No Progress

Grim's Hall, 2008:
I looked up the definition for "sexism" today, and I find that it is defined as "the sense that one sex is inferior to, or more valuable than, the other." We have a number of ways of expressing the same concept: "male chauvanism" or "female chauvanism," "misogyny," and so forth.

What we don't appear to have is a way of expressing a concept that recognizes the real differences between the sexes in a way that honors them. As far as I know, there is no word in the language for a "a sense that though the sexes are genuinely different, both are necessary and valuable." That is to say, we have a lot of ways of describing a problem, but we have no way of talking about the solution.

I've tried to use the term "chivalry" in this context -- that men should regard women, though different, as wonderful and valuable, and should take care to listen to their concerns and help make a world in which they feel welcome.

Two things happened when I did that, which point up the severity of the problem. The first is that it was pointed out to me, by a well-meaning and kind-hearted woman, that I was offering good advice to men, but nothing for women. If "chivalry" is right for men, what is the female version of recognizing the differences between themselves and men, honoring men, and trying to make a world in which we also feel welcome and valued? I have no answer to that question: there is no word I know of that applies.

The other thing that happened was that certain feminists received my use of "chivalry" as a sort of code-word for male chauvanism.
The Daily Mail, today:
They found men whose answers led to them being classed as benevolently sexist smiled more while playing the quiz game and chatting. They were more patient while waiting for their female partners to answer the trivia questions and warmer, friendlier and chattier than those who were hostile sexists... Study co-author Jin Goh said: 'Benevolent sexist men hold women in high regard and are willing to sacrifice themselves to save and protect women.

So, OK. Let's ask the same questions. What is the female version of what is on display in men seeing women as valuable, listening to their advice as a civilizing influence (an impulse rather unfairly degraded by being phrased as "putting on a pedestal"), and trying to do right by them and show them that they are safe and welcome in public places?

And why should we receive men who do it as bad? There are some senses of the word "strong" in which women are stronger than men. There are others, including the most fundamental sense, in which this is not the case. That fact is a fact simply: can't we be honest about it? Can't we show each other honor while recognizing each other's imperfections? If we can't acknowledge the truth about each other's imperfections without failing some assumed duty of respect, talk about putting on a pedestal!


MikeD said...

The problem to me with the "putting on the pedestal" bit is that the ones who complain the most about it claim they want women to be treated no differently than how men treat other men. But I think that is a position born of ignorance. What they want is men to treat women the way they think men treat other men. When in reality I think that they would be very unhappy if men were to actually do so.

Now, anytime we speak of "men" and "women" I need to make my standard disclaimers that not all men are the same, nor are all women the same. Some men do not act in the ways that I am about to describe, and I am certain that not all women act in the ways I am about to describe. But in general these descriptions hold true.

Men tend to act very territorial around other men in a way that we don't around women. A man will tolerate invasions of space (to a degree) that we simply will not tolerate from other men. And I'm not talking about hugging or touching. I'm talking about standing next to another man. Unless you are in a crowded environment (an elevator, a subway, a bus, a crowded street) men will tend to keep a physical distance between themselves and another man. Simply standing too close to another man intentionally can be a sign of aggression. A woman is able to do so to a much larger degree than a man is. If a man were to respond to such closeness with hostility, I think at best the woman would be confused, and likely offended.

And what's really interesting to me as well, is that this tends to be true in reverse, and even the most hard core feminists recognize it! Picture a man who stands too close to a woman outside of a crowded environment. This is generally construed as aggressive and probably sexual harassment. But if a woman stands that close to another woman, it may seem odd, but no aggression is assumed (and if I'm way off base here, ladies of the Hall, please do let me know).

And when I speak of "aggression", I'm not even talking about being threatening or raising fists, or shouting. I'm just talking about standing close to someone as a form of dominance. Look at pictures of LBJ speaking with someone he doesn't like (thankfully, the internet is really good for this kind of thing). He actively used this "space aggression" as a means of intimidating and coercing people. There's even a name for it The Johnson Treatment.

Now, this is but one example of how men treat other men that women would simply not tolerate. There are many, many others. So that's my premise. Off base?

E Hines said...

