On Statistics, Implications, and Pseudo-Academia…

Statistics are funny things; they can be used in so many ways, especially when the user brings a thin understanding of statistics to the table. The same thing can be said of words as well, and we unfortunately live in a world where both numbers and words are used all too incautiously.

On Thursday I posted about a comment left on the second part of my Q&A with Why Quilts Matter, one that purported to use statistics to impugn the integrity and intellectual credibility of all the people working to make Why Quilts Matter and the The Kentucky Quilt Project happen. The comment stated that 10 of the 16 posts this year that were not book reviews, announcements or giveaways were by/about men, a statistical position that was then used to question the convictions of Why Quilts Matter by implying that they were turning to men to lend credibility and justification to the project—a position that I find to be profoundly insulting to all the people who work so hard to make WQM happen, the intelligent and remarkable women who stand by their commitment to quilts and the quilting tradition to help expand the scope of an important practice.

First off, let’s look at the stats: Of those 16 posts, three men and six women were involved; Bill Volckening is a recurring guest contributor and accounts for 7 of the 10 posts involving men. Of the eight people they have done Q&A sessions with, just two have been men; one is me and the other is Joe Cunningham. And that is just since the beginning of the calendar year. I wonder what the ratio is since the beginning of WQM’s blog, and what it will be in the future. Statistical evidence is rarely as easy as doing a bit of simple adding, which is why so the study of statistics is an essential aspect of so many fields of study across both the sciences and the humanities. The thing is that numbers can indeed lie, and to use them incautiously frequently has dangerous implications.

In fact, let’s look at the implications. The assertion of the original comment seems to be that the presence of men in the professional quilting world, the land of publications and exhibitions, ought to roughly mirror their presence in the everyday practice. So, what would we say the percentage of male quilters is out there? Two percent? Maybe five percent? Let’s be generous and say five percent. By extension then, Bill should not be a guest blogger for WQM. In fact WQM would have filled its male quota right off the bat with Joe. And since I have an ongoing series of commentaries with Quilter’s Newsletter, have they hit the limit on men they can involve? Heck, does the fact that they have a male editor already mean that they’ve filled their testosterone quota? How about F+W? I have a book coming out with them in the spring; does that mean that no other male authors ought to publish through them until fall?

I ask these questions in all seriousness. This isn’t about me; I am fully aware that as a white male I have inordinate advantages. This is about the misuse of statistics and words, because the same argument easily extends to people of color, class, and sexual orientation right along with gender. It is pseudo-academia used to make insulting positions palatable. Again, I am fine, but I continue to be outraged on behalf of the many quilters who feel left and forced out of the community. And I am enraged on behalf of WQM, because in the end the pseudo-stats were used most directly to insult each and every member of the editorial team.

And honestly I thought I was going to be over this after Thursday’s post, but a comment came in on Friday that I just cannot let go:


So, this is directly for Sandi:

First off, I in no way appreciate your tone, which is obviously intentionally condescending and insulting. By starting with “If you read further…” you are explicitly suggesting that I had not, that I was being intellectually dishonest and reactionary. By following up with “Even you have to agree…” asserts that I am somehow too dim to see your self-evident truth, or again profoundly intellectually dishonest.

You then try to cushion things a bit by saying it isn’t about me; it’s about the self-evident statistics. The thing is that by posting this as a comment on the Q&A rather than elsewhere it ties it to me, to my content. Context matters; it always does. It implies that my content is part of a plan to reinforce the suggested weakness of the women at WQM, a suggestion I find outrageous.

And here is the real thing; despite your implication to the contrary, I have never and would never claim an equivalency between the way men are frequently treated here in the quilting world and the systemic discrimination women face every day around the world, or with rape. To suggest that I would offer such an equivalency is insulting to me both intellectually and personally. Furthermore to call my addressing the issue of the way men are frequently slighted in this industry “pouting” is a bald-faced attempt to infantilize me, but it also has much more insidious implications. Are you suggesting that all complaints against bias are “pouting,” that all who have spoken out against various forms of discrimination, large and small, were “pouting”? Because it seems to me that bringing issues to light, whether they be large or small, is how positive change is affected. Or is it just the issues that you care about that are worthy of public discussion?

In the face of all of the horror in the world does any American really have any justification for complaint at all, no matter how bad the situation? At least we aren’t victims of chemical weapons, or dying from the lack of potable water. You see, that is the problem with seeing everything through the lens of equivalency; you end up having to judge the degrees of someone else’s grief.

