The meeting

The long-awaited, but hastily scheduled meeting started ten minutes late. Tensions were high, and hostility quickly escalated as a New Idea was tentatively floated. One or two of my male colleagues have quick tempers and tend to interrupt women, even when women ask them not to. Later, after the meeting, another male colleague came to my office to tell me that he admired me for being feisty. I accepted his compliment, even though the word, “feisty,” is fraught with meanings. Oxford’s online dictionary definition for example: “Adjective of a person, typically one who is relatively small, lively, determined, and courageous.” It is a crying shame that women have to be “courageous” to advocate for their ideas, or that we have to be “determined” to stop men from interrupting us. Plum Kettle (heroine of “Dietland,”) is right. Patriarchy sucks.

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“There will be enough women on the Supreme Court when there are nine.”

Earlier this week, I saw the new film, “RBG” at a favorite local theatre. RBG, of course, is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an associate justice on the United States Supreme Court. The film documents her life’s work as a super smart feminist who strategically uses the legal process to dismantle gender discrimination. One of my favorite scenes in the film is a replay of remarks she made in 2017 at Roosevelt University: “There will be enough women on the Supreme Court when there are nine.”

And so, another cartoon was born.US Supreme Court 2022

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Compassion Fatigue and Insurance Adjusters

crawlspace 01

Fuel oil spilling into the crawlspace made eerily shifting shapes that looked like monsters.

Social scientists have been studying compassion fatigue since at least the 1980s. The term refers to the psychological state of feeling numb or uncaring as a result of an overload of caring. Workers who commonly experience compassion fatigue include social workers, nurses, teachers, child and adult protection workers, hospital chaplains, and veterinarians. You can probably think of many other jobs that would make workers’ sense of compassion fade away over time. Maybe you have even had that kind of job yourself. For example, I worked for a law firm that specialized in bankruptcies. At first, I loved the job, and I really liked my co-workers. But having to cope with the tragedy of bankruptcy week after week, month after month, proved too much for me. The problem was not that I stopped caring, or that I had compassion fatigue to the point where I became numb and uncaring; the problem was that I couldn’t stop caring. Every week, a grown man would sob in my office. Every day a person would call and beg for relief from creditor harassment, e.g. constantly being called at work and late at night. People who had loans for mobile homes and who had defaulted would come home from work to find their clothes and the kids’ toys thrown out on the lawn, and their home gone. The suffering was too much for me to bear, and so after two and a half years, I called it quits, moved to Iowa, and went back to college.

My experience makes me wonder if social scientists might need to tweak the term a bit. Feeling fatigued and exhausted because of constant compassion is different from being at a point where the compassion valve is simply turned off. I’ll give you an example of what I mean.

There was a heating oil spill at our home in April, 2018. A chunk of ice fell off the roof and severed the line to the fuel oil tank, which sits just outside of the house. About 160 gallons of fuel oil sprayed onto the cabin logs and flowed into the crawlspace beneath the house. My spouse and I were/are devastated. We had to move out of the house, and we are living in marginal circumstances in a rental cabin that is dangerous for our blind dog, and which has steps that are so steep that I cannot use them to do laundry, medicate the cat (he lives mostly downstairs), or clean the cat litter. I have spent hours and hours on the phone and meeting in person with the insurance company, mortgage lender, attorney, tax accountant, oil spill responders, dirt contractors, and construction companies. Everyone has been super sympathetic and kind. Everyone, that is, but the insurance adjuster.

You know those insurance ads on TV where a smiling insurance adjuster calms an upset client? For example, Flo (Progressive), driving in a rainstorm to reassure her client who has just had an accident. Not our adjuster.

At first I thought he was just a jerk. A patronizing mansplainer with bad customer service skills. He’s aggressive and rude. He constantly interrupts me when I am talking. He told me that the insurance company will not cover the mitigation costs outside of the footprint of the house. The state of Alaska requires that clean up, and the best bid I’ve gotten so far is $78,000. When I told the adjuster that we could not afford to pay this, and that the state would require the cleanup, he told me I should get a loan from the bank to cover the cost. When I told him that the credit union refused to lend money because the property was contaminated (remember the oil spill, the reason I am on the phone with you, I asked?), he just directed me to the exception clause in the insurance policy.

