March 17, 2005

Fighting For the Equality of Banality?

Dahlia Lithwick has a good column that takes on the recent debate about women writers and newspaper op-ed pages. Bloggers have had their own version of the same debate recently, and it presaged some of the charges and counter-charges being made now about op-ed pages.

Lithwick makes the point that female op-ed writers have felt obligated to say something about the issue, but that men evidently don’t, and that the issue can’t be resolved until the men feel that same obligation. You could say the same about the debate over blogs and gender: almost every blog I know written by a woman had something to say about the issue when it came up, while many male-authored blogs didn’t say anything, including my own.

But Lithwick ends up answering her own question, “Why don’t the men respond?” in ways that I think she scarcely notices. By noticing male absence and female presence, she preemptively identifies male absence as a problem, a symptom, as having an assigned meaning. She begins to make guesses about why men don’t respond, all of which in some fashion assert that non-response as a failure or inadequacy, even when she's sympathetic to what she sees as the reason for that failure (for example, fear of being the target of politically correct ire).

I think that’s a very deep problem with this recurrent debate. I’ve written before about why I find Deborah Tannen and Tannen-ite arguments so frustrating and this is a large part of what is frustrating about them. They preemptively circumscribe the possible answers that a male listener can make to some accusations about exclusion or suppression of female voices, they reductively compress answers that might try to assert the complexity or range of the problem into simple statements of evasion, complicity or shame.

Once Lithwick has put it the way that she has, the choices of response narrow enormously. You can either say, “Look, there’s no pattern at all” and expect a scornful reply, and rightfully so. The pattern, whether we’re talking blogs or op-eds, is real. It exists. Or you can say, “It’s because women writers can’t or don’t want to write op-eds the way they have to be written”, and expect equal scorn, and again rightfully so. Kevin Drum got his drubbings pretty justifiably because he asserted that women don’t write certain kinds of blogs, when demonstrably they do write them. Or you can say, "You're right, I was afraid of speaking up"--but notice that Lithwick hasn't tried to imagine or create space for what legitimate thing a male op-ed writer might want to say that would make them afraid of the response they'll get.

What you can’t say is, “I think you’re asking the wrong questions.” Or “Sometimes what you’re talking about is a problem, and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes women op-ed writers are being excluded, other times what they’ve written just sucks: there isn’t a generalization that covers all cases.”

Most importantly, what gets shoved aside is a prior conversation about the nature of an op-ed page (or a blog) that scrupulously doesn’t yet bring gender into the picture. I think it’s fair to say that at least some of those who want more female voices or more diversity also want op-ed pages to be different from what they are, to not only change the representation but the content. It’s equally apparent that some of the female critics don’t want those op-ed pages to change one iota in their tone or composition, just to have a better balance between men and women.

Tannen’s paradigm, when it creeps into these discussions, tends to pin everyone to Tanner’s ultimately stereotypical, high-toned version of Mars and Venus. Tannen observes those conversational or argumentative differences as matter of sociological or ethnographic fact, and to some extent they are, but tends to suggest—and her followers even more so—that those differences ought to be that way, and the “female” style ought to displace the “male” one because it’s morally or socially preferable.

If the question, “What should a mainstream newspaper’s op-ed page looks like?” or for that matter, “What’s the kind of blogging I like best or want to link to?” precedes the complaint about gender and representation, if it doesn’t presume a certain answer to the problem of gender, then suddenly almost everyone is freed from the script. Kevin Drum doesn’t have to make the incorrect assertion, “There aren’t any women writing the kind of blogs that I link to”; he can say, “These are the kind of blogs I link to” and then be forced to struggle to define what those kinds of blogs are. One of the things he can say, if he wants, is that he only links to blogs that have an already-existing pre-eminence. Yes, I know where that answer’s going to cause a problem in gender terms, but the point is to defer that problem to the next conversation, to not presume that problem in advance, to give everyone a chance to talk about why they have a particular aesthetic without having to already defend that preference as one which causes a diversity problem, or to presume that men will have one preference and women another.

In the context of blogging, for example, I want to be able to say, “I don’t enjoy blogs that are more like livejournals or diaries for the most part” before I have to deal with the question of what that means in gendered terms. I want to say, “I don’t enjoy simple news aggregators either,” and “I don’t enjoy single-note ideological blogs” before anyone guesses about what that means for the gender composition of my preferences.

In the context of op-eds, male editors and writers should be able to say, “But I like op-ed pages just the way they are in terms of the kinds of content they feature” before someone says, “So you just like to read what men have to say, eh?”

When we get these discussions in the right order, there’s a much better chance that we’ll find out that some women op-ed writers also want op-ed pages to read just as they do now, and some don’t. We might find that men also divide along those lines: maybe there are men who want to write op-eds or men who want to read columns that are fundamentally unlike what is typically found there now.

The inevitably messy question of what makes a columnist (or blogger) “good”, which is a question that can only be answered in interesting ways if the people answering it are allowed to be brutally honest about what they think makes a columnist or blogger “bad” as well. Let me ask it this way: if I find the kind of stuff that your average pundit tied to the Democratic or Republican Party has to offer a load of banal crap—I pretty much feel the way Jon Stewart does on this issue—then it’s hard to know why I should fight for Susan Estrich to publish the same kind of banal party-line punditry on op-ed pages as the men already publish. I’m not sure what exactly that accomplishes beyond a sort of so-what equity. I think that equity is a good thing, sure, but it’s not where I want to spend my energies, fighting so that some women can publish the same amount and kind of crap as some men. If subverting the dominant link hierarchy means linking to a female Instapundit, well, pardon me if I think that’s not exactly a triumph worth investing lots of labor in achieving.

Sure, the point that many made in reply to Kevin Drum is apt: there’s already many female Instapundits, and if you like Instapundit, maybe you ought to be linking to them. Why don’t you?

But we already know the story about power laws and blogging, and there’s a version of that with op-eds, too. What gets up there first reproduces itself over time, a fact which is not without implications in gendered terms, given historical patterns of male dominance. However. If it’s worth spending time fighting the power (law), I’d rather spend that time to find what interests me, whomever the author might be, than trying to laboriously sift and sort to get a 50-50 balance of men and women saying the same old stuff. In fact, to satisfy my interest in different content, I almost think I have to be indifferent to the question of gender equity: I just need to go where I like, to what I like. It may turn out that’s by women, it may turn out that’s by men, but if I assume in advance that it has to be by women, I’m going to pre-purchase a Tannenite bill of stereotypical goods, I’m going to force myself to ignore some of the things that catch my eye because they’re written by the wrong kind of person, because the first and last goal is numerical parity.