Creative Destruction

May 29, 2006

In Defense Of Generalizations and “Petty” Complaints

Filed under: Debate,Feminist Issues — Ampersand @ 7:09 am

There’s a new round of discussion of the “Male Privilege Checklist” going on, mostly on Livejournals. Usually I don’t respond to these criticisms, because usually the folks who write them are too far on the insulting and smug side.

But this time, for some reason, I found myself responding. Naturally a couple of my responses were rejected by Livejournal for being too long, and I thought “might as well make this stuff a blog post.”

* * *

ChuckDarwin (who seems to be a Kos-style leftist) posted his critique of the Male Privilege Checklist on two livejournals, here and here. I include both links because I’ll be referring not only to Chuck’s post, but also to comments left by readers in each livejournal.

Chuck writes:

This list is full of rash generalizations and woefully short on anything resembling facts, statistics or evidence. Some of the entries are patently true and hard to argue against. Other things on the list are simply untrue, unprovable, or completely based on anecdotal ‘evidence’. Some of the issues the author (B Deutsch, whomever that is) chooses to focus on are, in my opinion, embarrassingly petty and do more harm than good to the whole cause.

Regarding the lack of cites and evidence, point well taken. I’ve often thought that I should go through and add citations and the like for most of the items on the list, which would make the piece much stronger. But the staggering amount of work required – and the book-length blog post that would result – have intimidated me.

So my new plan is to gradually respond to critiques like Chuck’s, when they show up and when I feel like it :-), and to link each item on the list to the relevant responses I’ve written.

In my defense, the list isn’t intended as an argument to persuade skeptics. I do a lot of evidence-based argumentation in my other writings, as my regular readers know. But the list is not an argument that’s going to persuade anyone who isn’t already sympathetic to my view. Instead, the list is intended as a tool for feminists and people learning about feminism; a way to make visible some ways living in a male-centric society helps men and harms women, by compressing into an extremely compact form much of the research, essays and women’s writings I’ve read over the years. The list is probably read most often in college classes and on my blog – contexts in which readers will have had read enough background material to judge for themselves how fact-based and reasonable the list’s claims are.

1. Generalizations

Regarding generalizations, I reject Chuck’s contention that generalizations are necessarily bad. (I know he qualified “generalizations” with “rash,” but since he doesn’t support that description with a logical argument it seems like hand-waving). It’s true that some men get raped, for example, and on an individual level that’s 100% as awful and hideous as when women get raped. But should that prevent me from pointing out that in day-to-day life, women in general have much more reason to fear being raped than men in general?

There is almost no inequality that happens 100% to women and 0% to men. Or 100% to blacks and 0% to whites, for that matter, and so on for any other disadvantaged group imaginable. But that some inequalities generally happen more to women than to men (to the disabled than to the ablebodied, to American Indians than to whites, and so on) is something that serious people can legitimately discuss and be concerned with. Contrariwise, if we are unable to generalize, then we will be unable to discuss patterns of discrimination at all.

2. The Pettiness Charge

Further down in comments, Chuck expanded on the “pettiness” charge, writing:

We have women on this planet with REAL PROBLEMS and we’re going to fill our list with entries about our clothes and our weight issues?

Women in Iran are being sold into prostitution as children and then hanged for ‘promiscuous behaviour’… and the author of this list is going to concentrate on how long it takes to put on makeup. Shouldn’t the women with all the money and freedom the world has to offer (even if that money and freedom is fractionally less than that of their male counterparts) be trying to help the millions (billions?) of downtrodden women in China and Africa? […]

I think that, instead of focusing on little gripes (some of these 43 things are quite little comparatively), everyone needs to pull together to make sure that North Dakota and the new SCOTUS don’t overturn Roe v Wade.

2a. Not An Either-Or Choice

My reflexive response is to point out that Chuck’s implication – that because I wrote about issues he considers “petty” in a single document, I therefore don’t spend time on “real problems” – is ridiculous. It’s not an either-or choice. I compiled that list, and since then I’ve written thousands of posts on hundreds of issues, and I’ve volunteered, and I’ve given money.

Offhand, I can think of two large national US organizations whose politics are devoted entirely to reproductive rights (NARAL and Planned Parenthood), and four national feminist organizations that spend a lot of time working for reproductive rights (NOW, Feminist Majority, Emily’s List, Legal Momentum). There are probably lots more. But I can’t think of one comparable feminist organization which has given similar attention to the makeup issue, and I bet Chuck can’t either. So what is the basis of Chuck’s complaint? That if anyone, ever, in any instance, mentions a issue he has judged “petty,” that’s too much?

