Friday, December 28, 2012

Here's one of the women, Tony Jones

A few weeks ago, a guy in my dungeons and dragons group (who also happens to be a tenured religion professor at a university you might actually have heard of) encouraged me to read a recent post from Tony Jones, who is a fairly visible thinker in the emergent Christianity movement that I am a part of.

It seems that Tony had recently realized that most of his commenters are men and the statistics from Facebook were telling him that a significant majority of the people who "liked" his page were men. So, he asked, "Where are all the women?"

There were over three hundred comments and I read them all. An interesting narrative developed, with several sub-plots. What stands out to me most interestingly is that Tony seemed honestly surprised that people think the cause for women's absence is Tony. There is a fair amount of defensiveness on his part that reads very much like he is caught off-guard. I would think that if he started with the assumption that it was something about him, his writing style or the community that he fostered in the comments, he would have been able to respond a little more objectively. You know, the difference between calling responses "attacks" and thanking people for their perspective, even if one respectfully disagrees. He also used the classic defense of hyperbolizing his opponent when paraphrasing her, claiming that the commenter was requiring him "to change everything" about himself, even though she was just answering his question as to why she was uninterested in commenting, which did not instruct him to change anything and even if instruction was implied, it certainly wouldn't be everything that needed changing.

This makes me wonder what his original hypothesis was for where all the women were. Unless someone else can think of something and mention in these comments, I can only imagine that Tony believed that the problem was the women.

And certainly, some of the reasons were endemic to common female experiences. Many women cited busy-ness, which is backed up by all sorts of research that shows that on average, men have more leisure time for things like Internet commenting than women do. Relatedly, someone pointed out that men are the majority of pastors and seminary students, who have the time built into their workday for engaging in theology. Other women said that they are exhausted from "speaking up" to make their voice heard in the Church that still preferences men as spiritual leaders in their daily non-Internet lives that they were simply uninterested in doing so in the comments section of a blog.

(As a side note, since I was raised mainline Protestant with lots of female pastors at my church, I have never personally resonated with the struggles of evangelical women who were always told that their calling to teach and lead was not real. However, a commenter brought up the perspective that the Emergent dynamic often treats women thinkers, leaders and speakers as spectacle as response to the evangelical dynamic of women as invisible, and that is almost as off-putting. I HAVE experienced that over beers at theology pubs and I'm glad someone brought it up.)

The only other cause that could be argued was the responsibility of women was that the type of things he posts are just uninteresting to women. And, I don't know, ugh. That's like saying that women just aren't interested in sports and beer and stuff. It's just not the whole story. However, one commenter noted that Tony's lack of feminist awareness makes his perspective uninteresting. That, I could see as being a valid point for why women aren't attracted to his writing. Female theology nerds (theology nerds in general being a huge part of Tony's audience) do have a wide range of white dudes, dead and alive, from whom to choose for study. Without a new branch from which to speak regarding social politics, why choose him over voices with insight from female, queer, non-Western or racial minority communities?

But aside from those reasons, which fit the generic answer to anyone asking why women don't participate in something male-dominated, there were quite a few specific suggestions for how Tony himself is the reason why women don't comment. Lots of women said that the types of things Tony posts are declarative (Tony concurred) and therefore did not seem need response. Many people spoke of his patronizing tone, which my friend explains away as a symptom of their shared Princeton educations but others chalked it up to male privilege. As one commenter wrote, "I have not gone to seminary and I am a woman. Do my uneducated thoughts on theology really matter to you? I assume not because of the culture I grew up in…the culture I’m still a part of. You have not put that culture in place, but it’s still there. It will take A LOT of effort on your part to fight this and make us feel welcome to speak. That makes sense, right?" That lack of effort is definitely something Tony could take responsibility for.

In addition to a patronizing tone, many described a tone that was combative, rather than inclusive. I never got the sense that Tony ever really understood this point. He didn't really address it in his comments, nor did it come up in his response post the next day. A long comment by a man named John that is worth re-printing is representative of several people who tried to give specific examples of how his syntax could be slightly altered to change this tone.

"If one is truly interested in dialogue then challenges and
interrogations are not the means by which to promote it.

I’ve heard the tone accusation leveled against me by every woman who
has ever had a significant relationship with me, beginning with my
mother and continuing all the way through to my wife. I’ve also heard
it from a number of men I’ve known. Fortunately, about 10 years ago I
decided to listen instead of ask questions and discovered that if I
simply stopped for a moment and thought back to what I had been saying
up to that point rather than automatically demanding an example as
evidence that what they were telling me was factual the answer was
pretty obvious (and had been all along). The truth is that in many ways
it is about how you put things both verbally and non-verbally, and if
you have a diverse group of people telling you the same thing about how
you communicate in virtually the same language it’s probably time to
stop wondering why others don’t get you or your intent or your style or
your personality and listen for a bit, beginning with what’s issuing
from your mouth or fingertips, as the case may be. Confining things to
online interactions, allow me to offer an example of the difference
between dialogue and challenge/interrogation.

Blogger: This is something I’ve noticed, and I don’t understand why
it’s happening. Thoughts?

Commenter: When I read your posts, I notice that you tend to respond in
X fashion to certain issues/topics. It gives me the impression that you
believe Y.

