Friday, March 21, 2014

On Speaking in Code

I recount to you a fable, told me lately by a friend.

The meeting had been called to discuss a Technique. Strictly speaking, techniques serve external ends, and this was no exception. Alasdair MacIntyre wrote in 1981 that participants in the dominant culture avoid evaluating ends, knowing only how to reason about means. Over Three decades later, we have overcome such thinking, having now figured out how to avoid evaluating means as well. It is so simple. We just designate them "best practices." Like any good candidate for a term with mesmeric force, this one has long outlived its roots, which no doubt fed in a soil of rigor, scientific study, and dedication to efficiency.

So, the people came together to discuss the Technique, which they were sure was a Best Practice, well designed to achieve its Ends. But it turns out that the attendees also had ends of their own.

After long discussion, a young woman offered a contribution. She was frustrated with the Technique, she said. She had never been wholly satisfied with her attempts to implement it, and she felt that perhaps it did not serve its Ends very well. 

An older man volunteered a reply, in a congenial tone. "Do not worry, Young Woman. After years of implementing the Technique, I too have had frustrations. You must have confidence that, in time, and with practice, your use of the Technique will improve."

The young woman failed to switch codes. As a result, two people did not achieve their ends.

Hers included: (1) arguing that the Technique should itself be questioned, or perhaps even abandoned, and (2) accomplishing (1) without offending her colleagues.  She succeeded with the second part of (2) but only at the expense of failing completely with (1). Although she had said that the Technique might not serve its ends, her senior colleague had fixated on her expressions of frustration and humility, and he had assumed that she was in distress, asking for help.

His ends included (1) helping a junior colleague in an empathetic way, and, presumably, (2) not sounding condescending. His is the tragic case: he failed in both.

It was at some point in graduate school that I realized that I spoke in a code that my male peers did not understand. Any expression of self-doubt, or hesitation, or polite demurring--they took to be expressions of incompetence or ignorance. Few of these men were jerks. They just had never learned the code that women use so naturally (though it be our second nature) with one another. And to be fair, we didn't know their code either. We assumed that their expressions of self-confidence were signs of insufferable arrogance, when they were more likely just moves in an intricate game.

At the peak of my frustration over the obstacles meeting women in a male-dominated field, I was advised repeatedly not to write about such things--at least not yet. And I sympathized with the advice. Not only did I see the ways in which such writing might keep me from being "taken seriously," I agreed with Simone de Beauvoir that the topic of women can be irritating, especially to women.

But watching interactions that resemble my friend's familiar fable have convinced me: charity requires speaking out about such things. Otherwise these poor people will never understand, will remain forever blind, will never achieve even the noblest of ends.

If women are to play the game with those who cannot hear us, we must, at least in limited contexts, learn to codeswitch, even if I much prefer the gentler tenor of our own code. But many men can and truly want to hear us. To effect this end, the codes cannot remain secret, and women cannot remain silent about themselves. Understanding silence, after all, itself requires immersion in the most advanced of codes. It is often too much to ask.