Monday, October 18, 2010

How does one know when gender negatively affects day-to-day interactions?

 (Image is from the great online cominc strip xkcd)

So, I walk into the student union to get a sandwich before my night class and the place is slow and empty. There are two grad-student aged women waiting by the deli counter, where I plan to order, and there are workers mingling in various corners of the food court, but no one is attending to the women or the deli. I stand behind them for a minute and say (in a friendly tone of voice), “you have the look of people who are being ignored.” They had been shifting around watching the employees while they went by, pleading with their eyes to be noticed. The woman nearest me agreed that they had been ignored, so, a few moments later, when a worker rolled a cart past us from about twenty feet away, I leaned towards him and called out: “Excuse me. They’ve been here a while, and no one has been here to help them. Can you please ask someone to come to the counter so we can all get some food?” The guy looked at me for a moment then said sure and disappeared behind the scenes.

The woman I had already spoken with expressed appreciation, I remarked that it helped to be assertive (and I might have made a joke about being taller, but I’m not sure). She responded by saying that of course I would get more attention, I was male. I, in turn, suggested that it was probably my professorial demeanor that got his eye. Then she and I had a nice conversation while a worker came and took our orders. We all went our separate ways.

That’s what happened verbally. Here’s what I thought in my head when she made the remark about being male: “it has nothing to do with being a man. It has to do with being assertive. If you had called out for someone instead of standing there waiting quietly to be served and digging holes in the back of people’s heads with your angry eyes, maybe you would have gotten served too.” But I wouldn’t have said that, and frankly, as you can imagine, it, I don’t know that it’s true.

Being assertive is a male characteristic. I tend to think of it as “New York” attribute, since that’s where I’m from and since most of my daily comparisons are between passive North Dakota and my aggressive city of birth. But the local culture doesn’t change the fact that men are socialized to be more forceful in just these kinds of situations, and that even if the worker didn’t notice me because I was male, he might have ignored them because they were female. In the end, gender, if it did play a role, might have influenced the surface interaction or it might have gone much deeper. None of this even considers tangential question such as whether, were I not a professor on my own campus, I would have refrained from talking with them in the first place for fear that I might appear to be hitting on them. It’s complicated.

In fact, it’s so complicated that I do not know if I am a reliable interpreter of when gender is a factor and when it isn’t. My wife and I rarely argue, but some of our tensest conversations are ones that, at root, revolve around gender difference. And then there’s this: a new blog about the experience of women in professional philosophy. I have always been super conscious about making sure that women are represented equally in conversations in my classes. My Introduction to Ethics class is basically a feminism class, I incorporate women authors when I can in my other courses, and I am insistent that Why? Radio and IPPL events don’t sell women philosophers short. I knew that there was some subtle but pervasive sexism in philosophy, but I had no idea – no idea – of the extent that women in professional philosophy still had to deal with brute misogyny, sexual harassment, exclusion, abuse, insult, and delegitimization. And if this stuff can go on around me so obviously and I am just unconscious of it, then what does this mean about my own abilities to detect when others are being sexist, and when I am being sexist?

It is reasonable to assume that if I have difficulties determining when gender is a factor in social relations (largely understood), that other men do as well. And, frankly, it is reasonable to assume that have analogous difficulties. Just because the woman in the story above thinks my male-ness was the dominating factor in our attention-getting, doesn’t mean that it is. People sometimes see discrimination when there is none. Of course, just because a woman sees an act as sexism-free doesn’t mean it is egalitarian either. As J.S. Mill tells us so forcefully in On Liberty, none of us are infallible. But this goes both ways. We may be wrong when we identify prejudice, but we may be just as wrong when we don’t see any.

There are long-standing conversations about the value of giving marginalized individuals and groups the benefit of the doubt when they point out discriminatory actions. My favorite comes from Feminist Standpoint Theory; it argues, basically that those discriminated against are able to see things, by virtue of their perspective, that gives them a kind of “expertise” in social science research and inquiries into justice. But I don’t need the theory to understand this. As the faculty advisor to the UND Jewish Student Organization, and the most vocal advocate for the Jewish students on campus, I am well aware of how blind non-Jews can be to the anti-Semitic things that they do daily. But this doesn’t change the fact that my ability to see discrimination against women has clearly been compromised (or that I may see anti-Semitism when there is none). So, what other knowledge do I think I have that I really don’t?

This is, obviously, an instance of the more general epistemological problems that come from being a human in the world with limited information. It again recalls Mill’s assertion of human fallibility, but it is also the theoretical foundation for why intersubjective research is so important to modern inquiry. Thus, with the need for social inquiry in mind, I leave all of you with a version of the question I am asking myself: how does one know when gender is a relevant factor in social interactions and when it isn’t? And if philosophers are so bad at seeing it, then does this mean that philosophy is much less effective in this regard than it claims to be? All evidence suggests that the answer to the second question is yes indeed, it is much worse that most philosophers like to think. I’m hoping all of you can help me with the first one.

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1 comment:

  1. This is important stuff to think about. I don't have any idea whether gender was a factor in your deli situation.

    I wanted to add that sometimes one's perception of whether gender (or presumably race, ethnicity, religion...) has been a factor is unclear regardless of whether one is in the "privileged" or "oppressed" group.

    When I was in grad school we held an annual dinner for just the women grad students, to welcome the first year students and get to know each other. After going to these for five or six years I noticed that nearly ALL the new incoming women grad students said they were afraid to speak up in seminars, and nearly ALL of them followed that comment up with something to the effect of "But it's not a gender thing, it's just my personal, individual problem." Year after year I'd hear this.

    Looking at patterns over time or larger samples of people might be more reliable than giving too much weight to our intuitions in particular cases...