Am I My Sister’s Keeper?

Whoever coined the phrase “control of women’s bodies” had a moment of pure genius; there is no phrase more guaranteed to make a man feel uncomfortable (based on a careful randomized controlled trial of my gut feelings). And its use in this article is perfectly placed, right after some gentle illustration/introduction to the supposed conservative position and its subsequent takedown.

Except the argument doesn’t quite hold together. The article seems to postulate that sisters and by extension women in the household are expected to do more gender-stereotyped tasks, such as cleaning, cooking, sweeping, etc. And this is based on one study. And apparently exposure to gender stereotyping translates into conservative views later in life, which actually stem from the desire to control women’s sexuality.

What about sweeping out the garage in order to attempt some wood carving? What about helping cook freezer meals? What about helping my mom assemble railroad ties in order to create raised beds for a garden? My sisters and I have all done these together.

The thing about most such tasks, and why they are terrible examples of gender stereotyping, is that they are actually rather neutral. Men and women interchangeably swap tasks when need arises, only specializing due to traditional societal roles. The traditional category of “housework” isn’t so easy to define after all; the tasks I cite above wouldn’t fall under housework, but aren’t they? Maintaining the garden outside to feed the household sounds rather like preparing food in an even earlier stage, which would usually fall under housework. Many such tasks are still only stereotyped as such because researchers and journalists presume they are, and perpetuate erroneous thinking. The difficulty with category assignation isn’t the first difficulty that the study doesn’t quite address. The researchers themselves admit to another sizable limitation of the study; no control for the gender of the siblings does not inspire great confidence.

The next example of erroneous thinking in this article relates to the immediate jump to control of women’s sexuality. The article bridges the gap with some fuzzy statements about religious tradition seeking to control women’s sexuality, and then even accusing Mr. Obama of perpetuating silly overbearing fatherly roles. The religious tradition link doesn’t quite make sense. Which religious tradition is this? To be equally fuzzy, only one, possibly two commandments in the usual suspect, Judaeo-Christian tradition, speak of coveting a neighbor’s wife outright (which seems like more of a man-shaming offense than anything else; after all, it’s not as if the commandment tells women not to covet others’ husbands, which suggests men are the focus not because they are the solution but because they are the problem). One would presume that the practice of male celibacy is overt control of male sexuality…where are the complaints re patriarchy trying to control male sexuality?

And if we take the simple secular roles of father and brother, I’m not entirely sure that the well-known impulse of fathers and brothers to protect their sisters is to prevent them having sex. After all, it’s not as if brothers and fathers prevent association with guys at all; usually they only wish to control for the quality of the gents. In nearly all the families that I know, fathers happily send daughters off to college where they can exercise their freedom, and only will interfere, to take one recent example from my personal experience, if said daughter asks about the suitability of a guy. I see no evidence of fearful control there. Perhaps there’s more exertion of control or rules in high school…and given the age range of high-schoolers, I’d say that some restriction is usually warranted.

There’s a great human impulse to find darkness as well as light, and sometimes we overextend ourselves to find subtle, malicious instincts where there really are none. I think that this is one of those cases. I can’t think of a single brother or father who really cares about his sister or daughter’s choice to have a relationship. But I do know that they care very deeply about whom that relationship is with, mainly because, much like Douthat states in his article, they care about the future and safety of the person they care about.

At this point, some might say that I am back to being just like Douthat, and focusing on sex-hungry men. I’m not so sure of that conclusion; I couldn’t care less about who dates my sisters, as long as they are decent people who make them happy and suit them well. In the end, it’s up to my sisters. I don’t control them, and they don’t control me. I can advise and suggest, and only at the utmost may intervene, but it’s up to them. They’ll be fine without my supposedly patriarchal, repressive concern, but I see no issue with them having recourse to it if they wish.

Devil’s advocate against my own points above: I do not intend to suggest more men shouldn’t do housework. Chores and work should be equitably distributed. However, the work should include the day jobs as well. If both the mother and father work full-time jobs, then it makes sense that the housework should be split evenly. Yet if the mom is stay-at-home, and the dad works, or vice versa, it does make sense the parent at home does the lion’s share of the housework during the day. It’s fairly simple labor distribution. Yet, as I can attest from personal experience, once the breadwinner arrives home, they shouldn’t be exempted from housework.


Why Women (Usually) Don’t Belong in the Field: The Cost of Lazy Thinking

(from Universal Free Press)

Earlier we discussed the habit of lazy thinking, mainly with regard to stereotypes and biases. However, the actual cost of such lazy thinking, as well as the similar difficulty with extrinsic and intrinsic valuations, became quite clear to me once I finished reading Matt Walsh’s piece on women in the military.

Mr. Walsh makes some good points; his style is a tad more inflammatory than my own, but that’s a mere quibble. He rightly points out the possible flaws with the entrance of women into the military, and the downgrade of fitness standards in order to accommodate certain numbers of female Marines. And of course he goes on to explain his position more fully, mainly pointing out how men are better suited for combat, and culminating with his avowal of how he needs his wife and daughter in their given roles, and they need him in his given role.

