Thursday, February 1, 2007

The Nature of the Problem

So I'm a law student. And one of the people I sit next to in one class is one of the main bloggers at feministe (Hi Jill). She often says what I'm thinking with an eloquence and vividness that I wish I had. Sometimes, of course, we disagree. But she usually gets me thinking. And one of her recent comments reminded me that "the project" has at least two real problems.

The first is that many of our societal norms are simply sexist. These are obvious things, like the ability of men to walk around topless in situations where women can't. Or the availability of toilet facilities relative to the average amount of time it takes a man or a woman to use said facility. And speaking of toilets and bathrooms: the fact that many more women's rooms have baby-changing facilities than do men's rooms. And then we have things like pay disparities, and society's support for professional athletics, etc etc. This is not meant to be a litany of sexist practices :-)

Then there's the notion, I'll go so far as to call it a fact (but maybe that's open to dispute), that so many of our societal norms are sexist that our society is self-perpetuatingly sexist. Consider a non-sexist meme. By presumption, it's non-sexist, so it's not going to rely on stereotyped differences between men and women. Thus, some would argue, it can't affect the current balance of power between and societal conceits about men and women. On the other hand, the fact that it isn't sexist may reinforce the more general meme that non-sexism is good, and that may lead to change, but on the balance I'm going to say that it's a minor plus in the world.

But this meme is going to have to survive in a hostile environment. Power structures are made by the powerful to protect themselves, and we live in a structure that's gotten pretty sophisticated over thousands of years. Think of spousal abuse, or domestic violence, or whatever you want to call it. In the 1700's, and who knows how much earlier, husbands had the right to discipline their wives. To beat them, basically. Over the course of the next two hundred years, we slowly developed norms against that, and it's generally considered deplorable to beat your wife.


Statistics show that battery laws are enforced more often and more vigorously against immigrants, minorities, and economically less well off people. The people that aren't in power. Police and prosecutors exhibit a lot of hesitation to make public crimes out of 'domestic violence'. Husbands can win the sympathy of judges and juries with stories of how the wife cheated on them, or how they simply didn't trust her, or how it was actually a fit of rage and not a coldly calculating power play. Women receive relatively little support from police, are often unsuccessful in citing a history of abuse or philandering by a husband, and generally have a much tougher row to hoe if they, god forbid, should take action to stop the abuse.

This is just one illustrative example. Yes, the meme that spousal abuse is bad has taken hold. But along with it have come memes that enable us to rationalize that abuse, to blame the victim, and to compartmentalize the problem of abuse as one that is confined to 'others'.

So that's the problem we have to deal with -- the fact that society is filled with sexist memes, and the fact that society seems to have an immune system that defends an overall sexist tendency. Another way of saying this is that there's an inertia behind power, a momentum. There may be some friction slowing down that momentum, but those with power tend to stay in power.

How can we make this different?


Ex-Shiksa Online said...

Yes, it is more of a norm for a man to walk around shirtless than for a woman to do the same.
But more accurately, it's an example of a folkway. Men and women are both supposed to wear shirts in public (think "No shirt, no shoes, no service." The fact that this is not as stringently enforced for men makes it a folkway.

Ben Kleinman said...

That's interesting. Wiki describes folkways as one of two types of norms, the other being mores. They differ in the penalty imposed upon their breach, or the strictness with which they're enforced. If that's the case, I guess I could point to broader differences: I don't think it's a breach of any sort for a man to be shirtless in the park, or on the beach. And it's not even a very strong folkway for little girls to be shirtless in those scenarios. It's post-pubescent women, or maybe even girls who are simply old enough for us to think that they should be 'ashamed' or 'embarrassed' by being seen topless, that are socially prohibited from exposing their chests at beaches and parks. At least in this country. I like the distinction between folkways and mores, but I'm not sure that goes to the nub of the matter.