Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Pollittically Correct


Christina Hoff Sommers has a post at The Atlantic today, devoted to ankle-biting Sheryl Sandberg's hot new book Lean In.  It's a nice mixture of misreading and illogic, which I gather is typical of Sommers.

First she takes a swipe at Katha Pollitt, who defended Sandberg as being "like someone who’s just taken Women’s Studies 101 and wants to share it with her friends."  Sommers complains that Lean In "is mired in 1970s-style feminism ... What Pollitt intends as a compliment goes to the heart of what is wrong with Lean In."  I think Sommers's ear for tone is a bit off.  Read in context, Pollitt's remarks feel patronizing (or rather matronizing) to me.

I gather that by "1970s-style feminism" Sommers means a sort of blank-slate approach to gender, where social conditioning is all and biology is nothing.  True, some 1970s feminists did talk that way, but even those who did had a tendency to fall back into essentialist "women are naturally gentle and nurturing" talk.  Like many people discussing differences between groups, however, Sommers tends to turn relative differences between men and women into absolute ones, and to forget how those absolutes have shifted just in the past century, and how much they vary from place to place even now.  So, for example:
Sandberg's goal is to liberate her fellow Americans from the stereotypes of gender. But is that truly liberating? In a 2008 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a group of international researchers compared data on gender and personality across 55 nations. Throughout the world, women tend to be more nurturing, risk averse and emotionally expressive, while men are usually more competitive, risk taking, and emotionally flat. But the most fascinating finding is this: Personality differences between men and women are the largest and most robust in the more prosperous, egalitarian, and educated societies. According to the authors, "Higher levels of human development—including long and healthy life, equal access to knowledge and education, and economic wealth—were the main nation-level predictors of sex difference variation across cultures." New York Times science columnist John Tierney summarized the study this way: "It looks as if personality differences between men and women are smaller in traditional cultures like India's or Zimbabwe's than in the Netherlands or the United States. A husband and a stay-at-home wife in a patriarchal Botswanan clan seem to be more alike than a working couple in Denmark or France."
First, notice "women tend to be more nurturing, risk averse and emotionally expressive, while men are usually more competitive, risk taking, and emotionally flat" (italics mine). Like many sex/gender reactionaries, Sommers papers over the immense variation among men and among women.  Women tend to be more nurturing than men, but not all of them are, and they vary widely in how nurturing they are; likewise, many men are more nurturing than others, and some may be more nurturing than most women.  Nurturing is partly a learned pattern of behavior, for females no less than males, requiring active practice as well as a modeled example.  Every man has been nurtured, so he has some idea of what it entails, and he can learn to do it.  It ain't rocket science.  But while sex/gender reactionaries are very solicitous of people refusing to learn skills not stereotypical of their sex, they have no objection to forcing people to do what is expected of their gender.  One of the simplest examples of what I mean is "Boys don't cry."  If boys didn't cry, it wouldn't be necessary to tell them not to.  "Boys don't cry" is a normative demand pretending to be a description.

Second, notice "Personality differences between men and women are the largest and most robust in the more prosperous, egalitarian, and educated societies." That undermines Sommers' assumption that personality differences between men and women are innate and immutable -- unless she wants to claim that the differences between "more prosperous, egalitarian, and educated societies" are innate, biologically based, and immutable.  She's careful not to say so, so I gather she accepts that economic change can influence gender quite powerfully -- and if that's so, then her position collapses.

People are probably not totally malleable: we're made of flesh, after all, not light or electrons.  But women have accomplished many things that, fifty and a hundred years ago, gender reactionaries were certain they couldn't do.  A commenter named Brandt wrote under Sommers's post:
Isn't it possible that these "cultural constructs" are rooted in the immutable characteristics of males and females? Might there be something in the biological makeup of boys that steers them away from "fetishizing" princes and towards cowboys and GI Joes? I think you need to open your mind to the idea that "culture" isn't just a simple patriarchal construct...
Oh, there might be "something in the biological makeup of boys that steers them away from 'fetishing' princes and towards cowboys." Almost anything is possible. But without actual evidence to support that claim, Brandt is just blowing smoke. There is evidence about the ways in which people are pressured and induced to perform in gendered ways, however.

