Tuesday, August 22, 2006

On Sexism

The topic of sexism has been bothering me of late. When I was about sixteen, I was probably a sexist. Fortunately, I had female friends who were pretty quick to call me out and I learned a lot better. Since that time, I believe that I have not been a sexist. When I have had doubts, I have checked in with those old friends for a 'read'. If the judgments of these women are correct, then I am doing pretty well. However, recently I have been accused of sexism again, by bloggers. I do not quite get it and I am sensing a latent paradox that needs resolution.

A woman calls a man a sexist. For any man in the modern age, that is a pretty nasty thing to be called. To try and understand the circumstance, I use the basic tools of ethical theory. As anyone with any philosophical training knows, there are two main positions in ethics: the deontological (think Kant's Categorical imperative), or utilitarian (although I hear the new word is 'consequentialist'). So, by these two standards, am I sexist? Well, from the deontological perspective, I think not. My intentions are pretty blameless. From a utilitarian perspective, it is a bit harder to compute. After all, if a women 'feels' that one is a sexist, then that would appear to reduce maximal utility and be bad. On the face of this, it would appear to be a conflict between basic ethical theories.

The problem arises in the details though. Let us take the 'intent' component as a given. As a non-sexist guy, I subscribe that all peoples, including women, should be allowed to be their own autonomous agents, have natural rights, have views that are important, have perceptions that are valid, and all that stuff. As a corollary to this set of beliefs, guys should attempt to be non-patriachichal, let others make their choices, be non-assertive etc. However, I now hear that the reason I am allegedly a sexist is for doing just these things! Apparently, by being flexible and waiting for (female) others to express their choices I am also being sexist. By adopting this stance I am making others 'responsible', which is a sexist thing. Huh? Is it just me, or is there something very odd going on here.

At this point in any debate, the next move tends to be what is known in Cognitive Science as the 'false consciousness gambit'. The story here is something like that you believe that you think one thing, however by some special and secret method, it has been revealed that you really think another. This is a problematic move. The privacy of mental states has been a problem in both the philosophy of mind and cognitive science for years. Can another person really have 'special access' to the mental states of another? I tend to think not. There are exceptions, of course. Denial is an obvious counter-example. However, at root the issue becomes, is sexism something to be judged by intent, or by outcomes (this is why the ethical theories mention above matter)?

On the intent front, if we accept the classical position from the philosophy of mind, then attributing beliefs should be seen as a deeply dubious methodology. That suggests that on the deontological view, if the intent is non-problematic then, to quote the I-Ching 'no blame'. This leaves the utilitarian position. For the record, as a general rule, I think that this is the more plausible of the two theories. In this case though, it seems problematic. It is easy for a women to claim of a man that they are sexist. It is a hurtful circumstance to both. The question though, for the utilitarian should be what maximizes happiness (or 'utils', or whatever). It seems to me that this should be a case where the details and the facts should be examined. After all, some men clearly have the sexual politics of an ape. Others have more enlightened views. This seems to be a case where the evidence should be the basis upon which judgments are made.

This is exactly where I am having a difficulty. In a blog I have been reading for a while I attempted to stand up for an anonymous poster who clearly believed that they were being attacked with a claim of sexism. The commentators were clearly not responsive, and continued to attack the anonymous poster. The anonymous person was upset that they had earlier posts deleted by the blog owner. It did not seem to me an unreasonable objection. I myself had been attacked for pointing out a factual error. Even though I apparently 'do not understand', I have learned one thing: A guy should never object to being called a sexist and win. I do not know about you, but philosophically speaking, this seems to me totally bogus.

Should there be a problem, then it seems to me that the facts should be the basis upon which the problem should be resolved. If it is impossible for a person to raise objections from another to claims of sexism, then it seems to me that the claim is without sufficient justification and should be rejected for lack of merit. Am I alone in this? I am sure that I will be told that this is because I am just an unreconstructed sexist, who does not 'understand'. However, my 'bullshit' detector is in hyperdrive on this one. It seems to me that hurtful accusations should be backed up by evidence. Is this belief a consequence of me being a 'sexist pig'? I submit, on philosophical and evidential grounds that it is not.