What is the female version of what is on display in men seeing women as valuable, listening to their advice as a civilizing influence (an impulse rather unfairly degraded by being phrased as "putting on a pedestal"), and trying to do right by them and show them that they are safe and welcome in public places?

No such word exists, as you've pointed out, because when a man does that sort of thing (listening...), he is, of course, being condescending. And condescending, too, to put the woman to whom he's listening on that pedestal of courteous and respectful treatment.

The folks who think of that as condescending, though, aren't interested in serious intercourse, and so they're not worth my trouble. I just smile--condescendingly--and move on. No disclaimers for me. The folks who accept, as a matter of course, "the female version of what is on display" as well as the male version of that need no clarification.

I've told the story before: a woman I dated while I was in graduate school was very irate that I stooped to hold a door for her. She demanded to know what I'd do were she to hold the door for me and was speechless when I told her I'd thank her for the courtesy.

Folks who don't want to be treated as my equal (unless they can explain why that's an insultingly low bar) won't be. It's simply an argument in which I choose not to engage. I do what I do.

Eric Hines

Texan99 said...

I think Mike is right on target. I'd add that the flip side of what he's talking about is that behavior men see as respectful to women would be considered something completely different if they behaved that way to other men. Men in business, for instance, are aware that picking up the check for each other is part of an elaborate dominance dance. Men are pretty careful about offering advice or sympathy to each other, unless they're unusually close to the recipient or willing to come off as patronizing (if they are the boss, for instance, or the father). Obviously men tend to mean well when they behave in these ways to women, but that's not at all inconsistent with disrespect or patronization. Women, in their turn, have to learn not to take advantage of this treatment unless they're prepared to accept the one-down aspect of it.

jaed said...

I looked up the definition for "sexism" today, and I find that it is defined as "the sense that one sex is inferior to, or more valuable than, the other."

My definition is subtly different: sexism is attribution of superiority to some people, and inferiority to others, based on their sex. (If we use height as an example, the quoted definition would be "the sense that one sex is taller than the other" [which happens to be true], while my definition would be "attributing tallness to some people and shortness to others based on their sex" [which leads us into immediate problems when we claim a woman can't be tall because she's a woman].)

You can see that the difference in definitions, while it's subtle, will lead us in different directions because one encourages us to avoid group generalizations altogether, while the other encourages us to avoid misapplying group generalizations to individuals. And since you can in fact make valid generalizations about men and women... well, naturally I think my definition functions better.

The "benevolent sexist" attitudes in the chart seem to me to be simply generosity of spirit. Now it's easy to see how an ugly spirit could lurk within these things as well (paying for dinner becomes an insistence on controlling the finances, for example), but there's no reason to take the act and assume a bad motive for it.

I'd also say that women can do all these listed things for men - I've held doors for men carrying boxes, etc. They may not be part of the dance of men and women when done in the opposite direction, but they're still kind and pleasant acts.

Grim said...

I find that women hold the door for me all the time these days. I take it that they want to do it for reasons of their own, though: to show that they aren't receiving courtesies passively, but are actively capable of expressing them. That's fine -- I certainly don't mind -- but it's not quite to the point of the question. If you're doing it for yourself, you're doing it for yourself.

I suppose one could say that the old system was likewise self-interested -- that it was never about showing courtesy to women, but always about putting them down by suggesting they needed courtesy. That strikes me as fundamentally wrong, and a failure to understand what was being done: men in the old system were trying to honor women, and not to obligate the women but to show that they respected something different from but valuable to themselves. Men force each other into hierarchies, but they let women float: the female hierarchy, insofar as it exists, isn't related to the male hierarchy at all. It certainly isn't co-located, so that men and women are likewise placed upon a single line of power.

What I think was going on (and still does go on in myself, when I do it) is a recognition that someone is present who deserves respect, but neither submission nor dominance. Women are a mystery, in a way. They don't make sense in the ordinary male structures: they don't fit into the hierarchy. They are somehow separate, and to be treated as worthy of respect without therefore meriting submission. That's a strange position, and one that isn't easy to formulate. The tradition's reliance on what we would today call 'othering' is valid, in my view, because it's the only response that makes sense.

jaed said...

never about showing courtesy to women, but always about putting them down by suggesting they needed courtesy. That strikes me as fundamentally wrong

I agree.

