Monthly Archives: January 2015

The “Broken Windows” Solution to Sexism


In the 1970’s and ’80’s, the New York City Subway system was a filthy, crime-ridden mess of graffiti.  There was a great deal of effort made in the ’90’s to clean it up and much of the improvement, including a drop in serious crime, was credited to the Broken Windows Theory that said if you take care of the small things, the larger ones take care of themselves.

It will be interesting to see what happens when we apply the broken windows theory to systemic sexism, which represents a form of social dysfunction that contributes to more serious problems like violence against women. The minority of men who blame feminism for the social ills caused by the patriarchy can and should be criticized when they make statements that are ignorant of the facts or that cross the line into hate speech.  Critics of stop and frisk say broken windows theory led to disproportionate targeting of minorities, but online ‘policing’ of sexism doesn’t have the same repercussions as armed cops going after fare evasion in the subway.

Although the standard response to online sexism has typically been “don’t feed the trolls” that approach allows misogynists to enjoy the illusion that nobody disagrees with them. This doesn’t help them to learn or grow, so staying silent isn’t doing the trolls any favours. Sometimes we succumb to the temptation to just beat them at their own game, but its better to reach a truce. Its easier to find a way to peace if we are discriminating in the language we use to make a point. If we avoid exaggeration and generalization it is easier to be understood. For example, I won’t accuse someone of misogyny if they are only exhibiting the androcentrism that comes of being steeped in a world of male privilege. Learning to de-fuse and de-escalate is a powerful skill as are finding accurate analogies and using humour.

Humans are able to make leaps forward in their social consensus of what is considered acceptable behaviour. Whites eventually got the message that using the term “nigger” is inappropriate and offensive. Homophobes are getting the message that the LGBTQ community deserve the same dignity, respect and human rights that conservative “Christians” enjoy. Its time for the lads to recognize that yes, “rape culture” is real and rape jokes are not funny. I think part of the problem with juvenile male sexism has to do with the influence of pornography, which may be more damaging than the rampant sexism in videogames.

I now respond when I come across ignorance online and I will take the time and make the effort to challenge it in the interest of making the world a better place. An attack on statements that demean women is not an attack on men. It may seem to some that I want to pick a fight with the MRA’s but really, I want to achieve some level of conflict resoulution between ‘feminism’ as I represent it and the aggrieved and/or angry men and boys who have been misinformed that “feminism” is to blame for the way our current patriarchal capitalist system harms men.

We learn much more from conversations with people we disagree with than from the like-minded we gravitate to online.  I encourage everyone to keep the conversation going, keep it as civilized as possible, and expand it to encompass broader issues of justice including imbalances in representation and climate change. I also encourage everyone to be as patient as we can of those who may have little or no exposure to your worldview and may find it alien to their experience. We are all on a learning curve here and we need to be aware that just stating that you are offended by something is not going to create sympathy for your point of view.

Although it may be easier to tell someone he’s an idiot, it is more effective to state another perspective in more positive terms. For example, instead of arguing about whether elite tennis player Eugenie Bouchard was or was not offended when an older, male reporter asked her to ‘twirl’ following a post-win interview at the Australian Open, I tried to focus on the actions of the reporter instead. His request was unprofessional and inappropriate and he should apologize regardless of what Ms. Bouchard says or feels about the incident, because that is the civilized thing to do. There is nothing wrong with people who express this view online either, because it is not petty or trivial. Its like fixing a broken window to maintain the social order that makes the world a more pleasant place for everyone to live.

We know that we can reduce bullying behaviours by encouraging students to not just be silent onlookers. We can combat systemic sexism the same way. When you see sexism, even casual sexism, I encourage you to call them on it. This can be a frightening prospect given the abuse heaped on the women and their supporters during #gamergate. The victims of gamergate created a network to protect targets of online abuse which can provide resources to help people stay safe online. We don’t have to become bullies ourselves to step in and defend people from online abuse. If we stop being bystanders  we can create the a safer, more compassionate community online and off.