Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Danger of '-isms'

According to the OED, Sexism is,

The assumption that one sex is superior to the other and the resultant discrimination practiced against members of the supposed inferior sex, esp. by men against women; also conformity with the traditional stereotyping of social roles on the basis of sex.

Less respectably, on the same topic, Wikipedia tells us that,

Sexism is commonly considered to be discrimination and/or hatred against people based on their sex rather than their individual merits, but can also refer to any and all systemic differentiations based on the sex of the individuals.

Sexism is only one of a range of '-isms', covering but not limited to racism, ageism and even speciesism. For reasons that are probably reasonably obvious, sexism and racism are the most politically charged of the '-isms'. So, it on this kind of alleged problem that I wish to focus here.

In the case of sexism, men are traditionally cast in the role of the sexist. Does this imply that assuming that a man is a sexist is in itself an act of sexism? Well it clearly is the case that this is a '...traditional stereotyping of social roles on the basis of sex' and a '...systemic differentiations based on the sex of the individuals'. This should provide grounds to pause.

Consider a more complex case though where a woman accuses a man of sexism. To avoid 'stereotyping' and 'systematic differentiation', presumably the matter should be settled on the facts of the case. However, recent observations of the blog world shows that in this region at least, this does not happen. Indeed, I have seen a case where a man was accused of sexism by a women. The man denied the charge and was told that his denial was further proof of sexism!

Philosophically speaking, such a line of reasoning is problematic. To see this, let us invent a new '-ism', 'kallism' that has a similar conceptual structure to sexism.

Let us suppose that person A accuses person B of kallism. Suppose that person B responds by denying the charge. Suppose that person A then maintains that the very act of denial supports the initial claim of kallism. The question then arises, is person B a kallist? On the face of it, without knowing a little more about what kallism is, and why person A made the accusation of person B, it seems difficult to know. We can ask a different question though; Has person A provided any compelling grounds to support their contention about B? It would appear that the answer here is pretty clearly 'No'. After all, an argument based upon a person having some property X, which is based upon that person denying they have property X is profoundly silly.

Now, let us consider further what happens if we add 'stereotyping' and 'systematic differentiation' as components of kallism. Let use suppose further that person A is from a group that is traditionally subject to kallist problems, from a group that person B is a member of. Does this change the situation? It would seem on the face of it that it does. Here it is reasonable to assume that any member of a population may be kallist towards any other member -- that is to say, it is a potentially two-way relation. It would appear that person A may in fact be being kallist to person B (due to the stereotyping and systematic differentiation components).

Now, this is a very abstract discussion, but it does shed some light on the relevant conceptual structures here. Notice that there has been no appeal to problematic notions of belief attribution, or 'intent'. However, what this abstract discussion appears to show (this can be seen by inserting the term 'sexism' into the discussion of 'kallism' above), is that if it is the case, as it sometimes appears to be in the blog world, that if a woman can accuse a man of sexism and the man is then forever more denied the possibility of rebutting the charge, then it would appear that the woman would in fact be the one in the sexist role. This appears to be a further profound weakness of the blog world. Pure ideological engagement is an ugly thing and this is exactly what this appears to be.

This is not to say that all the '-isms', sexism, racism, ageism and even speciesism are not real social ills and cause vast amounts of unnecessary hurt and violence in the world. The point here is to gain a better understanding of these 'isms', so as to be in a better position to identify and combat them. In the process of these considerations, it has become apparent that women can be sexist, just as easily as men. The fact that this point often overlooked, during the very moments and in the very locations where the sexism is taking place is a sad fact. I submit that this has the effect of reinforcing gender and other '-ism' roles. Such oversight also helps prevent the kind of dialogue that might raise awareness in all the groups involved and thereby help reduce all the problems caused by the various '-isms'.

The CP


Blogger ToastedSuzy said...

I agree that in a discussion about gender rhetorically trapping a male participant into the role of oppressor limits the contributions he can make to the discussion to "defensiveness" or mindless, insincere yes-manship. It is a bad bad move.

Furthermore, it rhetorically locks women into the role of oppressed, and, at least within the bonds of such a conversation there is no end in site. It will not progress, only go around in circles where everyone involved is congratulating everyone else involved for saying the same things over and over.

I think the only way to break out of this vicious and totally retarded cycle is to actually come to see "isms" as our common foe--problems for which we must find a solution.

I've written about this before--and I've been too beaten and yelled at or ignored to say it all again, but if you're interested (and I'm not sure why you would be) you might look at my comments here

And on PZ's blog, but I don't want to revisit those posts. It makes me tired.

I'm probably asking for trouble by posting this. Oh well.


2:39 PM  

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