I was greatly inspired by scenes from the global Women’s March this weekend. It was one of the more beautiful things I’ve seen lately in times that otherwise feel very dark. I write this post with some trepidation but fuelled by that inspiration. While it is nominally about women (in science and the world) it applies just about as well to many other parts of American/British, Western and global society; especially to issues of social equality. I am definitely not an expert on this topic; experts probably will see nothing new here. Some would say that means I should be silent. I feel compelled to say something, for many reasons that I feel are valid. However, I have made dumb mistakes or just been ignorant of the issues throughout my life, so I do not claim to be on a pedestal of model behaviour. But this post is not about me or anyone I personally know per se. It is about humanity and what inspires (e.g. yesterday’s marchers) and worries (e.g. a person whose surname begins with a “T”) many people, and what I have gradually learned about human nature. If it helps one person inspect and maybe change their attitudes that would be wonderful, but I may never know if that is the case, which is fine. That, anyway, is my motivation; to support what I feel is important, and to address what the post’s title refers to. Not in a smug, let’s-show-how-politically-correct-we-are way, but in a positive way, endorsing that by opening our minds and hearts we can surprise ourselves with change that improves others’ lives and our own.
Stomach-Churning Rating: reactions will vary. No pictures.
If we abstract (Western) history into a direction over time, the status quo of white (non-poor, heterosexual, religious, etc.) males has changed over recent centuries, but it remains undeniably strong. The 1950s-1960s saw considerable changes and this trend continues. As a very brief generalization, that is cause for hope for humanity. But what worries many people today is that this trend, like any in history, could reverse, and thereby do great harm to many people. This concern is not based simply on idle speculation or propaganda but on clear actions, policies and statements of some world leaders (not just the “T” guy but he is prominent). No one knows what the future holds but people can choose to act or not act; and act in person (most effective) vs. act vocally (better than silence). Yesterday’s protests were peaceful, probably even more so than the inauguration was, and society should breathe a sigh of relief for that. But it doesn’t end there.
I want to get to one of the core issues that has helped me understand – and understanding here is so vital for society to heal the frightening rifts that have developed – why people are upset. This unsettled feeling many of us experience cuts both ways: those on the right-ward side of politics also may feel that their values are threatened. Some of those values are indeed common values, such as economic inequality and concerns about terrorism or war, much as we may differ on how we react to or prioritize them. These common values give me hope. There are few values that apply to 100% of us and that means there will always be people that are unhappy; I’m not an idealist who expects utopia anytime soon. Some values will not endure the “arrow of history”, either permanently or temporarily, and that frightens people for various reasons across the political spectrum. Neo-Nazis, and those that share some beliefs with them even if they consider themselves to be very distinct from fascists, might be emboldened lately, but they have a lot of history and social momentum to contend with.
For those that are unsettled by yesterday’s marches and other recent events, for whatever reason, I ask them to think about this: try putting yourself in the shoes of one of the marchers. Step outside yourself, be curious about what their background is, and practice empathy – what is it like to be, for example, a woman at this point in history? I’m a male so I can’t wholly experience that, but I am curious and I have cultivated some skill in empathy. I want to know what it’s like being different from me. Growing up in a moderately liberal Midwestern family with three females helped me do that (plus now having my own family), and now that I am a senior(ish) leader in my field I have to think about these things on a daily basis. But I’m not perfect, either. I keep learning. I try to listen.
One way that I continually remind myself to practice is to think of “death by a thousand cuts” (good STEM example linked there) – what does it feel like to, throughout one’s life, experience what a member of the non-status quo does? In the case of a woman, what does it feel like to continually be judged based on appearance, to be treated like property, to be told you’re inferior, to be expected to obey men, to statistically have worse pay and career advancement chances, to be dismissed as inexperienced no matter what your qualifications are, and much more; all in ways that qualitatively or quantitatively are not experienced by most men. It would wear me down, and that’s what women and other disadvantaged members of society experience. The situation has improved in some areas but still is far from fair or pleasant or, simply put, far from moral and ethical. Personally, the “thousand cuts” metaphor has helped me to empathize with many people. I reflect on it regularly.
The status quo have it easier (by definition), so hearing such people tell “social justice warriors” to be silent; to endure discrimination or assault; is deeply unsettling to those that have lived their lives suffering the thousand cuts, and to those that care about them. Free speech cuts both ways, too; it may feel hard to be criticized if you get shamed for speaking out against social equality. But do centuries of history of male dominance validate that men, too, have suffered the thousand cuts? No way, man. That’s where major fracture lines in society lie – women and other people don’t get to choose that they are on those lines, and may validly feel that their power to affect what society chooses to do is weaker.
Maybe the marches yesterday inspired, you, too. Maybe this post gets you to examine your own biases? Maybe we all have inclinations that are unconsciously a bit sexist, racist, homophobic and intolerant. And yes, we need to listen to those across the political spectrum, too, and try to find common ground that can improve life for as many people as possible. To bring things back to science and this blog, that common ground needs to have a foundation of facts. Those facts are out there, and in this “post-truth” time we need to work harder to share them and establish them, which does seem to make finding a common ground harder. Nonetheless, I hold on to hopes that we can do that, much as these times often feel very grim, as if we are at a critical juncture in history (e.g. climate change!) and yet society is so fractured it cannot do the right thing.
The world is complex. I’ve over-simplified things here; an “arrow of history” is debatable and probably not inevitable in most cases (maybe better put: there are sustained directions AND repeated cycles in history; most traversing generations). Simple statements often don’t hold true across reality; science shows us that the more we learn, the more complex and nuanced the world looks, and that can be baffling or even scary. Much as we should be suspicious of simple answers like “do not question authority” or “authority is wrong”, we should consider some simple answers as useful points of departure for deeper discussions. One such simple answer is that the women’s marchers did the right thing, showing peaceful but strong solidarity against oppressive stances that threaten them. If you oppose that simple answer, can you view it from their side, though, and understand their argument through curiosity about it and empathy for their lives? Inspect your own answer. Self-doubt is something scientists learn to practice and it is a healthy life-skill too.
Can you dream another person’s dreams? Can you help people wake up from their living nightmare? It needn’t take bravery to do this. It takes honest curiosity and empathy about the world outside your own. This applies to humanity and across nature, too. I’m not brave in posting this; I have it relatively easy. I can embrace that and I can make what might seem like sacrifices, and I can enjoy the outcome; I would love to see others live a better life. Many things have to happen for humanity to draw closer together, but these are among them. Not only could more curiosity and empathy make life better for humanity, but on a personal level those traits are good for mentoring, for teamwork, for being a good colleague, and should be good for anyone you care about.