(But consider also the possibility of ugly motivations lurking within courtesy to women. Any virtue can be perverted. It is wrong to say that's the fundamental purpose, but it is correct to say that some men at some times have used the forms of courtesy as a put-down.)

That's an interesting point about dominance versus respect, and it ties in to MikeD's point earlier about the meaning of men standing close to each other in terms of male territoriality, and this not really being the case for women. I've noticed also that men and boys use violence and play-violence all the time with each other, for all manner of social purposes - reaffirming friendship, establishing trust by means of testing each other, establishing hierarchical relations. Men are always punching each others' shoulders or slapping each other on the back or playfully putting up their dukes to each other. And women don't really do that.

Texan99 said...

Yes, if you take the "never" and "always" out of that formulation, it starts to look a lot more like what really goes on between people. I won't say I never saw guys pick up the check for other guys without engaging in a kind of dominance game, especially if they knew each other well and trusted each other to alternate informally. The fact remains that it is a common social theme among casual business acquaintances, and something that is rarely done without an awareness that it may be met with a kind of starchy resistance. If one guy is always the one picking up the check, there's something going on.

The persistent theme in our culture--plots, jokes, platitudes--that the purpose of spending money on dates is to create some kind of obligation in the young lady is enough to make you understand why a gently reared Victorian or Edwardian women could not accept gifts of any kind from someone not her relative or perhaps her fiancee. These are not neutral interactions, no matter how benign the motives may be. When the motives aren't benign, it's a kind of social "loan sharking." Do good men do it? No, of course not, but not all men are good, just as not all women are good. Some very ordinary people do it, without thinking it through, and then allow themselves to feel aggrieved by ingratitude.

Whenever the emphasis becomes too much on whether the young lady is appropriately grateful, I examine the situation for possible loan-sharking. The interaction is alive with "one-up, one-down" overtones. It's a little like tipping--something you obviously offer a service worker but not, say, your host.

Oddly enough, in the last few years, I've become accustomed to readings arguments that the young lady is obligated both to accept the small offerings (monetary and non-monetary) and to be grateful for them, too. If either half makes her uncomfortable, there must be something wrong with her--even though men instinctively understand why they would be uncomfortable if the same sort of behavior were directed at them.

Grim said...

It's funny how differently we see that, Tex. You think men are often trying to put women into hierarchies with them; my sense is that it doesn't even make sense to think of women as belonging to the hierarchies that are so important in relations with other men. Women don't sort into them.

In any case, the response to 'gratitude' requests is very old: it is to refuse to be grateful. When Ivanhoe speaks of meditating on 'the beauty and cruelty of his mistress,' what it means by cruelty is just her refusal to requite his erotic longings in spite of his amorous service. That only deepens the longing (and encourages further service).

But though this puts the man in the position of servant, it doesn't put him in the position you're describing as 'one down.' It's not that he now reports to her and therefore to whomever is above her: he probably belongs to such a hierarchy with his lord the Duke and that lord's lord the King. She stands apart from that hierarchy as a separate kind of authority, and her relationships to anyone else aren't important.

Texan99 said...

The fact that you think women don't even count doesn't change the fact that women are as likely as you to have the natural reaction to a particular kind of treatment.

Grim said...

Lawyers are good at word games, I realize, but that's amazingly tendentious phrasing. I didn't say that women "don't count," a phrase which suggests the exact opposite of my intended meaning.

The knight's mistress isn't someone who doesn't count; if he's a true lover in the sense intended by the tradition, she's the most important person in his world. Her authority just doesn't come from a place in the hierarchy.

I think I could sketch a rough hierarchy of all of my male friends who are also friends with each other, and say approximately where each of them fit. This one would accept the leadership of that one, and that one the leadership of a third, and so on. I also have lots of female friends; I can't tell you that they fit smoothly into the sketch at all. Some of them could get anything they wanted from any of those men; others could from some, but not from others. That may be true even though the men who would obey the second woman's wishes might be higher in the male hierarchy than the ones who would refuse her.

It's just not the same. They don't sort in.