many people get bogged down in worrying about making everything equal and ignoring differences, when what they really mean is that women should be entitled to the same job opportunities as men get – and they should certainly get the same pay for the same work. But we should use the differences for the benefit of society, not try to negate them at the cost of demotivating boys in education, say.

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive

FifthDecade – And my parents gave me both toy cars and dolls as a kid and guess what I did with them? I played with both in roughly equal measure and grew up to be an engineer who loves cars! As a kid, yeah, I did love pink for a while. And then lime green. And then black. The black stuck – my parents were convinced that was just a phase but in my mid-30s I’m still a goth.

Anyway, I, for one, applaud Felix Salmon for his apology. I think he gets it about as well as it can be got.

Posted by Plymouth | Report as abusive

The assertion that blogging as a woman is more fraught with criticism than it is for men is every bit as unsubstantiated as Felix’s observation. There really is sexism and racism and many other -isms, but there are also a lot of not very nice people as well. There are some venues where a thick skin is required, and the online world has certainly proven it’s one of them. In my own (equally unsubstantiated opinion) sometimes there is actual sexism occurring, but sometimes an ad hominem attack that could happen on any blog becomes interpreted as sexism, and not what it actually is, a personal attack.

Posted by phrog | Report as abusive

@ Felix, Don’t beat your self up too much… nothing in the original post or the apology even caught my eye.

I’d be very interested in knowing the male female breakdown of your readership. My guess is 90/10 male. Any info on that?

Posted by y2kurtus | Report as abusive