Sunday, January 17, 2010

I'm kind of appalled by Clay Shirky

You may have read Clay Shirky's recent post, "a rant about women." You may also have read, heard, or participated in the chaos and conversation that sprung up around it. And rightly so, given this representative chunk of Shirky's post:
Remember David Hampton, the con artist immortalized in “Six Degrees of Separation”, who pretended he was Sydney Poitier’s son? He lied his way into restaurants and clubs, managed to borrow money, and crashed in celebrity guest rooms. He didn’t miss the fact that he was taking a risk, or that he might suffer. He just didn’t care.

It’s not that women will be better off being con artists; a lot of con artists aren’t better off being con artists either. It’s just that until women have role models who are willing to risk incarceration to get ahead, they’ll miss out on channelling smaller amounts of self-promoting con artistry to get what they want, and if they can’t do that, they’ll get less of what they want than they want.

There is no upper limit to the risks men are willing to take in order to succeed, and if there is an upper limit for women, they will succeed less. They will also end up in jail less, but I don’t think we get the rewards without the risks....

And it looks to me like women in general, and the women whose educations I am responsible for in particular, are often lousy at those kinds of behaviors, even when the situation calls for it. They aren’t just bad at behaving like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks. They are bad at behaving like self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so. Whatever bad things you can say about those behaviors, you can’t say they are underrepresented among people who have changed the world.

There are enough smart people out there responding to this piece that I don't need to add more noise to the cacophony. But I do want to speak up as a dues-paying member of Women Who Run With The Arrogant Self-Aggrandizing Jerks And Sometimes Behave Like Arrogant Self-Aggrandizing Jerks Themselves.

Did I mention I'm a dues-paying member?

Because it's not easy to self-promote. It's not easy to stand up and say things that might be seen as stupid--or worse, dismissed because they come from a woman. It's not easy to announce to people "You should listen to me because I am awesome and the work I do is also awesome." It's not easy, in part because it takes extreme confidence (or at least something that looks to other people like confidence) to stand up and ask for attention, respect, recognition; and it's also not easy because the backlash is often so great, and simultaneously so subtle, that it sometimes feels like a one-step-forward, two-steps-back kind of deal.

My experience, in academia anyway, is that the tradeoff is this: If you want respect, authority, and platforms for broadcasting your ideas to a wider public, you have to self-promote; and if you succeed in gaining respect, authority, and platforms for speaking it's often at the cost of personal and professional relationships.

Let me say it more clearly: If you're a woman and you want to be heard, especially in academia, you have to knock on every door, announce your presence to everyone, and holler your qualifications at everyone in earshot. And if you do it right, people will hate you.

It will be harder to get daily work accomplished, because your colleagues will be stiff and formal with you. Male colleagues will challenge your knowledge and authority, and if that fails they will simply demean you in front of others. Female colleagues--and this is the really painful part--will shrink from you because in speaking so loudly, you've drowned out their voices. Some women, in an attempt to ally themselves with the people in charge, will also attempt to challenge and demean you.

(Another way to gain respect and authority, by the way, is to ally yourself with the people in charge, who in this case are primarily white guys. The backlash that comes out of this type of effort, though, is that you risk losing your place at the table the minute you misbehave. Then you have to come grovelling back, apologizing with downcast eyes, and take what scraps you can.)

Sure, men who self-promote risk hostility and resentment--but it's a different kind of hostility and resentment than what women experience. As members of the dominant cultural group, men who self-promote may be seen as a threat to specific people, but they certainly don't represent a threat to the established social order.

Women who are aware of the social positioning of women as a non-dominant group (and not all women are aware of this positioning, which is fine but sort of sad) develop a complex relationship to the decisions they make in crafting their public personae. They may engage in the kind of "arrogant, stupid" behavior that Shirky says is the best way to get ahead, but they do so knowing that some people (including, apparently, Shirky) will see this as "behaving more like men." They may choose to self-promote far less aggressively than Shirky would probably find useful, and to either accept that they will have trouble getting heard or find platforms for speaking where less self-promotion, less arrogance, is perfectly okay.

Or--and this is what lots of women, including me, do--they may adopt multiple identities, more identities, with more complicated politics, than those that men choose or are forced to adopt, in order to manage the competing demands on their behavior. This is not, lest I be misunderstood, the kind of identity cultivation that allows people to say "I have multiple identities! I'm an academic, and I'm also a mother, and I'm also a sister, and I'm also a friend." This is something much more complicated: It's "I'm this sort of academic-mother-sister-friend in this type of context, and I'm this sort of academic-mother-sister-friend in that type of context, and I'm this sort of academic-mother-sister-friend in that type of context with this person removed" and so on.

I don't quite know how to end this post, except to say that lots of people I like and respect think that Shirky is right on the money. And to add that my opinions are mine alone and not necessarily representative of all women, and that--and this is really important--I'm speaking from a position of relative privilege, since I'm a white, well-educated woman. I'm also thin, young, and not in any way physically disabled. I can't imagine how much more complicated this gets for someone who's even one step further removed from the dominant group than I am.


Margo Paraska said...

I'm with you completely on this one.
My only response to Shirky's post is:
"Clay Shirky,
You’re a dick; and I’m unimpressed.
Some Bitch you’d never recommend"
I'm awaiting my job offer.

Jenna McWilliams said...

You're kind of fantastic.

Melissa said...

It's not that women are incapable of being self-aggrandizing jerks; it's that women can 'choose' not to behave that way. I think the idea that women remain outside of the dominant discourse allows us to see multiple pathways--we can see two roads--and we have the choice to take the road less traveled.

I think the issue of choice deserves more attention--and whether or not it's possible to get ahead without behaving like a jerk--and why women may choose to take another path...or not. And interesting that, though women are on the outside, to a certain degree, we may have access to choices the rich, white guys don't--or at least the idea that we do.

I think, perhaps, behaving like a jerk probably gets you there faster, but I absolutely do not think it's the only way.

The fact that Clay Shirky sees it this way only further emphasizes the point that he is on the inside and doesn't see the view from the outside--and that he doesn't get it. Why would he even begin to think about trying to sound like he has something accurate to say about what women are and are not capable of?

Ender said...

I believe he's making the point that the market demands certain behaviors from us, behaviors which society associates with men and not with women. It's not Shirky's fault that this is so, but it is so. Shirky is simply pointing to a feature of how American society works.
This discussion highlights the fact that some folks are dissatisfied with the society's perception of which behaviors are male and which are female. And this is an issue that goes beyond what Clay Shirky said. Vilifying him is like slapping the doctor who tells you your Cholesterol is too high.

Jenna McWilliams said...

Shirky goes a step farther than that: He passes the "this is how it is, for better or worse" signpost and goes all the way to "this is how women should act, if they want to get ahead." In fact, by passing right by the "this is how it is" issue, he presents himself as someone who not only fails to question the (highly problematic) social order but actually stands in support of the (highly problematic) status quo.

Ender, even though we disagree on this issue, I want to point my readers to a thoughtful post you published, at

Jo Jordan said...

Is Clay talking about women or 'masculine cultures' based on pecking orders and little else?

Read Anias Nin perhaps for an antidote.

Joan Vinall-Cox said...

Thanks you so much for accurately describing something I used to label an (enviable) (implanted by upbringing) male sense of entitlement. In a perverse way, I'm grateful to Shirky too, for surfacing it and thus opening up the conversation - it's not just feminist foolishness!

Check out Deborah Tannen's Talking from 9 to 5.


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