The same thing applies to "rooted in the immutable characteristics of males and females." It's possible, even likely, that there are such immutable characteristics, but right now we have no idea what they are. Which doesn't stop a lot of people from talking as if they knew, and there's the problem. For example, medical experts used to be quite sure that women simply were biologically incapable of completing a college education: the stress of study would cause the blood to run from ovaries to their brains, and cause them to go sterile, or mad. Now we have reactionaries trying to explain why women are so successful in college, often more so than men. Or to explain that the current imbalance of women in the sciences is due to "immutable characteristics of males and females," even though there are a lot more women in the sciences than there used to be. The lower proportions of former days used to be explained as immutable too. The overt and often conscious exclusion of women from the sciences that used to obtain is conveniently overlooked. The same pattern occurs in sports.

We also need to remember that there is enormous variation among men and among women: all men are not alike, and all women are not alike. Brandt, like Sommers, chooses to forget this.  Differences between the sexes are generally average, rather than absolute, but sex/gender reactionaries are fond of turning relative differences into absolute ones. It doesn't really matter anyhow. If a little girl wants to learn how to play baseball or program computers, she should be taught how to do it. An older professor once confessed to sports sociologist Michael A. Messner as they watched a women's baseball game, "You know, it amazes me to see a woman throw like that. I always thought that there was something about the female arm that made it impossible to throw like a man."* This wasn't a personal blip but a commonplace medical myth of the good old pre-Title IX days.)  If a little boy wants to learn to cook instead of play baseball, he should be taught to do it. But even if a little boy doesn't want to learn to wash dishes, he should be taught anyway, because there's no reason why only girls should be taught such basic skills, which have nothing to do with "immutable characteristics of males and females."

I don't have a knee-jerk reaction to the very idea that men and women might be inherently different: I know very well there are significant inherent differences between men and women (and as a gay man, I say Vive la difference!).  The question is how far and how much those differences constrain us.  Brandt didn't offer any evidence for this suggestion, simply asserting the possibility that there are immutable differences between the sexes.  That doesn't even reach the level of postulation (as Bertrand Russell said, postulation has all the advantages of theft over honest toil).

If there really are things that women can't do but men can and vice versa, there's no need to enforce them socially.  But since we don't know in advance what they are, it is intellectually dishonest to posit them.  Many supposed differences that respectable people used to be quite sure were inherent and immutable have turned out to be neither.  So sure, I'm open to all kinds of possibilities, but I'm tired of people who posit them as possibilities and then assert them as fact.

There's another beloved fallacy that Sommers tosses out:
Despite 40 years of consciousness-raising and gender-neutral pronouns, most men and women still gravitate to different fields and organize their lives in different ways. Women in countries like Sweden, Norway and Iceland enjoy elaborate supportive legislation, yet their vocational preferences and family priorities are similar to those of American women. 
Wow, forty years!  That's an awful long time -- it's almost forever!  But though some changes have happened very quickly -- changes that on Sommers's innatist assumptions should never have happened -- they never had the acceptance of everyone in American (or, likely, European) society.  There has been fierce, often organized resistance to any change in women's status. (The same applies to race: though legal barriers to racial equality have been dismantled in the US, enforcement has been half-hearted, and white racism hasn't gone away, not even after forty years.)  This has been particularly noticeable in politics (which also remains an old boys' club) and religion.  That perfect equality hasn't been achieved yet isn't an argument against striving for it.

Besides, suppose that there are some innate, immutable traits that make women less interested in certain fields; suppose that we'll never achieve more than a 40/60 there, or 45/55.  So what?  The old ratios, which were defended as innate and immutable, turned out not to be.  Women and men should be free to choose, and to have support for their choices as much as possible.  Despite Sommers's declared individualism, she still seems to prefer to sacrifice the individual to the sex.

* "Ah, Ya Throw Like a Girl!" by Mike Messner, in New Men, New Minds, Breaking Male Tradition, edited by Franklin Abbott (The Crossing Press, 1987), p. 40.  See also Colette Dowling, The Frailty Myth: Women Approaching Physical Equality (Random House, 2000) Julie des Jardins's The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science (The Feminist Press, 2010), and Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender (Norton, 2010).