A while ago, I was asked to write paid opinion in support of more women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The money was quite tempting, and the cause, I’m sure, is noble. However, I refused the work. I said that I did so on ethical grounds: a C-minus for maths in year 10; objections to championing improved labour conditions for the few, not the many, etc. These claims were true, but not nearly as true as my inability to give the shits required to produce such a work. I found myself vaguely supportive of lady engineers and scientists, etc, but largely unmoved. In other words, I did not have much of an opinion.
It can be inconvenient to lack strong opinions in the present. This is true not only for a person paid to have opinions, but anyone who now wishes to engage in what we call, ahem, “respectful debate”. The language of the era is strong and the tone uncompromised. To speak and, especially, to be heard in not only online forums but everyday exchange, we must increasingly trade in the coin of hyperbole.
It’s not just progressive, it’s Stalinist. It’s not just nativism, it’s fascism. Etc. etc. We must not only supersize the root of inequality to that of full-blown evil — in arguing for more women in STEM, use of the term “misogyny” would gain a far larger audience than the more accurate “institutionalised sexism” — but we must make like experts on all matters.
We’re committed! Committed generally to the appearance of expertise in argument and committed in specific cases quite utterly to that argument’s central importance. It’s exhausting and fruitless. And I say this even as a person whose premier hobbies have long been (a) showing off and (b) argy-bargy.
To call for a return to a time of genuinely “respectful debate” is, of course, deluded. There never was such a general Western era. True argument is bound to unfold only briefly in lab conditions: bohemian cafes of the 1930s, universities of the 1960s, among religious intellectuals of the Middle Ages, etc. This is no plea for excellence in argument. We don’t have to do our impossible best. It might be nice, however, if those of us who argue in public did not continue to do our worst.
Or, it might be nice if we were not coerced into producing our worst. Our worst is now perceived as the most dependably profitable in ailing media corporations. You don’t employ a Bolt or a Panahi, for example, because you admire their arguments — which are now given over to the search for “the REAL bigots”; currently people who vote yes, but may be Muslim feminists tomorrow, or all Chinese people next year. (It all depends on what the IPA has elected as their Demon of the Month.) You employ them because they’re low-risk.
But, as mentioned, it is not just in the conspicuously hyperbolic media work of the cultural right we see such commercial risk aversion. Outside of specialty academic papers, you will rarely find an argument, for example, that causes for the disproportionate number of male STEM employees are several. What you will find provided — and what I find myself now unmoved to produce — is a bunch of singular and simple claims.
You will read about the “misogyny” of “tech bros”, etc, and how this makes for a “hostile” environment. It’s far safer in a business sense for media to relay individual cases of sexual harassment than to talk about the duller systemic discrimination that no single man enacted, but every woman faces. It may be quite true that poor access to childcare services, packed universities, inflexible work hours and the unfortunate expression of Richard Dawkins all serve equally as hurdles to women in this sector. It is likely true that mining jobs, which are counted as part of the STEM total, are, being so often remote, incompatible with the unpaid hours of intimate household labour women are largely consigned to do.
Such a description is not perceived as a profitable take, and not without reason. The sociological approach required to explain a thing like work in a relatively small sector is basically boring to just about everyone but potential STEM workers and other sociologists. But, in the present, there is a largely unexamined consensus that STEM is the magic future of all Western labour and hope, so a reporter is required to argue for that importance in a very broad way. Go get me some tales of misogyny. End with an uplifting paragraph, set to the tune of I’m Every Woman.
So, certain matters are falsely elevated to central importance: women in STEM, “the REAL bigots”, the personal moral failures of white men. These matters are also universalised, as though their remediation will be the remediation of all people. Of course, we in media are busy, contingent on our outlet, revealing overlooked female tech geniuses, “REAL bigots” and problematic “white men”. We feel satisfied with ourselves, and a certain part of the audience is comforted that things are on the up-and-up as well.
But what truly occurs is the aggrandisement of certain problems, and of their suggested antidotes. I think former footballer Heritier Lumumba put it well when he recently wrote that bromides like “love, care, and understanding” recommended by our public intellectuals — in this case, Waleed Aly — were falling a little short of saving the world.
Saving the world is, in my view, not going to be easy. But one is compelled to argue that it is. Even in this principled piece from yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald, we see another small solution up-sized. The problem, as the author sees it, is that the “Australian Parliament should reflect and represent the whole community”. Good. The route to this is, apparently, the elimination of the Lord’s Prayer. Even if we agree — and I mildly do, just as I mildly agree with the inclusion of more women in STEM — that the Lord’s Prayer speaks only to a minority of Australians, we are not led to conclude that another reading (maybe the lyrics to a Chisel song?) would transform a parliament that has never reflected the whole community and has so rarely been in the business of serving the whole community.
Actually, I would propose that to accurately reflect Parliament, which does not reflect us at all, the Lord’s Prayer should be recited in Latin. This will solve everything!
I’m off to pitch to the mainstream press.