[OPE-L:7095] Re: women and Marxian political economy

From: gerald_a_levy (gerald_a_levy@msn.com)
Date: Tue Apr 30 2002 - 20:17:07 EDT

Re Nicky's [7093-4]:

I want to pursue a few issues you raised:

A.  What's in a name?

You wrote in [7094] that your name [Nicola] gives you away.
By this you meant that by identifying yourself with a  feminine
surname you were identifying yourself to others as a woman.
This raises some broader questions:

i) it can be argued that a system of names that employs surnames
which are gender-specific helps to perpetuate gender inequality
and discrimination.   This is especially important for *written*
forms of communication where, unlike spoken or visual
communication, the gender of authors is  often not immediately
obvious  _except_ through a person's name.   This would seem to
be especially significant  for *writers*, whether of scholarly works
or more popular writing,  in terms of the seriousness with which
their writings are reviewed, both prior to and following publication.

Listmember N.S. Ranganayakamma proposed a new system of
surnames in the article "Surnames and gender equality" (published
in l986 in Telugu).  The key difference is that no inference can be
made about the gender of someone based only on name --  in
this case,  "N" stands for mother's first name; "S" stands
for father's first name (using such a system, I would be  identified
as A.T. Levy).  *See attachment which is an abstract in English
of that paper*.

ii)  With email, one can  (usually) choose _not_ to identify oneself with
a gender-specific name.  Thus, for instance, my pratt address,
glevy@pratt.edu, does not give away my gender.  There are good
and bad implications of this  relative anonymity made possible by
Net mailing list, or bulletin board or chat room, communications. On
the plus side, it make possible communication in which the gender
of the author is not revealed -- unless the author _wants_ her/his
gender identity revealed.   Since the Herring et al studies that you
cited previously found unequal treatment of women on Net mailing
lists (e.g. their posts weren't  taken as seriously), this might be a
practical way of overcoming this problem on some lists.  Taking
this a step further, one could arbitrarily or randomly assign each
subscriber a name or number.  Hans E tried such a system on a
list for people new to Marxism (can't remember it's name) so that
"newbies" could ask very basic questions without being made to
feel "stupid" or "silly"  and the subscribers who were "authorities" who
answered the questions also would be anonymous and therefore
the first group could evaluate each person's answer without being
influenced by how well-known, or not well-known, the person
was who was offering an answer.  Certainly an innovative system,
but I've not seen a report on how well it worked (I don't think that
list exists anymore. Does it Hans?).

But, anonymity is not always a good thing  for Internet communications.
In some Net forums where I've  resided, it was precisely the anonymity
that allowed individuals  the freedom to hurl much more personal abuse
and "flames". I.e.  since they knew that no one would know who they
were, they  often said sexist, racist, national chauvinist, etc. remarks
that  they don't have the courage to state using their own name (thus,
I've noticed a difference in behavior by people using anonymous
"hotmail"  addresses.)  So, this anonymity can be used to abuse others,
e.g. by making anonymous threats or by misleading others about oneself.
This has been  the case for some "predatory" men who sometimes stalk
young women on the Net.  So, the Net, using anonymous addresses, can
and has been used for sexual harassment.  As it applies to Net mailing
lists, the problems in this paragraph should be able to be dealt with
through appropriate list rules and enforcement by moderators.

Getting back to the plus side,  there is something truly liberating about
Net communications in the sense that one's ideas are not  necessarily
evaluated by one's physical appearance,  race, gender, and age. This
is potentially empowering to those who are young or old or who have
suffered discrimination based on weight,  height, skin color, accent,
lifestyle choices including clothing, gender, etc.  From that perspective,
there is a potential for equality in terms of communication that other
modes of communication don't allow. All that matters is what you write
(yet, what we write and how well we write is affected by a number of
other social factors, including the level of formal education.)

B. Interpreting 'silence'  and the social psychology of Net communication.

You are, of course, correct in [7094] that the problem is how one
*interprets* "silence" on Net lists.    What I think happens is that, in
the presence of incomplete information, we tend to *invent* reasons
for "silence".  There are some interesting social psychology issues here:
we tend depending on our personalities and our attitudes towards
the others who are "silent" to invent either very charitable and
understanding reasons or non-charitable reasons that assume ill intent
and maliciousness.

