This morning I woke up to about 15 messages on Facebook messenger. They were sent to me by one of the top chess players in the world, who I have never truly met, and never really spoken to, but who was frustrated with the tone of the discussion that followed from my last blog post. This player is well known to be extremely gracious and friendly, so it is important to make it clear that the messages were very civil and polite, but that at the same time something that was bothering him.
The issue was simply that he felt there are obvious differences between men and women, yet anytime someone took the step of speaking about these differences, they would be immediately branded a sexist, and therefore it stifled any intellectual discussion on the topic. Because I have always held this player in the highest regard, I felt that it would be a great idea to try to write about this topic.
Let’s start with something that I think we all agree on. When you take large populations of people that have some kind of clear difference between them, regardless of what that difference may be, it’s likely that these people as a whole, won’t be identical in all aspects of life. This can be for many reasons, such as their upbringing, how the world reacts to them, or in some cases maybe there may be genetic differences.
One of the problems I see when people try to have a public discussion about these differences, is that in almost every case in which someone publicly states that “X and Y groups of people are different in Z way”, the person making this comment falls under the category of X, and then attributes the most socially desirable traits to X, the less socially desirable traits to Y, and they are often doing so without the necessary background to make such claims.
For example, Chess Grandmaster Nigel Short once claimed that men are “hardwired” to be better at chess than women and said the following:
“I don’t have the slightest problem in acknowledging that my wife possesses a much higher degree of emotional intelligence than I do,” he said. “Likewise, she doesn’t feel embarrassed in asking me to maneuver the car out of our narrow garage. One is not better than the other, we just have different skills.”
“It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a higher level, but rather than fretting about inequality, perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact.”
The reason that the above was troubling is because Nigel who is a man and a world class expert in chess, is putting down the ability of women to play chess well. To make up for that slight, he is then comparing that to the fact that one woman, his wife, has better emotional intelligence than he does.
My sister, 2 time U.S. Women’s Chess Champion Jenn Shahade has this to say:
“The obsession with gender difference in fields like chess is repetitive, negative and self perpetuating. Unless you have some mind blowing new point to make, I’d rather hear your thoughts on Hou Yifan’s games in Biel or a book you recently enjoyed by a woman.”
So why is James Damore also receiving criticism? It’s because he is doing a similar thing. I took a look at his manifesto and to me it reads clearly as someone who is painting women in a less positive light, and using this to explain why Google should be less focused on including women in their workforce. He is sneaky about how he does it, and he is careful to include many disclaimers along the way, but there’s a reason women are upset and it’s because it comes off as derogatory. One part in particular that seems offensive would be when he describes women as being more neurotic than men:
“Women, on average, have more neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance). This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.”
Also Google seems to be doing just fine with the practices they’ve been using. Maybe if a company like Google, which is one of the biggest and most well known companies in the world, is championing diversity to this degree, there’s some merit behind it?
So how can we talk about the differences between two large groups of people in a constructive way? My advice: Just don’t do it
Let’s be honest, have we ever really gained anything from having this discussion? Has it ever been great for our population to discuss how men are more logical thinkers and women are more emotional thinkers? Every woman is different and every man is different. There is always a danger that when we stereotype people, that those who hold power will use these stereotypes to keep other people out of power. You see it time and time again in politics with the laughable idea that “women are too emotional”. I find that this is a problem because:
- It’s created a negative connotation of emotional women, and emotion in general. Therefore some politically motivated women may feel the need to behave as unemotionally as possible, which may end up making them less likable. Emotion is a normal part of being a human being and showing natural emotions should be celebrated, not derided.
- Given our current president, it’s hard to take this idea seriously.
On a much more serious note, completely fabricated “natural” differences between races were used as justification for evils such as slavery or the holocaust.
So yes, I believe there are clear and obvious dangers when trying to have discussions about these topics. I know that intellectually this is a bit of a cop out. It should be possible to responsibly discuss the differences between men and women without coming under fire. But another important question to ask is “Is a discussion of this topic productive?”. If the answer is that it’s actually a detrimental discussion to have, that could lead to harmful consequences, I believe that it is reasonable to discourage the entire line of thought, and to fight back against those who engage in this type of discussion.
There is almost no example you can look back upon and say “stereotyping these people really helped us”, while at the same time it’s clear that stereotyping people has led to some of the gravest injustice and evil throughout human history. I think it’s a mistake to ignore this.