Wednesday 28 August 2002

Misunderstandings

Doc Searls wrote:

Oh: when you get tired of all the male kinda shit that seems to comprise 5/4 of the blog world (techblog or warblog… now there’s a sexy selection), wander on over to the smartest babeblogs on the Web: Dawn and Moxie.

Burningbird responded:

I know that Doc couldn’t possibly mean to come across so absolutely, completely, and without any excuse sexist. I had to check the calendar to see if, somehow, all of weblogging was magically transported back in time to the 50’s when I read this post.

If Dorothea Salo was “saddened by the uproar surrounding Burningbird’s wrist-slap of Doc Searls over a less than perfectly egalitarian characterization of blogs,” I was astonished that the uproar (in Bb’s comments and at Blogsisters) seemed to take place in a context-free zone.

“Am I the only one,” I asked myself, “who’s aware that Doc is on reasonably close terms with the babebloggers, Dawn Olsen and Madison Slade?”

But when Madison Slade (moxie) tried to defend Doc by commenting:

I’m one of the bloggers involved.
Doc’s comments were not sexist, rather part of an inside joke between the three of us. Dawn and I were quite amused by that post. We love the Doc.

xian put her firmly in her place:

moxie, bb never said the babebloggers comment was sexist. close reading shows that she is mainly objecting to technology (and war/politics) being considered the province of males.

Well, no. Close reading of Burningbird’s actual sentence reveals nothing of the sort. One could equally be left with the impression that it’s the term “babeblog” to which Burningbird objects.

But if we apply the “close reading” not to Burningbird’s post but to her own comments on that post, xian is absolutely correct. The main source of her frustration and annoyance is the assumption that technology (and war/politics) is the province of males. (I don’t think that’s what Doc meant, but it’s the inference that’s been drawn.)

And Burningbird did imply the babebloggers reference was sexist, in a comment at Blogsisters:

Bluntly, in the right context, I don’t mind babe, particularly when it’s used as an affectionate term of endearment. But I do not like it out of the context. I think it is offensive.

If it’s only offensive when lifted out of context, then—in the context of Doc’s relationship with Dawn Olsen and Madison Slade—it’s not offensive at all, since it’s quite clearly being used as an affectionate term of endearment. How do I know? Because I’ve been following the Dawn/Madison/Doc saga since Doc’s LA Party Report six weeks ago, in which he described his first encounter with the Los Angeles blogging scene. And because a comment by Dawn Olsen on one of Doc’s posts suggests the feeling is reciprocal:

Doc, not sure how this thing works - but here goes. You are the sexiest and sweetest tech blogger ever. You transcend geekdom and are an icon. Thanks for all your kind endorsements. Moxie and I love you!!! Mrs. Searls is one lucky lady!!!

Why does this matter? Because I don’t care for the way Doc’s remark has been taken out of context without any regard for its intent. Because I think it’s unfortunate that a lighthearted and inconsequential observation has been used to pillory someone who is kind and supportive and decent. Because I sense that what’s happened to Doc could just as easily happen to me (or any other guy).

Let me make it clear though: I don’t think that was Burningbird’s purpose at all. In a number of subsequent comments, she made it clear that she holds Doc in high regard. Dorothea Salo nailed it when she wrote:

To my mind, Bb did everything right. She didn’t ignore something she didn’t approve of. She didn’t fulminate, she didn’t proclaim a sudden dislike for Doc, she didn’t generalize from one message to all of Doc’s output, she didn’t generalize from (a putatively sexist) Doc to the rest of the universe. She used humor, not anger, to get her message across.

And all her message really contained was, “Ow. Doc, that hurt.”

But, out of Bb’s post, came the furor that Dorothea found astounding:

Most of it (some of it in BB’s comments, some on Blogsisters) fell into precisely the errors that Bb herself did not commit. Demonizing Doc over a single message. Demonizing men over a single message from Doc. Demonizing Bb for caring, often accusing her of rhetorical violence she didn’t get anywhere near.

