Thursday, March 8, 2007

Blog Against Sexism Day: defining sexism, plus a few scattered thoughts...

I've been wracking my brain trying to come up with something interesting to say for Blog Against Sexism Day--otherwise known as International Women's Day--and coming up with little besides: sexism is really bad! But that hardly seems enough.

To take our customary linguistic approach, I thought I might talk a little about the word sexism, which is incredibly vague and frequently misused or misunderstood. As I see it, there are three basic senses of sexism:

1. Actively holding negative views of people on the basis of nothing but their sex. (E.g., active misogyny.)

2. The whole system of enforced gender inequality in our society--in pay, in expectations about proper behavior and sexual expression, in expectations about housework and childrearing, etc.

3. The deep-set, unconscious inability to see people as people--as fully autonomous agents--due to their sex.*

As with racism, as I've said before, I think people often fail to distinguish between sexism in the sense of openly-held negative attitudes and sexism in the structural sense.

Relatively few people are sexist in the sense that they actually knowingly believe that, say, women are inferior. Just about all of us unknowingly or unwillingly reinforce the sexist structure of our society. But I've made this point before.

What interests me more here is the distinction between definition 1 and definition 3. A great many people (not only men!) who have no conscious animus against women do find themselves dehumanizing women in various ways all the time, by supposing that their sex by itself defines the scope of their agency. This variety of sexism is distinct from outright misogyny because it can, and often does, take the form of a kind of worshipful attitude toward women.

One example of this phenomenon is the "Nice Guy Syndrome", discussed with great eloquence--and with some very interesting follow-up discussion--by Auguste at Pandagon.

The Nice Guy, who I must admit I have resembled from time to time in my own life, is the Guy who constantly complains about how women only like assholes and wonders how they can be so stupid as to fail to recognize that said Nice Guy, who worships the ground they stand on, would be so much better for them, the dumb bitches...

The Nice Guy is sexist, though he does not in fact have any actively negative feelings toward women, because his attitude fails to acknowledge women's autonomy in a pretty basic way. He supposes that all these women who fall for assholes are making a mistake about their own preferences: that they would, if they only knew, prefer the Nice Guy. But this overlooks the rather basic point that women themselves can be assholes, and can knowingly have preferences that the Nice Guy finds objectionable. The Nice Guy can't admit to himself that women can be assholes, because he puts them on a pedestal. Thus, he doesn't treat women as fully-fledged autonomous human beings. (This only stratches the surface of the awfulness of the Nice Guy--see Auguste for a fuller picture.)

It's also possible to have nothing but (what you believe to be) the highest regard for women, but to treat women as fragile china dolls, or as beautifully well-constructed baby-making machines, or as the best sort of household servant imaginable.

In general, it is not enough to count as non-sexist to have what you believe to be a glowing love for women. It's possible, after all, to have a glowing love for your blow-up toy, but that's not the same thing as having respect for an equally autonomous human being.

For this reason (among many others, of course), it is considerably more difficult to eradicate sexism than most people are willing to acknowledge. The dehumanization of women runs so deep in our culture that it expresses itself even in and through our attempts to eradicate it. (Most Nice Guys are self-avowed feminists, after all--that's part of their alleged niceness.) Even achieving full structural and economic equality might well not be enough, because the sexual resentment that forms its root won't just go away if women achieve pay equity and Hillary gets elected president...


*I want to make it clear that I'm not leaving the gender specification vague here because I think that we ought to worry ourselves about sexism against men, which seems a non-issue to me, but because putting the point in terms of nothing but sexism against women would leave out the pervasive discrimination against transgendered and intersexed people, which definitely is an issue.

On the irrelevance of "tone"

Reading through this week's New York Times Book Review, I came across Jacob Heilbrunn's review of (among other things) Joe Conason's new book It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush.

Conason's basic point, as quoted by Heilbrunn, is that
It is possible that the future of democratic governance in America will be determined in the final two years of the Bush presidency, when the Republicans may yet secure a court majority that reinterprets the Constitution as a mandate for theocratic dominion and untrammeled presidential power. That would raise the real prospect of an authoritarian regime acting under color of the Constitution and the law while eviscerating both.
While he shares Conason's political sympathies in large part, Heilbrunn finds the book lacking in various respects. This is all well and good; I haven't read the book and don't particularly intend to do so--since I don't really feel that my rage against Bush needs any more fuel at this point--so I obviously can't try to argue that Heilbrunn's negative response isn't warranted. I am troubled, however, by the form the criticism takes.

Heilbrunn seems distressed most not by any particular disagreements on matters of substance, but by Conason's tone:
Conason appears to view the administration's machinations with something approaching lascivious horror. His language is seldom less than apocalyptic.


