Posts Tagged ‘sexism’

On the Meaning of Sexism

Thursday, 11 May 2017

In a previous entry, I noted that the original definition of racism was a theory or an adherence to a theory that merit is in part intrinsically a function of race. It was exactly by analogy with the word racism that the word sexism was introduced in 1968, thus referring to a theory or an adherence to a theory that merit is in part intrinsically a function of sex.

Now, here is where matters get tricky. In any case in which one rejects sexism, it is regarded as an inappropriate response to the sex of people; and, in particular, the treatment is likely to be seen as unethical. A very great many folk employ the concept of unethical response to the sex of people as if that were the very definition of sexism. That notion is going to operationalize very much like the actual definition whenever and wherever the issue at hand is one of ethics and ethics actually call for neutrality — for a rejection of the relevance of sex to the issue. But nearly all of us regard people of one sex as better suited to some rôles that are of importance. For example, if I presume that sexism must refer to something unethical, then I am compelled either to associate sexism with something other than neutrality of a sort, or as a matter of justice to try to entertain thoughts of accepting a man as a potential spouse for myself. (People are led astray by the analogy with racism; the cases in which sex is relevant to selection loom larger because of the importance of reproduction.) And the substituted notion is not going to operationalize at all like the original definition exactly when someone believes that merit is a function of sex in a far wider range of cases than do folk such as I; then the substitution is going to get things almost perfectly twisted around. He or she will label anti-sexism as sexism and will label some sort of sexism — perhaps quite an intense sexism — as anti-sexism.

The spurning of a claim of relevance is the maintenance or adoption of indifference. This indifference is an equality of one sort — and we often see the words equal and equality used in antonymy to sexism — but it is not an equality of various other sorts. Advancement of a conflicting equality would itself be sexist. Such conflicting equalities can arise when the equality sought is equality of outcome. If people, regardless of sex, may be presumed to respond to a framework in essentially identical ways, and we observe markèdly different outcomes for one sex compared to those for another, then this difference is prima facie evidence that the framework is sexist. But if it is recognized that people of one sex behave differently in that framework, then the presumption that the framework is sexist does not follow from the mere presence of a difference. If we say that the different behaviors must be treated as of equal merit because otherwise a difference in outcomes emerges, then the merit that is ascribed to the behavior is treated as a function of the sex of the people who engage in that behavior; that prescription is itself intrinsically sexist.

For example, the rates at which men are arrested for, charged with, and convicted of criminal behavior of various sorts are much higher than the corresponding rates at which women are arrested, charged, and convicted. We cannot conclude simply from these differences that the system of criminal law is sexist, because it may be that men simply engage in that behavior more often; indeed, most of us are fairly sure that this latter case holds. If we insist that the behaviors themselves must be decriminalized in order to reduce the rates at which men are arrested, charged, and convicted, then we are inferring the relative merit of the behavior from the sexes of those who engage in it. The very same sort of analysis would apply to hiring practices and to the wages or salaries paid to those in various occupations.[1]

(Many people, including certainly me, would argue that an unfortunate sexism prior to whatever exists in the legal system is one factor contributing to greater criminality by men, but few-if-any people propose that part of an appropriate response would be an adjustive sexism, giving more tolerance to male criminalized behavior than to female criminalized behavior. Likewise, some of us assert that an unfortunate sexism prior to whatever exists in the jobs market is one factor leading to different career outcomes for women, but we don’t propose an adjustive sexism attempting to compel employers to pay women more than the expected values of their marginal products.)

The confused presumptions that only an unethical discrimination can count as sexism and that sexism is found where there is some sort of inequality other than non-neutralityan attention to sex — causes people in all sincerity to misapply the word sexism and to fail to see legitimate application of the word, perhaps to their own attitudes and actions. If substitutions of these sorts are not recognized by those who use the word sexism in accordance with its definition, then interactions will be characterized by mutual incomprehension, quite possibly enraged. Attempts to employ logic and facts won’t be persuasive because one of the two groups will actively misunderstand a word central to any communication. Additionally, there are people who implicitly believe that ethical significance clings to symbols, such that by changing labels what was wrong may be made to be right and vice versa. In dealing with them, the principal point that ought to be made is not that words cannot be redefined, but that, if we should for any reason redefine sexism, then whatever case was made against what was originally called sexism isn’t thereby logomantically transformed into a case against whatever is now to be called sexism, nor is a case against something that was originally called sexism somehow invalidated by ceasing to call it by that name.[2] Of course, there are also those who effect the substitution as a device of unconscious projection, and others who opportunistically seek to sow further confusion.


