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:

thomas-knauer-sews-comment

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.

-t

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