Just a jerk, right? Just an uncaring guy who has no concept of how much our home means to us. Clueless about how to talk with a woman who has had to abandon her home. A mean man with bad customer service skills. But then, I realized something. He takes calls all day long from people like me: people whose lives are turned upside down by loss. Fires that destroyed their homes and killed their cats. Trees that toppled into houses and smashed them to bits. Floods that saturated homes and ruined treasured family mementos. And fuel oil spills.

In our second call, the adjuster told me that he had been doing this for twelve years. He knew what he was doing, he said. He had experience with just this type of claim. Now I am beginning to understand that he may not be a jerk after all. He may just be exhausted by having to deal with upset customers like me, and so he has figured out a way to cope.

Earlier this week, another contractor came out to the land to work out a bid. He is a friend, a former student of mine, a super nice guy. He said something innocuous to me, I don’t really recall what he said, but I just burst into tears. That tiny bit of kindness was just overwhelming for me. So now I am beginning to understand that perhaps the insurance adjuster strategically deploys a non-compassionate style to avoid customers’ expression of grief and upset. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism for him, a way of avoiding burnout. Perhaps he has just turned his compassion valve off.

Or, he could just be a mansplaining jerk.

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manterruptionThere is plenty of scholarly and anecdotal evidence that men chronically interrupt women. They interrupt women at home, at work, and at social events. When women protest being interrupted, they are accused of being bossy, bitchy, and emotional. In the small group setting, such as meetings, the more men are present, the more likely it is that the women in the group will be interrupted.

I have experienced this first hand, and I have studied the phenomenon. In the 1980s, while I was a student at University of North Carolina Greensboro, I was super lucky to be awarded an undergraduate research assistantship to work with sociologist Dr. David Pratto (1938-2002). Dr. Pratto had access to videotapes of thousands of hours of small group diagnostic meetings of medical students. As part of our study, I chose a stratified random sample of the recordings, and watched them, coding for any recognizable patterns. At the time, we did not know what we were looking for, so we went mining for data. Almost immediately, I recognized a few things. First, there were relatively few women in the groups. Back in those days, only a few women went to medical school. Second, the men in the groups talked more than the women. And third, the men frequently interrupted women and talked over them. The men often scoffed at women’s ideas and were openly scornful.

I noted these phenomenon to Dr. Pratto, and he was intrigued. So were the other (nearly all male) sociologists in the department. My next task was to read the existing literature on gender in small group discussions. There was not much to find in the early 1980s, but Deborah Tannen’s work stood out. Tannen is a linguist who identified the interruption patterns, and has since branched out to study other gendered aspects of oral communication.

Fast forward to 2018 and the phenomenon now has a popular name: manterruption, defined as a social phenomenon present in small group conversations (including dyads) when men chronically and intrusively interrupt women when they are speaking. Fast forward to today, and the phenomenon is written about in social media, scholarly work, and news papers. And fast forward to now, and women can affirm that manterruption continues to negatively affect them in meetings, social conversations, and at home.

Many of the meetings I attend as a faculty member at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are gender balanced. However, some meetings are skewed towards women, and some skewed towards men. In the past couple of weeks, I have been a participant in meetings where there were more men than women. When emotions run high–as they often do in meetings tied to budget cuts, program discontinuations, fiscal crisis–manterruption became a significant problem that spilled over into email conversations.

And so, a sociological cartoon was born.


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White Male Fragility

white male privilegeRecently, there has been a lot of attention paid to white fragility, a term coined by Robin DiAngelo (2011) to explain how white people are triggered to hyper-react to even low levels of racial stress. DiAngelo notes that white people typically are protected from situations of racial difference, and usually have little opportunities for meaningful interaction within racially diverse social spaces. They hold racist views and racist assumptions, and generally do not recognize their beliefs as racist because they have been insulated. The protections for whites from uncomfortable racial situations renders white people incapable of tolerating racial stress, even when the racial stress level is quite low.  In short, when insulated white people are confronted with situations in which race is an issue, they become triggered and react defensively with anger, silence, or by walking out of the situation. Lopez (2017) analyzed the recent protests, riots, and violence in Charlottesville as an example of white fragility, noting that the pro-white marchers are angry and upset because their racial privilege is being challenged by the Black Lives Movement and other recent events.

Media images of the Charlottesville incidents demonstrate that the vast majority of the white nationalists are men, many of them quite young. So what happens to white fragility when race–whiteness–intersects with sex and gender?