In his zeal to indict the Republicans, Conason sounds as strident as Karl Rove depicting the Democrats as gutless appeasers.
Now, I can understand distaste for "apocalyptic" language on aesthetic grounds, but I don't think that's really the substance of the criticism here. Heilbrunn seems distressed by the fact that Conason is strident at all, not by the particular way in which he expresses his stridency.

I find this attitude confusing, though it is surprisingly common, particularly among mainstream pundits. Why should stridency itself be objectionable? Aren't there at least some situations that warrant stridency? (Surely the stridency of, say, Martin Luther King, Jr., was warranted, yes?) There are two possibilities here. One could, I suppose, insist that all stridency is equally objectionable--even stridency against Hitler or Stalin--which I think no-one really believes. Alternately, one could admit that stridency itself isn't really the issue: the issue is whether the circumstances warrant stridency.

I'm inclined to think that all criticisms of "tone" amount to a kind of dodge: by criticizing someone for their stridency, what you are in fact saying is that the circumstances don't warrant their reaction--a claim about the content of what they are saying--without actually having to come out and make a case for your position. Derisively attaching the label "strident" to someone like Conason, who I suspect wishes to convince us all to be more strident in opposing Bush, is particularly disingenuous.

(It should be noted that Heilbrunn does have some substantive criticisms of Conason. He says, e.g., that Conason doesn't appreciate that the real problem with Bush is his incompetence, not his fascistic tendencies. I find this criticism problematic--though certainly not because I think Bush is competent!--since it can lead too easily into a dangerously comforting complacency.)

In any event, I think there's a very general principle here: tone in itself is always and everywhere irrelevant. What matters is the justification for the use of a particular tone, which is a matter of substance, not of tone itself.

Heilbrunn's own example, Karl Rove, is a perfect test case. Does anyone--really, anyone at all on the planet--object to Rove because he's too strident, in and of itself? I find this hard to believe. Rove is objectionable because he's a deceitful and manipulative son of a bitch, not because he's strident in his rhetoric. His stridency is objectionable because it's manipulative and disingenuous--and, more importantly, because the claims he makes are always wildly false--not simply because it's strident.

As another test case, consider the radical anti-abortion movement, an objectionably "strident" group if there ever was one. Are they really objectionable because they are strident? I don't think so. If abortion really were a modern-day holocaust, their stridency would make perfect sense--it would even be morally mandated, perhaps. Their strident rhetoric and tactics are objectionable because their views are insane, not because they lack proper decorum.

Rejecting an argument because it is expressed with a degree of force you find repellent is like rejecting an argument because it is expressed in Chinese.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Sunday Secularism Blogging: truth, faith and decision-making

Alonzo Fyfe at Atheist Ethicist has a wonderful post up that makes two very important points:

1. Religions and religious people get away too easily with claiming that they have access to a "special way of knowing" through the exercise of their faith that allows them to see truth and falsity and right and wrong, somehow, without evidence or argument, and with justifying their actions on the basis of this mysterious faculty.

2. The very popular idea (even among secularists) that we ought to respect religion because of the good things it has done for society leaves out accounting for opportunity costs. As he puts it:
So, when it comes to selling religion for the good that it does, we need to ask what could have been done with the same resources and the same effort. We must not only at the good that people do in the name of God and call this “the good that religion does.” We must look at the good that the devotion of these resources to religion prevented from being done. This becomes the cost of religion.
I don't actually have much to add to Alonzo's post (which deserves to be read in full, of course), except to make a couple of points about the connection between his ideas and secularism.

Firstly, these two points together sum up my biggest problem with enterprises like the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives (the title of which has apparently been changed to "Faith-Based and Community Initiatives", in a remarkably lame and questionably syntactical nod to secularism). Certainly, religious groups can and do help people all the time, but that in itself isn't even enough to find those groups admirable, since they might do more harm than good when looking at the broader picture. It certainly isn't enough to show that those groups are the best and most efficient way of spending the government's money to help people, which would be the only justification for spending the money on them in lieu of actual governmental social welfare programs. And, of course, there are all kinds of reasons for believing that the Faith-Based Initiatives are inefficient and don't provide the best services. (If examples are necessary, consider abstinence-only sex ed and the ridiculous marriage-promotion program I talk about here.)

One of the most important reasons to maintain a wall of separation between church and state is to avoid precisely this kind of situation: the government wasting money, time and effort (and even lives, in some cases) because it feels beholden to particular religious ways of tackling problems based on "special" ways of knowing the solutions to problems. As I see it, there are three ways that this can take place:

1. The cynical deference to religion shown by the Bush Administration in establishing the OFBI, which is almost certainly motivated by little other than contempt for social programs and a desire to shore up the religious right.