It’s this doctrinaire, reductionist, Pharisaical mindset that I abhor—this insistence on enforcing the letter of the law while utterly ignoring its spirit. I decided years ago that words count for little compared to actions, that how someone behaves over time provides an infinitely more accurate guide to their character than a throwaway remark.

In Blogaria, unfortunately, words are actions. Or, as Deb Gussman pointed out in Bb’s comments, “one of the problems with writing is that the writing’s all you’ve got.” She neatly summed up the key issues:

[Doc is] not the first or last one of us who will say something sexist, or racist, or ageist, or who will make a generalization, or whose irony will be missed. We all do this sometimes b/c we are all part of the same system. For me, a 40 year old feminist, reading Bb’s post was helpful—a confirmation that I’m not alone in responding to language the way I do. Some of you responded differently. I don’t think the dialogue here has to be reduced to political correctness. What’s exhausting (to me) is feeling unheard, or misunderstood, or feeling unable to say what I mean with precision and clarity. Still, I think this conversation is valuable. I think it confirms that human beings respond to language in vastly different ways, that we experience reality differently, that we can’t always control the way other people understand what we write, or say, or believe, and that it’s good to be able to keep talking.

That’s it in a nutshell: “We can’t always control the way other people understand what we write, or say, or believe.” Doc Searls couldn’t control it and nor could Burningbird.

But it’s possible to write in a way that encourages people to keep talking and that’s something that Burningbird achieves with enviable consistency. Burningbird is such a gifted blogger. She writes with confidence and clarity about a startling array of topics: technology, nature, politics, books, traveling … with each post reflecting her passion and commitment for the subject at hand and the world at large. Moreover, she switches styles fluidly, writing precisely, poetically, or passionately as the subject demands.

Her posts attract comments like bees to pollen; for the most part, those comments are good-natured and insightful, occasionally they are boorish or aggressive. Either way, Burningbird is a warm and gracious hostess and her attitude encourages visitors to return. Even if she makes an occasional error in judgement—as I believe she did about Doc Searls—she does it in a way that opens up the conversation, both in the comments people leave and in the posts other bloggers write in reply.

Seen in that light, Burningbird’s irritation with Doc’s remark is understandable. Burningbird is one of the few bloggers who can switch effortlessly from technology to politics to war and back. She’s clearly on top of the technical issues and she can slug it out with the politico/warbloggers too. If I were in her situation, it would drive me batty to be informed that technology and war/politics are the province of males.

Is that what Doc wrote? I don’t think so. I rather think he was lampooning single issue blogs and saying: “If you want something different, these two smart, sassy women write engagingly and well.” In other words, he was directing some flow to two female bloggers he likes and respects. And he gets chastised for being sexist.

And, on the other side, Burningbird runs rings around the tech/war/politico-bloggers again and again, only to see them lose interest and go back to pissing in each other’s pockets. “What the fuck am I supposed to do?” she must think to herself. “Make myself feel better by reading a Salon story about how women film directors have it tough too?”

In other words, there are no winners here. Doc is denigrated, Burningbird feels demeaned. He might have phrased it a little better, she might have looked more closely at the context and his intent.

Jeneane Sessums gets it right:

Shelley, I don’t think Doc has a sexist bone in his body—and I know that’s not what you’re saying—you’re asking if his words were sexist as they were aligned in his sentence.

Don’t spank him for that. Spank the assholes whose hearts are filled with darkness and hate.

Because there’s little to be gained in criticizing those few men who are—deep in their hearts—your allies (no matter what throwaway remarks they might occasionally make).

Permalink

Comments

This is what I love about blogging.

If this had happened in a discussion group it would have escalted into a flame war and descended into personal attacks. As it is blogs have a rhythm which makes each person's posts more considered and the ownership of blogs makes the ideas expressed more fully thought through and responsible.

If we can deal with issues in this way - even those which press all the wrong buttons - then I personally get very excited.

