Thursday, April 17, 2008

My Feminist Pet Peeves: Condescension

This is one of those topics an old-time feminazi might have taken up at a CR session, while absent-mindedly scratching her hairy armpits: The experience of being the object of benign condescension from certain types of men. Not all men practice this art of sermon-giving to women, but some do, and the experiences always tend to be memorable.

Rebecca Solnit, an author with many books under her belt, tells about one encounter with such a condescender at

I still don't know why Sallie and I bothered to go to that party in the forest slope above Aspen. The people were all older than us and dull in a distinguished way, old enough that we, at forty-ish, passed as the occasion's young ladies. The house was great -- if you like Ralph Lauren-style chalets -- a rugged luxury cabin at 9,000 feet complete with elk antlers, lots of kilims, and a wood-burning stove. We were preparing to leave, when our host said, "No, stay a little longer so I can talk to you." He was an imposing man who'd made a lot of money.

He kept us waiting while the other guests drifted out into the summer night, and then sat us down at his authentically grainy wood table and said to me, "So? I hear you've written a couple of books."

I replied, "Several, actually."

He said, in the way you encourage your friend's seven-year-old to describe flute practice, "And what are they about?"

They were actually about quite a few different things, the six or seven out by then, but I began to speak only of the most recent on that summer day in 2003, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, my book on the annihilation of time and space and the industrialization of everyday life.

He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. "And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?"

So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingénue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I'd somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book -- with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.

Here, let me just say that my life is well-sprinkled with lovely men, with a long succession of editors who have, since I was young, listened and encouraged and published me, with my infinitely generous younger brother, with splendid friends of whom it could be said -- like the Clerk in The Canterbury Tales I still remember from Mr. Pelen's class on Chaucer -- "gladly would he learn and gladly teach." Still, there are these other men, too. So, Mr. Very Important was going on smugly about this book I should have known when Sallie interrupted him to say, "That's her book." Or tried to interrupt him anyway.

But he just continued on his way. She had to say, "That's her book" three or four times before he finally took it in. And then, as if in a nineteenth-century novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn't read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless -- for a moment, before he began holding forth again. Being women, we were politely out of earshot before we started laughing, and we've never really stopped.

It's hilarious, of course. It could also be the case that this particular man always holds forth, always condescends, both to men and women. It could well be. But I've never had a woman condescend this way to me yet. Only some men have done it, and the condescension seems to have a cultural dimension to it so that I can almost predict that men from certain countries will do that while being charming and polite, exactly in the way one would talk to precocious children. Also, it is more likely that an older man will assume this particular attitude.

So I think the attitude has to do with expectations. Expectations about women being rather silly and charming creatures who really don't know very much about anything important. But well, we have to live with them and to be nice to them because of that damn sexual reproduction thing.

What really rung the bell in that quote from Solnit's article was the associated deafness of the pontificator, his inability to hear what Solnit's friend was saying. Because what she was saying was not a simple correction of information. It was something that tipped over his whole thought edifice. Or tried to tip it over.

I've had many, many experiences with this selective sort of deafness myself, ranging from trying to make contractors hear what I want to be done with the house to telling someone that yes, indeed, I'm familiar with the theories in an introductory economics course, given that I have a terminal degree in the field. But the deafness is an obstacle here and yelling very hard or kicking the person in the groin would make me look worse than the idiot I'm dealing with. Sigh.