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Breaking the shackles of feminism

Boldly venturing into the belly of the beast, I went to Canada last week and gave a talk on “sexism” at a conference on Breaking the Shackles: The Global Burden of Oppression at Upper Canada College in Toronto (“college” means “high school” in this case). In the event the visit turned out perfectly pleasant. The lefties seemed to skip over points that if noted would create actual issues, but I found them more ideologically self-satisfied than ill-tempered. Also, Michael Levin was there, on another panel, and that gave me some moral support and steeled me to present my own thoughts and then face the talk my fellow-speaker gave on Little Red Riding Hood.

Anyway, here’s a somewhat expanded version of the notes for my talk:

Today we’re supposed to talk about sexism and breaking shackles. So we’re supposed to talk about the relationship between the sexes from the point of view of what shackles the relationship and what sets it free to be what it somehow wants to be.

I’m going to argue that

  • Sex differences are real.
  • They matter and they should matter.
  • If you look at traditional views of sex differences and the new view, the new view is much more rigid than the old. It’s oppressive and at odds with human life, and it doesn’t help women.

I won’t discuss those points in order, since when you’re talking about something strict logical sequence usually isn’t helpful, but whatever I say those points will be behind it.

The first problem dealing with these issues is that it’s not so easy to tell what’s a shackle and what’s liberation. The keynote speaker put a rather cynical spin on that, and cynicism is sometimes called for, but it’s not really a matter of who’s doing what to whom.

The basic problem is that we are social beings, so our goals depend on what other people want and do. Liberation is never simply a matter of letting people do what they want. If I want to be free to address this group the organizers have to let me do it and you have to sit there and listen to me.

If you want freedom from compulsion then the obvious thing is to do away with government and become an anarchist. That’s got some appeal. Governments do horrible things, and by definition they’re arrangements in which the powerful make a bunch of rules that the rest of us are forced to follow at gunpoint. What could be worse?

Nonetheless, it’s nice and even liberating to be able to walk down the street without getting robbed or murdered. So it seems that in spite of all the abuses and objections some sort of government and restraint is needed for liberty.

The same sort of thing applies to private property. People have always complained about it—the distribution of wealth is always unfair, the rich have too much and the poor too little, if a poor person tries to put the situation right he gets thrown in the slammer. Still, in the last century there was a big effort to do away with private property and the results were far more oppressive and murderous than what we started with.

It turns out that even though government and private property get abused, and they can seem oppressive, they’re necessary for people to be able to deal with each other and work out individual and common projects. Try to get rid of them and things go haywire.

So it seems that shackles and liberation come down to how people live together, and what makes things work so that our lives together can be rewarding and productive. What you think about that depends on how you see life in general.

The issue of “sexism” comes out of a conflict between a very widespread and even universal traditional view, that men and women are different and the differences should count for something in our lives together, and a very recent Western and increasingly globalized view that the traditional view is all wrong, there shouldn’t be any differences, and wherever there are differences they have to be eradicated. That view shows up in antidiscrimination laws and inclusiveness programs, originally just in the West but now in international human rights treaties that say that any view in any society anywhere in the world that the differences between men and women matter has to be rooted out by force of law. Just read CEDAW.

More specifically, the traditional view is that men are basically more interested in systems that carry out specific impersonal functions, women in personal relationships and in immediate experience—how things look, taste, feel and so on. That general principle has been followed up in a lot of different ways in different times and places depending on history, practicalities, technical level, and what not else. When you look back at them some seem good, some seem bad, some seem outrageous. The same applies to how government and private property have been set up.

Current examples:

  • Sports: the systematic attempt to achieve a goal fascinates men even if the goal itself means nothing.
  • Men’s and women’s magazines: computers, sports and business versus relationships, beauty, cooking and home decoration.
  • Housing: men build the foundation, roof and walls and install a furnace, then women take over and decide whether we’ll sit on boxes and eat out of tin cans or make things nicer.

The new view is that it’s an outrage these differences exist and get noticed, so they all have to be done away with by force. The key point is that the new view is extreme and tries to do away totally with something basic to all known societies. Is that sensible? Is it going to work? Is it really liberating, or is it a shackle?

Deciding the point means looking at both the facts and what to do about the facts.

The fact is that men and women really do differ. That’s personal experience and common sense. It’s uniform tradition—could everyone have always been wrong about something so basic? It’s also modern science:

  • An anatomist can distinguish a male and female brain by looking at it.
  • Different areas of the brain become active in connection with the same function—navigating in space, for example.
  • Even the areas associated with general intelligence are different and have radically different composition. Men have 6.5 times the gray matter in intelligence-related areas, women have 10 times the white matter. It seems clear something different is going on.