In a similar vein (and of relevance to the previous section) since we
generally  _don't know_ what someone looks like (or what someone's
gender, etc. is)  our minds tend to _invent_ an image of what we _think_
someone looks like.   It is thus sometimes highly amusing when people
who have  been communicating on the Net for some time see each other
for the first time and thus when their mental image comes face-to-face
with reality.

Another  issue that is worth investigating -- I'm sure it's already been
done -- is how the fact that people give _written_ responses on the
Net affects social interaction and communication.  On the plus side, I
think it is really helping to develop peoples'  writing skills.  On the
minus side, I think that the fact that people receive messages in
writing and that they know in the case of a mailing list that there are
many readers, tends to be inflammatory and quickly escalates
misunderstandings into full-blown wildfires. It also tends to increase
the compulsiveness associated with replies: thus, one may feel
that one has to respond _now_ to a mis-statement by someone else,
yet this rush to posting tends to quickly escalate out-of-control.

As for the question of why most subscribers are "silent" on OPE-L,
I think I know the answer.   The most frequently cited reason given
has been what you called "pragmatic time allocation".   As list
coordinator I am aware of a lot of  this information based on off-list
conversations with subscribers.   One such demand on listmembers'
time -- especially for those who are academics --   is work-related
(including having to set aside time for writing,  grading papers,
trying to get tenure, etc).  In this sense, the dividing line between
"capitaltime" and "noncapitaltime", that Simon referred to previously,
is not clear-cut for these workers. Indeed, employers often push
these workers into a _de facto_ expansion of the working day and
work week by increasing these demands (and, unfortunately, faculty
-- who generally see themselves as "professionals" rather than workers
and union members -- don't frequently fight back against this overwork).
But,  there is something else, something more going on.  We don't see
on-list (because subscribers haven't mentioned on-list) other things that
have been happening in their lives besides work and politics. I can tell
you -- without mentioning names -- that there have been births (I don't
have a # that I can give you -- but there are a bunch of  "OPE-L babies"
and kids out there), illnesses for subscribers and/or loved ones
(especially parents), deaths (especially of parents), marriages and
divorces, etc.  All we see on-list is the tip of the iceberg --  it is only
when we see both above and below the waterline that we begin to
know the person as an  individual rather than just a Marxist, an
economist, a scholar, etc.  In  this curious way, cyberspace brings us
together yet keeps us apart: in time  we feel _as if_ we know someone
well (and great friendships can be made  on the Net), yet we see only
certain sides of individuals on the Net unless  they are forthcoming about
what else is going on in their lives.  Yet, as we  all know, we tend to
have very serious discussions on OPE-L and the  personal is not often
discussed on-list. Anyway, this  time constraint  -- expressing it
differently, we really *do*  have lives outside of OPE-L --  is  the
single biggest reason for why many listmembers at any given moment
in time  are "silent".

C.  OPE-L and other lists

In [7093] you ask about the practice of other lists and whether this is
comparable to the practice on OPE-L.  I was sorely tempted to either
give a historical explanation of the balkanization of cyberspace Marxism
(that, I think, can be traced back to what happened on the old "marxism"
list) or to compare on a list-by-list basis each list that I am familiar
with to OPE-L.  I have decided to resist that temptation.  Instead, I will
simply note some differences among lists and suggest "what works" and
what does not.

i)  the good, the bad, and the ugly

The satisfaction that subscribers have with any list is basically related to
how they answer the question: "What am I getting out of this list?".  If
they think that they get a lot out of being on a list, then they tend to
stay (as most have on OPE-L); if they think that they are not getting
enough out of a list in relation to the time and aggravation associated with
being on a list, then they tend over time to unsubscribe.  Some annoyances
on other lists include (not necessarily in order of importance):

--  spam (basically non-existent on OPE-L);

--  corporate advertisements (because we are a closed list in which only
subscribers can post, these are rejected by listproc);

--  annoying posts, e.g. posts that just have stupid jokes. (this can be
annoying since the subject line for a post might sound interesting so you
open the mailing only to discover that the comment has nothing to do
with the subject line);

--  too many  posts which are simply articles from daily newspapers
or popular magazines and have little or no connection to any ongoing

-- flames; in "flame wars" this is often _all_ that happens on a list;

-- the quantity of posts (I discussed this previously as a reason often
cited  for unsubscribing from Net lists.)  On some lists, like LBO, it is
hard to  imagine how subscribers do anything with their lives other than
read LBO posts.

ad nauseum.