Blogger G Bitch said...

Though philosophically and somewhat abstractly divining intentions is slippery ground, it is, I believe, different in the real push-and-pull of day-to-day, face-to-face life. Just as some African Americans are quick to call anything, from disagreement to drink choice, a sign of racism, some women are, too. Both groups are right some of the time. Just because extremes exist doesn't mean they're always or out-of-hand wrong. But as a woman, a man's stated intentions can be problematic and not easily dissected or classified in this manner. Attributing beliefs is dubious as a methodology but not all life situations click along like a Swiss watch. As a woman, a man can say to me he did not intend to rape me therefore holding me down while I said No repeatedly isn’t rape. A man can also say he didn’t intend to hurt me but show me he cared about me by knocking me down a flight of stairs and hitting me with a broomstick. A man can say he intended to hire the best person but the facts on paper do not jibe with that. Intentions ignored or labeled as impossible to infer gets everyone off the hook all the time no matter what shit is done. That view distrusts inferences (are they "feminine" like "intuition"?) which are made not just in life but also in philosophy, no? Though what you say works in the abstract, if people lived that way...my examples show potential consequences and in some cases, we do have to be concerned about the far reaches of words and methodologies because we live not in an abstract world but one in which people are shot and drown and starve and are beaten to death. I'm no philosopher so you’ve got me there (though not one thing here did I not understand) but there are few parallels for men with the same implications, and as a woman, it is against my better interests (and safety and sense and future) to not take my body as it is in this world and society into account and that's what has to be done here. Also, men can use "intent" as a sexist tool the way whites who do not think they are racist reveal their deeper racist beliefs (unreconstructed, we could say) after saying something like "One of my best friends is black" or "I just love hip hop." It is possible psychologically to think you are x then act like y some of the time (or all the time). Just as racism is something one must always be vigilant for in the self, sexism is, too, and deeper and harder to root out. It is still easier to get someone to admit that Black people (I capitalize to signify not just blacks in the Americas but diasporically) are humans than to entertain the idea that men and women may be equals. Intention is a legitimate interest and concern. Especially in our current political times. Legislation said to benefit group x actually deprives them of long-held rights or procedures, like anti-abortion laws to "protect" women and eliminating affirmative action to "benefit" minority applicants to colleges.

On a more personal level, it is possible you were sexist in a moment or perhaps your exercise of power was unfair and interpreted as sexist. That I cannot answer. But I do know that self-examination is much harder and takes more multiple points of entry than other things. Perhaps you need to think about what she was saying to you, the subtext of the words from her perspective. Perhaps the way you feel about being called sexist, about your intentions being questioned, is similar to how your actions and perceived intentions affected her. Without getting more involved than that since some of it seems to be a personal issue, there is more going on here than a difference in philosophical approach.

7:04 AM  
Blogger The Combat Philosopher said...

G bitch, thank you for your input. On many points we concur. I agree that intent is not the only criterion that should be deployed. However, it is an important component. Notice that in the examples you cite, the action is clearly wrong (and in a couple of cases clearly illegal, to boot). It is the more penumberal cases I have in mind in this discussion.

If a person subscribes to broadly quantified propositions such as 'all whites are racists', or 'all men are sexist', then a problem will arise should such a person run across a non-racist white person, or a non-sexist male. If the person denied holding the beliefs attributed to them by the other and was then faced with a 'false consciousness' move, then an untenable situation would arise for all parties. This is the reason why the imputation of beliefs is so highly problematic. It is also the case where all the evidence needs to be taken into account.

Perhaps the greatest problem that this kind of situation gives rise to is that it will have the effect of making any kind of dialogue impossible. That, I submit, is a truely bad outcome. My attempt here was to use the well worked out crteria from ethical theory to try and find a way out of such Gordian knots.

11:15 AM  

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