One of the earliest masculinities studies scholar was R. W. Connell, now Raewyn Connell. Connell developed the concept of the patriarchal dividend, defined as the set of privileges and advantages that accrue to men over their lifetimes (Connell 1996). On average, and apparently throughout history, men as a social group are wealthier than women, have more social power, have higher status, and have more control over resources both material and human. Men rarely recognize the existence of the patriarchal dividend, understanding their situation as being “natural” and “just the way things are.” In other words, men who benefit from the patriarchal social system are generally not aware that they are accruing a lifetime of dividends. Like white people who are insulated from issues of race, men from dominant groups are often insulated from issues of sex and gender.

So if we take the two concepts–white fragility and the patriarchal dividend–we can create another concept: white male fragility. When white men who are privileged and advantaged by their race and sex status are called out by others on their racism and sexism, white male fragility causes them to hyper-react. The incident with police captains Carri Weber and Scott Arndt of the Plainfield, Indiana police department provides an apt illustration.

The incident took place in early November, 2017. The Plainfield police department held a training workshop on trans issues and violence. Members of the police were there, as were some local town and school district officials. As one of the trainers was describing the statistics about anti-trans violence, a white male police officer–Arndt–interrupted to challenge the trainer. He denied the relevance of the statistics that show that trans people are over three times as likely to be victims of violence than non-trans people. Weber, a white woman who is a prominent LGBT activist as well as a police officer, told him that the reason he did not realize the reality faced by trans people is because of his “white male privilege.” Within moments, Arndt was shouting at Weber, the trainers, and the head of the police department. The trainer and others urged him to calm down, but he continued to shout, then angrily marched to the front of the room to shout some more, and finally walked out of the room. Clearly, his behavior demonstrates that he was triggered by Weber’s pointing out that it was his white male privilege that obscured his understanding.

The next day, police captain Carri Weber was put on paid administrative leave and put under investigation. Arndt filed a discrimination complaint against Weber. Then today, December 7, Weber went before the ethics board for her city. She was reinstated to her job, but was reprimanded for speaking out. For his part, Arndt was suspended without pay for two days.

Is this justice? Was Arndt truly victimized by Weber’s remark that he could not see the reality of anti-trans violence because of his white male privilege? Was Weber out of line to point out white male privilege? Arndt claimed in his complaint that Weber discriminated against him because of his race and his sex. What do you think?

You can view the video of the incident here:


R. W. Connell/Raewyn Connell. 1996. “Politics of Changing Men.” Australian Humanities Reivew

Robin DiAngelo. 2011. “White Fragility.” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3(3): 54-70.

German Lopez. 2017. “The Charlottesville Protests Are White Fragility in Action.” Vox August 12, 2017.

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Wrong Thinkers Anonymous

After Charlottesville, I was one of the few people in my circle of acquaintances who refused calls to “punch Nazis.” I do not believe that meeting violence with violence will stop further violence. Instead, I try to understand why people are violent. Not by using individualist explanations, like mental illness, but by using sociological tools. One of sociology’s greatest gifts is the understanding that people are social creatures, and that our behavior, our ideas, our belief systems, our actions, our emotions, etc. are shaped by society. So I have tried to understand hate groups and ideologies of those groups and the movement(s) they spawn. Hating the individuals in the movements, and calling for violence against them, only makes them defensive and more dangerous. It was this realization that prompted the cartoon, Wrong Thinkers Anonymous in the days after Charlottesville.wrong_thinkers_anonymous

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The execution of Sociology

The University of Alaska Fairbanks has hit hard times due to the state’s budget crisis. Academic programs are being slashed across the state, and dozens of faculty jobs have been eliminated. Across Alaska, nearly 1000 people have lost their university jobs. We protested on the street corner, wrote resolutions to Faculty Senates, wrote letters to professional organizations, testified to the Board of Regents, begged and pleaded with administrators, but the UAF Department of Sociology was deleted in June 2017. Both the BA and BS in Sociology are on the chopping block. I cannot even begin to describe how heartbreaking this is for me. I went through all of the stages of grief–denial, anger, sadness, back into anger, then sadness again, all the time literally bargaining with other departments and administrators. Perhaps you can tell by my latest cartoon that I am back in the anger stage again. The execution of sociology

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