But that reflexive response of mine, while correct in pointing out the gross unfairness of Chuck’s assumptions, concedes too much to Chuck’s argument.

2b. The unreasonable double-standard

Chuck’s standards are unreasonable. Is there anyone who ignores all local issues so long as, somewhere in the world, someone is suffering worse? Pretty much anyone who isn’t concentrating full-time on the genocide and mass rapes going on in Darfur can legitimately be said to be using their time on something other than the most immediately pressing issue in the world today.

(Every time I see this critique of feminists, I’m struck by what hypocrites the critics are. I’ve never seen a “how dare feminists write about makeup” critic whose own writings didn’t include some less than earth-shaking concerns. Chuck, for example, has recently posted about the etymology of “y’all” and about what’s on the telly (he’s pissed that American Idol is so popular, and I can’t blame him). Since Chuck doesn’t write exclusively about immediate life-or-death matters, why does he think it’s fair to hold me to that standard?)

Not only is it an inevitable human condition that most people are interested in analyzing what happens in their daily lives, it’s probably a good thing. A feminist movement that considers day-to-day sexism too petty to ever discuss would be ivory-tower and snobby. A well-rounded feminism – like a well-rounded life – should include many concerns and many approaches. The demand that we ignore “petty” local issues is a demand that we stop acting like human beings.

2c. Who decides what is “petty”?

Why does Chuck imagine he has the perspective to declare what is and isn’t important? Chuck thinks weight is a petty issue, but I doubt the parents of anorexia patients would agree. If a woman spends her entire life feeling inadequate and wrong because of her weight, that’s not Rwanda, but neither is it nothing. Makeup seems less like a petty issue when you consider that women have been fired from their jobs for not wearing it. And so on. Similar responses could be made for most of the other issues Chuck considers “petty.”

My favorite example of Chuck’s parochial view of “petty” is when he dismisses the wage gap as whiny first world women being paid “fractionally less.” It’s so easy for someone whose sex or race places them on the happy side of the wage gap to say that; but I bet if Chuck got a 5% or 10% or 20% pay cut, he might find that “fractional” amounts matter.

Even seemingly small problems can build up over time, and cause significant distress. A small wage gap can build up to enormous amounts of money over many paychecks; the endless social pressure to put on unwanted makeup or heels or to cover up or to expose can, for some women, build up into significant sources of stress and distress. Do these issues bother everybody? No. But they bother some people, and they’re therefore worth discussing.

2d. The so-called “petty” issues and “important” issues are interconnected.

Finally, Chuck is assuming a clear separation between “petty” and important that is not always clear in real life. In Chuck’s comments, Rougewench did a wonderful job discussing this question:

But you know, saying that women in Western culture have it “so much better” than the downtrodden women in China and Africa does not mean that we do not still deal with what remains of gender based discrimination still endemic to Western culture. Making that argument is literally saying, “you should be happy with what your getting because at least you are not being whipped or sold into prostitution or forced to wear a Burqua, or gangraped and given AIDS, etc.”, even though the various things listed do limit perceptions, behavior and choices for women in this culture.

None of it, at any level, is alright. […]

It is worth noting that the endemic sexism in western culture, the conglomeration of all those seemingly little things, is what allows us to be in a place where Roe v. Wade is in danger of being overturned.

Zing, pow – totally on target. (And in comments, Chuck seems to concede that Rougewench may be right).

One of the most important – perhaps the most important – trait of a male-privileged society is that in such a society, boys and men are the norm, and male lives are the default. This is visible in many seemingly harmless things, such as the language that we use (chairman, mailman, “he” and “man” as generics, etc), the overwhelming predominance of male characters in children’s entertainment, and the expectation that women take on husband’s last names.

I think the view of male lives as the default is harmful in and of itself. But it’s also harmful because it is the context which supports many other harms – such as the ongoing attacks on reproductive rights, the wage gap, and the high prevalence of rape.

But he’s right about one thing.

There is one legitimate critique Chuck touches on; the list is extremely US-centric. (I’ve been trying to decide if it’s white-centric, as well; so far I don’t think it is, but I may be missing something important). I don’t think that it’s wrong for Americans to write individual works which focus on US society, but I should have acknowledged the US-centrism in the introduction. I’ve corrected this error in the current version of the list.

(Chuck also criticized several specific items on the list; I’ll address those criticisms in upcoming posts. I’ve created a Male Privilege Checklist category on my home blog to make it easier for anyone interested to locate list-related posts).



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