Female woman advises the left to not waste ammo. Chides white male for accusing white/black male president of sexism against native-american woman. (Capitalize races/genders/cis as you see fit).
Translation: Don't accuse our own people, use it to attack Republicans.
President Obama said: "The truth of the matter is that Elizabeth is, you know, a politician like everybody else. And you know, she's got a voice that she wants to get out there. And I understand that. And on most issues, she and I deeply agree. On this one, though, her arguments don't stand the test of fact and scrutiny." Some critics found this condescending.
Is it sexist to disagree with Senator Warren? Or to dismiss her position as, essentially, brainless political posturing? Why no, I don't think so. In fact, I just did, and I am pretty confident that this has nothing to do with the fact that she (like me) sports two X chromosomes.
But what about the way he said it, using her first name, disparaging her motives? Sherrod Brown suggested that this was sexist. As someone who has written more than once about the disproportionate, and frequently gender-specific, hate that women attract in the public square, this is certainly an argument that I'm ready to believe.
However, I have to point out that not every use of a first name is sexist. Not every political disagreement secretly is about the gender or race of the participants. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes calling a senator by his or her first name is just, well, calling a senator "Sherrod." Conservatives will attest that Obama does not reserve condescending and dismissive statements about his opponents and their motives for female politicians; this is pretty much par for the course when Obama discusses the Republican Party.
Now, it's true that the president used Sherrod Brown's first name in a nice way, while he used hers in an answer that was pretty dismissive. The great difficulty of sexism in this moment is that we're fighting subtle bias and knotty structural issues, not fellows who stride up to the podium to jauntily announce that women just don't have the brains for politics, the dear little things.
But there's a reason that I rarely dissect a statement in search of such subtle bias. It's because sexism is so serious we need to be careful when and where we level accusations. There's a danger that sexism will become just another magic word, used to shut down debate rather than start a needed conversation. It's a terrible idea to weaponize a serious issue and bring it into garden-variety political disputes; the accuser gains some temporary political advantage at the expense of actually fighting sexism.
People who carelessly toss around the "s" word are trying to have things both ways: They want sexism to be something very, very bad that forces the refs to stop the action and pull you out of the game, and they also want to be able to level this charge at every minor verbal tic that might be sexist. Even if it might just be, you know, politics. In this and other contexts, this is not a bargain that a modern society will strike. If you make the punishments draconian, people will hesitate to apply them widely. This is true in law enforcement, and it is true of social sins as well. To claim "sexism" too often just robs the word of its power.
So if we want to keep the norm that sexism is very bad, we need to think twice about when we pull out those accusations. Before you shoot, remember that you're not a movie hero with an unlimited supply of ammunition. You're the guy with a single six shooter crouching behind the bar. You have to make every shot count. Aim carefully. When in doubt, hold your fire.