Friday, December 23, 2011

Gender politics and Automoblox

Update: Jason Thibeault, who has a much larger readership than I, helped me publicize this issue (thanks Jason!)... and the co-founder showed up in the comments and provided some corrections. Apparently this is the case only the case with the sports cars: the other models put the woman in the driver's seat. I still think it would be even better if all of the shapes were such that they could be rotated 180 degrees, but it seems the company has been trying to do the right thing from the get-go. Kudos to them.

I am still reading Susan Calello's comments and may have a second update later.

Some cursory googling seems to indicate I am the only person to have noticed this (or at least, the only person to have noticed it and blogged about it). The otherwise excellent toy Automoblox appears to have a subtle -- and probably unintentional -- misogynist implication inherent in its design. This is not really a huge deal, and since I'm thinking about posting this to Facebook (where my cousins, who bought them for my son, might well read it) let me say that this does not change the fact that my son loves them, I still think it's an absolutely fantastic toy, and I am ever so grateful to the Geigers for the gift. This is merely meant as food for thought.

So what's the misogynist implication? Well check this out: The two figures that ride in the car have features that strongly imply gender, and the way the car comes preassembled, the man is in the driver's seat. That by itself is not really an issue (it would be a nice feminist statement of Automoblox to have reversed it, but I can't expect everybody to actively support every cause 100% of the time) but the problem lies in that, although Automoblox can be reassembled in a variety of different ways -- this is part of what makes it an excellent toy -- a bizarre quirk of the design makes it so that you can't ever put the woman in the driver's seat.

In describing the educational benefits of Automoblox, Wikipedia states that "the passengers in each car have specifically shaped bases which lock into matching sockets in the car to encourage shape recognition and matching." Indeed -- except that the male passengers have either a square- or circle-shaped base, meaning that they can be rotated in any direction, while the female passengers have either a star- or triangle-shaped base (both with an odd number of sides) meaning that they cannot be rotated exactly 180 degrees from the default position.

You can reassemble the car so that the star-shaped socket is on the driver's side, but you cannot face the female passenger directly forward. No matter how you configure it, she will always face at an off angle if placed in the driver's seat. What's frustrating is that if they had just used, say, a hexagon and an octagon for the bases, this problem would be averted.

I imagine this was unintentional. And it's an excellent, excellent toy. I suppose the next step is to contact the company and maybe if they get enough pressure, in future versions they can correct this. Or am I just being hypersensitive here?

Friday, December 16, 2011

On Hitchens: Oh how wrong he was... and how much we have lost for his departure

I've noticed something about a lot of the Hitchens tributes today. A great number of them contain a digression along the lines of, "I disagreed strongly with Hitchens in regards to this or that issue, but..." Indeed, it is probably safe to say that Hitchens is unusual in that even among those of us who had the deepest admiration for him and his opinions and his impossibly sharp prose, virtually all of us had more than one point on which we thought he was not just wrong, but badly wrong, shockingly wrong, dangerously wrong. The Iraq war is the obvious example, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. Scan a few of the obituaries and blog posts and you'll see what I mean. Here is a man who inspired even his dearest friends and most dedicated supporters to voice their differences in a damn eulogy!

And in a way, this is the best tribute we could pay to a man who so relished an argument, who convincingly defended (whether right or wrong) the most seemingly untenable positions, with a quickness and wit the potency of which was rivaled only by the contents of his ever-present rocks glass. For fuck's sake, by the time Hitchens unleashed his savage takedown of Mother Theresa, the woman was so venerated in our culture that she had become an idiom for unimpeachable goodness ("He's no Mother Theresa, but..."). It helps that in this case Hitchens' criticisms appear to have been largely right on the money, but my god -- who else could possibly possess both the audacity and erudition to have launched such an iconoclastic attack? One cannot separate his rightness in this case from his wrongness on so many other issues. The entire world telling him he was full of shit? A mere trifle to the Hitch.

We have lost not only one of the most astonishing orators and scintillating essayists of our time, we have also lost a man with a unique ability to be gloriously unflappably wrong in the eyes of everyone he respected (and everyone he didn't respect, too). "Conventional wisdom" will sleep easy tonight, I fear.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On consciousness-raising

I've been making an effort in the past year or so to use the female pronoun whenever referring to a hypothetical person. There was recently a discussion about pronouns over at Crommunist (and by the way, if you aren't reading Crommie, start now!), and coincidentally the gender politics of pronouns came up twice yesterday at work... so I've been thinking about it quite a bit over the past several days.

