Thursday, May 1, 2008

The paternalistic-liberal gender double standard

I'm still in the middle of blogging Robert Wright's book The Moral Animal, but meanwhile, I have something to say about something he said in his latest diavlog with Mickey Kaus.

You can watch it here, or scroll down for the transcript:

Wright: There's any number of sentences you can begin with, "The trouble with men is...," and it's a little dicier, at least certainly in liberal circles, to begin with, "The trouble with women is..." And that's fine, I mean —

Kaus: You mean that in your PC, academic world, it's OK to do that. I'm saying: do you endorse this double standard?

Wright: Actually, I think it has a certain logic: that historically aggrieved and disempowered groups get a little more protection on the taboo front than historically empowered and privileged groups. Yeah, I actually kind of see that. Yeah.
Wright has illustrated this principle in the past by talking about "male answer syndrome" — "the tendency of men to assert things with great conviction when they have no idea what they're talking about." (The reference is about 1 minute into this clip; I've excerpted the rest just for context and because it happens to be an interesting discussion about suspected-terrorist detainees that has nothing to do with this blog post.)

I agree that men do this ... but so do women. Last year I was in a restaurant in Ithaca, NY, and a waitress was talking with a male customer who asked about another restaurant across the street with a sign that said "WINE AND TAPAS BAR." He wanted to know what "tapas" meant. She confidently replied, "Oh, that means they have wine and also beer on tap."

But unfortunately, you can often get more traction for your ideas by framing them as "I hate when men do this," rather than, "I hate when people do this." At least in the liberal enclaves of America in which I've spent most of my life, there's this unwritten rule that you can score social points by broadly ridiculing men, but you'd better not make any negative generalizations about women or you'll be ostracized. Few things are more disingenuous than men who do this men-are-terrible routine. (I remember Michael Moore doing this vehemently on Bill Maher's old show Politically Incorrect, for instance. If I recall correctly, Maher didn't let him get away with it.)

Back to Wright's rationale that we need to be extra cautious in judging women but we're allowed to freely criticize men. This baffles me. First of all, the fact that he would go out of his way to state this principle implies that he actually does have a bunch of not-so-flattering generalizations of women in his head -- he's just not going to say them out loud. Now, what exactly is the point of this? To protect people's feelings? Or, more precisely, to protect women's feelings? Why is that? Because they're, what, "the weaker sex"? And that's supposed to be the enlightened, feminist view?

To be clear, I'm not saying we should have carte blanche to throw around blatant stereotypes. But if we need to be hyper-cautious when doing it about women, then we should be equally cautious with men. The "Which gender has been the most disadvantaged?" standard is just irrelevant. The fact that your group has been disadvantaged or advantaged doesn't automatically make generalizations about that group any more or less valid.

And another thing — I've been presupposing that Wright is right that women are the ones who are disadvantaged while men are the ones who are advantaged. But it's not obvious to me that that's true. Both genders face huge and distinct disadvantages. I'd be hard-pressed to say whether it's more unfortunate to be a man or a woman. [UPDATE: See this later post for much more on this question.]

As a thought-experiment, you could imagine -- apologies to John Rawls and his veil of ignorance -- that you haven't been born yet and you get to choose which gender you want to live your life as. You get to be fully informed about what the world is like, but all you know about your future life is that you'll be a human being growing up in the United States. (Significantly, you don't know your race or sexual orientation.) Which gender would you choose to be? I think some people would choose to be a man, and others would choose to be a woman, and it's far from obvious what the wiser choice would be.

One last problem with Wright's double standard is that he wrote an influential book arguing that you can take your intuitive, common-sense gender stereotypes and use those as a starting point for genuine insights about human nature based on evolutionary psychology.* He published this book in 1994 to great acclaim and is only now, in 2008, announcing that he favors a policy of deliberately skewing gender generalizations in one specific direction (pro-woman, anti-man). Now, normally I wouldn't particularly care that some author has a bias against stating generalizations about women -- everyone has their biases, and most people have a bunch of sexist views. But Wright decided to build up an extended argument for a scientific theory on these generalizations! Of all people, I would have thought he would be willing to sacrifice political correctness for the sake of empirical accuracy.

* I don't know if he says this quite so explicitly in the book. He certainly backs up the generalizations with empirical research. But there's no denying, based on his examples, that he thinks it's legitimate to go from (a) off-hand observations of men vs. women in everyday life to (b) scientific claims that are, as he might put it, asserted with great conviction.