In many of the above cases (spam; annoying posts; flames) the
biggest culprits tend to be [loud and obnoxious] men.

ii) who is on a list?

a) For starters, any open list can be "invaded" by hostile forces and this
can destroy the quality of discussion and drive good subscribers away.
E.g. on the Post-Keynesian Thought (PKT) list, most active posters
aren't Post-Keynesians ( there was a long thread where some
subscribers _defended_ Say's Law.)  More commonly,  a "temporary
invasion" can occur: in this scenario forces intent on destroying a list
join, cause havoc, drive others off the list, and then (now that the "fun"
is over) leave.  This seem to me to be  exhibiting particularly "masculine"
forms of behavior.  Since we are a closed list, we are immune from
hostile invasions.

b) in many cases a lack of common knowledge and/or interest  by
subscribers can inhibit discussion.   For example, on some lists if someone
wrote an equation that person would be asked to explain basic math
or be denounced as an elitist.  Since we have, to a great extent, a
common knowledge and interest, this isn't as much of an issue for us
(although, the nature of specialization means that we do, in fact, have
a different knowledge and experience, but we can presume a certain
*basic* knowledge among subscribers.)

c) the quality of moderation can have a big impact on who is on a list.
If a moderator is abusive, obnoxious, and threatening towards subscribers
(and some are), then the serious people tend over time to get fed-up
and leave.   As the cycle is repeated over and again, all that might remain
is a loyal group of cult followers (I have a  "moderator" of a "marx"  list
in  mind as I write this, but I  will refrain from identifying him and
telling  you various sordid stories about his Net atrocities.)   I don't
claim  to be  a  perfect "moderator" (I prefer the term coordinator since
it seems  to me  to  be a more accurate description of my function), but
there is  *no*  question that we have a list that remains filled with very
serious Marxist scholars.

c) discussion lists

Creating and maintaining an environment in which there is ongoing
discussion is not easy.  Indeed, many so-called "discussion lists" fail
miserably at having discussion.

For instance,  many lists are really *announcement lists* rather than
discussion lists.  In other words, announcements make-up the
overwhelming percentage of posts and actual discussions are rare.
There is, of course, something to be said about belonging to a good
announcement list *if* most of the announcements you find
to be of interest. In most cases, such lists aren't even good at that since
some frequent posters may lack the judgment to know what
announcements will be of interest to most subscribers.   On OPE-L,
we -- of course -- have occasional announcements (which I think all
agree are generally very informative and useful)  but we remain first and
foremost a *discussion* list.

The replication of articles from the daily press that I alluded to above can
be also a *substitute* on some lists for discussion.

There are also impediments to discussion due to political differences
among Marxists. E.g.

i) on many marxist lists there are ongoing and often very insulting debates
between so-called "activists" and so-called "academics".   My observation on
these "debates"  is that there are  often gross misconceptions by the
"activists" about the "academics" (itself, a term used in a derogatory
way)  --  especially  as it relates to their alleged work experience -- and
the  "activists" (who,  more often than not aren't all that politically
active)  are  often just dogmatic  Marxists.  The problem with such debates
isn't  that  they  happen,  but that  they are never-ending and the same
misconceptions  and  insults are  endlessly repeated.  The message to many
"academics" ends  up  being "go away" and many end up doing just that.

ii) as I described previously, there is a long history of polemics in the
history of Marxism.  For the dogmatic, the polemical form encourages
abuse.  What can be most frustrating for serious discussion is when one
is constantly arguing with those who, rather than confront your ideas
honestly, caricature your perspective so you are constantly being attacked
for positions you don't hold and having to defend yourself against these,
often intentional and malicious, representations.  This, as well, tends to
drive serious people away and obstruct real, meaningful dialogue.

On OPE-L we are, of course, *very diverse* both theoretically and
politically,  but, we also have a tradition of *mutual respect*.  And,
developing a meaningful and ongoing dialogue, requires not only a
common interest but also a willingness to engage each other in discussion
in good faith. In that regard, we have a tradition of  *comradeship*
despite our very real differences in perspective.   This comradeship
isn't *by itself* unique to OPE-L  (e.g. some feminist mailing lists
exhibit a high degree of  *sisterhood* which is similar to comradeship).
But when combined with the other factors outlined above does, I think,
create a "unique" experience.

But, any forum can improve and occasional self-reflection can be
useful for that purpose.  What do others think about the above issues?

In solidarity, Jerry

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Thu May 02 2002 - 00:00:11 EDT