Dialogue Response from Blogger: Hmm. I honestly hadn’t thought of that
before you brought it up. Can you maybe give me a few more details so I
can build a context for what you’re telling me? What you said kind of
caught me flat-footed so I’m going to need your help processing it.

Challenge/Interrogatory Response from Blogger: That’s not really how I
see what I do here. What makes you think I’m like that?

See the difference in the two? Both responses say substantially the
same thing–i.e., “That’s a new perspective for me. I need more
information.”–but each presents a different tone (as much as such
things can exist online) to the commenter as well as other readers. The
former invites the commenter into further dialogue with some degree of
assurance that her perspective is welcome and the blogger is genuinely
interested in learning from her. The latter asks for an explanation,
and it’s very much on a defensive footing.

If you’re looking to debate someone the latter is a somewhat
appropriate (albeit not necessarily productive) response. If you’re
looking to have a conversation with someone the former is really your
only choice. My impression is that most people are happy to have an
interesting conversation on a substantive issue, but they’re not
particularly interested in getting into a public urination competition
to determine the “right” answer. Simply put, if your goal is to be
right you’re not conversing, you’re arguing, and how many
well-adjusted, gainfully employed adults do you know who are willing to
out of their way for yet another argument in their lives?"

Two commenters made good points in Tony's "defense," pointing out that some folks who have been wounded by the Church need people like Tony to speak boldly to make space for their own healing and that he is an Enneagram 8 so his tone is just the way he communicates.

To the former point, I say "Hell yeah!" And if that's what Tony sees as his calling, it may not be necessary to pay attention to his audience. He is making that impact for folks and he should go on doing so.

However, the latter defense is a little bit of a cop out. We were all born with certain strengths and limitations and as we grew, those strengths and limitations cemented themselves into personalities that can be plotted in charts like the Enneagram. However, this does not mean that we're stuck with those strengths and limitations forever. We can deliberately develop new skills in order to achieve goals that were previously out of reach.

So, if attracting a balanced audience is a goal of Tony's and not just a thought experiment to discuss, he will be fully capable of changing his syntax like the commenters have been suggesting. It will take some time listening and reflecting how what he hears can be applied to his actions. This would be a break from asking questions in the conversation with his audience and would require a certain amount of vulnerability, both privately and publicly. But it is totally possible without necessarily changing "everything."

One of the other major sub-plots was an extended exchange spurred because one woman said that Tony's style and tone reminded her of Christian men who had abused her in the past. Other men vociferously came to his defense against that comment and over the course of the thread, it was interesting to see both sides both educate and relent, just like IRL reconciliation. The original commenter realized that the word, "abuser" is often a trigger word, like telling a women she is like a whore, and Tony and some of the men acknowledged the commenter's original point about tone.

But the boys club that emerged in that exchange was a very clear demonstration of the community of commenters that so many women found objectionable, describing them as argumentative and hostile in their "spirited" debates.

Also, I think exchanges like the "abuser" one illustrate Tony's blindness to his own position of privilege. In that particular relational discomfort, the fancy-educated white guy with the platform wins unless he deliberately humbles himself. And i never interpreted Tony's responses as humble. At one point Tony referenced Hitler as a snarky response to this thread and then he erased his knee-jerk comment rather than owning it. That is not a humble posture of someone who wants to be pastoral toward a commenter who was clearly hurting. It is definitely not a humble posture of someone who is interested in doing whatever it takes to get equality in the community he hosts.

And it may be that Tony decides that courting women to participate is not all that important. I hope, though, that he realizes how much he will be able to accomplish of behalf of marginalized folks if he begins down this path with his blog. (I have no idea how far down along that path he is in his face-to-face life). His understanding of the multiple aspects of God will increase as his discourse community's diversity increases. Changing his syntax and tone to be more collaborative and inclusive will allow other folks to share in the privilege that has been his birthright but that was never God's intent for Her children.

Tony responded throughout the comments and posted a follow-up post. I did not read the comments on that one. I thought the follow-up post didn't say much but interestingly, he put the onus on the commenters for creating unsafe space rather than taking it on himself to moderate comments and deliberately build a community, even though several commenters suggested that he had that responsibility as the host who sets the table for the banquet.

I only track Tony in my peripheral vision but I'll be interested to check in on him periodically to see if this experience has changed him at all. Despite his protestations, we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. It is a baby boomer/gen x myth that I'm ok and you're ok and that it's the worst thing possible to suggest that someone needs to change in order to stop causing hurt, however unintentionally. We are not yet who God intends us to be and we should all be so lucky as to get the opportunity to have hundreds of people help us get there through their feedback.


Mike Clawson said...

Thanks for the post Rebecca. What do you think of Tony's follow-up post?

PrincessMax said...

That's the follow-up post I referred to at the end. Sorry I forgot to go in and put the link (blogger hasn't yet made a complete app for writing from the iPad so links have to be done later on the desktop).

I think he needed to have taken responsibility for monitoring commenters rather than just leaving it to their desire to be inclusive as the motivator for change. Other than that, it seems like things still sting but that he might be open to some change. If you talk to him in Memphis, I'd be interested in your thoughts if this come up now that it's more than a month later.