There are thousands of facts, and different interpretations are always possible. Larry Summers found that sex differences are a very sensitive issue, which means lots of spin. So try to stand back and look at the weight and direction of your experience and whatever it is that research turns up. Use your own mind.

So what?

You’d expect men and women to be good at different things. All indications say that’s so. They’re certainly interested in different things. So why expect equal representation everywhere? But then it’s not clear what’s just about “affirmative action” or “inclusiveness” schemes intended to equalize representation.

It’s not just affirmative action that has problems once you admit there are real sex differences. Antidiscrimination rules can’t be enforced once you admit there are real differences because an outside enforcer can’t tell the real reasons for decisions by (say) an employer. Results are all an enforcer has to go on, so if he doesn’t know what the results should be then in general he can’t tell whether there was a problem with how the decision was made.

But if there are real differences, why are stereotypes so bad? Why shouldn’t whether someone is a man or a woman be a consideration if men and women are usually different? Stereotypes are the way we think. If on average there’s a difference people expect it. If it looks like the particular case is different from the average then it’s experience—summarized in stereotypes—that tells us how to interpret that as well. Does it make sense to root out the only way we have to think about anything? People have to be able to think with their own minds or they won’t be able to think at all. Is it liberating to say they can’t understand anything and subject them to the unlimited rule of experts who supposedly know better?

People are worried about oppression. Did your grandfather spend his whole life oppressing your grandmother? When you read old books—Jane Austin or whatever—does it strike you that the men are always abusing the women? History is presented as one long story of oppression. Everyone who gets a chance becomes an oppressor. If that’s so, why think things will get better once we tell equality commissions to run everything?

Wouldn’t most men and women prefer to keep on being men and women? If stereotype are just arbitrary inventions, why can we read the the Icelandic sagas or the Old Testament or the Iliad or the Tale of Genji and in each case recognize the men and women, in spite of all differences, as men and women?

And above all: if men and women are different, and they want to be able to rely on each other, shouldn’t the understanding of what they’re entitled to rely on reflect the differences? How else are we going to get through life?

In fact, it’s the new view that’s oppressive Why did all powerful institutions adopt it so quickly? It wasn’t a rebellion from beneath. It was an imposition from above that the powerful adopted almost immediately after it was proposed by a small minority of activists, theoreticians and whatnot. Now it’s supposed to be imposed on everyone everywhere, if Belarus has Mother’s Day that has to be done away with, even though most ordinary people don’t think it makes much sense.

We live in an age of globalization and big organizations—bureaucracies and world markets—that like to arrange everything from the standpoint that makes sense to them. The people who run things today want them to be like industrial processes run for efficiency and flexibility. Maximizing wealth and power are the highest goods. So men and women have to be a uniform mass of production and consumer units that are graded in simple, lagical and uniform ways that make an administrator’s or employer’s job easy. They don’t want confusing differences or complicated connections.

The new view means that the only institutions allowed to have authority and matter are government and markets. Not the family, not neighborhood, not churches, not the customs and habits of the people. What’s liberating about that? Why does that work out toward the benefit of the people?

There are lots of results, mostly bad:

  • Women’s position is weakened. They have an advantage in personal relations and domestic life. The new view makes those things lose importance. The only thing that matters are large formal public hierarchies—careers, politics, social programs, financial hierarchies and whatnot. Men always dominate those, so too bad for women.
  • The position of women with children is especially weakened. The new view says choice is the standard and it makes children the woman’s choice. So if a woman has a baby that’s her business and she can deal with it. Too bad for mother and child. Let them try to wheedle money out of the government.
  • The new view makes women sexual commodities. Again, choice becomes the standard. Everything’s supposed to be free and equal There are no strings or social expectations attached to sex. So what happens? If there’s something a lot of people want, there are millions of people who can supply it, it’s easily given to others, and it has no definite ties to anything else, then that’s the situation in which a market springs up and the thing becomes a commodity.

So what do we do about all this?

It’s hard to be dogmatic. The basic differences between the sexes are clear but they work out differently in different situations. People have to work out for themselves what’s good for today.

The normal way to deal with impossibly complicated situations is through experience and the development of social customs reflecting social aspirations and experience. So my proposal is to do away with the universal demand enforced by law that men and women be the same—to abolish the whole structure of law based on “antisexist” demands—and see what ordinary men and women work out for themselves based on their dealings with each other. Let men be men and women be women, if that’s what happens. Whatever comes out will have to be something both sexes on the whole agree to because each sex has to rely on the voluntary cooperation of the other. Why not just let that work? Why insist on a huge scheme of compulsory re-education and supervision by experts?

It’s hard to tell just what the audience thought, but they seemed attentive. The questions reflected what they had been told all their lives but also seemed to reflect a real interest in finding out exactly what I was saying and how I would deal with the usual objections. On the whole, the students seemed less dogmatic than they might have been 10 or 15 years ago.