How To Argue With Sexists
CodeFX Weekly #25 — 7th of July 2017
this is an unusual newsletter. Because it happened again. Another dude on the Internet told the world the truth about women and why they shouldn’t be programmers. I know, right? Why even bother? After all, nobody ever changed their mind in such a discussion.
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The show must go on
Still, I think there are reasons to take on the fight. I don’t want my community to let such slander go uncommented, giving the impression that the opinion is undisputed. I don’t want those affected to think everybody agrees. But the real target audience is neither of those.
The guy who wrote the post, me, the other discussants, the slandered minority — we all have our opinion, usually firmly held, so nothing’s gonna change there. Arguing to convince the other side means setting yourself up for frustration and disappointment. No, the real target audience are the undecided, the people in between.
They usually don’t chime in, don’t comment, don’t tweet. But they read. And there are lots of them. By my guesstimate, even in intense discussions maybe 10% participate. The rest reads, some of them contemplative.
So it’s the undecided that I’m arguing for. Those who’re not sure yet should see both sides of the argument. Should see why I think that one side does not hold up to scrutiny, that its defenders are just as illogical, irrational, or hypocritical as they accuse others to be.
This fight is not about winning, it’s about demonstrating argumentative supremacy. So whatever you write, ask yourself how someone reading just that thread, just that message would see it. Keep it calm, rational, focused, always close to your opponent’s weak spots. Be fair, but be tough!
Fight the good fight
Above all, you gotta stay focused, pick your fights carefully. Don’t get distracted by arguments that are provoking, outlandish, or easily refutable. Counter the essential ones, the ones the other side’s opinion ostensibly hinges on.
Don’t try to argue several points at once. If something ridiculous was said that you don’t want to leave uncommented, mention it and that you disagree but stay focused on what really matters.
Given a claim, ask yourself, if it were right, would that change your opinion? If not, why even argue the point? Instead show why it doesn’t matter. Case in point: “But women raising offspring is natural”. Sure, we could argue about that all day long but why? Obviously murder, rape, high child mortality, dying at the age of 40, and no Netflix are natural, too, but we no longer think those are good ideas. So who gives a shit whether this or that behavior is natural? Beneficial is a much better category.
This is particular important when facing seasoned discussants or trolls. Because they will try to distract you. Don’t let them. Make sure to never go down an argument that you don’t find truly important. And if you still find yourself compelled to do it, don’t tire pointing out that they’re running from the original discussion.
Offense and defense
Stay in the fight as long as you can and have the last word. I know it sounds childish, but onlookers, particularly casual ones, will often assume that an unrefuted argument was conceded. Don’t let it look like that! If you have to concede, say so, if you don’t, keep it up.
Keep this in mind when itching to enter a new thread — do you have enough energy and time to open up another front? Maybe your people over there are already handling things fine.
Having the last word is actually a corollary to another important rule: Be aggressive and stay on the offense. Not by being insulting, condescending, or CAPS-LOCKING, but by relentlessly following up on factual or logical errors.
Don’t let them weasel out and stick to refuting their original claim. Don’t just say something’s wrong, make an argument why, preferably well-sourced. Always tie it back into the bigger picture and show how getting that argument wrong falsifies or undermines the big thing you’re fighting over.
You gotta be careful, though, not to go overboard. If this were a scientific debate, going back on a point you made because it turns out you’re wrong would have zero cost. You’re just back to where you started. But this is not science camp, it’s a show of argumentative force and having to concede a point will be used to undermine your credibility. So make sure it happens as rarely as possible.
Don’t make claims that you can’t substantiate and don’t jump to conclusions! You don’t want to end up in a conversation where you have to defend why you interpreted something that was said one way or other. It’s still gonna happen but look out for it, try to minimize it.
Instead stick to what was actually said. If a certain claim is important for your argument, quote it. Or at least make a note of it, so you can quote it later. Particularly in a raging discussion in the comment section or on social media, it can be hard to find something that was said some time ago.
I also recommend to keep morals out of it. Yes, I think looking down on women is deplorable but that’s essentially just my opinion on how the world should be. Trying to attack from moral high ground opens you up to being told that you ignore the truth out of political correctness or that you have been brainwashed by the globalist social justice warrior media elite. Something.
I still think it’s a valid part of the discussion. After all, shaping what the world should be is the reason we’re having it. But it’s much harder to gain ground with it. Too much of it comes down to world views, on which discussants will differ widely. So if you have the chance, show that the other side is factually wrong.
Fuck Pseudo Science
So there’s a study that claims male and female brains work differently? Maybe even quantify certain strengths and weaknesses? That’s super interesting and I’m curious to hear where it gets us in the long run but using that as an argument for “women are better or worse at X” is ludicrous for any interesting X.