Posted by: The Obvious? on 28 August 2002 at 10:22 PM

Wow Jonathon...that was an amazing analysis recap. I don't follow Doc's weblog, but I was pretty sure that he was a good guy, who while writing at warp 9, choose the wrong words for his idea.

I do know that Doc is pretty prolific, so agonizing over every adjective probably isn't high on his list ;-)

Thanks for the post!

Posted by: Patrick Berry on 29 August 2002 at 12:21 AM

It also highlights the danger of posting an "in-joke" reference to a public site read by thousands...

Posted by: Pascale Soleil on 29 August 2002 at 02:57 AM

Good call, Jonathan. You're right that I was swayed by the comment threads I had read rather than the original cite, so my "close reading" comment was ironically out of line.

I certainly did not mean to be putting moxie "in her place," though, and I apologize if that's what my tone implied.

Posted by: xian on 29 August 2002 at 03:40 AM

This is an eloquent, generous and precise synopsis. When the issue was raised at Blogsisters I did not feel like I could comment on Docís use of the word babe since I donít really read him. It seemed like a discussion might occur around those times when men (or women), who are thinking, feeling people, say something that is sexist.
A few years ago I was taking a class from a man who I found very attractive. I made a comment to a fellow female classmate, in the presence of a fellow male classmate, that was some thing like Ė even if the class sucks itís nice to look at him for three hours. And we both giggled. The male classmate asked me how Iíd feel if he said the same thing about a woman teacher. I was busted. It wasnít the fact that I found the man lovely to look at that he took issue with; it was the way in which I suggested that his beauty would compensate for any content in his teaching.
I guess I want to hope that men who are my allies Ė deep in their hearts Ė will listen when I tell them that something that they say is sexist, think about it for a minute, if they decide they agree acknowledge the sexism and then we can laugh and move on. No pillaring. No silencing. No expectation that itíll never happen again. Just a moment of mutuality.
It doesnít seem possible that any of us have no sexist bones in our bodies, given the world in which we live. I know I do. And our only hope of getting free of it is to talk with one another. I do think that what Doc said was sexist. I also think it was an affectionate term of endearment between friends. No blame. No foul. And I think Burning Bird was telling her friend how it made her feel, as you have delineated. At that point it might have been possible for us all to think about how sexism infects our language, our thoughts and our relationships. Not in an attempt to confess our sins, but in an attempt to think and feel deeply about ourselves and each other. It seems like there might be much to be gained from that conversation.

Posted by: Tish on 29 August 2002 at 04:29 AM

This is an indepth analysis. Very well written and quite interesting.

Posted by: Dawn on 29 August 2002 at 11:54 AM

Thanks, everyone. As Doc Searls said in his post today: "Great comments."

xian, I'm not sure an apology was necessary -- I picked up on the phrase "close reading" for all its postmodernist associations.

And Tish, I laughed when I read your remark about the nice looking teacher. But your suggestion is well taken: it's really about listening carefully and making an honest attempt to see the other person's point of view. Whether, after that attempt, you agree with them is something else entirely (as you acknowledge).

Posted by: Jonathon Delacour on 29 August 2002 at 05:30 PM

Thank you for setting the record straight.

It's interesting that an "inside joke" has caused someone to be picked on unjustly. Doc is a fantastic man, someone I hold in very high regard.

Even if Bb's comments *were* directed at the male 'warblogging' world, Doc was correct, MOST of them ARE male. Like it or not, it's true.

Personally, I think 'warblogging' is very 2001 and perhaps the women just picked up on that sooner than the men. What's the next trend? Look to a political female blogger to see the hot trend long before it's coined.

Posted by: moxie "babe" on 2 September 2002 at 01:28 PM

excellent..i was thinking lately that my blogroll needs more femmes and then i happened across your post, so it's given me some good leads. cheers, gianna

Posted by: gianna on 11 March 2003 at 10:00 AM

excellent..i was thinking lately that my blogroll needs more femmes and then i happened across your post, so it's given me some good leads. cheers, gianna

Posted by: gianna on 11 March 2003 at 10:01 AM

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2002-2003 Jonathon Delacour