The argument is one that will be retreaded endlessly over the next few weeks, without any doubt, but what’s interesting is how exactly this phenomenon is mainly rooted in lazy thinking. Why is true equality such a difficult notion to grasp?

What it really comes down to is the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic evaluations. We have a difficult time grasping the fact that each person is intrinsically equal to any other, even when they are extrinsically different. Now, Mr. Walsh is certainly right with regard to the physical and psychological demands of combat suiting men better. I might add that that is one small niche of human capability in which men are arguably extrinsically superior to women. Men are, on average, taller, faster, stronger and in general capable of greater fitness.

(Caveat: rather than repeat to tedious length the statistical hedging “on average” and “usually” let’s just presume that whenever I say men are superior in field combat or women elsewhere, I mean that on average.)

The lazy thinking comes into play at this crucial instant. Just because men are better suited for those combat demands doesn’t mean that they are better suited for all combat demands. Who’s to say a female doctor can’t operate behind the lines, away from those specific field duties, but within a sphere in which arguably they are superior? Why can’t a woman be a general? Surely it’s not as if we NEED women to be foot soldiers when it’s easier for men. (Some women will qualify physically, for after all, not all female Marines failed the fitness tests, and if they pass, then obviously those qualified can serve in the front lines).

It’s an obvious point, but one that is sometimes missed, again due to lazy thinking. Superiority in one niche does not imply superiority in others, but if you miss the intrinsic/extrinsic divide, then it’s easy to fall into that trap.

So, should policymakers instill gender diversity requirements in traditionally male-dominated fields? I don’t think so, at least, not in most fields. Many fields have evolved to be the way they are due to their unique strictures. Field combat, for example, where male strength and fitness levels confer an undeniable advantage. However, there are certainly other male-dominated fields such as day trading that could possibly benefit from a dilution of testosterone. I personally would trust my mother with being more diplomatic than myself when it comes to tense conversations and negotiation most of the time, so why not have more female diplomats, to take another example?

It’s not about requiring and thereby forcing equality; it’s about recognizing the intrinsic equality and value of actions despite their different fields. Men excel in field combat and other situations; women excel in communication processing between the analytic and the intuitive. The value of these actions is intrinsically equal even if extrinsically the need for them shifts considerably depending on the situation.

Thus, requirements that mandate so-called equality may do more harm than good, by allowing a standard that engenders other standards that will inevitably decay because anything administered and created by humans is flawed. It’s all right to have some gender imbalance in some fields. Yet at the same time, such discrepancy must be balanced with recognition of the value of other tasks and fields. There shouldn’t be any barriers to entry beyond sheer merit and ability. This means that perhaps some women will pass the fitness levels, and there is nothing wrong with that. Some men won’t, and that is also fine.

Of course, such barriers are never perfect because they can be rigged and are inevitably biased anyway, but they are better than the alternative. And if we are aware of how easy it is to slip into lazily thinking field combat is the only necessary military sphere due to its sheer current media presence, then hopefully we can avoid the inherent biases in such meritocracy.

Final note: at this point, I realized some may say that such true equality is difficult and not possible simply because even if intrinsic equality of actions is recognized, everyday society won’t acknowledge such intrinsic equality, being based on extrinsic qualities. To which I respond that nominally we all acknowledge intrinsic equality, and the only way to correct such perception is to remove the adverb. After all, we ARE society, aren’t we?


Lazy Thinking

The only handicap to being on top of the food chain is that it invariably inflates your sense of importance and ego. Our planetary dominance encourages us to think that our big brains can handle most anything, when, in reality, they are quite limited. And, unfortunately, I forget this all the time.

Take the case of stereotypes, or really, most biases. Biases and stereotypes are not only evolutionary leftovers, but even more insidious than that, they are evolutionary leftovers designed to ease caloric expenditure. Taking the time to avoid filing someone away as a type doesn’t feel good; but being filed away yourself also doesn’t feel good.

At this point, the lackadaisical, non-judgmental dollop of my brain is preening sedately, conscious of how much effort it exerts to stand out and treat each person as whomever they wish to be, without any judgment at all as to what they might be like.

Of course, that is lazy as well, only in a different fashion. Truly exerting your mind in judgment doesn’t mean withholding it entirely. Rather, exertion entails a careful, calm, considered judgment of what people say and do and what that might say about them. The thing is one can’t simply cease that exertion, ever. Judgment is flawed in its finality; few things are eternal in this world, and so my opinions shouldn’t be. People are surprising. They change as they age, or simply become ever more deeply entrenched in their own character, revealing interesting depths and facets never even suspected…mainly because I was probably absorbed in my own affairs.

This is the most difficult one of all. Since you are the only person who has complete control over what you say and do and think, it is easy to remain self-focused, and indeed, is rather necessary. The devil is in the details, or rather, how you perceive the objects and persons interacting with you. Just because there are limitless variables in the world doesn’t mean you can’t put yourself in their place. People may be surprising, but we are all people, and thus are fairly predictable. We want to avoid pain, we’ll flock together for protection like a herd of antelope, and so on.

After all, the entire fashion industry is based on how predictably people want to look like each other.