[1] In the absence of a coherent explanation otherwise, if any population really could be hired at bargain rates, then not only should we expect all members of that population to be hired before any members of any other population; we should expect employers to bid-up the wages and salaries of this less expensive population to the point that they matched those of other populations, before hiring any members of those other populations. If there is some occupation such that the cost of hiring workers for it is notably less than the expected values of their marginal products, then we should expect employers to increase their hirings for those occupations, and in doing so (each in competition with the others and in the face of otherwise ever more reluctant workers) to bid-up the wages or salaries of those workers until the difference disappears.

[2] The same principle of course applies to efforts to redefine racism.

I'm not voting for her because she's a bitch!

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

In a protected entry, an LJ Friend linked to

a couple of days ago. She didn’t give her own assessment of the article, beyond saying that it was interesting. I’ve decided to make a few comments on it.

The principal thesis of the article seems to be that a significant source of support for Obama amongst social democratic (progressive) males is really founded in sexism. Now, I’ve seen plenty of hypocrisy amongst social democrats, but consider that Margaret Thatcher became the leader of the British Conservative Party in 1975 and their Prime Minister in 1979, and served until 1990. Do we really want to even suggest that sexism is going to be more of a determinant amongst Democratic voters in 2008 than it was amongst British Conservative voters in 1975, or than it was amongst Britons more generally in 1979?

There are a few revealing passages in the article that I think merit special attention:

Valenti continued, Because their friends were not being specifically sexist, or saying something that was tangibly misogynistic, they were having a hard time talking about the sexism of it. Valenti confirmed that this Feminine Mystique-y problem that has no name was familiar to her. I spoke to a guy friend who said, You’re being ridiculous. I’m not not voting for her because she’s a woman; I’m not voting for her because she’s a bitch! He could not see the connection between the two things at all. Valenti said he explained away his comment by declaring, I mean a bitch in the sense that she’s not good on this or that issue.

People use the word bitch to mean a number of things. But when Hillary’s opponents call her a bitch, they don’t typically mean that she is tough in a way with a peculiarly significant relationship to her sex (distinctive or inappropriate); they instead mean that she is sanctimonious, hypocritical, and vicious. (If you want a clear sense of these perceptions, then read The Tall Tale of Tuzla by Christopher Hitchens in Slate or the milder A Hillary Clinton Presidency by Carl Bernstein at CNN.)

A couple of paragraphs later,

Valenti continued, I pinpoint sexism for a living. You’d think I’d be able to find an example. And I hate to rely on this hokey notion that there’s some woman’s way of knowing, and that I just fucking know. But I do. I just know. When it comes to feminism, she continued, so much proof is required to convince someone that sexism exists, even when it’s explicit and outrageous. So when it’s subdued or subtle, you don’t want to talk about it.

Note the epistemology here. She cannot produce any evidence, but she’s insisting that the attitude of these men must be sexist. And she acts as if the reluctance of some people to accept even the plainest of evidence is an excuse for making a charge with no evidence. I would suggest that if Ms Valenti perceives a difference of opinion whose cause must be sexism, and she cannot produce evidence of sexism on one side, then perhaps she ought to be looking for it on the other side.

The article is very right about one thing: A great many social democrats — and a great many people who are not social democrats — have developed unreasonable expectations for Obama:

You already see this idealistic longing projected on Obama, Bruch said. People talk about him as a secular messiah who will bring us political salvation. There’s no sense of what is plausible.

Unless McCain makes missteps extraordinary even for a Republican, he will win the general election. And the sorts of domestic programmes and foreign policy that Obama has been advocating would bear very bitter fruit, in some cases very quickly, causing the nation to lurch to the political right.

Bronx Cheer

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Half a block from where I live is Bronx Pizza, which looks like a hole-in-the-wall place, but has a really great pesto pizza, usually available by the slice. One can get two large slices and a soft drink for US$6. (The soft drink choice isn’t great, but it’s passable.)

To-day, I was there to get dinner. At a near-by table sat three blue-collar guys, my age or older. They looked as have white blue-collar guys for most or all of my life. But they were talking sincerely and unaffectedly about fighting a problem of sexism and racism at the place at which one of them worked, with the victim of the sexism being a woman. That’s not the sort of conversation that such men would have had in my childhood.

The sun was going down, but my day brightened a bit.