2. Outright theocracy or semi-theocracy, in which the government makes decisions on the basis of the outright or implicit establishment of religion--where the government itself claims to participate in the "special way of knowing".

This corresponds to our current situation to a certain extent, though not to the extent of, say, Saudi Arabia. Certainly politicians make policy arguments on the basis of religious claims all the time, and the government gives money to religious groups directly through OFBI. (OFBI may not constitute the establishment of any particular religion, but it definitely constitutes accepting the legitimacy of making decisions on the basis of "special" ways of knowing, which is problematic enough.)

3. A situation in which the government itself makes decisions on a secular basis but allows enormous leeway for its citizens to make decisions on the basis of their "special" ways of knowing.

This certainly corresponds to our current situation, but it's debatable whether it's a problem from a secularist point of view. Certainly, people ought to be allowed to think what they like, but ought they be allowed to make decisions on the basis of whatever they like if those decisions affect other people? I certainly don't think so, but there's a tricky gray area here. It's one thing to say that people shouldn't be allowed to kill people on the basis of their religious beliefs and quite another to say that they shouldn't, say, make their daughters wear veils...

In any event, the point I'm trying to make is that secularism is important not just for the sake of our civil liberties in the abstract, but for keeping our government responsive to reality. To the extent that a government allows itself to make decisions on the basis of "special" ways of knowing, it severs itself from reality and (perhaps more crucially) from accountability. (You can't have accountability without evidence.) That those "special" ways of knowing often line up just fine with reality is no comfort. We need our government to be responsive to us and to the facts, not just to the voices in our politicians' heads.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Against Nihilism

The Earth as seen from Voyager 1, at a distance of over 4 billion miles.

Surfing through the Atheist Blogroll, I see that Louie at the straightforwardly-titled blog Everything is Pointless has a lovely post quoting one of my childhood heroes, Carl Sagan, on the insignificance of the Earth in the vast universe:
Our posturings, our imagined self- importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in a great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness their is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves, it is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling and even character building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. For me it underscores our responsibility, our profound responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot the only home we have ever known.
Lovely though Sagan's writing may be, and glad as I am to be directed to it, I thoroughly disagree with Louie's conclusion--which might be expected--that this sort of perspective on the Earth shows us that Everything is Pointless.

I don't think Sagan meant this line of reasoning to support this sort of nihilism at all. As I see it, he's making a different point: a subtle jab at religion ("no hint that help will come from elsewhere") and a call for humbleness and human solidarity in light of our basic aloneness in a vast universe--which solidarity would itself surely be pointless if everything is such. But of course this doesn't prove Louie wrong, it just shows that he's making a separate point from Sagan's.

Louie's point seems to be the following, which is a surprisingly common argument for nihilism: our tinyness relative to the rest of the universe proves our total insignificance and the meaninglessness of the things we find important--which are, after all, such tiny things in the grand scheme.

I find this argument interesting because it somehow seems very compelling, but it doesn't actually make any sense.

Why should the size of something have anything to do with its claim to importance? To borrow a point from the philosopher Thomas Nagel: are short people less important and meaningful than tall people? Would we have reason to think ourselves twice as important if the universe were half its size? Surely this is absurd, so why does the size of the universe make us feel meaningless?

I would guess that people think this way because they tend to assume that the meaningfulness of our lives depends on our ability to affect the world outside ourselves. In some sense, that's surely true, but the dependency isn't a linear one: to live a meaningful human life, we have to have meaningful relationships with others, etc., but this doesn't mean that we are only important to the degree that we can affect the outside world. In the same way that the meaningfulness of a book or a piece of music doesn't directly depend on how many people it affects (otherwise the latest Danielle Steele would have to count as much more meaningful than, say, Kafka), the meaningfulness of a human life need not depend on the percentage of the square-footage of the universe that it affects.

But there's a deeper problem here. The premise of this form of nihilism depends on our ability to do something that I believe is impossible: to take a perspective entirely outside of all human affairs and forms of valuation, and then, by applying some sort of "outside" standards, to find all those affairs and forms of valuation to be lacking in significance. I don't think this sort of transcendent perspective actually makes any sense. To find something lacking is to apply our already-existing forms of valuation--the same forms that we are supposed to find lacking! I don't think it really makes sense to turn our intellect in on itself in this way.

In any event, I think it's vital to distinguish between atheism and nihilism. It should be obvious that disbelief in the Sky Fairy shouldn't require disbelief in meaningfulness itself, but many people seem to believe it does. The "astronomical perspective" does, I think, give some limited weight to the case for atheism, inasmuch as it overturns old religious ideas of our place in the universe, but it gives none to nihilism.