Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Recognizing Expertise Over Time. A Feminist Take.

I came across this picture somewhere online.  It's a joke about how the way we acknowledge expertise has changed over time:

The joke in the picture is a good one, suggesting that who qualifies as the expert on some issue has changed in undesirable ways over time.  In the 1990s the expert was a leading scientist, in the 1990s a PhD student, in the 2000s a media expert (whatever that means), and in the 2010s the expert is Karen on Facebook.

I agree on the punchline, of course I do!  Far too many people now get their news from the curated and biased smorgasbord Facebook algorithms and our friends and allies on social media offer us.  Though times were not necessarily that much greater in the past decades, it's certainly true that expertise now has much more to do with gut feelings than with actual demonstrated knowledge of a field.

But I can't avoid seeing cartoons such as the above from other angles, too.  For instance, it looks like everyone in the picture is white, though it's hard to tell with a cartoon, and of course acknowledged experts in the US mostly are white both for reasons of population numbers (whites are still the majority) and for reasons of racism (fewer people of color in the upper echelons of various fields and of those who are in the upper echelons,  fewer are seen as experts by others because of that race-tinted fog we all live in).

In fact, there are good reasons to keep all other things except for the punchline topic as constant as possible between the decades so as to drive the punchline home.  Those other things are not held constant, however.  The first three experts are clearly intended to be read as men, while the last one is intended to be read as a woman*.  If the name "Karen"** doesn't get you there, then the hairstyle should...

Would the story have been weaker if the last figure had been, say, Kevin, in a baseball cap, from Facebook?  Or is it the case that naming this Facebook friend "Karen" strengthens the case the cartoon is making?  After all, women are very rarely viewed as valid experts, even if the women in question wear lab coats and have PhDs.

This post is an example of those posts I write which are often deemed to be about nitpickery.  Or comma-fuckery, as Finns say. 

And the topic is trivial, of course, except in showing how diffuse and common those little reminders of sexist hierarchies are in our daily lives.  It also shows one of the reasons why it's so hard to get those real experts who just happen to be women the respect they deserve.


*  We have regressed so terribly when it comes to gender norms that one's hairstyle is now immediately coded as signifying gender or biological sex.  I have learned this in those parts of the social media young people use!

Boys have short hair and play football (and when they grow up they will wear lab coats and become experts or at least media experts).  Girls, on the other hand, have long hair and wear skirts and when they grow up they will become Karens on Facebook.   And yes, I know that this is an exaggerated take, but it's not as exaggerated as it should be.

**  I can't tell if the woman in the cartoon is called Karen because of the Karen meme.  That meme, in itself, probably partly operates so strongly because women are not supposed to complain and be vocal, so those who do tend to stand out in an unpleasant manner as strident and demanding.  I see this a lot in politics. 

And of course it's the case that women, too, from all demographic groups can be difficult and bossy and nasty people.   Karen in the meme is usually interpreted as a young-to-middle-aged white woman, often an ex-wife, who took custody of the kids.  That last interpretation adds a soupcon of open anger at women into the picture.

Even more generally, our unconscious sexism contributes to the success of memes such as the Karen one.  Because the rules for deciding when someone is strident and overly demanding vary by sex, a person like Karen looks so much worse than an otherwise identically behaving but male version of Karen.  Kevin, say.  We expect the Kevins of this world to be assertive, after all, so they have to break furniture while demanding service at some store before they are deemed entitled or strident or demanding.