Friday, June 29, 2012

The Problem with Masks

"There are no girls on the internet" is an old joke that reflects a harsh reality.  Though today the number of female users is rapidly increasing, especially on social media, in the early days of the internet women were a very small minority, and this is still true in some areas, such as the hacking and information security communities.  Women who braved the early male-dominated internet faced an intimidating environment, where we could expect to be greeted with "Tits or GTFO," and to be seen as curiosities like dancing bears, rather than being accepted as ordinary members of a community.

Some of us coped by finding communities dedicated to fighting for equality in real life, where males made active efforts to welcome women.  Others coped by becoming excellent at skills respected by the men in their communities.  Still others coped by adopting a protective coloration, deliberately portraying themselves as cartoonish caricatures of women.  When your persona reinforces the stereotypes men hold of women, you're not seen as a threat.  Nobody has to confront or change their unconscious bias in order to accept you, they're free to be amused by the funny dancing bear without the discomfort of wondering what the bear really thinks of them.

The Den Mother, the Submissive Sex Kitten, the Crazy Bitch who can't control her emotions and thus isn't responsible for her actions, these one-dimensional personas can be very successful in protecting a woman in a male-dominated online environment.  By putting on these masks, she may mingle with the worst dregs of the internet unscathed.  She may even be successful in surrounding herself with "White Knights," willing to take down any enemies she points her dainty finger at.  There is a power in this coping strategy, there's no denying that.

The downside of this choice is twofold.  First, when someone deliberately reinforces a stereotype, it makes life harder for everyone else who has to deal with confronting that stereotype.  Second, when people wear masks continually for years, they run the risk of becoming what they pretend to be.

Critical thinking and logical persuasion are not skills that can be maintained while wearing such vapid masks.  These mental skills require frequent exercise through honest debate and the challenge of interacting with others as an equal, without appealing to sexuality, focusing on personal traits instead of the arguments made, or pretending to be so incompetent that normal standards of reasoning should not apply to you.

Avoiding the challenge by infantilizing yourself, responding to serious questions with crude ad hominem insults and childlike expressions, such as "giggles" and silly plays on words, is not only unconvincing, it's self-harmful, denying yourself the vital exercise necessary to maintain the mental skills of a reasonable adult person.

Over time, responding to criticism or questioning in a stereotypically infantilized way becomes a reflex, and the ability to respond any other way atrophies, leaving the person behind the mask unable to construct a convincing, reasonable response to anything, even serious allegations of wrongdoing.  If the facts are on her side, she cannot express them in a coherent way, and must rely on appeals to emotion instead.  If she is guilty, she cannot correctly assess which lies would be believable or avoid telling contradictory stories.

When cyber crime spills over into the real world with attacks meant to subvert the democratic process and coerce elected officials through threats, a persona that requires the wearer to be friends with everyone, unable to choose a side, becomes a huge liability.  It's no virtue to be friends with everyone if that includes those who use fascist tactics to silence opposition and who would replace the rule of law with arbitrary vigilante retribution.  At a certain point, refusing to choose a side is choosing to condone intolerable acts, and "I'm just a woman, how could I know right from wrong?" is not a valid excuse.

1 comment:

  1. Women are not equal to men. They are much smaller, and much weaker, physically and intellectually. That's simply reality, and anyone who has spent any time observing and working with women knows that. Stop deluding yourself.