Which brings me to one last question: what do you really know about me? About my past, my experiences, my problems? What do you know about what has or has not happened to me? That is the danger of judging with regard to another person’s emotional responses; you almost always come off sounding like a complete ass. In many regards my life has been easy; in other ways the struggles have been profound. This is the case with every life, and is precisely why we ought to be more restrained with our words, because our words have implications.

And the thing is that my experience with you, Sandi, is one that seems all too common here in the quilting community, for both women and men. I do not know a single quilter, at least of my generation, who has not had someone at a guild, a shop, or a show speak to them in a way that ignores the implications of their words. For a community that is in so many ways predicated upon the idea of people coming together in common effort at a bee to share labor, expertise, and lives to be so rife with thoughtlessness indeed breaks my perhaps too delicate heart.


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3 Responses to On Statistics, Implications, and Pseudo-Academia…

  1. 1
    Sandi says:

    I apologize for the word “pouting.” That’s the one thing I knew, as I wrote, that was deliberately diminishing you as an individual. It was annoyance and frustration and it was wrong. Beyond that, I stand by what I wrote. The fact that in your original post you chose to completely ignore the reason behind that commenter’s words seemed a fairly good indication that either you did NOT in fact read further, or you decided that her concern had no value and wasn’t worth acknowledging. Whether you agree that her interpretation of statistics have merit or not, your post suggested that she wrote that comment because she had a problem with men being involved in quilting. You deliberately chose to turn a question about why (she belived) women are being overlooked in an area that they are generally considered the authority into an attack on men in quilting. Her question wasn’t an attempt to diminishing men in quilting. It was about NOT diminishing women.
    I don’t read your posts superficially. I make an attempt to thoughtfully consider what you write, and I am usually in agreement with what you share. However, the fervor with which you defend your right to be accepted in this industry is out of proportion with the degree to which you are being excluded. Your success in this industry should be a pretty good indication that you are accepted.
    I know women who have suffered simply because they are female in a male dominated field. A woman I work with told me when she was first hired by the city in the 1970s, her new boss said to her face that she was being paid $9,000 a year instead of $13,000 solely because she was a woman. An electrician had her tools stolen repeatedly and once had a used condom left in her lunch box. A chef referred to chicken breasts as boobs and smirkingly called his employee only by her last name – Beaver. Don’t even get me started on the VP who was caught looking at porn on his computer at work – twice – and continued to supervise the primarily female staff. Again, and with no flippancy, look at what is finally happening in the US military to address the pervasive sexual harassment and abuse directed at women. These are serious issues, issues that women have been dealing with all their lives. When I read your posts about how you and other male quilters are being discriminated against because publications write “Hey ladies” or people ask if you’re lost, I feel genuinely ill because it seems to once again diminish what true discrimination means, what women and other groups have been battling all our lives.

    • 1.1
      thomas says:

      Let me ask you a simple question: do you truly believe that you know everything that I have experienced? Do you believe that I can or do publicly share every detail, small and large? Do you believe that I can afford to tell all of the stories and share all of the details? And by afford I mean that quite literally. Do you believe that you know the entirety of my history and experience and what both the small and the large events mean within that larger context? Do you believe that you truly understand the ramifications all of the events, small and large, have upon my family’s economic realities and future? Do you think you have the knowledge of the full scope of my (or anyone else’s) life?

      I have never once attempted to make an equivalency between my experiences and those of women, or anyone else, across the world, but your insistence on diminishing my experiences betrays a callousness that I find truly disheartening.

  2. 2
    Ekaterina Kat Balaban says:

    OK, I thought about writing in more detail, but I just can’t allow myself being too wordy here so not to cloud my point, which is: I firmly believe that discrimination (of any sorts) still exists because the majority of people prefer to complain rather than act, and then they misdirect their accumulated frustrations when they think they are “acting,” which only perpetuates the problem but does nothing to solve it.

    (For the record: I live on the same planet, and have been a subject of discrimination of various shapes and forms: because I am a woman, because I am too smart for some, because I am a redhead, because I have an accent, because I am different from someone’s stereotypical expectations, because my straight-forwardness gets me in trouble – sometimes; etc. I might be simplifying things here, but here it is: if you have a problem with something, deal with the source of the problem right there to squish the bug right away, and when you are done, you are done, move on until the next instance of injustice; don’t wait years to spill your frustrations on the innocent by-standers when they have nothing to do with the source of the original problem, and for goodness sake, don’t let this unaddressed internal turmoil eat you from inside – as my Mom puts it, “your nerve cells are non-recoverable resource” [my awkward translation of a Russian idiom] :-).)


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