Reasons are plentiful. One is that most jobs require a wide variety of skills, so the way from a study saying men may have better motor skills and women may be better at integrating analysis to either of them being better programmers is a very long one. Since the other side is ostensibly trying to science this shit, they better have a few studies that walk the talk from “maybe better at X” to “proven to be better at Y”.
But the central logical fallacy in that line of thinking is the sleight of hands it’s trying to pull off. Even if it would be shown that due to their genes women are on average worse at, say, programming, then that would at best be a partial explanation for why there are less programming women. But it can never mean that an individual women should ex-ante be assumed to be worse than an individual man!
All of these tendencies man and women develop due to nature and nurture are just differences in means and variances of two gigantic bell curves. Whatever run-of-the-mill skill (like programming) you seek, whatever level of proficiency you require, there will be tens of thousands of people in each slice of those two curves.
Maybe there are more men than women in there but that still only means that you run the risk of throwing a sausage party. It does by no stretch of the logical fabric of spacetime mean that the women in that slice are less qualified than the men!
Taking that argumentative step is so horribly irrational that it shows one thing very clearly: Men making that argument don’t give a shit about the science — they had an opinion and googled for permission to have it.
Kick them when they’re down
This is not a physical confrontation (and it shouldn’t become one), nobody’s exchanging punches, and nobody’s getting hurt. So unless I’m friends with the people on the other side I see no reason to let them off easy.
Did you lead the discussion to a place where they had to concede a point? They won’t tell you but they might suddenly change the topic or go silent. Watch out for that and be unrelenting! Condense what lead you there into a paragraph or two and make sure their mistakes are obvious. Even casual onlookers should see where you’ve disproven their arguments.
If they try to change the topic, you may even go along. But don’t forget to point out that there’s this thing where they didn’t know what to say to. Ask them how they change their mind now that the underlying reasoning was shown to be faulty. I mean, they’re fully rational, right, so shouldn’t they rethink their position?
Let them keep face
Wait a moment, didn’t I just say you should kick them when they’re down? How does that line up with letting them keep face? It’s actually pretty easy: Never make it personal! Not the other guy is arrogant or hypocritical, his opinion is. Not he’s wrong, his claim is. So by all means be as tough and judgmental of his arguments as you want but keep the person out of it.
First of all, that’s simply good manners. Most likely you don’t really know the guy, so don’t assume you do and don’t judge him. But more importantly, it gives him an out. Admitting he’s erred, even if only to himself, will be much easier than facing that he, as a person, is a problem (which he very well might not be).
More than once, I’ve written heated comments. But you absolutely have to edit them. I usually do and so few of the vulgarities get out. Best to spread it out: read the comment, think about it, write an answer, do something else, edit, send. Just 10 minutes of cleaning the kitchen will work wonders.
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
And then come the freedom-of-speechers. Whenever a discussion like this goes on, the original author gets support. Not by people who agree with him, oh no, but by the valorous defenders of freedom of speech. How dare you infringe on his rights? Silencing, even suppressing him?! Feminazi that you are!
Don’t let them distract you. This is a classical diversion, a transparent attempt to lead the discussion away from a position that is hard to defend into muddy waters were people lacking clear vision have more experience fighting.
There are different variants of this argument. As long as you’re not actually demanding a law that puts him into jail for publishing his opinion you’re clear of the legal version, because that only applies to governments. (Although most or even all legal systems define some limit for freedom of speech; but, hey, let’s not split hairs.) Blocking this punch is as easy as blocking a kid’s (unless it comes from this one): You’re no government, so you can’t infringe on anybody’s freedom of speech. There, done. Also, obligatory XKCD.
They might try to turn it into a cultural thing, where the poor guy is ostensibly getting punished just for saying his piece. Shouldn’t he be free to do that? Sure he should (and is) and so are you. So turn it around and ask why the guy can speak but you’re supposed to be silent.
Last but not least, the discussion occasionally turns to excluding someone from an event, maybe not letting him speak at a conference. I find this to be a tough one that I haven’t made up my mind about. I don’t strongly agree with either side (though I lean slightly towards excluding such people) and think there is a fair argument to be made about each individual case. Have at it!
Keep your mind open and your cards on the table
Earlier I said that whenever you come up against an argument, you should ask yourself whether you’d change your overall opinion if it were true. Here comes the kicker: If the answer is “yes”, you might want to think about it hard. Obvious right? But not that easy in a heated discussion.
There’s one thing, though, that’s even tougher: If you realize that you made a mistake, that your claim was wrong, that you’re out of words. Say it. Remember it’s about showing onlookers who’s right. They will know if it’s not you, so no harm in giving in. It’s also a good habit in general, so why not train it online?
Finally, when it’s all over, relax, chat with your friends, have a drink or a good meal. These discussions can be stirring so take some time to cool off. You’ve earned it.
 I know, I know, saying the bad actor is male is biased and prejudiced, right? Surely not all men are sexists and not all sexists are men. True on both accounts and I said neither.