One can make an argument that simply replacing the male pronoun with the female one when referring to a hypothetical person is not really any better. I think this opinion commits the fallacy of ignoring the broader social context, but after some recent contemplation I'm going to go one further: Even if it really isn't any better, it's still a worthwhile exercise simply as a matter of consciousness-raising.

If you're a man -- especially if you are a white heterosexual middle-class man like myself -- it can be difficult to put yourself in the shoes of a person who experiences institutionalized bias. I can abstractly recognize that it's a little messed up for the male pronoun to just be acknowledged as the default, but that doesn't tell me anything about how it feels. However, experiencing other people using the female pronoun as the default, especially when I am being asked to picture myself in the role of the hypothetical person they are referring to... well that's an eye-opener. It feels weird, doesn't it? I think a valuable piece of knowledge is gained when one viscerally experiences that weirdness for oneself.

I'm also certain I would not have spotted one of the incidents yesterday were it not for the effort I have been making to substitute my default pronoun. Two co-workers were explaining to me some work they have done that involves a collaboration with educators, primarily with elementary school teachers. I noticed every time they referred to a student, they said "he"; and every time they referred to a teacher, they said "she". Both did it, consistently, without exception. (I'm probably going to mention something about it to them today or tomorrow, but I've been mulling over how best to approach it without coming off as confrontational)

So even if female-as-default really is no better than male-as-default (and as I said, I don't think that's necessarily the case when viewed in a broader context), it's still a good exercise in consciousness-raising. If you haven't tried it, you ought, at least for a little while. It's, well, it's weird. And I guess that's the whole point, isn't it?

The title to a PZ post today helped me tie this together with another thing I've been thinking about: Whether some of the more confrontational secular holiday displays that have gone up are a good thing or not.

While these displays surely tell the truth, and while I am certainly not concerned about constantly policing tone in general, some of these displays don't exactly make me feel holiday cheer inside, y'know? In a perfect world, holiday displays would all be positive messages, and some of the secular ones going up clearly are not. Negative messages are often necessary when opposing injustice or changing the social zeitgeist, but at Christmas/Channukah/Solstice? It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Yet I still felt like I supported the controversial displays anyway, even if I don't personally like them. And now I think I can articulate why: It's yet another exercise in consciousness-raising.

Yeah, these displays probably do make believers feel uncomfortable at a time when we as a society have traditionally tried to come together in mutual joy and generosity. But you know what? That's exactly how many non-Christians feel when an elaborate government-sponsored creche is on display to the exclusion of menorahs or Santa or anything else. That's exactly how many non-Christians feel when the War on Christmas people demand that Happy Holidays be expunged from our vocabulary in favor of an abject deference to Jesusmas. Like a man being asked to put himself in the place of a hypothetical person being referred to as a female, this asks Christians to momentarily slip into the shoes of a maligned minority, a minority whose holiday traditions are demeaned and devalued.

An eye for an eye is obviously not a good long term strategy, especially when we're talking about actual violence. But when we're talking about the possibility of maybe some mild discomfort and some hurt feelings, and when a big part of the problem is that the privileged group simply can't understand what it feels like to be in the out-group because they've never experienced it -- yeah, this is fair game.

Always using the female pronoun may not really be any better than always using the male pronoun. And an aggressively atheist holiday display may be no better than an aggressively Christian holiday display. But what both of these things do is make you think, to put yourself in the place of the other. That's what consciousness-raising is all about.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

That will be that

From my wife's blog, about wrestling with grief coming up on the first anniversary of Nicole's death:

I hung some of the stockings on the fireplace last week, but not hers. I would like to be the sort of person that hangs her stocking and puts some of her favorite things in it, enjoys her memory, then brings the stocking to her grave on Christmas and lays it there gently, says a prayer. But I am not that sort of person. I will probably throw her stocking into the fireplace. Maybe I'll fill it with coal and hang it on her gravestone. Or more likely the rage will pass and I'll do something sensible, like taking the family to her resting place on the 21st with some of her favorite ice cream (butter pecan sans pecans). And I won't really want to be there, and the visit will have nothing to do with the holidays. I will go out of a begrudging sense of duty that Nicole would have appreciated. We'll be sensibly sad and cry a little, then we'll go home and live our delightful lives. She'll be extracted from my holiday memories for several years and then one day I won't even think twice about using the roses on the tree, and her stocking will be long gone. December 21st will be a day when maybe Jay or I will say, "Hey, isn't it the anniversary of.." and whoever didn't say it first will be embarrassed, then we'll distract ourselves with something more fun to think about, and that will be that.