Sexism and the benefit of the doubt

I have always had trouble with the assumption on the part of some feminists that every interaction which is critical of a woman is sexist. It strikes me as similar to the kind of mentality that thinks that any criticism of Israel’s political policy is automatically anti-Semitic.

I’m mainly writing this in response to this article: Rebecca Solnit: Men Explain Things to Me, tweeted by The F-Word. It’s an excellent and well-written article, but some of it resembles more what I would call human nature than insidious sexism. And usually, I feel I am attuned to insidious sexism and aware of when it is happening. Indeed, I’m more outspoken about such things than most people I know, and more readily comment on sexism when it appears in everyday life (I very much like, and find fascinating, for instance, this project – Everyday Sexism). I feel that I am just about as card-carrying as feminists get, and have spent more than 7 years of my working life reading and writing about feminist theory.

The man who tries to ‘help’ Rebecca by suggesting a book she might not have read in her research (which turns out, in fact, to be the book she has just written) could surely have been well-intentioned. Indeed, the only sign that it is not so, is the fact that he doesn’t seem to be able to deal with his mistake, and blusters before continuing.

It’s something I could easily picture happening to me – trying, in a well-intentioned sort of way, to offer a suggestion, or indeed trying to contribute to a conversation by inserting whatever knowledge I might have of the topic, to see if it is relevant or helpful or interesting to the interlocutor… surely this is just the nature of conversation. Where my reaction would differ, however, is that if I’d discovered that my interlocutor was the author of the book I had just recommended to her, I’d be genuinely thrilled at the discovery, and would probably burst out laughing and congratulate her, and the whole conversation would take on a positive tone which was absent from her account of the conversation as it occurred.

Is the lack of good-natured enthusiasm at discovering his ‘mistake’ where sexism lies here? Perhaps it’s just the personality of this man, that he was discombobulated at finding himself, very slightly, made a fool of. Maybe he just couldn’t recover after having been embarrassed, by anyone, of whatever gender.

Perhaps I’m too ready to give people the benefit of the doubt. But I’d certainly be tempted to look at human nature very closely before concluding sexism at the core of every patronising or uncomfortable interaction such as this. I don’t find many interactions in my life to be affected by gender politics, and I don’t tend to think about my gender as a factor in decisions I make or actions I take. I really don’t. Any barriers in my life exist either through my own choice, or through the way life has happened, and not as a result of sexism or patriarchy as such.

I have another long waffle about feminism, which I wrote last week, which you can find here.

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