Friday, August 29, 2008

Thinking about Sexism

Reading a great deal of the talk about Sarah Palin, McCain's choice for a running mate (a clever one, I think), I suddenly had a realization at the umpteenth snide comment about 'beauty queen' and 'soccer mom' (and the umpteenth defense of the form, "If it's sexist to call a woman X, is it sexist to call a man Y?"). Most people, conservative and liberal alike, think of sexism as wholly a matter of intention. That is, everything is set up symmetrically, so sexism only occurs with a bunch of people deliberately messing with this symmetry. But this, of course, misses the fact that not everything is set up symmetrically. For instance, insulting a man for being a man simply does not have the bite that insulting a woman for being a woman does. For one thing, all standard insults that involve insulting a man for being a man are ambiguous, and use terms that in lots of closely related contexts would be compliments; usually, you have to get very creative to get around this while at the same time not trying to use an insult most people would simply laugh at. Most sexist insults that apply to men are insults not because they suggest that being a man is a bad thing but because they suggest that the man is too much like a woman, and thus that being a woman is a bad thing, and therefore most sexist insults applicable to men are sexist in a way that favors men and denigrates women. It's not equally easy to be sexist against men and against women. It's certainly not impossible to be sexist against men, but there are considerably fewer resources and conventions for it. But to listen to people talk, you would think that it was indeed equally easy.

Also, of course, everyone acts as if sexism is something the Other Side does; conservatives who thought it was OK to make sexist remarks about Clinton suddenly get offended when they are made about Palin, and liberals who were offended by such remarks about Clinton have few qualms about using similar remarks against Palin. When the other side does it, that's sexism; when we do it, it's rational criticism. When the other side gets offended, that's identity politics; when our side gets offended, that's fairness. When the other side says something that's borderline, that's obviously sexism; but when we say something borderline, it should be interpreted charitably. But these, of course, are precisely the ways sexism gets propagated. Most people don't start out in the morning saying, "Today's a great day to be sexist." But we still often end up using standards of rationality, fairness, and charity that stack the deck against women, especially when we disagree with them. Every one of us is capable of this irrational slipperiness whereby we fail to render to women their due, without even thinking of it. No one is immunized from it by ideology. Fighting sexism is a constant spiritual discipline. Meaning well is not enough, no matter who or what we are.

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